I got a handful of hours to sleep before the alarm went off. As we packed up the rest of our shit, I dropped the needle on some vinyl as a soundtrack to get my head together. First was 6 and 12 String Guitar by Leo Kottke and then some Ranking Dillinger. When our ride arrived, it was the type of large white cargo van that every small scale touring band dreams about traveling in. The driver, who had offered us a ride, was a guy named Jesse. He’s in a local band called, Smile Brigade and his girlfriend, Briana is one of Thea‘s really close friends. Also traveling with us was another couple by the names of Patrick and Angel, who turned out to be really good people. I had encouraged Kim to pack light, not wanting to assume too much space in another persons vehicle, but it was clear that we would have had plenty of room. Patrick and Angel went the smart route by bringing a cooler of food and a Coleman stove to cook with.
We were traveling as 3 couples, each with our own spacious row in the van. This was actually a less stressful format than the 5 grimy chain-smoking dudes in a dusty sedan system that I was accustomed to. As usual, Kim packed all of the shit that I wouldn’t appreciate until much later, like Q-tips, wet-ones, sunscreen, etc. Angel was prepared to the point where she had festival info and lineup schedules printed out in protective sleeves. I can travel fine like an old-timey hobo, with a stick and a bandana, but, in retrospect, that hasn’t necessarily always proved the best way to go.
THE CAMPING SITUATION
Before heading down the last stretch of road to the venue, there is a little area with a gas station that everyone generally stops at. This is the spot to get beer, use the bathroom, buy a Subway sandwich or whatever else you want, before cramming your vehicle into a packed campground or parking lot for 3 days. There is also the temptation of a taco truck, but even I know better than to walk blindly into that gastro-intestinal fiasco. As the van pulled up to the campground, Angel mentioned that she had read that there may only be a 4 person limit with the regular camping pass. This meant that we had a few options: (1) Pull up to the gate and find out if they were gonna trip or not first hand (2) Kim and I could just get out and walk into the campground to meet them or (3) do what we did and casually lie down across the back seats we were in and cruise in real smooth-like. The regular camping passes were $100 a piece in addition to the ticket price, while the “premier” camping was easily double. That covers the whole weekend and, although day passes are available for the festival itself, there are no partial refunds if you need to leave early.
Camping is one of the biggest controversies with Sasquatch but, like most of the problems over the weekend, the issues stem from the venue not really being created to support the festival format. Whether it’s Bonnaroo, one of PHISH‘s festivals, or almost any other multi-day music and camping event, the camping fee is typically included in the ticket price. Generally, there is one main entrance into the festival campgrounds and then, once inside, there will be an additional entrance into the stage area(s). The problem with The Gorge is that the campground entrance is actually about a half a mile up a dirt road that leads to and from the venue and its parking lot. Being adjacent to the large public through street makes it nearly impossible to fence off and regulate a boundary that would incorporate both the campground and the venue into one. One positive with this festival, is that they don’t search the fuck out of you when you come into the campground, like they did at Festival 8. Another positive is the ability to buy single day passes because, with a festival that includes the campground as part of the overall enclosure, it’s not easy to kick people out and prevent stage entry day to day. The biggest and most fucked up negative from Sasquatch all together? The re-entry policy or, rather, the lack there of. This was generally the biggest complaint with the set up throughout the weekend.
We drove through the entire campground and and it was already pretty full. We were directed to park way out on the far edge of the property, but the spot wasn’t bad and had a decent view of the Columbia river Gorge, which gives the venue it’s notoriety. The doors opened at 11am and the actual sets began at noon. The first act that I really wanted to see was the Portland, OR band NURSES and they were scheduled for 2:25 so, after we got our shit set up, we all headed down to the venue together. On the way out of the campground I passed some of the same scalpers that I’ve been seeing throughout Washington and Portland for the last 15 plus years. They always “need” tickets, which means that, after buying up any extras, you’ll catch the same guys reselling them later at a taxed rate. One asshole, who clearly wasn’t concerned about being incog, was openly rocking an “I NEED TICKET$” sign around his neck while holding up a pair for sale in his hand.
I raced ahead of my group to save time while I checked-in, once I saw the little media check-in table set up by the permanent Will Call windows. “Who are you writing for?” I was asked. “Monster Fresh.” I told her. “Oh, you’re Chris.” This was the woman from Live Nation that I had been in email contact with from the beginning. She handed me some release forms that I had to sign and gave me a Media bracelet along with some xeroxes of the schedule and such. Then she explained that the photo-pit security shouldn’t give me issues at the side stages and that when I checked in again for Monday, my bracelet would be specifically marked for main-stage access to the WEEN performance only. I apologized for being a little bit “out of it” and she jokingly implied that it must be due to a “wake and bake“. I assured her that she was mistaken by adding, “It’s only day one. I’m still trying to be professional.”
The Gorge‘s layout is similar to Red Rocks, Shoreline and endless other amphitheatres around the country, in the respect that the mainstage is viewed by a half-circle of gradually ascending seats. For Sasquatch, 3 additional makeshift stages were constructed around the perimeters in random locations. NURSES was performing on one of the smaller ones called the YETI STAGE. I had a hell of a time trying to locate it and, by the time that I finally did, their set was already almost over.
You may be familiar with NURSES through a recent post that we wrote addressing their live performance on chatroullette. The Portland trio is signed to Dead Oceans and, ever since I was sent their label debut, APPLE’S ACRE, it has been on heavy rotation in my home. I even put it on Kim‘s mp3 player and it has since become her favorite current album.
The NURSES set was an opportunity to experience music that both my lady and myself both really enjoy (a rarity) and, based on some of the live video that I had located of the band previously, their live set set-up really intrigued me. One video might involve percussionist, James Mitchell playing nothing but a kick drum with a mallet, while Aaron Chapman plays a nylon acoustic and John Bowers mans a basic Casio. Then, in another rendition, they will be performing the exact same track, except with Chapman and Bowers playing an old upright piano tandem. Other videos showcase their abilities with electronics, sampling, and pedals. Although we were only able to catch the last 3 songs of their set, they were still impressive enough to convince me that they were the sleeper act of the day.
When we reached the stage, the band was engaged in the rich harmonies of the song “So Sweet“. Mitchell sat at a drumkit to the right while Chapman strummed a guitar behind a Rhodes-style Yamaha and Bowers operated various electronics behind the type of table that you would find in a high school cafeteria. Both the Yamaha and the table were covered in effects pedals. “So Sweet” is the track that they performed on the chatroulette video and one that I think is a real standout for the group. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear on either Apple’s Acre or their strikingly different previous album. From my understanding, it is a newer track for the group and, if it’s an example of the artistic direction that they intend to head into in the future, they’re next effort should put them even further into the public eye.
Next, Chapman switched out the guitar to play the keys on “LITA“. Part of me still hadn’t settled from the rush of trying to make it in, but this song really helped me to become present and settle into my surroundings. It is also Kim‘s favorite selection from their album and I was happy that, if nothing else, she was able to see them do the one song that she’d been hoping to hear above everything else at the festival. It’s a great song and is fairly understated amongst some of the more upbeat moments on Apple’s Acre. It has a really heavy Beatles-esque sound to it, but still manages to stand on its own merit. What I mean is that, unlike the Oasis catalog, “LITA” sounds like a song that the Beatles could have written and not just like a song that the Beatles already did write. Even when influences seep through, Nurses‘ individual voice is still incredibly strong.
Their closing number was a sing-along called “Disney“. John and Aaron switched spots so that Chapman could take the helm at the table of electronics. He sampled and looped his voice so as to harmonize with himself. Bowers sang along and the layers continued to overlap until it sounded like Brian Wilson haunting a pet cemetery. This was another new track and it immediately validated and quenched my interest in hearing what else the trio was planning to spew out. At the break down, Chapman looped and muted out cutaways from the chorus to give it a wacked out glitchy effect. This set, like the band, was far more centered around the intricacies of the audio and wasn’t too focused in the visual aspects. If you want to see a rock show with people dancing around and kicking shit over with pyrotechnics, NURSES aren’t likely to provide you with anything near that. However, if you are a huge fan of solid harmonies, songwriting, and experimentation, this is a group worth checking out. For me, their ability to warp and shift sounds actually creates a visual quality as their compositions travel and expand.
PORTUGAL. THE MAN
From there we headed over to the slightly larger “Bigfoot Solar Stage” to catch another Portland-based group, Portugal. The Man. The two original, key-members of the group originated from outside of the area, but eventually locked down their permanent drummer/collaborator (Jason Sechrist) when they settled in Portland. Coincidentally, they share those same exact aspects of their bios with NURSES, except for the fact that PTM‘s elaborately named John Baldwin Gourley (guitar/vocals) and Zachary Scott Coruthers (bass/backing vocals) hail from Wasilla, Alaska.
Back in 2007, we were sent their sophomore CD, CHURCH MOUTH which featured a composite image of the 3 musicians faces on the booklet cover. It had a lot of good elements but, as far as the way that it all came together, I just simply wasn’t into it. I had originally contacted their then-publicist regarding a Frank Black tour and, from then on, she continued to send me updates and interview opportunities for PTM anytime that they would even remotely approach the Seattle area. It wasn’t that I didn’t think they were talented musicians, but something about what they were doing wasn’t grabbing me. They had solid production and an obvious sensibility for classic psych-rock riffs, but it was difficult to tell where their influences ended and they’re own voice began. For me, the whole Wolfmother rock-revival approach can easily become a one-note operation. My feelings not only come despite the fact that I love groups like Led Zeppelin, but also because of it. When you borrow too much from specific influences, you open yourself up to direct comparisons and, when you’re being marked against something so influential and distinct, any lack of innovation has the potential to overshadow anything else that you do. In much the same way that Gourley and Coruthers‘ extraneous name lengths add an element of self-indulgence, CHURCH MOUTH was a crowded effort with too much going on and with too little direction for my taste.
I’ve seen their name pop up more and more over the last couple of years, but never really cared to put in the effort to give them another chance until recently. It still doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago when I received that first album, but PTM has already released 3 follow ups, not including an acoustic album, and is even reportedly already working on their 4th. One thing that these guys cannot be accused of is laziness and each one of their releases continues to sound more and more focused. 2008‘s Censored Colors included a myriad of additional musicians accompanying them, as well as their now-official, keyboardist Ryan Neighbors. There were jazzy horns and many more toned down areas than the past release. Last year’s Satanic Satanists featured moments with melodic John Lennon grooves, accented with effects. The recent, American Ghetto manages to work the occasional Curtis Mayfield guitar and percussion into the background, while continuing to maintain a healthy dose of the electronics. They are still stacking sounds, but they are doing it both more consciously and effectively. Whereas their early work felt like a bunch of large chunky objects were being crammed into a closet door that couldn’t hold them, the work has become progressively more fluid and filtered intelligently. For those that fear that they may have misplaced their early psych rock voice throughout this evolution, they shouldn’t. They still work in plenty of changes, but their transitions make a lot more sense. It seems that PTM is actually honing their voice more than ever and, if nothing else, I can respect their work ethic and desire to constantly work new angles into their repertoire. I’m still not convinced that they’ve morphed into a direction that I’d personally care to throw on in my home, but I was definitely down to check them out for free at a festival.
The Bigfoot stage had two large monitor screens sandwiching the stage. I was about to go hit up a honey bucket when I heard the first heavy chords kick in and I immediately changed my mind. These guys sounded good and had an incredibly full sound. Kim and I were still with Patrick and Angel at the time, but I left all three of them to get into the pit and shoot some photos. Along with the 4 “official” members, graphic designer/musician, Zoe Manville, who contributed vocals to the last 3 albums, was also featured on stage. Coruthers was amped up and flying all over the place with his bass. Gourley stood center stage with a beautiful vintage Gretsch Viking hollow-body. It was hot as fuck outside but, for some reason, the frontman was still wearing a corduroy cap and a puffy down winter vest. My guess is that the vest was for fashion. The cap was pulled down over his eyes and made him look like a pretentious rock star, but I have a feeling that it was mostly being used to block out the sun and perhaps, even to avoid any nervousness that can accompany large performances such as these. If so, it must have worked, because these guys were definitely on their game and, from a live audio stand-point, their sound was great.
I went back to meet Kim, who had purchased us two tall-boys of PBR for the bargain price of $9 a piece. We listened to the rest of the set from the side and, at one point, PORTUGAL actually played a cover of MGMT‘s “Weekend Wars” before jamming back into a heavier rock track of their own. I’m not sure if this is a regular cover of theirs or even how many other people caught it, but it definitely happened. Overall, their set was incredibly versatile with plenty of fluctuations in intensity. It had it’s driving rock moments and soaring ascending guitar and harmonies. Anyone who’s a fan of Portugal. The Man‘s body of work will be happy to know that their setlists feature selections that span throughout various points in their catalog. If you are only truly into one of their songs and/or releases, then this probably isn’t the band for you anyway.
It was day one and we were still trying to kick it with our group for the moment, so we followed Patrick and Angel back over to the YETI stage. The Middle East sounded good, but we just caught the very tail end of their set. Patrick Watson would be up next and they had set their plans to see him. Unfortunately, Patton Oswalt was going on around the same time in the comedy tent. I’ve always wanted to see Oswalt perform, but I thought that I’d give this Watson character a shot, because I could pretty much gather what Patton‘s comedy routine would be like and… who knows, maybe I’d learn something. That IS the benefit of the festival format; discovering new artists. When Patrick Watson came out on stage, he did so with a full band and was positioned off to the side at a piano.
As his lyrics dissipated from one to the next, his voice was like invisible ink or the trail smoke from a skywriting jet. The verses were buoyed like wooden planks on a docile river. The whole delivery was very reminiscent of Sam Beams work with Iron and Wine with a few random leanings towards Sufjan Stevens, but without the complete lift-off that Stevens‘ music can possess during his more dramatic orchestrations.
I have two separate approaches when it comes to reviewing these shows. If it’s a band that I’m familiar with, I mostly just judge their ability to transfer into the particular live setting. However, if its something completely new to me, I can only judge it based on how “legit” I feel that it is. What I mean is, “Is it super contrived?” or “Is there validity and truth behind their intentions and what they’re trying to create?” Beyond that, the idea of “good” is subjective. I’m looking to monitor the line between marketing and art. I’m not a fan of most of the “singer/songwriters” that are coming out in this fashion today, but my judgment on Patrick Watson is that he seemed earnest and his music didn’t seem super contrived and terrible. If you knew all of this guy’s work by heart and loved it, I could see taking a relaxing break on the grass to sway along with your loved one to his simple melodies, but I didn’t see it working out for me. Whereas Portugal. The Man puts on the type of high energy show that is easy to enjoy regardless of if you care to listen to their music in your home, Watson was quite the opposite and a side stage at a fast-paced festival like this didn’t seem like the set up to earn new listeners. Like I said, it wasn’t working out for me, so we didn’t stay around too long before bouncing to the comedy tent.
The comedy was held in a tent called “The Rumpus Room“, which showcased Dance and electronica the second half of the day. The long rectangle-shaped tent pseudo-enclosure provided a welcomed escape from the heat, but it wasn’t the most efficient set-up for a comedy act. There are a handful of setups like this at festivals like Bonnaroo so, you may have an accurate visual of what I’m trying to describe. More or less, it’s just a makeshift room with a stage at one end and it’s packed with people who are grouped under the covering like a petting zoo. Unless you are incredibly tall, it can be difficult to see the performers at all. The best move is to move up front, because you can’t really hear anything from the back either and, when someone’s whole act revolves around them simply telling stories, this can be a problem.
Patton Oswalt was a late addition, taking over for Aziz Ansari, who was hired to host the MTV Movie Awards. We weaseled our way up to the front and I noticed that the backdrop of the stage had crazy red lights and resembled the type of HBO comedy setup that someone like Gallagher or Julie Tenuta could have performed on in the 80s. This was an aesthetic that pleased me. Patton thanked the crowd for attending his set, while acknowledging that he was one of the smaller draws at the festival by saying, “I’m the Sha Na Na of Woodstock right now!” When the crowd audibly expressed their distaste for that comment, he responded with, “Don’t boo my self hatred!” The part of his routine that really sticks in my memory was a story involving Oswalt searching for a new home to purchase with his wife. They arrived at an open house only to walk into the middle of a sex orgy. The story unfolded from there, as the comedian elaborated about how the orgy participants actually attempted to cover up the situation, by redirecting the focus and inventing absurd alternate explanations for what was “actually” taking place. The greatest part was that they still tried to provide him with a tour.
Broken Social Scene
Broken Social Scene was scheduled for a 5:35 timeslot, so we headed to the mainstage a little early and I walked around questioning the security and staff members about the location of the Media area. No one had any idea. Anyone that’s been to the amphitheatre knows that the real visual benefit of the Gorge is the picturesque landscape behind it. For Sasquatch, however, there was no view behind the artists, because the backdrop was blocked off with what looked like black garbage bags. I hope that this was only to accommodate the visual productions of some of the selected artists over the weekend and that it isn’t a new procedure for the venue.
Accurate or not, Broken Social Scene is often referred to as more of a collective than a band. This is because they have been able to claim 20 plus revolving members into their ranks over the last 11 years of their existence. For their recent album and tour, they are operating in what they consider to be a “stripped down” 6-member outfit. When the members took the stage, they actually looked like fragments of several various different bands thrown together at the last minute. The randomness of their individual appearances rivaled the schizophrenic Village People-style collective of my old GI-JOE figures, where a ninja would be teamed up with a sailor and a Native American with a bald eagle for no logical reason. Singer/guitarist, Kevin Drew was working the sunglasses, leather jacket, and beanie look. He was definitely the Donnie Wahlberg of the group that night. Andrew Whiteman was sporting a straight-up suit and tie, Brendan Canning had on a v-neck sweater, Charles Spearin was wearing an engineer’s conductor hat, and Sam Goldberg was decked out in some sort form of later-years Tom Petty/Bob Dylan getup with a fedora and sunglasses. At one point or another, every one of these members played guitar, but they were also able to rotate around a bit and handle different instruments. Both Emily Haines (Metric) and Leslie Feist have been vocalist for BSS and, although Feist has performed with the group as recently as 2009, their outside projects have affected their availability. Tonight the female vocal duties were being handled solely by member, Lisa Lobsinger. Justin Peroff continues to play drums for the group, but I’ve heard that they have recently been accompanied on tour by the likes of John McEntire (Tortoise, Sea and Cake). Unfortunately, McEntire didn’t join them on stage that night, but horn players from The National and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros did.
BSS is one of those groups that are considered highly influential to the point that everyone is “suppose” to be familiar with their work, but I haven’t bothered to become so. I don’t mind collecting and presenting information here, but I’m not gonna rack my brain trying to enjoy something in my regular life. There is too much out there to explore and, if it’s meant to be, everything will eventually make it’s way to my ears, one way or another. I viewed this as the moment that they and I would finally coincide and I would finally be able to see what the hype was all about.
I didn’t feel like the Broken Social Scene performance was bad, but the soundsystem sounded like shit. From what I gathered, these guys are definitely a capable group with a fairly straight-forward and large indie-pop sound, in the vein of bands like REM. I even heard some Dinosaur Jr. in the song “Cause = Time“, which I appreciated. With that many people on stage, I’m sure that there’s a lot going on and that there’s a lot of subtleties in their sound but, through that soundsystem at that point in the day, it just wasn’t coming through. If you were up front and know all of the songs to the point where your own memory could fill in the gaps, it may have sounded amazing. For me, it just sounded like a sonic mess. Again, this is the double edged sword of the festival circuit; you can introduce new people to your music but it may not be in the most effective way or the most effective forum.
We met up and sat with one of Kim‘s friends during the set and I noticed that one of the people in her group was wearing a Gorge staff polo shirt. He confirmed to me that there wasn’t a whole lot of training involved in his position and, since I had eventually discovered the general area of the media section, I passed the information on to him, so that he could finally answer everyone else who’d been asking him the same question. His break was almost over but, before heading back to work, he was able to clear a few things up for me regarding the re-entry policy. Apparently, this was the first time that they actually instituted one… or, at least some semblance of one. It wasn’t a typical situation where you could go in and out of the venue and back to your campsite but, if you were willing to shell out an extra fee of $10, they would permit you to head out to your vehicle once. This didn’t really apply to me, because I had a media bracelet that didn’t require me to get scanned anyway, but I didn’t want to overlook any of the details that affect such a vital role in the festival experience. Shit, I was only halfway through day one and the environment was already starting to wear on me.
Next stop Miike Snow…