Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sasquatch Music Fest aka A Travesty in Beerland

The summer music fest season begins. For an omnivorous music consumer such as myself, this means many things. The Oregon Bach Festival. Sasquatch Music Festival. Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival. Jack Johnson at the Gorge. Singing the Carmina Burana at the Cascade Music Festival in Bend at the tail end of summer. The warm season brings music outdoors, and for people who love both, it's a heady time of year. For me it's also the offseason musically speaking, in that I get to go and enjoy other people's music instead of constantly practicing, performing, and otherwise being wrapped up in making music myself. And the perfect way to start it off was the Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge at George, WA.

Decision time: Should I stay or should I go now?

I've heard about the Gorge for years, lamented the fact that so many bands I love play there and yet I'd never been. The spectacular scenery, the out-of-the-way location, the presence of so many nearby campgrounds, all these things lend to the Gorge the ideal makings of the summer music festival. A few months ago, about a day before the tickets for Sasquatch went on sale, I saw a list of some of the bands that were playing. Specifically five bands that I've been waiting to see for a long time and now here was my chance to see them all in one fell swoop: The Cure, R.E.M. (been wanting to see them for 20 years now), The Breeders, Modest Mouse, and Built to Spill were the main ones. I knew I would hear new bands that I'd love too. So I decided to clear out my calendar and go. Memorial Day weekend: the perfect time to get away.

Fast forward: got the tickets, Kristin and I packed up Friday night (well, she did most of the packing, but I logged some good sessions of Tony Hawk's Underground on the PS2) and we were off early the next morning, flying down the beautiful Columbia River gorge, across the Hwy 97 bridge and into the boring badlands of south-central Washington. Traffic wasn't as bad as I expected; there were no slowdowns until right before the campground entrances, where traffic was backed up for a mile or two. One moron got out of his car, walked about 50 feet out into a farmer's field and took a leak right in front of all those cars. I'm sure the farmer loved someone tramping all over his crops, and thanks a lot for pissing on people's food too, by the way. Yep, the summer rockfest was here.

We camped at Wild Horse, about a half-mile or so from the venue, since we heard the facilities were better and it wasn't quite the party-animal outpost that the main Gorge lot is. Staying up all night loaded and partying was a fun thing to do at the Dead shows a decade and a half ago, but now I'm an old man (35) and I need me sleep. I knew I'd get in plenty of party-time during the day, and wanted to rest at night.

The weather was gorgeous for most of the weekend; we did get some rain on Saturday night, the first night of the fest, but during the day the stiff breezes and high, dark scudding clouds kept the temperature bearable. Set up camp, introduce ourselves to the neighbors, afternoon snooze on the inflatable mattress, and on to the show!

The Travesty Manifests itself

We had to take a shuttle that left at the top and bottom of every hour to get from Wild Horse to the Gorge. After applying liberal amounts of sunscreen and provisioning ourselves with snacks and contraband alcohol (I won't reveal the methods but suffice it to say, we were able to bring in our own booze all 3 days of the festival) we hit the shuttle, and walked the quarter mile from the shuttle depot to the actual venue. Security was more or less a joke; had I been Ayman al-Zawahri or the Unabomber trying to smuggle in explosives, I don't think I'd have had much trouble.

Now, it may seem juvenile to smuggle alcohol in to the show; after all, I'm over 21 and could afford to buy it inside if I wanted. However, I was very glad we'd decided to bring our own in when i saw they were charging $11-$12 for a 24 oz. can of beer! They rape you because they can! The signs said "Foreign" and "Domestic" beers, but the actual selections were far more prosaic than those lofty titles suggest. I had been expecting a wonderful garden of breweriana, given that we do live in the Pacific Northwest, which is known worldwide for brewing at least one or two good beers. No such luck. The best beer available was Heineken, which in my book is the European Budweiser. I brew better beer than that in my kitchen. (Seriously.) The only other foreign beer was Modelo Especial, the Mexican version of Budweiser. Not even any Negra Modelo, which would've been tolerable.

I couldn't find Pabst or Heineken anywhere, even though everyone else seemed to have them. Didn't matter much though; I only shelled out 12 bucks for one can of warm Modelo before I swore off Sasquatch's execrable beer selection and horrifying prices. I'll sit at my campsite and drink the Rogue Mocha Porter, Full Sail Nutbrown and Deschutes Green Lakes Organic ale that I brought with me, thank you very much. Don't blame me if I smuggle in white rum and vodka to mix with Coke and 6-dollar blue raspberry slushies. Eleven dollars for a can of Red Dog. Red Dog, for christ's sake! There's absolutely no excuse for that in the Pacific Northwest. We are accustomed to having more choices than the swill they were offering. Now for a bit of Simpsonian wisdom: as Waylon Smithers said to Monty Burns regarding festivals like this: "It ensures a healthy mix of the wealthy and the ignorant, sir!" Well I'm neither, and I refused to play ball.

It's all about the music anyway...

Now that that's off my chest, I can get down to the real reason for the fest anyway, and that was the music. My main interests Saturday night were The Breeders, Modest Mouse and R.E.M. When we finally got there I was flabbergasted by the expansive view from the top of the field in front of the Sasquatch stage. (There were 3 stages, all of them named after large, hairy beasts: Sasquatch (the main stage), Wookie was secondary, Yeti was the smallest stage. I have no idea where they came up with the hierarchy.) A broad swath of the upper Columbia river stretches out from the natural amphitheater formed by a bowl in the canyon side; the view stretches on for miles of canyons and defiles and broad, golden water bending away out of sight to the north. Absolutely spectacular; I was even more impressed by the scope of the natural beauty there than I expected. The Gorge at George is truly worth the long drive from P-town.

We got settled in a spot on the disconcertingly steep hillside in front of the main stage to listen to a few bands I'd never heard of, but enjoyed. The Fleet Foxes out of Seattle opened with a solemn, gorgeous, four-part a cappella folk tune that was a perfect opener for me. We didn't get there till around 5, and they were filling in for The Nationals (another group I don't know) who couldn't make it for some reason. They played a sometimes interesting, sometimes drab brand of folk-rock that was so quiet at times that I could actually hear the bands from the Yeti stage more clearly than the Foxes. I was a little lazy and too settled-in to make the trek over to the Yeti stage to hear Vince Mira, also from Seattle. But I could hear clearly from where we were sitting, and he seemed to be worth all the buzz about him that I was hearing around me. Apparently he's a slight, unassuming 16-year old Latino kid who opens up and belts out an exact (and I do mean exact) reproduction of Johnny Cash's voice. Absolutely uncanny; listening from my spot at the main stage I was sure that the Man in Black himself had risen from the grave to sing at the Yeti stage with the thundering baritone he wielded in the prime of his life. I will not miss Vince Mira the next time I have a chance to hear him.

The New Pornographers were fun for a while, but I soon got bored of them. (My favorite Canadian bands will always be Rush and The Bare Naked Ladies.) They've got one or two radio hits that I recognized, but really I spent the evening waiting for The Breeders and R.E.M. M.I.A. generated a lot of buzz; Kristin stood in line to get some yakisoba with people who had driven all the way from Ohio for the express purpose of seeing M.I.A., a funky, world-beat electro soul sort of diva who's got a rabid following worldwide. I could detect Latin American, African and South Asian influences in the music. It was brutally loud, infectiously funky, and people really ate it up. The stage show featured a couple of Raggedy Andy looking dancers who were comical but seemed to fit with the cool world jive of the music. I wouldn't rush out to buy the cd, but they were fun to see and it was a good experience.

Modest Mouse presented sort of a dilemma in that they started at 815 on the main stage and The Breederswent on at 845 as the headliners on the Wookie stage. I like Modest Mouse; they have been the uber-darlings of the alternative music scene for the last three or four years and with good reason; they are lyrical, original, imaginative, prolific: in short, very very good. But I've only been a Mouse fan for six years or so, and I've had a sophomoric crush on alt-rock goddess Kim Deal (leader of The Breeders, formerly of The Pixies) for a loooong time now. So the original plan was to see Modest Mouse for a half hour and then migrate to the Wookie stage for the Breeders. I got to hear some of Mouse's radio hits before we headed over to the Wookie stage for Kim & Co. I was kind of chapped that the Breeders started a half hour late; that was a half hour more of Modest Mouse that I could've listened to. Oh well...

I've seen Kim with The Pixies before, and one of the (many) things that really impresses me about her is her easy way with the audience. She has that unique ability to make you feel like she's your old friend, maybe coming with her band to play your house party. She's very comfortable with being in front of crowd; she laughs, smiles, and rocks out with easy aplomb. She cracks corny jokes like talking about how beautiful her lead guitarist Kelly is (Kelly Deal is her identical twin sister.) There was a huge, enthusiastic crowd at the Wookie stage, and once they started playing it was not hard to hear why. Kim's trademark husky, lisping voice that is at the same time girlishly evocative is always a pleasure to hear, and Kelly's backing vocals fit perfectly with Kim's unique sound. Their chops are impeccable, and they played their combination of dreamy old surf rock sounds with bone-crunching metal riffs and distorted, psychedelic ramblings without a hitch. They gave the audience everything they wanted, practically playing their entire album "Last Splash" including their dizzily breathless indie-pop tune Divine Hammer, Roi, and their platinum hit Cannonball. They even went way back to "Pod" for their cover of the Beatles tune Happiness is a Warm Gun. I will always go see Kim whenever I am able, with whatever group she is playing.

If you don't know who R.E.M. is, please, step into the light, and come out from that cave you've been living in for the last 25 years. They are simply one of the most enduring, influential, and powerful acts in the ever-lengthening history of indie music. I've loved them since I was 15 years old; their album Document is simply one of the best rock albums ever. I bought it on cassette and listened to it until it wore out, then bought it again. R.E.M. is ingrained so deeply in my musical consciousness, and has been for so long, that it's hard for me to remember a time when I didn't know their music. I imagine that for alt/indie lovers of my generation, R.E.M. occupies a similar place in my musical pantheon that the Beatles might hold for a similar person born in 1945, only we've had the joy of R.E.M. being together for decades.

It was raining by the time they took the main stage at 10, and I had brilliantly decided to leave my rain gear back at the campsite during the warm, sunny afternoon. No matter; K and I huddled up under our synthetic fleece blanket and waited for the show to begin. Michael Stipe took the stage to thunderous applause, and the show began.

For all the gushing that I've been doing about this group, it may seem kind of surprising that I was a little let down by the show. It certainly wasn't anything the band did wrong: Michael Stipe was a gracious, engaging, intelligent host, the way I knew he would be. He intoned the phrase 'children of the rain' and almost slipped and fell on the stage, recovering with good humor. The band was solid, and they played song after song from their voluminous hit parade, without ever coming close to reaching the bottom. It was more the venue. Maybe it was my fault; I could've gone down to the packed crowd standing in front of the stage, but shivering as I was, I remained huddled under my blanket. I just felt so far removed; R.E.M.'s music is so intimate and personal to me that I wanted to be up close, and instead I felt distant and out of touch. I guess I should've dragged my cold, wet ass down in front of the stage, but that coupled with my crowd paranoia kept me at bay. I will see them again whenever I get the chance. Despite my self-inflicted disillusionment, seeing R.E.M. live felt like visiting an old, familiar friend, and though I somehow didn't get what I wanted from the show, they moved me deeply, as they always have, and always will.

Coming Soon: Sasquatch Sunday: Bloody Marys for Breakfast? Why, I believe I will have one, thanks...

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