Monday, June 1, 2009

The true spirit of rock? Sasquatch Music Fest Part 1: Everything but Jane's & the Devils

It might seem an odd thing to attach the term--'the true spirit of rock' to a gig like the Sasquatch Music Fest. Nothing against it specifically--after the heyday of the touring rock fests like Lollapalooza, Lilith, Warped, etc., in the 90s, a new dynamic of large, annual regional rock-fests came to the fore: fests like Sasquatch, Bonnarroo, Austin City Limits and Coachella (to name a few) filled the gap as the novelty (and some would say overall quality) of the touring fests petered out. (Zack Adams, Festival Founder.)

But the true spirit of rock? Does that coincide with $9 cans of shit beer, with countless thousands of impossibly beautiful, impossibly thin, impossibly white twenty-somethings traveling from around the country on their parents' credit cards, with loudspeakers blaring about the great deals from the Verizon Wireless booth?

You get the idea. In one sense, Sasquatch is nothing but a giant money-making machine, over-charging you for everything and blowing pop-culture smoke straight up your ass to try and make you feel good about dropping a grand on a three-day long music festival.

But sometimes, something squeaks through. Something honest, sincere, direct and in-your face, something that cuts through the frilly shit with the focused intensity of a laser beam and hones in on that rarest of commodities--the truth. The naked, raw, brutal truth, observed from varying angles and displayed, even if unintentionally, for all to see. That happened for me, and for a lot of other people who were most definitely not comfortable with it, outside of George, WA on Sunday night.

I won't write a review of every artist I went there to see, maybe just a brief rundown so I can get to the meat of what I really want to write about. Truthfully I missed a lot of bands that I either vaguely knew of (most sadly for me I didn't catch Gogol Bordello) or wanted to hear because of the buzz surrounding them. Here's a laser beam of truth for ya: I missed them because it was so goddamned hot and cloudless, and I had to sleep off my morning drunk in the early afternoon each day and decided to do that at my campsite instead of at the fest.

I wanted to see Vince Mira, whom I wrote about in my review of last year's Sasquatch fest, but he was the opener at noon on Saturday so I had to miss that. New acts to me that I did catch were Animal Collective, who played a lot of spaced-out psychedelically tinged ambient rock that I thoroughly enjoyed, and Silversun Pickups, who (despite the fact that I really like their big radio hit Lazy Eye) bored me to tears with a pukey brand of distorted emo. I also saw The Decemberists again (unfortunately.) I know they are the most important band from PDX in the world right now, and I wish I could like them simply for the sake of hometown solidarity, but I've seen them twice now and I just can't stand them. I will allow that there were actually one or two songs of theirs that seemed alright this time, but these wimpy, heart-on-your-sleeves crooning singers (like the guy from Silversun and the one from Death Cab for Cutie) just make me want to drop a steaming-hot microwave burrito down their pants and then kick the crap out of them. And I'm not a violent man.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a big reason I wanted to go this year: they are perhaps my personal favorite brand-new band that I've discovered in the last five years or so. I've got the raging hots for their gorgeous lead singer Karen O, and their songwriting is fearlessly original, even if her voice does occasionally sound like Siouxsie Sioux and some of their music is reminiscent of one of my favorite bands of all time, Throwing Muses. If ya gotta have influences, they might as well be good ones. Karen O had great energy and they rocked the place hard, and I even enjoyed their heart-aching love ballad Maps (the song that turned me onto them in the first place) despite the idiot girls behind me singing loudly through most of the song. Guess what? I know all the words too, and could sing it just as loudly as you can, but I wanted to hear Karen O sing it. Thanks a lot for ruining that for me you self-absorbed idiots. Thankfully someone shut them up before they ruined the entire song.

Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Despite their compelling story and one or two songs that I enjoy, headliners (all four of whom are brothers) Kings of Leon didn't really excite me. They seemed to play well enough, but the next day even seasoned KOL fans remarked about how lacklustre the performance was, so it's no wonder it didn't catch the attention of a marginal fan like me. Seattle's Fleet Foxes sounded good although at that point I was hiding in the few feet of shade afforded by a rickety wooden fence, desperately trying to avoid the merciless afternoon sun. TV On The Radio impressed me yet again with their strange electro-soul rock. I don't know that I'd rush out and buy any of their CDs, but I've seen them live twice now opening for other bands I wanted to see and I've liked them both times.

I watched this poor bastard wake up...he was still too loaded to care.

Erykah Badu was the main reason I stayed for all three days; she was the penultimate act of the fest, right before the Monday night headliner Ben Harper, who I can most definitely live without. I've loved Ms. Badu since I first heard her. She does hip hop with a huge dose of soul, jazz, blues, r&b and gospel influences, spinning it all into an incredibly entertaining, intensely personal style that I just can't get enough of. When I listen to her songs I always get the feeling that I'm sitting at the front table in a smoky bar late at night, it's dark except for the blinding light shining on the diva onstage three feet away, and she's singing right to me.

And diva she was...she ran a very tight ship and it showed in the results: a very tight blend of very complex, multi-layered music being performed by an eight- or nine-piece band. She's known for her fashion sensibility and I loved her bright, super-shiny pleather pants with big silver zippers all over them, her gray Public Enemy hoody, which hood she was wearing underneath a shortish stovepipe hat. Still, I couldn't help but think that her band looked vaguely terrified of her most of the time: they were playing good music but it didn't seem like they were having much fun. She ran that show like an Irish nun at a Magdalene laundry. (I think since I'm Irish I'm allowed to make that joke...)

Ms. Badu's always comin' for real...

So I ended up not even staying for the whole set. The call of a real bed and the dreaded thought of having to be at work 350 miles away at the crack of noon the next day pulled us back to the Wild Horse Campground (seriously--this is the place to stay if you are ever camping for a show at the Gorge. Take the time to make reservations as soon as you buy your tix.) Just as we finished packing up our super cool camping neighbor Liz got back; we had been planning to stay and leave early the next morning, so she was bummed we were leaving. I hope she gets ahold of me; after a long hug I gave her my name and told her to look me up on Facebook.) We took off, stayed at a motel in Yakima and were out early the next morning.

(More on that whole 'true spirit of rock' thing in the second installment when I write about the two main acts I wanted to see this year: Jane's Addiction and the Murder City Devils.)

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