When it comes to Memorial Day weekend, one music festival reigns supreme over all others in terms of size, vibe, curation, and booking the hottest up and comers in the music scene: Sasquatch!. Over its 12 years, the Sasquatch! Festival over Memorial Day weekend has blossomed from a one day affair to a five-stage, four-day bonanza (or more if you show up a day early to party in the campground), with a lineup boasting a who’s who of indie rock, pop, EDM, hip-hop, and world music.
There’s something for everyone at Sasquatch: the dubstep kids, the Pitchfork set, and the teenagers head-over-heels in love with the latest neo-folk act. Adam Zacks, the producer and founder of Sasquatch, does an absolutely phenomenal job selecting the best acts of today and tomorrow, with a focus on showcasing upcoming Pacific Northwest acts. For more insight into the intent behind the festival and his booking methodology, you can read two great interviews with Adam here and here (courtesy of The A.V. Club and Consequence of Sound).
Of course, I’m throwing all of these superlatives around without even mentioning the not-so-secret ace up Sasquatch’s sleeve: the legendary Gorge Amphitheater and its absolutely breathtaking locale. People can debate until the end of time which is the more glorious outdoor venue: The Gorge or Red Rocks, but neither side is wrong. If you’re seeing a show at either venue, you are winning, but for my money, The Gorge is more awe-inspiring in every way. Nothing can match cresting over the top of the lawn’s hill for the first time and surveying the scene in front of you — it’s impossible not to be moved by it. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single act the entire weekend that didn’t mention the beautiful surroundings at least once during their set.
Also, the secluded locale of The Gorge (140 miles outside of Seattle) means there are no fancy hotels, condos or spas nearby like you’d find at Coachella, Lollapalooza, or Outside Lands; pretty much everyone that goes is camping on the spacious grounds for four or five days straight, which helps create a “we’re all in this together” vibe and community akin to some of the more jam oriented festivals out there. Everyone that’s there is absolutely stoked to be there, as evidenced by the ear-to-ear grins plastered on everyone’s faces. Let’s dive right into it.
DAY 1: FRIDAY, MAY 24TH:
I had been to Sasquatch once before in 2009 and had an absolute blast, so saying I was excited to make a return visit was a bit of an understatement. I hopped on a plane in San Francisco Friday morning, did the usual grocery/booze run, and still managed to arrive at The Gorge about a half hour before the music started at 4pm. People were already streaming into the venue, so we quickly parked and headed in ourselves.
The first act I caught was Seattle based-band Reignwolf on the mainstage at 5pm. I knew nothing about the band, but was told a couple times not to miss it and I was not disappointed. Out strolled the mastermind behind the band, Jordan Cook, and without hesitation he started laying down fiery licks with his guitar and prowling around the stage. Soon thereafter, he sat behind a drum kit and started playing both drum and guitar at the same time. I figured it was a one man act, but soon enough a bass player and drummer emerged as well. Their sound was super raw bluesy-rock, akin to the Black Keys when they were touring as just a duo. They made the most of their 35 minutes, which ended in Cook exiting the stage by getting on top of a van parked stage left and soloing as the van drove away from the stage. Needless to say, they were the first of many new discoveries of the weekend.
Next up were Japandroids over on the Bigfoot stage: the largest of the side stages. A rock duo from Vancouver, this was the first day of their 2013 summer tour and you could tell they were excited to rock out for what was essentially a hometown crowd. While they didn’t have any problem shaking off the rust from a few months of downtime with their trademark energetic in-your-face balls-to-the-wall stage presence, unfortunately the sound guy wasn’t on the same wavelength. In what would be an ongoing issue at the Bigfoot stage, the mix was off. The band kept trying to fix the sound issues between songs and even had to restart one of their tunes, killing whatever momentum they had gained up until that point. The frustration on guitarist Brian King’s face was plain-as-day, but they did their best to soldier onwards and amp up the crowd.
I can only hope the sound issues were resolved eventually, but I can’t know for sure as I ran over to the main stage to get a prime spot for the godfathers of the Pacific Northwest’s indie-rock scene: Built to Spill. With only 45 minutes to mesmerize the crowd with their 3-pronged guitar attack, they wasted no time getting down to business, as they did not even leave the stage between soundcheck and the start of their set. It was an all too short, but well crafted setlist from the elder-statesmen that offered songs mostly from their best 3 albums “Keep It Like A Secret”, “Perfect from Now On” and “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love”, and ignored their most recent album entirely (with only 2 albums under their belt in the last decade, 2009 is considered recent). Highlights included “Stab”, “Else”, “Going Against Your Mind”, “You Were Wong” and “Carry the Zero”.
As he lets his guitar do most of the talking, bandleader Doug Martsch is a man of few words, but he did thank the crowd for sticking through the brief sunshower that started right as they hit the stage. He ended the set by introducing some staff members of Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, who read an official proclamation affirming the impact and general awesomeness of the festival. With an official recognition from the governor under its belt, Sasquatch! is now a Pacific Northwest institution.
I rushed back over to the Bigfoot Stage to catch the last half hour of LMB fave Father John Misty, who was super chatty during this set — even for him, which is really saying something. Still touring behind 2012’s wonderful Fear Fun, Josh Tillman was in fine form, showcasing his now-signature spastic dance moves and deadpan sense of humor. He changed the lyrics to some of his songs to fit the occasion, debuted a new (to me) song with the refrain “I Love You Honey Bear”, which may or may not be about a homemade bong, and played off the sound cutting out for 8 seconds during “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” with a sarcastic “We’re burning this festival TO THE GROUND!” Half of the crowd had absolutely no idea what to expect of this lanky hipster prancing around the stage crooning ballads about oil shortages and tripping with shaman, but the other half was absolutely captivated. Very few people can get away with bidding a crowd goodnight with the sign off “Smooches everybody”, but Josh Tillman is one of them.
Next up was my first trip to the Yeti Stage for Youth Lagoon, a band I’d been meaning to check out for a while, but unfortunately, I had to wait a bit longer as they soundchecked for what seemed like an eternity. The crowd that dutifully stuck around grew more impatient by the minute, as the raucous sounds of Arctic Monkeys rocking out on the main stage were wafting over the hill, but such is festival life. Finally, a good 40 minutes after they were originally scheduled to go on, the set started and all was (almost) forgotten. Trevor Powers is the mastermind behind Youth Lagoon, and his unique blend of dream pop and psychedelia is truly something to behold. While some folks have a hard time tolerating Trevor’s nasally and whiny voice, if you are able to get past that you are handsomely rewarded. This was the first thing I’d heard with any electro/synth instrumentation to it at all, so it initially reminded me of the Daft Punk album I’d been spinning non-stop the last two weeks, but it really was much more indebted to M83 and Animal Collective than anything else.
Next up was Vampire Weekend, which might have attracted the biggest crowd the Bigfoot Stage saw all weekend. The crowd was amped for the set and I was impressed that absolutely everyone around me knew the words to the first single from the new album “Diane Young”. However, just as they started getting into the meat of the set, the sound went out TWICE during “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” for extended periods of time. The band didn’t even notice since they were so locked into their in-ear monitors and kept playing through, but after the second incident it was starting to feel like the first year of Outside Lands where headliners Radiohead & Tom Petty both fell prey to faulty speakers multiple times each. The most frustrating aspect of this for me is living in perpetual fear that the sound will drop out at any moment, but luckily, it didn’t happen again all weekend (at least while I was there).
Sound issues notwithstanding, their set still left a lot to be desired. At the end of the day, the band doesn’t have a very commanding stage presence and ultimately comes off a bit wooden. This would be fine for a band with top-notch songwriting just starting out, but unfortunately Vampire Weekend now plays to packed houses and festival stages around the world, so it’s hard not to miss and makes it hard to be immersed in their show. This was evident a few songs in as the crowd noise picked up while attentions waned. That being said, I still enjoyed parts of their set; namely a couple of choice tracks from the self-titled debut like “Oxford Comma”, “Mansard Roof” and “I Stand Corrected” which reminded me of the reason we all fell in love with them in the first place.
Last on the bill for the first day was local boys done good: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. The main stage had been dressed up with all kinds of craziness all afternoon long (fake cacti, hundreds of shoes dangling from the lighting rig) in addition to a 30-40 foot long catwalk that came out into the pit in front of the stage, so everyone was on notice as soon as they arrived that this set was going to be nuts. I am not exactly a huge Macklemore fan, but there was no way I was missing this set; I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Arriving at the main stage about 10 minutes before showtime, I immediately noticed how packed the floor was — everyone and their mother had converged onto the lawn and floor to watch this victory lap. Soon, the lights went down, the crowd roared, and Macklemore came out from a trap door underneath the catwalk. It turned out that the trap door also had a riser that lifted him 15 feet above the stage (think Phish’s NYE 2011 “Steam” gag) from which he surveyed the throngs of cheering Sasquatchians. “Are you ready for the night of your life Sasquatch?” he thundered, and the crowd’s response made it pretty clear that they were.
Over the next 75 minutes, Macklemore pulled out all the stops. There was confetti, backup dancers, costume changes, strobe lights, a kilted trumpet player hype man wearing pink bunny rabbit slippers, you name it. He also had a rotating cast of guest vocalists: at one point, the stage went dark, and Macklemore disappeared. A janitor camed out and swept up some of the confetti off the stage, and started whistling a familiar tune. Turns out it was Wanz, the guest on Macklemore’s inescapable #1 smash“ Thrift Shop”, in a disguise. As soon as people caught on, the place erupted and the lyrics played on a giant screen — not that anyone needed them to sing along. Naturally, Mary Lambert was on hand to sing vocals on his other #1 hit “Same Love” and Ray Dalton stepped up to the plate for his signature lines on the party anthem “Can’t Hold Us”.
About half an hour in, Ryan Lewis cut the music and Macklemore took a few minutes to address the crowd. “SAAAASQUATCH”, he started, “you have NO idea how good it feels to be back home in the Pacific Northwest! I have been working my entire life to step on this stage right here at the Gorge.” It didn’t take much to tell that Macklemore wasn’t blowing smoke up our collective asses — he truly meant it. It was a local lovefest, with shout outs to Spokane, Vancouver, Portland, and of course Seattle. He mentioned how there was no place more beautiful than the Gorge, and that the best concert of his life without question had been at this very spot: riding the rail at an Outkast show. It was right about this point that he won me over with his sincerity.
Macklemore continued to pour his heart out by reminiscing about how his life had been going nowhere and was super stagnant until he got sober in 2008 and started making something of himself. Then to lighten things back up, he invited us all to keep the party going with him after the show: there were three ‘95 convertibles parked outside that we could all cram into and there would be a Capri Suns and a Lunchable waiting for each person as they got inside!
Well, I never did find the convertibles, but by that point it didn’t matter. While some might have seen all of these antics as over-the-top and gimmicky, I read it as Macklemore doing everything he could to put on the show of a lifetime — a show no one would ever forget. It was his dream to play this stage, and it was a thrill watching someone in the midst of achieving that dream.
Then he came out for the encore on an inflatable raft and crowd surfed for a while, and closed it down with the anthem “Irish Celebration” complete with a sample of Beirut’s “Scenic World” and a honest to god legit bagpiper! I wasn’t sure anything could top that, so I decided to call it a day. As I walked over the hill and back to the campsite, the sounds of Bauuer wafted through the air and I knew I had made the right decision. It was hard to believe that after all that we were just getting warmed up, but that’s the beauty of these multi-day festivals.
Read on for our recap and photos from Saturday…