Let’s face it: we’ve entered the post-peak era of grand-scale, multi-genre music festivals here in the Pacific Northwest. After experiencing a proliferation regional festivals around the world in recent years, the industry seems to have reached a saturation point, and scarcity of available, affordable talent appears to be leading to an inevitable decline in the viability of mega-fests.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon can no longer hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold—in 2016 the Squamish Valley Music Festival folded, and this year Rock the Shores announced a year hiatus, while Pemberton collapsed spectacularly under the weight of its financial liabilities. But it’s not just us. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed on a global scale, and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best now lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (see: Fyre Festival).
Surely some revelation is at hand! Ah, yes indeed. Team Rocktog is pleased to announce that we found some semblance of salvation over the U.S. Memorial Day weekend during our visit to the resplendent Gorge Amphitheater in central Washington State. This truly unique venue in the heart of virtually nowhere features an unparalleled scenic backdrop provided by the idyllic Columbia River Gorge. And it was in this utopian locale that we experienced 2017’s stripped-down-but-still-standing iteration of Live Nation’s Sasquatch! Music Festival.
Now in its 16th year, Sasquatch! has at times throughout its run been considered one of the top festivals in North America, rivaling the likes of Coachella, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. That said, last year’s edition was plagued by lower-than-usual attendance and unfortunate weather (high winds caused the cancellation or relocation of several of the main stage acts). And when a truncated 2017 lineup was announced several months ago, with headliners Frank Ocean, TWENTY ØNE PILØTS and Chance the Rapper leading the charge, the response on social media was underwhelming to say the least.
Many long-time fans felt the festival was trying to skew younger to drive ticket sales, particularly singling out their aversion to the divisive pop-rock-rap duo TWENTY ØNE PILØTS as fodder for their discontentment. So, when Frank Ocean had to cancel his appearance due to production delays, and the festival announced that dance-punk icons LCD Soundsystem would be taking over his Friday headlining slot, more experienced ’Squatchers had to feel at least somewhat redeemed. Let the kids have their 21P—just give us our one legacy act and we’re happy campers.
Speaking of camping, we took our first stab at Gold level this year, and man, did it pay off. Faced with 30+ Celsius temperatures daily, the proximity to the venue entrance offered by Gold was a life saver when it came to ins and outs, since we could retreat to the comfort of our camp’s sun shelters between sets with ease. And with the festival charging $14 for a 24-oz premium beer inside the venue, having the option to withdraw for a cold one out of the cooler just made sense economically.
But when it comes down to it, we’re here for the music, so here are some of the weekend’s highlights.
Our first foray down to the festival main stage on Friday afternoon was for Mondo Cozmo, the alias of LA-based folk-rocker Josh Ostrander. Originally from Philly, Ostrander is a musical vet whose recent recordings under the Mondo Cozmo moniker could best be described as Tom Petty meets U2. It’s soulful arena rock without the pretention. Check out his new single “Automatic,” which we hope will be followed by a full album sooner rather than later.
Representing the red and white at Sasquatch 2017 were Ontario gothic folk band The Strumbellas. You know, those guys that got guns (and spirits) in their heads but they won’t go? Yeah, them. And they made it clear who they were there to represent, introducing themselves as “a rock-and-roll musical organization from Canada.” ’Nuff said.
As the afternoon heat dissipated somewhat, Sleigh Bells stepped out for a 6:15 set on the main stage and, if you like your shows super loud, my good boy this was the place to be. The Brooklyn-based noise-pop power duo of guitarist Derek Edward Miller and singer Alexis Krauss essentially destroyed everyone in the pit. Very few survivors. Sad. Those of us who valued our ear drums swiftly retreated to the Gorge’s grassy hillside to escape the glitchy growl being discharged from the speaker array. But even in the bedlam of all that sonic chaos, Krauss proved her mettle, cutting through the din with potent and poignant vocals.
Meanwhile, over the crest of the hill in the El Chupacabra tent, where it’s dance music by night and comedy by late afternoon/early evening, recent SNL cast member-turned-alumnus Sasheer Zamata had the headlining set. She led off mentioning that she’d quit SNL earlier that week (but didn’t want to talk about it) before trying her hand at some hit and miss crowd work. Generally speaking, music festivalgoers at a comedy show can be a tough crowd—there’s always a fraction of distracted interlopers hanging about who are plainly more interested in seeking shade than hearing punchlines. But to all comics, I say: it is what it is and you knew what you were signing up for.
One of the best timeslots to capture the majesty of the Sasquatch main stage is during the sub-headliner’s set. With the crowd facing west on the hillside, we start to see the sun start over the rocky hills that rise beyond the Columbia Gorge. It’s the time of night when the background becomes so picturesque that it hardly seems real. In a real juxtaposition of genres, the festival gods followed up Sleigh Bells’ thunderous performance with the convivial indie folk stylings of Pacific Northwest favourites, Seattle’s own The Head and the Heart. What a perfect time to catch up with old friends while you relax on the soft grass with your arm around a loved one.
The only thing which could make this moment more perfect would be a Chris Cornell tribute in the form of a melodious cover of Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”, and that’s exactly what The Head and the Heart delivered. A lot of people got emotional at that point because how could you not? It’s a Gorge thing.
Over at the Bigfoot stage (the festival’s second largest) veteran soul man Charles Bradley, who we missed at last year’s Rifflandia due to health issues, appeared his usual spry self, delivering his passionate and powerful brand of classic R&B to the masses with the help of His Extraordinaires. The funk and soul of the ’60s and ’70s gave us some of the best music in human history, so to get the opportunity to celebrate that era with an artist who channels the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown is pretty sweet.
LCD Soundsystem just finished its new album two days prior to Sasquatch, frontman James Murphy informed us as the evening’s headlining act lit up the main stage after dark. The formerly-broken-up electronic rock collective had been teasing a reunion since as far back as 2015, and here we were at long last, that promise fulfilled in the form of a premium set at Sasquatch. Murphy et al showcased an exhaustive mix of songs plucked from across their three albums with core members Nancy Whang on keyboards and synths and Pat Mahoney on drums drove the nearly 2-hour performance along with their considerable skills.
Murphy kept the energy level up, flitting around the stage with his vintage Sennheiser mic while habitually picking up drum sticks to smack various forms of percussion whenever the mood struck him. Seeing LCD Soundsystem live makes you realize the multitude of instruments that go into creating their sound. There’s an intent and purpose behind every synth hit, computer bleep-blorp, and cowbell strike. It is a literal soundsystem, which works very similarly to a Miami Sound Machine. You do the math.
Post-headliners, for those who still had the energy, you had two choices: a smoky, tranquil sesh in the dance tent with EDM chillwave guru (and Rifflandia 2017 performer) Bonobo, or a hip-hop-infused DJ set with Montreal native Kaytranada. This was a real toss up, so we ended up splitting time between both to close out the night.
We spotted an curious trend starting early on Saturday morning. Day pass holders, many of them teenagers, began congregating outside the gates well in advance of the midday opening. How they got there, I can’t say—perhaps their parents dropped them off and drove back to Seattle or whatever—but one thing we knew for sure was there were there for one reason: TWENTY ØNE PILØTS. Not for nothing, many of these 21P “day ones” would go on to confirm their inveterate devotion by parking their heavy dirty souls in the pit practically all day to make sure they had a spot when their favourite band hit the stage like 10 hours later. Cool?
Leading off Saturday’s lineup with a very early afternoon main stage set (the first of the day) was another Canadian act, Calgary’s Reuben and the Dark, who we caught up with backstage later in the day during Rocktographers All Access with Arkells (Sasquatch Edition), but more about that in a second. Portlandian alt-country rockers Blitzen Trapper took time with their set to honour the unspoken Pacific Northwest bond felt by Sasquatch attendees by featuring the ubiquitous Cascadian flag on stage (the same one we fly at Team Rocktog camp, naturally). Message received: we’re all in this together in the PNW. They were followed up by Jack Antonoff’s anthemic indie rock group Bleachers, promoting their new album Gone Now.
Over at the festival’s Yeti Stage, the smallest and most intimate of the four, Rocktographers went All Access with our pals Arkells for their high energy 5:45 set, with our own Kirsten James shooting the performance on stage. Kirsten also flexed her media pass earlier in the day when she interviewed the guys backstage prior to their performance. It was certainly interesting seeing Arkells outside of Canada. Clearly there were some stalwart Canuck fans in attendance, but the Hamilton quintet garnered some new fans from among our American brethren with their boisterous, upbeat performance.
Fans in the comedy tent were treated to a variety show of sorts from SNL alum and Portlandia star Fred Armisen. This was not your typical stand-up performance. Armisen made some irreverent quips, played a bit of guitar and drums, showed a clip from Portlandia and finished up with an impromptu Q&A. All in good fun.
Back on the main stage, veteran Seattle rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot pinch hit for Mac Miller, who cancelled late to be with his girlfriend Ariana Grande (understandable). East Coast indietronica favourites MGMT then claimed the penultimate slot as the sun tucked behind horizon. Their set was frankly underwhelming, aside from the hits off their Oracular Spectacular album, specifically “Kids” and “Electric Feel,” which garnered some buzz. They also played a cover of Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses,” which my friend Bill seemed to like.
Now, I need to take a minute to talk about the band that played on the Bigfoot stage prior to the TWENTY ØNE PILØTS complete festival takeover. They’re called Vulfpeck, and they supplied one of the most memorable performances of the entire weekend. I knew very little about Vulfpeck going in. I’d previewed a few of their songs— fun, funk-filled throwback R&B with tongue-in-cheek lyrics — but their live show was something much bigger than that.
Part jam band, part performance art, they were constantly switching instruments and rotating in guest musicians and vocalists. At one point they even incorporated sketch comedy by turning the performance into a corporate keynote conference for Vulf Industries. There were bass solos, drum solos, saxophone solos, beatboxing and a capella harmonies. I can’t even fully explain everything that happened but suffice to say, if you ever have an opportunity to see Vulfpeck live you should jump on it. Seriously!
And finally, with a great swell of excitement from the crowd at the main stage, came the night’s long-awaited headliners, the blurryfaced enigmatic duo known as TWENTY ØNE PILØTS. Their performance ran completely unopposed, with all three other stages left dark (again, to the dismay of non-fans). But for those of us with an open mind (and an admitted soft spot for the much-maligned rap-rock genre), this show was not to be missed. Drummer Josh Dun and frontman Tyler Joseph appeared initially in their customary balaclavas to start, opening with “Heavydirtysoul,” the latest single from their 2015 smash hit album Blurryface (yes, they are still touring on an album that was released 2 years ago) and followed it up with “Heathens,” their hit off the Suicide Squad soundtrack.
Afterward, they ditched the masks and became more accessible, with Joseph switching instruments to a non-threatening combination of ukulele and upright piano while donning a rose-patterned silk bathrobe (?) for most of the rest of their set. One thing to enjoy about 21P is that almost all their songs sound different, which they seem to acknowledge in their song “Lane Boy” with the chorus “They say stay in your lane, boy/But we go where we want to.” Too true. Our only major complaint about the well-executed performance was that they leaned on backing tracks rather than touring with a live band. We get that their whole schtick is there are only two of them, but it’s always a plus when a live performance is 100% live.
Post 21P, the late night shows again offered up some sizzling dance parties. At El Chupacabra, Rifflandia 2016 performers Bomba Estéreo showcased their Bogotá-based tropical electronica, while DJ/saxophonist Big Gigantic brought the party to the Bigfoot stage.
Nary a cloud in the sky and zero hint of breeze made for some oppressive heat on Sunday. Combine that with a less-than-stellar afternoon schedule, and you have a recipe for spending some extra time at camp staying cool.
That said, we had to pop in to check out Chicano Batman’s 2:15 performance on the main stage. Based in Los Angeles, the band offers a stellar mix of soul and R&B, carried by singers Bardo Martinez and Eduardo Arenas, which was worth braving the heat to see.
After hiding in camp most of the rest of the afternoon, we made a point of checking out Rock the Shores 2016 alum and Rifflandia 2017 performers July Talk. Like Arkells the day before, the set from Toronto’s art-rock outfit seemed to surprise and delight the crowd at the Yeti stage with their authoritative performance. Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay played off each other with their usual spirited and sexy push and pull, and they ended up being one of the festival highlights.
Unfortunately for Peter and Leah, their set at Yeti crossed over with the main stage show with dream pop duo Phantogram, although the latter drew a smaller crowd than I would have anticipated. Lead singer Sarah Barthel announced that it was guitarist Josh Carter’s birthday, but he didn’t seem interested in acknowledging it, cutting her off with a cued-up sample of “Don’t Move.” Overall, their performance seemed to lack some of the energy we’ve seen in the past. Maybe they partied too hard the night before and had nothing left in the tank? Or maybe they just don’t get us high anymore? We’re not ready to write them off just yet, but this was not their best set.
Veteran indie rock band The Shins claimed the final sunset slot of the weekend. The group, fronted by James Mercer, dispensed an eclectic set. After entering to the “Twin Peaks” theme, the band jumped into some old favourites like “Caring Is Creepy” and “Australia.” “I love this Memorial Day shit right here,” Mercer exclaimed at one point before playing a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Us too, James. Us too.
The night ended with the Grammy-winning Chance the Rapper, who was about 15 minutes late to the stage and began his set by making bird calls from the dark, which were called back by the crowd. The show, part of Chance’s “Be Encouraged Tour,” exemplified the best of Chance, who bounded around the stage in a Black Lives Matter tee as he performed songs from his 2016 album Coloring Book and 2013 mixtape Acid Rap.
During his hit single “No Problem”, which chronicles his disdain for major music labels (Chance remains an independent artist who releases his music online for free), the screen behind him cycled through a few parodies of major labels: Sony became “Phony,” Universal became “Undiversal,” and Warner Music Group “Weiner Music Group” before a visual of the three Grammys Chance won at this year’s awards flashed up. Chance, whose optimistic vivacity was undeniable, proved to be a perfect, uplifting close to the festival.