Sasquatch Music Festival
May 26-28, 2017
The Gorge Amphitheater
By Andy Bookwalter; Photos Maurice Harnsberry and Andy Bookwalter
Sasquatch 2017. Reduced expectations. 21 Pilots.
Is Sasquatch winding down or just becoming Andy sized?
Let’s be honest, I never made it a full four days anyway, so what am I whining about? I guess I’m whining about 21 Pilots. More on that later.
First I had to get there, in style. Camper Van Bookwalter doesn’t much like hills, much less mountain passes, but that’s what the slow lane is for. Nothing kicks off Sasquatch for me like seeing the looks on the faces of my campground neighbors when a smoking, rolling meth lab sputters to a stop and a grizzled sea captain jumps out and starts trying to connect a big pee bucket to the back end of his RV with a hose.
Fortunately the hardcore Festival People that bring rented motor homes and set up popup raves usually show up early and get the central parking spots, so the outskirts where we employed people end up are a little quieter. (spoiler: I did consider killing them later)
2017 fashion report: Besides rubber dinosaur suits and more than a few drunken yachtsmen, the main look was “not much clothing.” The weather was hot as shit all weekend, pretty much covering the swimsuit zones was good enough, and when the temperature cracked 90 on Sunday even that standard lowered a bit. (I kept my swimsuit areas covered up, for the record.)
It’s just about 1.5 miles from my campsite to the free sandwiches and flush toilets in the media lounge. On a pleasant sunny Friday afternoon the first hike in is a bracing energizing stroll. By Sunday I’m wondering if I could call an ambulance and convince them to take me to the main stage.
What do you get when you cross Rocky Balboa with an early 90’s Britpop band? If you’re me, the punch line is “Stallone Roses,” and you crack yourself up for a good 20 minutes. Actually, you get Mondo Cozmo, a band I knew nothing about that played surprisingly competent Britpop-inspired-rock for a guy from East LA who talked like John Travolta. They closed with a cover of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” – do they have to give all their money to Mick Jagger too?
Next up was The Strumbellas, about whom I knew nothing. Another band that works great in the ridiculously beautiful setting that is the Gorge Amphitheater. Sometimes it’s a band that might not click with me otherwise, but it works at the Gorge. Sometimes a band clashes with all the splendor for some reason. (Example: Of Monsters and Men, who I’m ok with but not enthusiastic about sound GREAT at the Gorge. MIA, who I like much better, sounded funny.) Anyway, The Strumbellas were one of those earnest, Canadian bands whose sweeping harmonies play well out there. Not quite vest rock, but pretty close. They also had Dave. Everyone loved Dave.
Thee Oh Sees were a late recommendation from people I trust about this sort of thing, and holy crap, I’ve been wasting my life until now. Sasquatch skews towards pop, electronic, and hip hop, but when they stray from the formula the results are often surprisingly awesome, like now. Thee Oh Sees are classic garage rock with a lot of punk and psychedelic thrown in. Front man John Dwyer played a clear Lucite guitar cinched high and tight, which was much cooler than it sounds. They also have two drummers, which is always, always cool.
After Thee Oh Sees I had some time to kill. Sleigh Bells were on the main stage, and I had to walk past there to get to a kiosk that last year sold pretty good chicken strips (gone this year, dammit) I always wanted to like Sleigh Bells, but the reality just didn’t impress me that much. What I hoped for was a wall of distorted guitars and electronic beats, but it sounded like a talented woman singing in front of a boom box. Turns out they’re way better live, there’s your wall of sound.
Big Freedia was someone I knew a little about, but not enough to say anything smart about her show (BF uses he and she sort of interchangeably, but tends more towards she, I think) I would not have guessed that she would mash up Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” into a heaping pile of hip hop mastery. A minimum of research ahead of time would have shown that there would be butts. Lots and lots and lots of butts. Enough said about that.
I knew it would get cold when the sun went down, so instead of hearing about a great set by The Head and the Heart I’ll tell you about how I went back to shanty town for comfy shoes and a sweatshirt.
I knew I was going to love Charles Bradley. I didn’t realize how much Charles Bradley was going to love each and every one of us. Sasquatch was his first big show after cutting his last tour short to receive stomach cancer treatment. Bradley works his ass off and takes entertainment VERY seriously, so it must of just about killed him to have to cancel a tour. Charles brought such sweet, sweet soul. He handed out roses, he sang a song about his mother. Did 21 Pilots do ANY of those things? (spoiler: no)
I came around to LCD Soundsystem a little late, while listening to “Losing My Edge” at just the right time. I expected a big show, and a big show I got. Going from a 70 year old soul singer handing out roses to a big dance-punk band from Brooklyn was a little jarring, and to be honest it took me a little time to warm up to James Murphy. But, he told us about their new album, which segued into sort of a strange rambling thing about whales, and I realized, “LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy is sort of an awkward nerd, like me!” Of course, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy was playing on the main stage to tens of thousands of people, so maybe really not so much. Anyway, great show. I didn’t hear “Losing My Edge,” although I did get there a few songs into the set.
After LCD Soundsystem I had to choose between Kaytranada, Bonobo, or a big box of Cheez Its and a cigar back at the NadaMucho Media Center. The choice was clear, although I now know that Cheez Its do NOT enhance the flavor of a fine cigar, nor does the cigar do anything good for the Cheez Its.
The next morning I slept in, made coffee and a huge pile of bacon and eggs while my neighbors squatted in the dirt and ate granola bars. (By the way: to all the parents of Sasquatch-going young adult children: your kids spend ALL their time either taking drugs, planning to take drugs, or talking about the time they took all those drugs. Unless you are my Mom and Dad, I can assure you that every one of your kids was high all weekend long, except for the really drunk guys, some of whom were too drunk to make it from the campground to the amphitheater before the day even started.)
On the subject of being really high all the time, why are people still trying to sell weed to each other at festivals in Washington State? I don’t try to sell gasoline door to door, because gas stations do that. It not really a person to person transaction.
Although my neighbors were generally pretty quiet and mellow (high), there was an…incident. For some reason they spontaneously launched into singing Smashmouth, not along with a stereo or anything, just totally acapella. I knew that I could, by any code of decency, kill them without repercussions, and I was just about to, when the singing ended and their actual stereo started playing “Rainbow Connection.” Turns out it’s pretty much impossible to commit murder with Kermit the Frog singing in the background.
Saturday was kind of a mystery day. Not a lot of bands I was dying to see, plus the foreboding weight of knowing that at the end of the day I would be fulfilling my promise to my kids to stay for 21 Pilots and watch their performance with an open mind.
Katie Kate’s Sasquatch bio claims that she “channels her quirky, emotive lyrics through the lenses of hip hop, new wave, black metal and top 40.” I wanted to hear someone named “Katie Kate” play anything like black metal, but to be honest I didn’t hear it. She was able to zoom back and forth between bunches of musical styles with impressive agility, particularly switching gears from r&b pop to snarly rap. No metal, but that’s OK, we all pad our resumes a little bit.
Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley sounds a little like Bob Dylan. I’m sorry, I hear it annoys him or at least it’s a lazy comparison, but it’s in the room and we can’t deny it, so let’s move on. To me Blitzen Trapper also sounded a little like a country rock Dire Straits. Hear that, actual rock journalists? I can make up my own lazy comparisons! I don’t need you anymore!
The Sasquatch PR monkeys dressed up the smaller lineup as “less overlap,” because at a big expensive festival the LAST thing you want to do is expose yourself to a huge variety of music that you might not otherwise hear. I ended up not minding it as much as I thought, because at heart I am an easily confused old man with massive ADHD and sometimes it’s just too much to choose. The downside is losing the age old tradition of The Agonizing Choice. Choosing between a band you’ve loved forever and a band that everyone you know grabs you by the collar and demands that you see because you’re going to love them even more than the other band: that’s The Agonizing Choice. Sasquatch has largely done away with it, but a less earthshaking example: Fred Armisen, the Portlandia guy, vs. Sir Mix-A-Lot, the big butt guy. I know, it’s not Beatles v. Zeppelin but still, I like both very much.
I wandered into the comedy/rave tent in time for Q&A with Fred. Q&A as a comedy crutch annoys the crap out of me, I was surprised to discover, so on to big butts! FTR, I’m well aware that Mr. A-Lot is more than “Baby’s Got Back”; I’m a born and raised local so step off, man. After Mix the rap was still strong in me, so I went to see why my brain was telling me not to miss Sam Lachow, but not telling me why. It’s because Sam Lachow is a goddamn local hip hop treasure, that’s why.
I wandered aimlessly for a bit, loaded up on free cheese and lemon cookies in the media lounge, and found a good old man sittin’ spot that happened to have MGMT playing in front of it. I like MGMT, although I spent a lot of time saying to myself “I like this song, but I thought someone else sang it”. Then, as has happened at more than one Sasquatch and has always been a precursor to a good time, my attention was caught by the distant sound of saxophones. In this case I was hearing the sound check for Vulfpeck, a funk band from LA made up of studio guys from something called Vulf Records, which I’m not totally sure is a real label. These were the nerdiest white guys playing the most badass funk anywhere in rural eastern Washington. I’m probably not particularly qualified to crack wise about funk, but I know the crap out of nerdy white guys and it was a pleasant eye opening surprise to see my pasty brothers representing us so well in the field of funking.
I promised my kids that I’d review 21 Pilots with an open mind. Like a lot of things I promise my kids, I was lying. (“You can be anything you set your mind to!” “Of course there’s college money for you!”) But I went, and I went from being someone who really couldn’t give two craps about 21 Pilots to still not giving the 2 craps but admitting that a good show is a good show. The median age dropped by about 10 years which was weird and made me even more of a decrepit mummy. Were there lasers? Yes there were. Were there wacky videos of drum battles between a cartoon and the actual 21 Pilots drummer? Of course there were. Did singer Tyler Joseph surf the crowd in a giant red hamster ball? Of course he did! A bunch of roadies brought a portable platform with a drum kit on it, I assume to parade drummer Josh Dun around the crowd until the teenage girls ate him, but it didn’t really happen. I can’t remember a single second of the music or even what songs they played but they didn’t hold anything back show-wise, and I can appreciate that.
I went by the rave/comedy tent for Bomba Estereo (which I realized was where all the non-pasty people went during 21 Pilots) Midnight is a tough time to lure an old guy into a tent to hear Columbian techno, so I didn’t last too long.
My Sunday stint at Sasquatch 2017 was abbreviated, but I still felt pretty good about myself. After all, in years past I didn’t even make it TO the last day. Sunday was HOT, like 90 degrees hot. I tried to whine about it, but Chicano Batman (the best band name of the weekend) played sweet laid back70’s inspired soul while dressed in spiffy matching tuxedos and bowties, which made me feel like quite the weenie for bitching about the heat. It didn’t stop me though.
Car Seat Headrest (the worst band name of the weekend) is a great band comprised of shockingly young gentlemen. Like writing songs on the school bus young. (I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I did hear that they had to take the bus to their show at the Capitol Hill Block Party because none of their parents could drive them. (Is that adorable or what?)) Anyway, CSHR songs show a lot of depth and variety of sounds, and it was a great set. A few more big shows and they’re going to be unstoppable.
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be around for Chance the Rapper, because while he came highly recommended by people who know about such things, I couldn’t realistically say that seeing Chance would be worth falling asleep on the drive home and dying in a ravine, which I almost definitely would have done.
For the Shins, I was willing to take the chance. James Mercer writes such pretty songs, it should have wrecked the band when he fired everybody and started over, but frankly it didn’t. I feel strongly that “Phantom Limb” is one of the finest pop songs ever written, and hearing it here, on a hot summer night, right about sunset was pretty much a perfect cap to a surprisingly fine weekend. I fired up CVB and had an unusually uneventful drive home.