THING! Festival Recap
August 24-25, 2019
Fort Worden, Port Townsend, Wash.
Recap by Andy Bookwalter
Photos by Rachel Bennett
The tap tap tap on the window came seconds after I parked Camper Van Bookwalter (my outdoor music festival camper) on a lonely road in “uptown Port Townsend” on Friday, Aug. 23. This wasn’t surprising; the locals seemed a little uneasy about the flood of tourists descending on their blue collar, totally unpretentious, non-touristy town. (Just kidding, downtown PT is a ye olde hippie shopping mall where you can buy yarn, pirate supplies, and nautical art but God help you if you need toothpaste. Trust me on that.)
Anyway, the window tapper was right to be concerned because I looked very much like an artisan meth chef moving in right next to their P-Patch. They weren’t thrilled when I explained that I had the permission of a friend of a friend to park there without getting hassled by the man. For the record, I was parking on a public, taxpayer supported city street, I wasn’t driving over their green beans or anything. Still, I live in a neighborhood that doubles as an RV park, and I know very well how it feels when a stranger pulls up in a big meth-y looking RV. Having the name of the adjacent property owner was by no means necessary, but it seemed to at least give me a reason to be there.
After a shockingly-dark stroll to a grocery store for ice and Cheez-its (during which I walked close enough to graveyard shift deer that I could have totally punched one in the face, but of course didn’t) I went to bed, dreaming of psycho killers on lonely country roads.
Day 1: On Saturday morning I rode my bike downtown to shop for yarn and pirate vests. I killed a couple of hours being charmed, then rode the two miles (that somehow included about 5000 feet of elevation gain) to Fort Worden, home of the all-new THING! Festival. Plan A was to see Caspar Babypants as soon as I got through the gate. Plan Actual was to wander around lost, trying to find stages that didn’t exist in the woods, because I was still for no good reason in Sasquatch mode, and there are no indoor stages at The Gorge. It turns out the Wheeler Theater stage was too small for everything they booked in there anyway, or at least the line to get in made it look that way, so I never did make it in. The 800 strollers parked outside for Caspar made it abundantly clear who was running things inside, and I didn’t want trouble.
Instead, I took one for the team and saw Icelandic music, on purpose. I crack wise about Iceland music A LOT, so I thought I knew what to expect: caterwauling about the coming of the winter winds and enough arty earnestness to choke a reindeer. What I actually got from Junius Meyvant was wonderful sweet, sweet soul from a guy who looked a lot like a young Allman Brother and was accompanied by horns and a pregnant saxophone player that looked like she could have given birth right there on stage.
I knew I wanted to see Orville Peck, so in between Junius and Orville I planted myself in the grass while Makaya McCraven jazz drummed at us. He sounded great; I wish I’d had more time to soak it in.
The four things I knew about Orville Peck before his set: 1) he’s on SubPop, 2) he’s probably Canadian, 3) he’s a gay country singer, and 4) he wears beaded veils on his face for some reason. Weird enough for me! There was enough buzz about him to fill the McCurdy Pavilion, an indoor stage that used to be used for zeppelin storage (blimps, not Led). Peck and his band came out clad in full on western troubadour wear and delivered a stunning, heartbreaking, foot stomping set that was so beautifully subversive and subversively beautiful that I’m still dwelling on it a week later. I’ve seen Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Jesse Dayton, and a lot of other huge names in country music, but Peck blew them all away. Imagine a Bakersfield country Elvis, but he loves drag queens. At the end of his set came one of those weird festival moments when a band has converted a whole crowd. At the start of his last song the entire audience, which had been seated because that’s how the pavilion was set up, suddenly and simultaneously realized “Hey, we can all jump up and rush the stage and hoot and holler and dance like idiots because this guy deserves it!”
Spoiler alert for the remainder of this recap: Orville Peck won Thing hands down, and the festival from then on was divided into “those who saw Orville Peck” and “those who wish they’d seen Orville Peck.”
I like Kurt Vile and I tried to be in a Kurt Vile mood on but I just wasn’t feeling it. Not his fault, I think Orville wrecked me for music for a couple of hours. I did love Parquet Courts, a little punk bombast in the grass along with won ton tacos and deep fried Brussel sprouts put me back in music mode. (A quick note on the food: I know that the Gorge probably forced Sasquatch to sell terrible Gorge food. Fort Worden does not, so the food trucks parked by the Littlefield Green stage served up great dinner. Not cheap food, it’s still a festival after all, but well done!) Parquet Courts referred to playing “in the woods” so many times that it became obvious that they had no idea where they were. A common problem for the touring band, especially the touring band from Brooklyn, where there are no woods. They did reference Woodstock, which is technically out of doors but still pretty east coast as a reference. For the record, not knowing what state they were in didn’t affect the quality of the rock dispensed by them.
The Littlefield Green stage grounds were roughly the size of a small softball field. When Parquet Courts wrapped up and I thought about wandering in to the pavilion to see John C. Reilly and Friends I realized that the line to get in wrapped all the way around the field like a human outfield fence. There was no way I was getting in there, so I took in the Night Market, which oddly was also open during the day, and wandered down to the beach, which was right behind the Parade Ground main stage. (There was a huge space on the parade ground between the two stage areas where you could hang out without a wristband and even get a decent view of the main stage; I would guess that this was a nod to PT residents who didn’t want to buy expensive tickets but were still impacted by the hordes of Seattle hipsters washing over their quaint seaside tourist boutiques, demanding White Claw and ironic food.)
It was getting cold and I was woefully unprepared, so I accidentally picked the route back to CVB with the steepest possible hills and headed back, in theory just to grab a sweatshirt. In practice I got way too comfortable, so De La Soul had to go on without me. I could hear it from home base and it sounded like they did just fine. That night the wind got crazy (and threatened to shut down the main stage for a while) but I rode it out in comfort.
Day 1 results:
- First place: Orville Peck in a landslide
- Second place: Junius Meyvant tied with the Brussel sprouts from Wonton Tacos
- Third place: Parquet Courts
Day 2: I ate a light breakfast of Top Pot Doughnuts and a bag of grapes rather than my customary tremendous pile of pork products and eggs. I had to keep it light for all the reporting I was going to be doing. Full disclosure: in violation of Seattle City law, prior to THING! I had never seen the Black Tones live. Now that I have done so, I can confidently say: you should go see the Black Tones (#41for2017) live. Do it right now if you can. Sister and brother Eva and Cedric Walker are a force, and Eva is a natural and funny frontwoman (her night job is hosting Audioasis, the all local music show on KEXP). Their kind-of-blues, kind-of-punk sound is great on record and phenomenal live. They are nothing at all like math punk or NoMeansNo, but they make similar use of the spaces between the notes in a really cool way that works a lot better in person. They also brought their mom and sister up for backup vocal and tambourine duties, which was adorable and awesome.
Again I failed to get into the Wheeler Theater stage for Caspar Babypants. I think that’s when I quit trying. I did catch Giants in the Trees over on the Parade Grounds stage, which includes giant tree like bass and accordion player Krist Novocelic. They were just fine. The guitarist who was even older than me played lap steel and cigar box guitar, so that was pretty cool. I think I expected more of a rural Americana thing and it was maybe a little more pop than I had been led to believe, but it was just fine on a summer day in the big field.
I was told more than once that Sudan Archives was the Sunday show not to miss. Word on the street is that her mix of EDM, funk, and folk, played on violin was phenomenal. I missed it, but no bother: I was excited for Tank and the Bangas, I’d seen a small piece of their excellent set at Sasquatch last year and it included one of two flute solos I heard in that one fine day. They put on a bitchin’ show of funk and soul and rock (but regrettably no flute). Tank tied for second with the Black Tones for day two honors, and it was a close tie.
Stephen Tobolowsky has been a character actor for about a million years. He’s hosted The Tobolowsky Files for almost that long, a radio show in which he tells stories about Hollywood and screenwriting and other things that I don’t care about even a little bit, but I always enjoy because Toblowsky’s such a phenomenal storyteller. KUOW used to air his show in the Sunday afternoon dead zone in between the terrible “Prairie Home Companion” and the eight even more terrible NPR smug game shows, but that was a while ago. Stephen told cautionary tales about not becoming a screenwriter. Message received!
Khruangbin (it’s pronounced “Kroong-bin,” BTW, and it’s Thai for airplane) played during my old man sitting session and they sounded great. Their sound is a super smooth sort of retro funk inspired by 70’s Persian rock and Thai soul, which went great with the big pork flatbread sandwich I was spilling all over myself.
Jeff Tweedy, like Kurt Vile the day before, was no doubt great, but didn’t match my mood. I was preoccupied with ferry schedules and getting home in time to go back to work and unable to pay the attention that Mr. Tweedy deserved. My problem, not his. He will always be awesome for being part of Uncle Tupelo, not to mention Wilco.
Violent Femmes, on the other hand, are not to be missed regardless of mood. Hallowed Ground, as I’ve mentioned before, is on my short list of perfect records from start to finish. I’ve always loved them and I always will. They didn’t hold back an ounce at THING! Either, it was a neat and perfect show and because I had to work early on Monday it was a fantastic end to the first-ever THING! Festival.
Day 2 results:
- First place: Violent Femmes
- Second place (tie): The Black Tones and Tank. The Black Tones probably slighted edged out Tank for being an emerging local treasure.
Thing year one was remarkably well put together. According to my sources Port Townsend was unsure of how it could handle the onslaught of hipsters and festival weirdos, but for a festival location it is hopelessly charming and beautiful and every time I go I want to retire there and open a yarn shop of my own. Thing had to pacify locals who didn’t necessarily want a Thing in their back yards. The layout of the stages to let non-ticketholders catch some of the action was a stroke of genius, whether or not it was intentional. It would have been way easier to just lock down Fort Worden for the weekend and keep the riffraff outside the gates. That’s an advantage that the Gorge has, although out there it’s more a matter of geography and remoteness that keeps the riffraff out. Also, I appreciate that you can set your watch to the schedule. (Watches were things that we used to wear on our wrists to tell us what time is was. Kind of like a phone that doesn’t make calls or connect to the internet or have games or do anything but tell the time) It’s no surprise that Adam Zack knows how to put on a festival, and Port Townsend and Fort Worden are tricky in ways that The Gorge is not, but it all worked great. Looking forward to mooching for years to come.
As per usual, Rachel captured oodles of amazing photos throughout the weekend. Below are some of my favorites and you can see a whole bunch more in the THING! Festival album on our Flickr page.