Features | Festivals

2010 Sasquatch! Music Festival

By Dom Sinacola | 15 June 2010

The 2010 Sasquatch! Music Festival inhabited Memorial Day weekend, and from there, with gleaming pride, it declared itself an American institution: Now the season of festivals can begin, Country; Now you can safely venture into the wilderness with egos intact and consciences clear. Strung up before the Columbia River Gorge like Andromeda waiting for the Kraken, wind-beaten and sunburned, it is the first sacrifice to the Olympians of Live Nation; to the behemoth indie bands of yore, now reunited or off hiatus, emerging from the underground’s deepest trenches; to James Murphy, now Baldwin fat. These monsters are the harbingers of this Summer Festival Season, and from here they will lope over this land in strides as efficient as the dissemination of so much “Best New Music.” Sasquatch! (hollered) is only the beginning.

Sasquatch! promotes itself as a spectacle: from the infectious name and brazen punctuation to the venue’s incomprehensible vista, everything about the festival’s identity has been denuded in favor of an all-encompassing hugeness. It’s the kind of outdoor music festival to which every other similar outdoor music festival aspires; it scoffs in Coachella’s stupid face.

Genre, ethnicity, region, gender, sexual persuasion—nothing has any bearing on Sasquatch! as a cultural event. Issues raised last year stayed issues in 2010: hip-hop was grossly underrepresented; dance music was functionally relegated to a small tent where access was limited; regional triumphalism was almost totally abandoned, except for the presence of the venue, which had no choice but to stay put. And sometimes a touch of chauvinism is needed to separate one hedonistic outdoor camping music festival from another, amiright?

Though the Gorge Amphitheater is itself Sasquatch!’s greatest draw—teetering, like I said, over the magnificent Columbia River Gorge (in George, Washington, font from which a good twenty minutes of puns geyser)—the festival lineup offered little to distinguish it from any other festival lineups awaiting throngs of intoxicated Americans this summer…save the feat of attracting thousands upon thousands of urban white people to the high desert in the middle of nowhere to see a reunited, revered indie rock band never really known for being an exceptional live act anyway. With fucking parasailers in the periphery.

It was Stephen Malkmus’s birthday and his family was all there—two more things that had no bearing on Pavement’s reception. The nothing-specialness of the event survived even a riotous “Happy Birthday” singalong, and soon after Pavement entered from stage right as nonchalantly as one could expect, just a tiny mess of haggard stick figures in various stages of slouch, like an evolutionary diagram of a Starbucks manager. Far from an upheaval of every fantasy I’d ever harbored about Pavement, their set unfurled exactly as I thought it would; meaning: roughly, antagonistically, passively at times and pointlessly weird at others, totally at odds with the festival and the corollary spectacle to which the band owed their vaunted status. They played whatever amounted to a hit; they held court with some aimless banter but mostly bounded from song to song without pause; they brought a small, ginger child on stage to play keyboards—the child was hugged and complimented for his effort. Whatever I knew about Pavement before I saw Pavement play went unchanged after I saw Pavement play. Which I thought was pretty great.

And since I watched the band from high enough on the hill surrounding the Gorge’s main stage to be able to watch them as a group dwarfed hilariously by the grandeur of the scenery behind them, the momentous notion of me, with my brain, watching Pavement eventually just seemed silly. When people who looked young and annoyed enough to be my little sister, incapable of understanding why anyone could think this music so special and almost upset by the notion, stood and climbed the hill the hell away from there to go get them some Dirty Projectors, I blithely sympathized and then went back to giggling or maybe eating a peanut butter granola bar or something. When early in the set some unknowable something went wrong and it took three pissed off, awkward tries to get more than ten bars into “Rattled By the Rush,” I wondered if the me who, only days before, hadn’t seen Pavement would have imagined that something like twice fucking up “Rattled By the Rush” would happen when eventually I did see them. Why wouldn’t it? And why shouldn’t they play “Summer Babe,” “Gold Soundz,” or “Range Life”?

Once I was far enough along in abusing my brain to guiltlessly abnegate all responsibility for thorough and timely coverage to other media outlets with enough money to cover their journalists’ travel expenses and accommodations (journalists that used the media area for more than just a semi-clean toilet), I began to accept and appreciate the simple pattern to which Sasquatch! prescribed. Which went a little something like this:

Every notion, opinion, and feeling I had about a band before seeing the band live at Sasquatch! remained fundamentally identical to every notion, opinion, and feeling I had about the band after seeing the band live at Sasquatch! In the few cases where I was totally unfamiliar with a band, as in during Local Natives and the Long Winters, I was able to cobble together enough of an impression from the hastily written Sasquatch! pamphlet to be able to decide whether or not my shit would get sufficiently wrecked. The Long Winters are a Seattle recording project care of Harvey Danger’s own Sean Nelson and John Roderick (with help from Chris Walla) who were signed to Barsuk and are now releasing a new album, sometime soon, after four years, most of which was spent touring—eh, Sasquatch!? Local Natives are popular in L.A. and made a splash at SXSW and will “bash their way into [my] soul” with “sky-scraping harmonies, dreamy orchestral melodies, and throbbing tribal beats”—issat right, Sasquatch!? And in the aftermath of each set, my shit went unmoved: Local Natives made even a Talking Heads cover boring; the Long Winters made ebullient sad-bastard pop in the vein of John Vanderslice’s best, and Roderick was affable, praising MusiCares and how they helped him get his braces, each bracket on each tooth twenty feet tall twinkling mightily from the jumbo screens bookending the main stage.

Next to each screen was a six-story cartoon of a grinning, orange Bigfoot stepping around the Space Needle, hiply styled halfway between a Tartakovsky sketch and a creepy costume from Yo Gabba Gabba!. The perfect amalgamation of fodder for a mushroom trip and hipster chic, sure, but what concerned me most was how readily the festival was to squander the singularity of its location—the hood ornament at the foremost spot on God’s luxury Cadillac—and instead paint its character and its appeal in the safest strokes possible. As far as the crowd was concerned, Portland isn’t that much further than Seattle, and just as many strains of music present at Sasquatch! came from elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest besides Seattle, let alone from all over the world. Why not have the furry mascot hurdling the Clifton Suspension Bridge, or hanging from the Arc de Triomphe, or sliding down the Pyramids, carrot-colored butthole first? Cultural cues pinged and zipped from the walls of the gorge and collided amongst the sweaty, hallucinating masses, seemingly focusless and placeless, leaving only: Sasquatch! is big; Sasquatch! is all.

Good thing then that Kevin Drew came out on stage, achieving the sort of audience and playing the sort of venue it’s clear he always imagined for his band. In my mind, what’s so astoundingly bad about this year’s Forgiveness Rock Record isn’t that it lacks any trace of melody or that it simply mistakes long song structures for interesting ones, it’s that it’s the final testament to a band completely abandoning everything that made them so wonderful before. Instead of writing music and playing shows as if the very fiber of the music were going to burst, contained so tightly within small clubs and small labels, all these writhing hypersexed bodies trying their damnedest to restrain the music, Drew is now making stadium music for stadium shows, jingling the shiny keys to the Indie Rock Kingdom in front of every braying peon/fan. Did the sun emerge from the towering clouds and pay witness? Of course it fucking did. And the crowd cheered as if Drew had willed it.

Still, my feelings for Broken Social Scene now, as I recall getting up from the grass and wandering off to find beer, are as they were before the band even swarmed on stage. And I’m sure the opposite’s true: if you happened to like Rock Record and found it a positive step forward for a band at the height of their powers, then you’d have probably enjoyed their set, charmed to mushy bits by a Drew as confident as you’d ever remembered.

And I’m sure the same’s true, on both ends, for Vampire Weekend: for a band best enjoyed in a vacuum, they never acknowledged the bloated, doting crowd, nor the venue and how cool the occasion was, just played a bunch of superbly executed pop ditties and shimmied inside the straight-lined limning of business casual outfits of which I’m very jealous. And the same’s true for the National, for Tegan & Sara, and Nurses, and Public Enemy, and LCD Soundsystem, and every other band there I caught half-views and nibbles of. The National sounded pristine, played expertly, as did Tegan and Sara, as did Nurses; they would have sounded even better in a more intimate venue, removed from the majesty of the panorama surrounding them to create their own majesty within a small theater, between walls of peeling wallpaper, testing some new material while the audience can study their reactions without the help of a TV more expensive than the car that got them there.

James Murphy stammered through what I guess could qualify as addressing the audience, and then him and his enormously talented band played their nine-minute songs and the audience swelled, eating that shit up. I somehow doubt the audience really cared about the music so much as the canyon-spanning rhythm that carried them through an hour they so obviously wanted to spend dancing, but Murphy owned that stage, energy for his athletic music coming from God knows where. And as one nine-minute song turned gracefully into another, I had the same thought I always have every time I try to listen to This Is Happening: I want to like this, but I don’t want to hear this beat or this voice anymore.

So perhaps the only surprise Sasquatch! had in store was thrown at me like a damp banana peel, and it came in the guise of one Flavor Flav, the self-appointed Greatest Reality TV Star in the History of Reality TV. This we learned only a few minutes after Chuck D called Arizona Nazi Germany and Flav was given a wide berth to pound at the band’s drum kit like an eight-year-old on Extreme Makeover Home Edition finding a new set in his new room wedged next to the racecar bed, Chuck D nodding in the shadows stage right, our own twisted Ty Pennington. I had gone in fully expecting Flav to just lug his stupid, weird body back and forth across the stage, generally staying out of Chuck’s way, but I was flabbergasted to see how aggressively Chuck egged the guy on. At the end of the night, Chuck explained how they normally play four hour sets and had to cut it back to one, but then he still gave Flav a few songs in which to mostly mumble along a prerecorded vocal track and then a block of time at the end, upon Flav’s insistence, to thank us for crowning him Your Royal Reality Highness and to get us to all give Racism the middle finger. And you know what I did, surprised to my core that Chuck D calls Arizona Nazi Germany and still encourages the twit with large clock and Viking helmet to mercilessly do what he does? I gave Racism the fucking middle finger.

***

Almost two weeks later, as my sunburn’s finally a few flakes from fully disappearing, I wonder why I couldn’t and didn’t just enjoy Sasquatch! for what it was: a lot of great live music centralized in one gorgeous place with the added bonus of providing prime real estate for getting fucked up with little to no social consequence. Isn’t that why I started going to festivals in the first place?

Maybe if it was cheaper. A discount three-day pass is $170, ballooning to $70 per day if purchased separately prior to May 24, and then $80/day if purchased in the four days before the festival’s first Saturday—chock up another $6/day if you up and take a chance on copping a ticket the day of. Tack on $50-150 for gas (if you live within a five-hour radius), $50-$60 bucks for food and drink to bring in, and then $105 for camping, $160 if you want premiere camping, which you probably will if you dislike the following: feces, rotting garbage, paying $105 to sleep on the ground next to feces and rotting garbage.

$105 is not the price to camp; Sasquatch! does not require camping. Sasquatch! requires survival—and not in any noble vein, wherein a steel resolve unearths one’s deepest ideals and most humanistic strengths. No, Sasquatch! is hair-of-the-dog, is bottom-of-the-barrel-shooting-fish, is victory at its most Pyrrhic: simply persevering through pain to self-inflict more. Sasquatch! requires sleeping on the ground on a vast field devoid of any shade next to thousands of loud, unerringly stupid white kids four tabs deep into their first acid trip and a beer away from alcohol poisoning. This isn’t camping, it’s fringe living, exhausting and entirely meaningless given values that usually accompany what I’d refer to as actual camping, like respect, isolation, physical sensitivity, and then intoxication as a reward, not as some sort of prelapsarian right. $105 is the price of a 20’ x 7’ patch of spiny desert grass; it is also the price of 8.75 20-oz Molson Canadians.

So one ultra-tall-boy of Molson is $12; one tall boy of PBR is $9; this is the best beer one can hope to buy at Sasquatch, inside the venue, at least if one doesn’t want to pay to get into the tented lounge area replete with XBox 360s and cocktails and, probably, some semblance of better beer. Abandon all hope ye who enter with ye own libations: relaxed with pretty much every other behavior and activity, Sasquatch! personnel roamed the grounds ruthlessly fingering and then confiscating “outside” alcohol with frightening diligence. And, granted, I can understand the fundamental value of this, of trying to curb rampant, dangerous alcoholism by developing some sort of control over what the audience is consuming, but, really, nothing was mitigated. Why oh why, Sasquatch!, won’t you let me get a good drunk on?

And maybe if sanitation was better, if recycling and respecting the venue was encouraged, I’d have less of a reason to sound so negative. If, when leaving the Rumpus Room tent where people were kerned to within an inch of their lives to see the Very Best, I hadn’t suddenly realized that, as the sun was descending, the whole of the Gorge Amphitheater was covered in garbage, I wouldn’t have cursed the crowd so angrily—the crowd at Sasquatch!, that’s the terrible –ism we should be flicking off, Flav—wondering why so many people would go all the way to George, Washington to help, in his or her own little way, make it uglier than when they first got there. Maybe if the Holy Steady hadn’t sucked. Maybe if Craig Finn went back to not singing. Maybe if grease-saturated chicken fingers and semi-cooked fries weren’t $9 and tasted worse than they looked. Maybe if we were given bags for recycling as we entered the campgrounds; maybe if we were given a place to drop those bags when we left and not left to decide between just throwing it all away or carrying bags of sticky, reeking cans and bottles for at least an hour in our already stinking car until we found civilization. Maybe I’d have liked Sasquatch! better if the only thing that actually changed throughout the two days wasn’t how much I enjoyed being inside the Gorge Amphitheater with tens of thousands of other people sharing this trying, self-destructive weekend experience.

I’m not even sure whom to hold responsible; what’s the hierarchy in this triangle between Sasquatch! directors and Live Nation and the Gorge Amphitheater? Who hires the food and drink vendors? Who runs the campground? Who did I talk to when I received my press credentials? Who decides what the character of Sasquatch! should be? Who crafts its personality?

No matter: Sasquatch! is a perfect reminder of where festivals of its scope and practice have come—both as a bastion of popular taste and as a haven for escape from the popular American landscape. That it harbors no particular agenda but putting on one indulgent three-day spectacle shouldn’t serve as a surprise to anyone who’s ever been to an American outdoor camping music festival. And I’m not one to bemoan a good spectacle—I did see Clash of the Titans in 3D after all, and that movie is practically inexcusable as something to endure with one’s eyeballs. Perhaps I’m just slow to accept a dying breed of music festival, the one I saw the last of in the eyes of the hippie at the Bonnaroo where Radiohead marked the end of all that is now extinct—at least in festivals of Bonnaroo’s and Sasquatch!’s size. I mourn a music festival with purpose besides reaffirming opinion and providing one more stop in an up-and-coming band’s new album tour. I lament the loss of idiosyncratic lineups, of Intonation, of brain cells I spent. I wish I had slept with more people in college; I wish I had done more drugs, drank more, traveled more. I wish Sasquatch! actually celebrated the Pacific Northwest with more than a showcase for a perfect, American landscape. I wish I didn’t feel like I had to suffer the death of something bigger, louder, and more talked-about than ever.