A three-hour drive from Seattle, Washington, up over the Cascade Mountains and through at least three ecosystems (oceanic to tundra to desert), is the Columbia River Gorge, a gigantic canyon around one of America's biggest rivers, formed by a cataclysmic flood at the end of the last ice age. It looks like a nuclear bomb exploded here -- it's a violent crater of twisted, mangled land in the middle of the desert. And it's where 70,000 folks gathered for the eighth annual Sasquatch Music and Arts Festival Memorial Day weekend.
(For a photo gallery of the event, click here.)
Headlining the show? The view. It's what everyone is talking about. Or, in Karen O's case, would be talking about -- if she wasn't too awestruck to utter a sentence.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer is backstage, clenching a chain link fence and looking out over a 200-foot cliff at a vast plateau, which then drops some 400 more feet to the river. She mouths "WOW," and stands solemnly, enjoying the scenery. The sun is setting, the beer is free, the food is good (and free), and the vibe at the Yurt, the circular backstage tent where most artists have gathered to booze and cavort, is friendly.
Zach Galifianakis and the boys from King Khan are posing for photos at the edge of the abyss. Seth Kasper, the drummer from Wild Light, who's sitting on picnic table pounding beers, is boggled: "Dude, this is fucking crazy. Seriously, what the fuck is this place?" YYYs guitarist Nick Zinner, holding a quickly-melting chocolate ice cream cone as his Sonic the Hedgehog-like 'fro wobbles about, looks confused.
He's forgiven. It's a odd collection of folk -- over the weekend Dave Navarro will walk around shirtless (does he even own shirts?), Etty Lau Farrell (Perry's wife) will sip white wine with her girlfriends, Jane's drummer Stephen Perkins will chat with TVOTR sticksman Jaleel Bunton, Trent Reznor will stomp past en route to his bus (presumably to continue Tweeting), and Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold and Grizzly Bear's Ed Droste will hold what appeared to be one very intense conversation.
And the backdrop is ridiculous.
But what's a view without an apt soundtrack? Sasquatch had a pick-your-poison selection for your party at the edge of the earth. And really, if this is to be the site of the Armageddon, as one can certainly begin to think when gazing into the frightening chasm, Kings of Leon want people to remember them in the afterlife.
Frontman Caleb Followill has made it okay for critics from the Northwest music scene -- the DIY, K Records-lovin' peeps with highfalutin tastes -- to scream "your sex is on fire" with 20,000 other people as four dudes who look like models for Wal-Mart's latest "hip" clothing line rock onstage. These Southern kin are THE American band. Their Saturday night set was tight, nearly two hours, and showed a band at their best. "This is the end of our tour, so we're gonna let loose a little for ya," said Caleb. The girls swooned. The dudes sort of wanted to, too.
And that was just the first night. Here are eight more highlights from Sasquatch '09:
Yeah Yeah Yeahs:
Karen O jumped and bounced around the main stage like a kindergartener during recess. Her '80s-inspired gown -- speckled with brightly-colored shapes -- flapped about as she circled the stage, winked and smiled for the crowd, and spat "you're a zeeeeeerrrrrrrrooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!" like a possessed 5-year-old. Zinner, ever the straight-faced serious guy, even shook his head and smirked at Karen's wild antics.
If this is indeed Nine Inch Nails final tour, it's sad, sad, sad, sad thing -- this band puts on a spectacular show. Trent Reznor commands his mic stand like it's a freakin' boa constrictor trying to strangle him, while guitarist Robin Finck stomps around the stage in big black boots, jerking his part-shaved, part-ponytailed head around like he's being electrocuted. The band members look like extras from Waterworld. And when the menacing drums and static-y bass of "March of the Pigs" kicked in, it felt like they were chasing you on a Jet Ski armed with machine guns.
Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon's shrill whimper and acoustic ditties about lost love have certainly found many a fan in the indie rock community. But it's the electric cuts he busted out Friday night that had Sasquatch talkin'. With Vernon manning the axe and a steady wind whipping his long hair into the air, the band livened-up tracks off For Emma, Forever Ago and the newer Blood Bank EP with pissy angst -- their delicate Nick Drake-like sound turned all Crazy Horse on us. Let's hope they keep it up.
Like MGMT? How about CSS or the Klaxons? Well, meet your new favorite band: Portland, OR's Hockey. These youngsters' Sunday afternoon set on the festival's smaller "Wookie" stage showcased dance-tastic funk with bright synths, Kool and the Gang bass, and frontman Benjamin Grubin's sly croon. Get to know these guys -- they'll be around a while.
The psychedelic crazies put on one hell of a visual spectacle -- they dressed up in animal costumes, multi-colored capes, and headdresses, and played before a huge overhead screen, which showed images of everything from tigers to rotary telephones to lipless women. But their cover of Prince's "Computer Blue" was the real standout. Frontman Kevin Barnes barked the lyrics about the Purple One's love life, bounced along to the rhythms, and shredded through the tune's crunchy, fuzzy riffs, leading the band in the song's many twists and turns. Forget the visuals, this was without a doubt the trippiest moment.
Their Sasquatch set in '08 was gorgeous, and a year later, even without new music to showcase, their show was just as impressive, if not more so. Frontman Robin Pecknold, who usually sits in a chair while performing, even took the opportunity to stand. His voice was spot-on and the band handled their instruments with the comfy confidence of old time rockers. Pastoral, folky music, plus the stench of weed smoke, plus a gigantic, mountain vista with rivers, cliffs, and a glowing skyline equals perfection. Eat it up hippies.
"Really, it's not you. It's me." Brooklyn's waif guitar virtuoso St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, was apologizing to the crowd. It was her fourth attempt to start "Marry Me," and she's already instructed her fans to clap in 2/4-time, asked them to stop, then started the song by herself, but stopped because she "was playing just wayyyyy too fast." She's determined to get it right. "Okay, okay, okay, here it goes. I'll get it this time, then you guys start clapping." Everything the girl does -- even her onstage fuck ups -- are cute. She's the Tinkerbell of indie rock.
She was the lineup's odd one out. And by the time she took the stage late on Monday night, the crowd on the hillside looked to be about half what it was the night before. But that didn't stop Badu, whose smoky cool on tracks like "On and On" was a treat to those who stuck around. Also, props go to her crack band, which included jazz guitar and four backup singers. Their swagger got the remaining concertgoers dancing -- including a dreadlocked girl who spun in a glow-in-the-dark hula-hoop for the entire set.