If that island in Lost ever played host to a music festival, it might turn out something like Sasquatch. As one sits and watches bands from a perch on an unnaturally stunning rock face, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, it’s as if nothing exists between yourself and the edge of the universe but whatever music’s emanating from that glowing chasm of a main stage.
And, like that island, once you get there, the festival gives you some pretty compelling reasons to stick around — including a monster, albeit a cute, red-haired one (the festival mascot), not a scary, homicidal plume of black smoke. Sure, there’s the flabbergasting scenery — loved the child-of-band-member who asked his mommy if what he was seeing was actually real — that draws a sold-out crowd of 50,000-plus to the site, two hours southeast of Seattle at the Gorge Amphitheater.
But it’s all about the lineup, jam-packed with mostly indie faves — a testament to the perennial viability of boundary-pushing music in the Pacific Northwest. And while this year’s festival also featured another MGMT victory lap (amazingly, the crowd sang the synth hook to “Kids” a cappella) and solid, hit-filled sets from My Morning Jacket, Passion Pit, and New Pornographers, these were our fondest memories from Sasquatch 2010, the ones that will make up our festival flashbacks for years to come.
BEHOLD THE VICTORS: VAMPIRE WEEKEND
At the sold-out Sasquatch, bands holding down the headliner spots haven’t necessarily turned out to be the biggest draws. Sure, My Morning Jacket played to a mostly packed house on Saturday, and Massive Attack was overwhelmingly solid on Sunday despite a not-so-full amphitheater floor, but the band drawing the most populous, most stoked, most deserved gathering was unquestionably Vampire Weekend.
And why should anyone be surprised? Contra, their sophomore album, debuted at No. 1 on the charts, and their clean-cut trop-pop is one of the most undeniable sounds of the past few years — and now everyone finally seems to have fallen for it. His band’s sound gushing sweetly and crisply through the main stage sound system as a postcard-worthy sunset bathed the Gorge in a wholesome glow, frontman Ezra Koenig offered up a Jumbotron-worthy grin while cooing the falsetto chorus of set opener “White Sky.”
From then on, it was pure pop bliss, as few among the 20,000-plus main stage crowd could resist giddy, danceable shimmies like “A-Punk” and “Cousins.” Later, the hook of “Horchata” — “Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten” — rang so true. That feeling: Seeing a new member initiated into rock’n’roll’s touring elite.
SELLING THE DRAMA: MASSIVE ATTACK
It’s fair to excuse fans who’d prefer not to go to a darker place while spending hard-earned money to cavort with friends at a festival, but the melancholy journey offered by Massive Attack Sunday night was worthwhile, and well-executed, as far as the music was concerned. Leaning mostly on songs off this year’s Heligoland, the British outfit wove its snakelike, jagged electronica around a stellar lineup of guest vocalists: Martina Topley-Bird (whose take on “Psyche” was mesmerizing, and delivered in a skintight black catsuit), reggae legend Horace Andy (“Angel,” off 1998’s Mezzanine, paired his honeyed pipes with over-the-top guitar riffage), and Deborah Miller (who perfectly handled Shara Nelson’s vocal from the group’s 1991 single, “Safe from Harm”).
But when giant strips of LEDs displayed politically charged, super serious statements behind the band, things got a bit muddier. Some sequences juxtaposed headlines of the overexposed — Heidi Montag, Spencer Pratt, Tiger Woods — with underreported world news, or counted off grisly statistics about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Hurricane Katrina. It managed to stay clear of obnoxious until “Inertia Creeps,” when touts regarding the injustice of American policy regarding the detention of prisoners without charges appeared just as the song peaked, resulting in a hearty cheer, meant for the song, not the statistic. Poor form on the eve of Memorial Day, Massive Attack.
FRONTMAN WITH UPSIDE: BAND OF HORSES’ BEN BRIDWELL
Who knows if he’s been studying the moves of Eddie Vedder on his band’s recent stint as Pearl Jam’s opening act, but Band of Horses singer/guitarist Ben Bridwell is upping the ante with his frontman moves these days, particularly at Sasquatch. With keyboardist Ryan Monroe picking up a few of the singer’s rhythm guitar assignments, the bearded, heavily tattooed Bridwell is branching out, jumping into the photo pit and singing with fans along the barricade and romping around the stage.
It’s not just posing, though. On Monday, when they paired confident, newly-minted tunes from the just-released Infinite Arms like the charming “Compliments” and the twangy “Laredo” with the lilting balladry of “No One’s Gonna Love You” and “Detlef Schrempf,” Bridwell and Band of Horses oozed with headliner caliber bravado. Further evidence: The crowd’s response to “The Funeral,” one of the best songs of the past few years, was forceful and resounding, and almost strong enough to nudge the whole main stage right into the gorgeous ravine below.
MOST UNEXPECTED DANCE PARTY: THE NATIONAL
For those who’ve grown accustomed to putting on National records, pouring a glass of whiskey, staring out a window into the rain, and contemplating love lost, get ready for something new. The Brooklyn band’s Saturday set was pure fire, jam-packed with straight-ahead stormers and refreshingly devoid of the self-flagellating navel gazing that they’ve done so often (but oh so well) in the past.
Whether spitting out cuts from the recently released High Violet (“Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” in particular) or uptempo older cuts like “Mr. November” and “Abel,” frontman Matt Berninger commanded the stage like a drunken ballerino, coaxing both a deep baritone croon and an electric shriek while flailing around the stage in a barely controlled stumble. And when he went through a run through the audience, mic in hand, during “Abel,” he was accordingly met with excited, bounding fans, not mournful onlookers, crying in their beers.
BIGGEST MESS: PAVEMENT
As with Coachella, the reunited Pavement were not the biggest festival draw of the weekend, not by a long shot, and it’s beginning to appear as if the ache for the slack rock band’s return might have been more abundant within the music industry and the media, rather than the ticket buying public. But a smaller crowd didn’t hamper Pavement’s assault at Coachella, so why should the Gorge be any different?
Sure, nonchalance is part of this band’s ethos, but something about their disjointed Sasquatch set didn’t feel right, starting with the triple false start to “Rattled by the Rush,” off 1995’s Wowee Zowee, when bassist Mark Ibold seemed to be having trouble getting his instrument to function, or play it in any way. Singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus, who’d pleasantly spent the afternoon and early evening taking in other main stage acts with his family, seemed visibly flustered. “This is pathetic,” he muttered — and absolutely meant it. A late-set run through fan faves like “Stereo,” “Range Life,” and “Stop Breathin'” salvaged some of the lost love, but it’s fair to say that Pavement, in person, always was, and will probably still be a mixed bag.
YOUTUBE MOMENT AVERTED: TEGAN AND SARA
While they initially seemed intent on curbing their usual sisterly chatter to squeeze as many songs as possible into a fixed festival timeslot, Tegan and Sara Quin inevitably couldn’t help themselves — and it nearly ended up a YouTube moment. As they faced each other behind keyboards to play “Alligator,” the funky single off their current album, Sainthood, Sara encouraged Tegan to give her a beatbox intro — and the crowd adamantly agreed, cheering loudly for what might have quickly become Run-T&S. And while Tegan denied the request, not wanting to end up the subject embarrassing viral video, she and her sister did deliver a bevy of gems, quickening pulses with punky Sainthood romps “Northshore” and “Hell” and coaxing sing-alongs on older faves like “Walking With a Ghost” and a crafty, stripped down take on “Back in Your Head.”
THINGS WE SAW & HEARD DURING LCD SOUNDSYSTEM
By Sunday’s twilight, this festival’s party people were in fifth gear, right about the time LCD Soundsystem took the stage. Proof? Shall we offer up the husky dude in a giant, furry, bright pink gorilla suit? Or the dancing girl in a Chiquita banana outfit? How about the skirt-wearing fella in a paisley smoking jacket? Or the too scrawny homeboy in an It’s Always Sunny-style Greenman bodysuit? LCD’s James Murphy was a proud grand marshal of this freaky parade.
But for all the ribbing the grizzly, salt-n-peppery ringleader absorbs about his appearance or his reluctant rock stardom — “How does it feel, James Murphy, to be Cam from [hit ABC sitcom] Modern Family?” quipped one critic-in-training behind me — his band’s Sasquatch appearance was headliner-caliber, a bigger, more raucous party than any main stage competition on Sunday.
He’s always dreamed, and did so during his set this weekend, that Daft Punk would play in his house. But the thousands of people losing their collective edge to the explosive newbie “Pow Pow” or the seductive “Tribulations” would be just as chuffed to have LCD Soundsystem playing in theirs.
BEST COVER: THE LONG WINTERS
Would rock festivals be a viable, nationwide success story in 2010 without the Grateful Dead’s long, strange decades of tripping ’round the country? Probably not. Seattle’s own Long Winters offered a very fitting tribute when they uncorked a mostly faithful take on the Dead’s biggest hit, “Touch of Grey,” during their Sunday afternoon set, beaming out Jerry Garcia’s jiggly guitar warbles onto the sun-dappled Washington cliff face. As if it were encoded in their DNA, packs of young’uns, grandchildren of Flower Children, no doubt, streamed onto the amphitheater floor to noodle about. (In fact, Sasquatchers are wont to noodle to just about anything: My Morning Jacket, sure, but Pavement?).
And while it was the day’s best cover, it was but one standout moment in the Long Winters’ set, alongside 2005’s gripping tale of space catastrophe “The Commander Thinks Aloud” and a new song, “Not Moving to Portland,” off the band’s forthcoming 2011 album.
SECOND-BEST COVER: TELEKINESIS
Playing Monday on the Yeti Stage, Telekinesis leaned primarily on the big, buzzy, and fuzzy power pop of their SPIN-approved, self-titled 2009 debut. But instead of applying the same treatment to a cover of Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept,” off the Scottish shoegaze pioneers’ 1991 album Bandwagonesque, singer/drummer Michael Lerner presented the song as a solo acoustic number, adding a pleasant sincerity to the song’s chorus: “I didn’t want to hurt you, oh yeah.” Not that he needed a cover song to bolster his set: Album tracks like “Foreign Room” and “Coast of Carolina” were crisp and buoyant.
BEST OF THE SIDE STAGES
Several bands had eye-opening, breakthrough performances on the festival’s smaller stages, particularly this trio, each of whom drew enormous crowds to the Bigfoot Stage: Mumford & Sons, whose breezy, harmonic indie folk brightened an already sunny Saturday afternoon, and coaxed a formidable sing along on “Little Lion Man”; Local Natives were both New Wave-y (“Airplanes”) and jammy (“Wide Eyes”), then both on a cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign”; and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, with Alex Ebert’s vaguely messianic frontman routine roping in several thousand new disciples.
Monday’s hard hitting, back to back sets by noisy punks Japandroids and No Age drew fantastic, raucous, and partially pants-less crowds that tested the structural integrity of the Yeti Stage’s metal barricades, forcing the festival to call in additional security to prevent a collapse. But it was all in good fun. Less dangerous but nonetheless compelling was Avi Buffalo, the rubber-bodied popster whose glitchy love song “What’s In It For” features a line comparing a woman’s lips to pieces of bacon, undoubtedly the only time someone has ever called a woman a pig and gotten away with it.