(Check back this week for GRAMMY.com's ongoing Sasquatch! Music Festival coverage, including artist interviews as part of our GRAMMYs On The Road series.)
By Mark Baumgarten
As one of a handful of upstart destination festivals, the Sasquatch! Music Festival was first held in 2002 for a solitary day at the awe-inspiring Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash. That year the festival hosted a handful of jam bands, including Galactic and Maktub.
A decade later, Sasquatch! has become a very different beast. While only a quarter of the size of brethren festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, the Memorial Day weekend event staged on a cliff's edge has grown to a full four days with five official stages. As was clear this last weekend, the festival has also expanded to include a wide swath of music styles, with particular attention to indie rock, new roots and neo-soul, and with a nod to hip-hop and dance music.
Dance music became the beating heart of the festival, which devoted a place called the Banana Shack to showcase varieties of dubstep and house music from some of the world's top DJs. This year dance reached maturity with a Friday headlining spot on the big stage where a majority of the fest's 25,000 attendees could watch. And most did for a massive three-hour dance party that kicked off with fireworks announcing the beginning of Girl Talk's set of appropriated pop collages and ended with Pretty Lights transforming the space into a late-night rave.
But Sasquatch! has not lost touch with the indie rock upon which its reputation was built. Longtime favorites such as the Shins, Feist, Santigold, the Walkmen, and Beirut gave the audience what they wanted by playing greatest hits sets. The indie-rock royalty of Jack White, Bon Iver and Beck — each closing a night on the big stage — were afforded an extra half hour, and a little more leeway from the crowd, to perform a mix of old and new songs.
On Saturday night, White was a well-polished blues-rock machine, spending the first half of his hour-long set scorching through the intricate and searing songs from his latest solo album, Blunderbuss. The packed crowd, though somewhat tepid through the new material, gave a full-throated response when White dipped into his back catalog, first playing "Steady, As She Goes," the minor hit by his defunct band the Raconteurs, and later a few classics from his time in the White Stripes, including a sweet, pedal-steel-assisted version of the saccharine ballad "We're Going To Be Friends."
By Sunday night, the big stage had transformed dramatically for Bon Iver. Two years ago, the band led by Wisconsin-born Justin Vernon played on the second-largest Bigfoot stage and managed to outshine many of the acts on the big stage. This year the sad-eyed balladeer (fresh from a Best New Artist win at the 54th GRAMMY Awards in February) with the unmistakable falsetto revealed the full potential of the venue, transforming the cliff-side rig into an otherworldly grotto, complete with flickering candelabra and woven drapes of fabric hanging ominously above and soaking in the stage lights' dusky color pallet. During an hour-and-a-half set pulled equally from the band's self-titled GRAMMY-winning 2011 release and their 2008 debut, For Emma Forever Ago, Vernon plumbed the heights and depths of emotion with a show that at times evoked a grand mass and, at others, an intimate serenade.
Beck closed the entire festival on Monday night, donning a black leather jacket and playing a dark, discordant and slightly rusty set. With a simple stage set, the singer/songwriter played favorites early, including "Devils Haircut" and the song that made him a household name, "Loser."
In the years since Beck's last appearance in 2006, Sasquatch! has become a carnival of exhibitions and self-exploration, a strange mix of Comic-Con and Woodstock. Costumes have become the norm amongst festgoers, with many dressing as superheroes or Muppets, and many as the mythic Sasquatch for which the fest is named. And then there was the ubiquitous, and questionable, war paint and Native American headdress donned by the young and tan. Many of the acts seemed tailor-made for these revelers. Tune-Yards, in particular, attracted a veritable Oz of colorful, costumed revelers during the band's Saturday performance. And Grouplove, with their power-pop hooks and flower-power trappings, fit perfectly with the hippy vibe.
"You've found paradise," said Grouplove singer/keyboardist Hannah Hooper. "It's a great place for a bunch of naked kids to hang out."
A striking number of those "kids" were from Canada, which has had an increasing impact on the festival's booking. In addition to packed early evening sets on the big stage by Canadian acts Metric and Feist, many groups from north of the border took to smaller stages and played to large, enthusiastic crowds.
"The border is a very real thing," said Tim Baker, lead singer of the dramatic Newfoundland pop band Hey Rosetta! "There's not a lot of information flowing back and forth. When we play Toronto, we play to one or two thousand, but then we'll play in Buffalo and there will be three people. So, because this is in America, as you call it, it's a big deal. A lot of new eyeballs."
As it does every year, Sasquatch! provided a platform for a number of up-and-comers who will likely return in future years on larger stages. Seattle-based soul singer Allen Stone, Swedish electro-pop experimentalists Little Dragon and Icelandic folk troupe Of Monsters And Men all made convincing arguments for future engagement. But the most buzzed-about performance came from the Saturday set on the Bigfoot stage by St. Vincent, the musical moniker of Annie Erin Clark, who ended a transcendent set by throwing herself into the arms of the welcoming crowd, singing as she was passed, wriggling like an insect in a mass of humanity.
(Mark Baumgarten is the author of Love Rock Revolution: K Records And The Rise Of Independent Music, which will be published by Sasquatch Books in July. He lives in Seattle.)