Sometimes the planets and stars align and everything falls into place for that one perfectly scripted day. That’s what I would say about this year’s Sasquatch! festival in central Washington State if I were a purveyor of astrology. I’m not, so instead I offer this—Thank you, God. The perfect combination of venue and music artists is possible, and it just went down on May 24th, two hours east of Seattle, Washington.
Start by imagining yourself floating down into the Grand Canyon. About halfway down you stop in midair and take in the scenery. That’s it, your musical backdrop. There’s your venue.
The Gorge, just beyond a smattering of farmer’s fields outside the tiny town of George, Washington is a half-shell amphitheatre built into the side of a canyon looking out over the Columbia Gorge and the Columbia river basin wriggling far below.
Add Coldplay, who’s currently mopping up the American charts with its hit "Clocks" from the album A Rush of Blood to the Head, and you’ve got a show to write your grandchildren about. Add The Flaming Lips, Liz Phair, Neko Case, Death Cab for Cutie, Jurassic 5, Modest Mouse, Pedro the Lion; not to mention a wonderfully sunny day shifting to a cool windless evening under the stars after the red sun glitters off the water below and sets behind the main stage-and other nifty surprises-and you might as well add a happy heart attack to the menu. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Splayed over three stages, the 12-hour day of music is in its second year, and somebody is doing something right. Thirteen of the 29 bands this year hail either from Washington or Portland, giving the event local credibility while still appealing to the masses.
Follow me as I do my best to take it all in:
Front Gate Stage 11 a.m. Audio Learning Center
Also known as, the While-You-are-Waiting-in-Line-to-Get-Inside-for-the-Real-Bands Stage, mostly the audience consists of a long snaking line of people. What a terrible name for a band. I don’t want to associate rock ’n’ roll with my high school library. They sounded okay as a background to my being felt up by security and told to empty my water bottle prior to park entry. But all of us know better things are to come inside the park. It’s like trying to stave off the gates of Disneyland with a puppet show. I like puppet shows, but get real… I would not return.
Plaza Stage 11:30 a.m. Minus The Bear
A good rocking band to open the day. The crowd loved to see a hearty handful of Seattle club bands out of doors, and Minus was a great way to get things started. Very tight. They do a hammering fingering guitar thing. What a neat trick. This is a great medium-sized stage with a nice stretch of lawn to laze about on. People are milling up hillside. Why? Oh, a beer garden. Eight bucks a can. Seriously.
Plaza Stage 12:30 p.m. Ron Sexsmith
With his folksy oldsy guitar spangling, Ron Sexsmith brings the emo hippies a-running, they with their butterfly tattoos and bra-less tank tops, braids wrapped in bandanas. Toss your hemp backpack on the lawn and don’t mind if the bananas and incense fall out.
Main Stage 12:31 p.m. Maktub
They’re big. Another highly regarded Northwest act. It seems as if they have a very loyal following up front, though this is more of sit-on-the-grassy-hillside-and-chill music. Their songs sound too different from one another. If you’re gonna get in the groove, man, stay in the groove. Don’t slow it down for jazzy R&B licks and extended keyboard riffage.
Plaza Stage 1:30 p.m. Kathleen Edwards
All I know about Kathleen Edwards is that she rocked it in a sultry Cat Power way. She talked a lot about Canada, so I assume she hails from there. She had the Dave Matthews leg thing going. Simple songs with good melodies and heavy lyrics. After one song she looked out over the Gorge as if for the first time. “Holy Shit! It's beautiful out there. Look at that!"
Main Stage 1:30 p.m. Eisley
I wasn’t there. I was seeing Kathleen Edwards, and have no regrets. I think my grandfather’s first car was an Eisley.
Plaza Stage 2: 30 p.m. Sam Roberts
I didn’t stick around. I’ve seen enough guys playing heartfelt guitar songs in the chords of G, A, and D. But now I look in some publicity thing and see that Sam Roberts is supposed to be Canada’s answer to Bruce Springsteen. I picture a guy in blue jeans with a bandanna in his back pocket standing in front of a huge maple leaf singing “Born in To-ronto, Eh!” In fact, someone should make a mockumentary film about “Canada’s answer to Bruce Springsteen.” Sort of “Bob Roberts” meets “Canadian Bacon” and “A Mighty Wind.” No really, someone please make it.
Main Stage 2:31 p.m. Jason Mraz
There was some hype here. This is a one of the new kids on the Dave Matthews block. Sensitive vocal pop-rock. Except the hype didn’t pay off for me. Lines like "Don't be surprised if the best music comes from the skies" are too campy and pseudo-poetic for me. Make a bumper-sticker and sell it to the dolphins. I don’t need anymore cliché-trampled moody blues. Then the musical showboating, oh god, the showboating. Licky jazzy guitar solos. Lots of breaking it down and saying things to make the post-college girls cheer and giggle. I give up.
Main Stage 3:30 p.m. Liz Phair
So out walks the 30-something Liz Phair looking like a 19-year old tart in knee-high leather boots, a waitress skirt, lots of eye makeup and a t-shirt with the word “F—k” on it. Brilliant. With an entrance like that, of course she’s gonna start the set off with the song “F—k and Run” from the album Exile in Guyville. It’s just her on guitar, a backup guitarist, and a bass player. She talked about coming in a private jet the size of a shoe, flying over the Gorge before landing. She played some stripped-down versions of songs off the new album Liz Phair, the memory of which I now hold more dearly after hearing them in their over-produced glossy, slick, is-this-even-Liz-Phair?, mass-marketed, bubblegum-on-your-shoe of a record. The set was only half an hour. Far too short, as if her set was a last-minute addition. Jangly guitar and vocals. That is the Liz Phair I know and love.
Main Stage 4:15 p.m. Death Cab For Cutie
They win something. The best of the local bands award. The passion award. Great energy, great set. Wayne Coyne of Flaming lips was backstage cheering them on. Chris Martin of Coldplay was beckoned out of his trailer in a baseball hat, t-shirt, and flip-flops to see the brilliance of what he was probably hearing-=the quirky melodious, ever-rocking Death Cab for Cutie live show. They were a little giddy, this being there first show of this size, but they attacked it with all their energy and repped washington well.
Main Stage 5:00 p.m. Neko Case
I know she’s great, and I’ve been wanting to see her live forever. Just not here. I’m waiting for the club show. Why am I so picky?
Plaza Stage 5:00 p.m. Pedro the Lion … er, I mean the Thermals
Okay, here’s some drama. In some of the event’s printed schedules, the Thermals were listed to go on at 5 PM. When Three O’Clock rolled around, The Thermals refused to play, citing the misprint and the stage sat empty. Brats. The event organizers didn’t do anything to stop the madness, and so Pedro the Lion was forced to wait around to watch all their fans arriving at 5 p.m. utterly confused at why no one was playing, then utterly confused at why the Thermals were setting up. To top it off, the three-piece made sure to play as long as possible. At first they were pretty rocking and fun, but ultimately all their songs sounded alike and I began to ache.
Plaza Stage 6:00 p.m. Pedro The Lion
Finally. But by now, I think the band was convinced that they would have a bad show. Frontman Dave Bazan played bass for most of the set. The music was as beautiful as ever, but the band, in the middle of a long tour, seemed unenthused.
Plaza Stage 7:00 p.m. My Morning Jacket
Long haired rockers. Whew boy! Swing those long locks! They didn’t really fit the bill so well, taking a page out of 70’s rock and playing it for all the emo kids in their corduroys and faded army jackets. But the emo kids had fun, what with the hair swinging, the earnest guitar solos, standing on the amps. Throwing guitars. Leaning out into the crowd. It was a clinic on all the patented rock and roll stage moves. I was advised by my friend that I should enjoy these guys before they die in a plane crash. But I don’t. I wouldn’t return to the Plaza Stage. Not for Calexico, nor for The Music.
Main Stage 7:01 p.m. Modest Mouse
… is leaving the stage. Oops. This is what the Thermals politics got me. Darn you Thermals. Darn you to Heck.
Main Stage 7:15 p.m. Jurassic 5
Ah yes, time to pick a spot on the lawn and chill to the turntable-generated funk beats and rhymes of Jurassic 5. What do you get for being smart, talented rappers and hip-hop artists who choose not to flaunt the bling on MTV and chant endlessly about booze and womanizing? Apparently you get an audience of white indie kids. Jurassic 5 proved to be perfect for having dinner on the lawn, watching the crowd swell to the beat below and getting an eyeful of the crazies walking back and forth. These festivals really do bring out every type of creature. The cruisers, the boozers, the fighters, the geeks, the sluts, the public displays-of-affectionados, the surgically enhanced, the backwards caps, the sad indie kids, the goths, the gender neutral, the Ozzfest leftovers, the TRL babies, the junkies, the hippies, the families, the gangbangers. Who needs reality TV when you can watch this all day long?
Main Stage 8:30 p.m. Flaming Lips
Speaking of crazies…send in the clowns. Flaming lips, whose music has grown to national acceptance and credit card commercialdom came onstage like Sesame Street on X. So good at writing music that many would consider sad, the show was everything but. Wayne Coyne hit the stage to the epic choral chant of "Carmina Burana," twirling a 12-foot balloon around his head while two dozen hyperactive dancers in big furry animal costumes filled the stage. The animals were not merely an opening gag. They stayed onstage the whole show. Dancing in circles, building human (or animal) pyramids, pumping up the crowd. The giant confetti-filled balloons kept coming as well, though more than a few bounced out of the crowd and were swept over the edge of the cliff to the gorge below. The visual spectacle and positive energy coming off of the stage turned the Lips saddest songs like “Do You Realize?” into life-affirming anthems. The band also organized the singing of “Happy Birthday” to everyone in the crowd whose birthday it was… by name.
Mainstage Coldplay 10:00 p.m.
There she was. Miss Gwyneth Paltrow. Being ushered to an isolated place offstage before the show started, from which to view the set. No one saw it, really, but I had my eyes peeled ever since A. I, getting People Magazine in my mailbox, remembered that Coldplay frontman Chris Martin is courting the prettiest Tenenbaum. And B. I heard from a security guard that Gwyneth was on the grounds. I don’t really go for Celebrity sightings, but isolated in the middle of nowhere in Washington State, to see a star is to have a moment with a star. No one had any idea she was there. I can’t blame them. They were there to see Coldplay, which should be enough entertainment for anyone. Occasionally some teenage girls would wander by and call out to her and wave. But share a moment, may I say, we did. That is, we both watched the show about 15 feet apart from one another. She, tucked behind a speaker, me at the far edge of the stage. Yes, I sound like a stalker. Coldplay perform a blisteringly beautiful set worthy of the words “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” and I was watching it, in part, by watching Gwyneth watch it. You know how Jay Leno isn’t funny, but if you are watching it with your father, who finds it hilarious, suddenly it is so much more enjoyable? Coldplay was even better, knowing that we both were enjoying it. It was a shared appreciation of an amazing musical performance. Coldplay filled the Gorge with music, the hammering of piano, the thumping of bass and drums, the soaring vocal melodies, the beautiful songs washing all 13,000 of us (Gwyneth included) over the edge and down into the canyon, over the landscape of valleys and farmland, sweeping us back up into the ocean of sky and stars. Now run. Run! Run to the parking lot and peel out before the post-festival traffic jam hits! Run and don’t look back!