If people go to concerts to be witness to something, they go to music festivals to be part of something. Or to get duped into thinking they’re part of something. Or something. Here’s exactly how I feel about this year’s Sasquatch festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington: it was fun, and I’m never going back.
Friday, May 27
Just when all of us had almost dozed off around 3 pm, Jane proclaimed, from the other end of the tent: “I brushed my teeth!” Look at where we were: Prince blaring from our neighbors’ homemade truck-top balcony, EDM pouring from the neon pizza stand and everybody at least half awake in a tent city big enough to get lost in, full of MDMA dealers and middle-class kids — and Jane, just proud to have brushed her teeth.
“I also put on moisturizer,” she continued. She asked if I had my retainer in, which I did, because I always do. The car in front of us turned its headlights on for God knows what reason, shining that yellow flood into our tent, and next to me, Mara looked just like a painting, her hair gold, her face so exhausted, already.
In the morning, it took hours for the sun to get hot in the sky, but when it did we woke up sweating. I took drug inventory again, wondering which to do for the morning and settling on a cigarette, which I had to bum from Hannah. We got dressed in front of Andrea’s full-length mirror, which was propped against her car. Then we ate bagels with too much cream cheese and got drunk and sometimes pretended like we were relaxing.
“I took this mysticism class where we learned about the ego,” Andrea said absentmindedly, applying dry shampoo, “and how the ego is the only real problem.” We each changed our outfits two or three times, and I caught a guy staring at my nipple piercing when I was naked in the front seat of the car.
“Where’s the face paint?” May asked. “Do we have any face paint?” Bailey said it hadn’t come in the mail on time. “Oh, well,” May said “I have glitter!”
We stumbled into the venue just in time for soul act Grace Love & The True Loves, whose set contained “No Diggity,” one out of three times we heard the song covered that weekend. Grace was to be my first interview of the festival, too, so after her set, I headed to the “media area,” a semi-permanent structure between stages where young reporters can be found on MacBooks flipping through hundreds of the exact same photo of the exact same band, noshing on complimentary Nature Valley bars and Kirkland water.
My agreed-upon meeting time with Grace came and went, and she never showed up. I hunched into the room’s lone armchair and began taking notes. I overheard one girl say that she “just can’t get into rap or hip hop or that type of stuff,” and another, no older than me, asked whether I was “going to leave any time soon.” I said I didn’t know, suddenly heartbroken to be getting stuck with this journalism shit on my college diploma.
Later, though, while everyone who’s into neo-soul wannabes like Leon Bridges was probably dancing to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the real heavy soul-hitter of the lineup took the main stage for a modest audience that nonetheless would crown her as one of the weekend’s best shows. Andra Day, even when her pants literally fell off, was the picture of womanly power and grace, with a face like Rihanna’s, a get-up like Amy Winehouse’s and a bowl-you-over voice completely her own.
“Remember this is a conversation,” she said, holding her bunched-up pants and wiping much-earned sweat from her forehead. “This is not just me singin’ at you, this is us talkin’ — let’s talk. Let’s get it goin.’” Somebody from behind me yelled: “YOU’RE SO FUCKING SEXY!” and we all agreed. It was like Aretha Franklin for millennials. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Afterward I met my friends at Vince Staples, but our spot was far enough away that it occurred to me we were just watching Vince Staples on a Jumbotron and that, actually, our view would’ve been better if we were watching the concert at home on Palladia. At one point, that same Jumbotron cut to a flower-crowned girl sitting on the shoulders of (presumably) her crush, not singing along or even smiling, but taking a series of kissy-faced selfies on her iPhone. Not once did she notice that thousands of people witnessed this.
Next was A$AP Rocky, the headlining rapper of the festival, who phoned it in to such a degree that the first 20 minutes of his set consisted of two hype guys hopping around onstage, chanting “AYY-SAPPP” and asking the sea of screaming audience members if we were “ready” for him to come on. Note: Nobody ever said no.
When it started to get dark, I took a capusuleful of stuff that Ana had assured me was pure. In the white and relative warmth of the rave tent, I started touching my roommate Mara’s face and wound my fingers all around her curls. It is wonderful to remember when I asked to kiss her, and more wonderful to think of when she said yes, the little purple points of light circling us even when Todd Terje’s DJ board turned off after his seamless set.
“I’m so glad we all came here together,” I remember Mara saying, but the Instagram video Jane posted of this moment makes it all seem silly and embarrassing.
Hannah let me smoke another cigarette when we stood at the edge of the crowd for Chet Faker — always perfect for the comedown, ask anyone — and I mostly thought about how it’s so stupid that his name is Chet Faker, since no one cares about Chet Baker anymore. And then I thought of how awful and pretentious I am.
On the walk home, I texted myself notes about the day. At the entrance to the campground, a small older woman working the festival kept saying to everyone, “Go get your rest, okay?” This felt significant, so I texted a note on it and it sent itself back to myself, like an ethereal command: “Get your rest.”
Saturday, May 28
I started to hear my name everywhere we went. I saw people who looked just like other people. Mara, on our long morning walk to the venue, said, “Do you ever think about how beautiful this place would be if there weren’t, like, a huge amphitheater in it?”
This was the day I was determined to get drunk on something other than the $15 pina coladas they sell in the venue, so I double Ziploc-bagged six shots of tequila and stuffed the makeshift pouch into my underwear. By the time we walked in, about a third had leaked out, leaving the scent of cheap hard alcohol on my skin.
This was also the day I had my first major interviews: the legendary Ishmael Butler, of ’90s hip-hop collective Digable Planets, and Seattle surf rock export La Luz.
Even with an early 3:30 pm set time, a substantial crowd had gathered to bask in La Luz’s surf-noir shadow. The audience recalled Weirdo Shrine, the band’s second album: big-sunglasses-wearing women blew bubbles and shook their hips, and long-haired dudes swung their heads around and around. In an alt-rock world where watered-down surf sweetness like that of The Growlers gets most of the attention, La Luz, a crew of wildly talented women, is the real deal. Frontwoman Shana Cleveland’s guitar playing is full, dark and committed, while the light overlay of vocal harmonies gives away ’60s influences like The Shirelles.
When I ask Shana if people ever refer to La Luz as a “girl band,” she says “yes” and looks frustrated. “If they don’t say ‘girl band,’ the say something like ‘the all-female La Luz.’ It’s one thing to associate us with ’60s girl groups, because that’s part of our lineage. But being a ‘girl band’ isn’t a real descriptor. We’re just a band.”
I promised to keep our interview short, as we were both wanted to catch garage-rock superhero Ty Segall, who actually produced Weirdo Shrine (in case La Luz’s sudden spike in fuzz pedal usage on the album didn’t already give that away).
During his set with star-studded band The Muggers, Ty donned his signature flesh-colored baby mask, adding a long red umbilical cord to swing around during the manic guitar solos of “Baby Big Man (I Want A Mommy).” Ty’s better-known bandmates were also in disguise, sort of: bassist Mikal Cronin did well enough to stand in the back wearing dark sunglasses and guitar royalty King Tuff was decked out in an orange prison-style jumpsuit and matching shutter shades.
“IF I EVER RETIRE,” Ty squealed behind lingering guitar noise between songs, “I’M GONNA GO SWIMMING! I SAW MY DOCTOR, AND HE SAID I SHOULD EAT MORE VEGETABLES AND DRINK A LITTLE LESS, AND I THINK I’M GONNA!” Sensical, nonsensical, paranoid rambling, on and on and on.
In the middle of the most frightening mosh pit I’ve ever been a part of, two guys who said they’d been best friends since sixth grade asked if I could take their picture. It turned out great, and when I showed it to them they almost cried. “I’m rolling so hard,” one of them said. I couldn’t help thinking that molly seemed like the wrong sort of drug for this show — but then, I couldn’t really think of the right one. Ty’s set was like the repeated sound of glass being shattered, and we writhed and wrestled and loved every sweaty second.
When the time came for me to interview Ish of Digable Planets, we met up at the Toyota Music Den, a place that offered a fake rock-climbing photobooth and something called “skin marbling” in exchange for joining Toyota’s promotional emailing list. Ish asked to do the interview in his dressing room, but when I tried to follow him, a security guard told me I “didn’t have the right wristband” and he and I lost track of each other.
If that was disappointing, though, Digable Planets’ set was anything but. As put by Paul de Barros, the Seattle Times pop music coordinator I’d met in a corner of the media area that day: “They made all the other rappers at this festival look like children.” In contrast with the hardened bravado of most contemporary rap stage presences, Digable Planets were open, gracious and generous performers, expressing genuine joy on top of their de facto mastery of the genre. The crowd stuck around for the whole set, amazed.
That night also contained the biggest disappointment and biggest surprise of the weekend. Folk crooner favorite M. Ward attempted an all-electric set with no success at all, and by the time the show ended, even the eager front-row fans had left to find anything better to listen to. And they didn’t have much trouble, since oddball rockabilly outfit Shannon and the Clams was at the stage next door, winning over dozens of passers-by with a dirty doo-wop groove that went far beyond vintage charm.
What I remember most about M83’s set is sitting in the center of the amphitheater hill, our group’s perennial meeting spot, watching the sun finally spill down over the layers of red and the widening river curve of the Gorge, while I struggled to funnel my remaining tequila into the lemonade I’d bought (which cost about $15 anyway). A tall, olive-skinned guy next to us offered to help me; as I watched him rip open the corner of the bag with his teeth, I realized I recognized him from one of my classes. “Happy ‘Squatch!” I said — my weekend-long version of “mahalo.” It’s funny to think that for so much of the weekend, the bands might as well not have been there.
This cannot be said, though, of Major Lazer, who I’m tolerant of at best and fully annoyed by at worst. Mara and Jane, who’d taken another of the pills from yesterday, were happily obeying Diplo’s choreography commands down in the pit (“EVERYBODY RUN TO THE RIGHT! RUN TO THE LEFT! HANDS IN THE AIR!”) — while I, drunk but not drunk enough, fell asleep up on the hill with my head between my knees.
There’s a little concrete tunnel, covered in graffiti and brightly lit, that you have to pass through to get from the venue back to the campground. “Here we go,” Hannah said as we walked back that night, “through the Tunnel of Sobriety.”
“What?” Lola asked.
“The Tunnel of Sobriety! You walk in fucked up, and on the other end you’re all sober again.”
“I don’t know if that’s how it works,” said Lola.
Sunday, May 29
The first thing I did in the morning was wash my hair in the water spigot by the port-a-potties and ask Lola if we could do some cocaine. But the lines we did off a Frisbee in the magnified sun of her tent actually made me feel sleepy, so I sat in someone else’s folding chair and tried to read the Flannery O’Connor collection I’d brought.
Tim, the Canadian guy whose campsite was next to ours but who we’d found wrapped up in our blankets under our canopy that morning, asked if I wanted to buy any of his coke — “straight off the boat from, like, Colombia,” he said, shirtless now.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I think I have a bad reaction to it. Lola told me it’s because I have ADD, but I didn’t know I had ADD.”
May said we could use her Wet ‘n’ Wild glitter again, so we smeared it all over, around our eyes, in the creases of our collarbones. We all smelled horrible, and then we took off.
This was the day the wind got so unbearably strong that the main stage was “closed,” resulting in several reschedulings and even some cancellations: everybody’s favorite high-school throwback Frightened Rabbit never got to play, and neither did Saint Motel or Houndmouth (neither of which was I heartbroken about). Leon Bridges, also edged out of his main stage slot by the wind, decided to set up shop on the hill for an impromptu acoustic set, where a small crowd gathered but soon dissipated upon realizing it was totally impossible to hear him.
The way Mara describes the rest of the afternoon is that “it’s good we took mushrooms all day, because if not, we would’ve probably just been bored.” We ate the caps with avocados and salt between two soggy pieces of bread. I remember the bitter, unbearable taste exactly. I remember exactly how the tips of the trees looked, swaying a panicked dance in the hostile wind.
We wandered around as aimlessly, as though we were just having a day in the park. The way I remember it, there were no bands playing at all, though I’m sure there were and we just weren’t interested. In our meandering, I overheard a kid remark to his friends: “We’re at a music festival right now and there’s nothing to do.”
Things slowed enough for me to notice the wide array of couples: one in the front row of an empty stage, dancing to the house music and touching each other’s faces psychedelically; an older one walking back early to their premium camping, the man saying, “I love you so much”; one in the middle of a hushed conversation, the woman saying, “We’re just going through a rough patch. Right?”
Jane was trying to meet up with the man she’d met the other night. She’d approached him at Todd Terje and started petting his chest like he was a dog. I thought of my Teddy. I was glad he wasn’t here.
The first show we intentionally attended that day was the post-punk black magic of Savages, which proved too much for us in our state (though I wish now that we would’ve stuck around), so we took shelter in the big white tent where Olympia, Washington’s Briana Marela cast ambient electronic spells and delightful blue lights. We lay down on our backs and practiced breathing.
Then, at long, long last, it was time for our man: king of “slacker rock” and self-proclaimed inventor of “jizz jazz” Mac Demarco. True, now that Mac has accrued a fan base of mostly eighth graders and a more sad-boy attitude, he can never really be cool again — or at least not as cool as the cross-dressing, sound-bending weirdness of his highly underrated debut album Rock and Roll Nightclub.
This new, wholesome Mac still puts on a hell of a show, though, and his bandmates still stage-dove, and everyone still lit ceremonial cigarettes during “Ode to Viceroy.” If you haven’t seen Mac live, you’ve got to; a good litmus test is that he shredded a cover of “Reelin’ in the Years” so hard that, since then, I’ve been listening to that song sincerely while lifting weights. Gesturing toward a sunset vivid enough that it could only have occurred at the Gorge, Mac said, “The sun always sets on Steely Dan,” and the crowd wheeled around to take a look, all smiles.
For me, the festival could’ve ended right there, but as we each came down from our respective mélange of highs, we met up at Alabama Shakes, and we were shaken. Having harbored the false impression that Alabama Shakes was too mainstream to really be soulful, I was especially floored.
Frontwoman Brittany Howard is a howler, a woman, a true force of nature — and she gave, and she gave, and she gave. “I appreciate y’all,” Howard drawled just before the last song, “and I ain’t never take it for granted that y’all come out to see us. We won’t never take that for granted.” The amphitheater roared.
Even radio hits like “Hold On” shined and shook as though we were all hearing them for the very first time. “Bless my heart/ bless my soul/ didn’t think I’d make it/ to twenty-two years old,” Howard sang, and we knew what she meant, and we were all together, and we thrashed around under the big bright moon. There are pictures of this.
At one point, I reached down for my water and my hand instead found an abandoned fake rose.
“Did you see that?” I said. “I just found a rose!” Nobody heard me.
The only thing wrong with that magical show is that I guess it tuckered everyone out so much that hardly anyone stuck around for The Cure. This is especially curious because, on top of being one of the fest’s most anticipated headliners, the only acts with competing time slots were rave act Baauer and tepidly successful Big Boi-Phantogram collaboration Big Grams.
Still, as Bailey and I settled in amongst the fortysomethings and Robert Smith started in on “In Between Days,” we knew something perfect was happening. “Yesterday, I got so old / I felt like I could die.” He sounded just the same as he’s always sounded: happy and heartbroken, grungy and sweet. Everything all at once. By the time we left, the hill was empty, the imprints of people left as expansive flat spots in the grass.
Monday, May 30
Andrea and her friends left early in the morning, following their usual breakfast of eggs from the camp stove along with a few thick spliffs. I watched their wheels grind up the gravel exit road feeling jealous. My back was sore, and when I blew my nose, black clumps of dirt came out. Why couldn’t we all leave?
Instead of giving up completely, I decided to stay sober: a sort of departure in itself, at least from the paradigm we’d set. (I’m not counting the Adderall I took to prepare for my interviews, though I should, because who knows what else was in it).
As a result, perhaps the first fully coherent conversation I had with anyone all weekend was with Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, better known by his stage name Oddisee.
A rapper from Washington, D.C. who seemed to contain no end of articulate commentary on hip hop’s relation to race, literature and history, I asked Amir his thoughts on the way contemporary rap treats subjects like race and violence. “Unless new emotions are being created,” he said, “we’ve been writing the same songs since the beginning of time — but for the audience of the day. If you listen to popular songs from the turn of the century, you can find plenty of songs about people’s plight from racism, strife — you can find songs about Jezebels, harlots, and juke joints.”
You can imagine, based on this, how beautiful Amir’s rapping is, how wonderful his set was, how intelligent this man is in general. And you imagine correctly.
Next was Aaron Livingston, a.k.a. Son Little, whose criminally early 2:25 pm set time could not have afforded him the hearty audience he deserved. But those who did show up swayed smiling to his stripped-down but capable take on the classic soul sound.
The son of a preacher, Livingston is soft-spoken but talkative, comfortable and lovely. Having worked with such greats as Mavis Staples, he explains increased white interest in historically black genres (as evidenced by all these soul and hip-hop acts on the Sasquatch lineup) like this: “Black music has always pushed popular music forward. But now, people are nostalgic. They want a window into how modern genres came to be.”
The Internet, a group often referred to as “soul” but heavily influenced by the Los Angeles beat production scene, verified something else Livingston said about the way marketing departments use genres like “soul” and “R&B”: that there are no real filters for these terms anymore. Where Son Little’s “thing” was carried off perfectly well with standard rock band instrumentation, The Internet’s wouldn’t have made sense without two keyboard players layering the sound up with percussive synth tracks and effects.
The Internet certainly shouldn’t be faulted for this, though. Their set, scantly attended for it being on the main stage, was by far the festival’s best dance party. This is partially because every Internet song is a groove that builds, sort of like funk combined with Tame Impala, and also because frontwoman Syd tha Kyd can really, really sing. We’re all lucky she broke away from raucous rap collective Odd Future to do her own thing; she’s got the kind of rasp and thinness that instantly disarms and, on top of that, she’s quite an underappreciated representation of queer women of color in popular music (outside of explicitly queer-identified genres like queercore).
I’m not sure where my friends went at this point, but they left, and I was fine with that. I have a theory that you can never know what a festival’s really like — what any place is really like — until your phone dies and you lose your friends and you wander all alone.
There are few places better to end up when walking around alone than a Tim Heidecker show. The best part of this was the band — yeah, the band. Tim, of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! fame, has been producing music that everyone’s confused about: should we take it seriously or not? The lyrics, centered mostly on urine and Nicholas Cage, would send one message, but the deftness of the band sends another. Maybe the funniest part of this project is that the musicianship is very sincere. Confused onlookers left in droves, while others held up signs that said “rats off to ya” (a real inside joke among Adult Swim fans) and others, like me, were just along for the ride.
I stuck around the comedy tent to watch Todd Barry, another favorite funny guy of mine. If the best thing about Tim Heidecker is that he’s a totally loose cannon, Todd Barry’s winning trait is that he’s a really normal guy. A group of people in the front, who obviously loved him, kept giving him shit about how he isn’t “that famous,” to which he said, “Well, there’s a fence between me and you, so I must be pretty famous.”
Monday was a great day: I ran into friends in the mosh pit at Titus Andronicus, who never disappoint; I sat in awe of the spectacle that is Grimes; I discovered female alt newcomers like Wet and Ibeyi.
But here’s how it is: There is everything I’ve ever witnessed in my life, and then there is Sufjan Stevens, who I witnessed that night.
It sometimes feels embarrassing to identify as a Sufjan fan, though I haven’t quite figured out why that is. Not only has he played more than 20 instruments on his albums, each at a professional level, but he’s written everything from classical symphonies to comic books to pop songs and string quartets. Everything Sufjan makes is conceptual, whether an album of folk songs exploring personal history and a sense of location in specific U.S. states (i.e. Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State) or his most recent album of meditations on the death of his mother (Carrie & Lowell). Just because Sufjan isn’t self-promotional the way most people of his creative fortitude are doesn’t make him less of an artist. In fact, it makes him more.
“I just spent a tour singing songs about death and illness,” he said to us, so much more open than any of us had ever seen him — smiling and laughing, even — “and I’m grateful that tonight we get to have some fun.”
My stay-sober vow had taken a left turn, so this was at least partially the psilocybin talking, but Sufjan’s set was a complete journey of the mind: through contemplation, mourning, paranoia and wonder. He was aided, of course, by the usual complex accoutrements of his live shows: banjo smashing, neon skeleton suits, synchronized choreography with backup dancers, confetti, angel wings sprouting from his back, balloons and even six of those huge, smiling inflatable pole men that fly up in the wind at used-car dealerships.
In the middle of the set, though, he laid all that aside and said, “I don’t want to ruin this, but would it be okay to play some folk songs?” When the Jumbotron behind him cut to an image of a sunset on a lake and he started to strum “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the gray gradient of the sky matched the green-red gradient of the Gorge and I said to Bailey, “I love this song.” I tried to pretend like I wasn’t crying. She said, “I love this song too,” and then we just stood there and listened. Because that’s how good this stuff is. And by this stuff, I mean music.
After an unsurprising home-run show from Kurt Vile and the Violators, the rest of my mushrooms kicked in late, and God, do I hate tripping at night. Where did these people all come from? What are they on? Do they know what I’m on? What am we all doing here? Why the fuck is Florence and the Machine closing this entire festival?
From the suffocating crowd gathered bizarrely for Florence, Mara walked me over to a nice empty field bathed in fluorescent lights, signs like “GIANT PIZZA SLICES” and “YAKISOBA NOODLES” lining the perimeter. “I feel stuck in ugly thoughts,” I said. “It’s hard to describe.” She rubbed my back and said she’d stay up with me all night if she had to. I fell asleep right there, my head pressed into her lap, in seconds.
She woke me up when everything was over, and I remembered something I read somewhere — that even the worst trips always end well. You always learn something, even if you don’t know what.
As we started up the long and dusty, winding path to camp, I saw some things I hadn’t seen before: all the people at the edges of the stages smoking cigarettes, shooting the shit with their friends, and a banner hanging huge and commercial above us, reading: “THANK YOU FOR BEING PART OF SASQUATCH! 2016.”
Further on, I saw that there were so many stars, the stadium lights turning off one by one behind us. When we crossed the creek you have to cross, I heard frogs croaking the way they do at night. I even heard crickets. And for a second, it felt like the middle of nowhere.
Photos by Brinkley Capriola