Day 1: Sasquatch Saturday

Full Sasquatch coverage by Royal Stuart

The drive from Seattle to George, Washington, is always a good way to build up excitement. Cold and rainy turns into warm and sunny somewhere around Thorp. Rounding the bend down into Vantage provides a spectacular view of the Columbia River Gorge, from which The Gorge takes its name. You cross the river with your jaw firmly planted on the floorboard of your car. But not until you get on the grounds of the festival, walk into the venue, and crest the ridge overlooking the main stage do you feel like you’ve arrived. “I could now die happy,” you feel like saying to no one in particular.

And now, add in music.

The early sets of the first day of Sasquatch were filled with names unfamiliar to me, along with some other names I did know but wasn’t interested in seeing. With three stages of music and lots of overlap, it’s easy to get a taste of a lot of things while you await the bigger names you want to settle down for.

The first band I had planned to check out didn’t start until 15 minutes after the main-stage act, so I was able to get a couple songs in there first. Shabazz Palaces got the honor of kicking the festival off. With the relatively small group of people crowded around the main stage, it was very easy to get right up front. After a brief “Everybody Wake Up” song to lead into their set, they fell right into step with their interesting bongos and loops style of hip-hop. But hip hop and rap isn’t what I’d come to the Gorge to see (except for one very key performer in Sunday’s lineup). So I left the main stage to head to the smallest stage to hear what the kids all seem to be into these days.

Morning Teleportation was first up. Not familiar with their songs, I had given them a brief listen online prior to the weekend and was anxious to see how they pulled off their sound on stage. A single trumpet, two percussionists, keyboards, and the usual guitar and bass, all thrown together in a mish mash of sounds that somehow manages to work when put together. Granted, they did seem a bit ADD with their style from one song to the next — ska here, funk there, Mexican banda-style, all topped with the lead singer’s Isaac Brock inspired vocals. In fact, the band has a Brock-produced album set to be released on Brock’s new label, Glacial Pace, so it’s not surprising that they bring a little Modest Mouse sound to the mix.

Laura Marling was next up, on the medium-sized Bigfoot stage. This is where the Sasquatch of old became the New Sasquatch for me. The 2010 festival was only 50 minutes old and it was already packed to the point of making it difficult to see a band. Standing way back makes getting into an artist like Laura Marling a wee bit difficult, as her form folk music is a bit quieter and you have to pay attention to get the smaller details. Mixing in some strong minor chords among the more typical folk stylings, I was quickly reminded of 16 Horsepower. But Marling’s vocal style was a bit Ani DiFranco. You would think that those two distinct forms don’t mix, but surprisingly it worked out great. With her English accent and humble conversation with the audience, I could happily sit on the lawn and take her in all day. (And I’d be able to see her, too, if it weren’t for all these people!)

With their 3-part harmonies, banjo, standup bass and acoustic guitar, Mumford & Sons really makes you feel like you’re in amongst the blue grass. Throw in a slide guitar for good measure and you’ve got yourself a party. Like Laura Marling, the feel of Mumford’s set had trouble reaching those in the back, but you could that the people up front were clearly into it. Mumford’s older work stands tall and plays well to the crowd, but the new stuff they played delves a bit too much into the Dave Matthews realm for my liking. Perhaps I’m in the minority there, but it’s true.

Portugal. The Man. drew quite a crowd at the Bigfoot stage with their funky, trippy bluesy rock. Santana-lite, you might call it. With the lead singer’s Jay Kay/Jamiroquai-inspired falsetto, it often sounded as if a woman were singing, but there he was on the big screen so you couldn’t deny it.

Managed to catch the tail end of Brad on the main stage, and it appeared that their set wasn’t really winning the crowd over. Most of the kids at the Gorge probably don’t know how important Brad is to the Seattle music scene of old, so unfortunately their set was lost to them. But it was good, Grunge-inspired music, as you can expect from Shawn Smith, Stone Gossard and crew.

OK Go, as everyone surely knows, are masters of the viral video. Starting out with the choreographed treadmills, every subsequent video of theirs has been a spectacle. So I was hoping their mainstage set would bring a little bit of that joy to the Gorge. But even if they didn’t have a stellar stage “show” their short set of hits really got things going as the afternoon progressed into evening. They’ve really got the festival-performance style down: playing to the crowd, animated on stage, making everyone feel happy and alive. Halfway through the set, lead singer Damian Kulash broke out a camera, took a picture of the audience, and told everyone that he was going to post the photo on Facebook later. “We want to be the first band to also become a dating service, so make sure you tag yourself accurately, or the person you’ve been talking to for the afternoon will mistakenly look up the person next to you.” Watching Kulash crowdsurf doing one song was pretty impressive. It always amazes me when performers put themselves into the crowd like that. The final song of their set, “This Too Shall Pass” with the audience-participation chorus, capped off a great set of music.

Broken Social Scene, in their current pared-down lineup, really command a stage. The band exuded stage presence as only a road-weary set of performers such as themselves could do. Their newest album, Forgiveness Rock Record, a departure from their previous works, really brought the stage set to life. With the floor packed to capacity, it was nice to see that even the younger crowd at Sasquatch was into these veteran Canadian rockers. And while the crowd was into their set, the band seemed a bit removed from the festival overall. Sandwiched between OK Go, who embody 2010’s version of stadium rock, and the National, who you’ll read in a minute were the highlight of the day, made the BSS set feel a bit lackluster in retrospect.

I wasn’t expecting The National to fare much better. Their recorded music, powerful in its own right — with most songs building from a quiet, understated point to a frenzied climax, doesn’t seem like it would translate to the big stage. But I’m so happy to report that I was 100% wrong. The band puts everything into their set. Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals just melt across the crowd when he’s singing quietly. But as each song builds, he becomes a powerful force that commands attention. Brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, swapping guitars back and forth throughout the set as only brothers could, add a little bit of a necessary damper to Berninger’s onstage antics. And the National’s second set of brothers, Scott and Bryan Devendorf, on bass and drums, respectively provide the undertone and the excitement to the set. With Padma Newsome on violin and keyboards, the band performed one amazing song after another.

Watching Berninger on stage really brought things to life. He throws mic stands; he bounces around the stage; he pounds his fist into his open palm over and over again, to the point that you wonder if the man suffers from a slight form of Asperger’s. But each and every song was powerful. You could feel the energy emanating from the stage. And when Berninger took to the crowd, during “Abel,” from their Beggar’s Banquet debut Alligator, he provided me with one of those once-in-a-lifetime festival experiences. He waded through the crowd, singing at the top of his lungs, spreading his overflowing energy from one person to the next. And he walked right next to me, holding his mic to his mouth with one hand and the cord for the mic up over the crowd with his other, singing the song’s “chorus” — the shouted line “My mind’s not right” repeated over and over and over again — right next to me. That’s some powerful stuff. And there’s no way that anything else could compare for the rest of the day.

So let me now apologize to Vampire Weekend. They played a great set, and I did thoroughly enjoy it, but it was impossible for them to match the power of the National. Performing a spitting image of their recorded work, Vampire Weekend leave absolutely no room for spontaneity. Every note, every word vocalized, every hair on their heads was perfected well before they got on the main stage. Performing a smattering of hits from their two fantastic full-length albums, their set was perfect for a festival. It got everybody’s favorites in, and they were clearly having their own form of controlled fun.

By the end of the Vampire Weekend set is was dark at the Gorge. The stars had come out, and after standing for 10 hours I was a bit on the tired side. I did catch the first few songs of the headliner My Morning Jacket — they performed as expected, bringing their form of powerful rock jam to the eager crowd. But it was time to head to the hotel in preparation for another long day in the sun. Tomorrow is supposed to be hot, and with the promise of bands like the xx, LCD Soundsystem, Dirty Projectors and Massive Attack, it looks to be another stellar day.

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~ by royalbacon on May 30, 2010.

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