Four hours to freedom.
As the ladyfriend and I finally squeezed past the Portland traffic and sped north toward the soon-to-be-town of Sasquatch, that’s what it felt like. We’ve been dating for nearly three years and will be getting married this August. This three-day music festival was our first REAL vacation. That’s sad (he says, shaking his fist at "the man"). But we aimed to make the most of it, and with my best friend from New York meeting us there, I didn’t think that would be a problem.
The drive up along the Gorge (one I’d never taken before) was stunning. Between the views and the array of birds (yes, I’m an Audubon nerd), I nearly drove us off the road a couple of times. Despite the tens of thousands of people making this same journey, we made good time and had pulled into our camping spot and erected our tent by 8:30 p.m.
A GRANOLA KIND OF HELL
(FULL DISCLOSURE: We didn’t camp in the general area. I figured I could spring for a "premier" spot, which, with promises of cedar fences, private showers, and coffee, sounded like Eden among the ruins. Of course, I’m an idiot. Premier camping just turned out to be the same, slightly more spacious mass cesspool with a few extra porta-johns—Honey Buckets, ew!—thrown in. If you wanted a shower, you had to brave two-hour lines. And I never saw one cup of joe.)
We sat down in the darkness and hatched our plan for the next day. Definitely wanted to see the much-hyped Animal Collective, the Doves, and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, but wanted to make time for hometown faves like the Decemberists and M. Ward. We would drink, we would pack lunches, we would bake in the sun, and we would revel in great music. The only boundaries I set for myself were not to vomit on anybody and to keep all my clothes on.
As the ladyfriend and I heated up a can of soup over a lantern, deafening roars floated up into the night. Waves of noise swept across the unseen horizon. It was the campers from the general camping grounds. It felt very Lord of the Rings … a horde of orcs screaming in anticipation of battle.
Naturally, we decided to join the fray.
It was like entering a particularly granola circle of hell. Past the single cedar fence that encompassed the entire premier lot, tents and cars stretched off in all directions in absolutely no order. Sasquatchers who were just arriving formed a snaking line of headlights and kicked up clouds of dust. Couples drunkenly groped in the grass, by-the-book hippies pawned tie-dyed shirts and glass pipes, shirtless males roamed the grounds screaming, there were drum circles, random dance tents, puddles of puke and broken glass. At one point, a drunk Canadian (of which there were many) decided not only to get behind the wheel, but to try to drive his truck over and through a tightly packed neighborhood of tents. "I’m trying to get to Quincy," he slurred as we stopped him from backing over another encampment.
It was absolute chaos. And it made me want to run and get a vasectomy.
After a visit and a few cold beers with the ladyfriend’s sister and her friends (among them a guy who worked for FEMA and seemed right at home in the human wreckage), we headed back to rest up for Day 1.
AND THE BANDS PLAYED ON
Saturday was a very Portland kind of day on Sasquatch’s three stages, with Blind Pilot, M. Ward, and the Decemberists all taking their turns to rock the masses. For reference, the rundown went like this: the Yeti stage was the smallest, reserved for up-and-coming bands; the Wookie stage was for more-established indie acts; and the main stage was reserved for the heavy hitters.
Blind Pilot was a big draw on the Wookie, even at their early 1:30 p.m. start time. And although the outdoor setting would seem to beg for big, rambunctious rockers, Blind Pilot stuck to their breezy, country-pop guns. It worked, as the crowd sang along and bobbed their heads and danced. Of course, they were all high (everyone everywhere was high, I think), but still … it was another big step for a group that seems poised to be the city’s next breakout band. The only bad thing about their set—ads for XBox popping up on the screen behind them between songs—was not their fault.
We spent the rest of the evening at the main stage, locked into place by the back-to-back appearance of English mope-rockers Doves and M. Ward. M. Ward was magic. Does anybody else make winning over the crowd seem so easy? From the start, he owned the stage. Stomping, smiling, singing in that matter-of-fact, gravelly croon. It’s an odd thing. He’s not doing anything new, but he does it so well, so timelessly, that he’s both paying homage to rock while pushing it forward at the same time. After he made sweet, sweet love to his acoustic guitar on "One Hundred Million Years," I turned to the ladyfriend and said, "That guitar is now pregnant with twins."
Even when drunk and sunburned, I am nothing if not witty.
Devotchka was next, and although I’d never heard of them, my friend insisted I watch (even if I did so in the shade). They were great. They’re from Denver, but their Eastern European–flavored ambient rock sounds worlds away from the land of Coors.
Next was one of the more-anticipated appearances of the festival: Animal Collective. How do you describe them? Indie-electro? Psych-prog? Three dudes randomly pushing buttons and squawking into their microphones? Thanks in large part to their latest record, Merriweather Post Pavilion, they have a rabid and varied following. Frat boys, surfer dudes, girls in sundresses, hippies, neon-clad hipsters. They all seemed to love it (again though, they were all very, very high), but I guess it’s clear that I’m no longer able to hang with the cool kids. All I heard was one great song—"My Girls"—and a couple of solid numbers, surrounded by giant, repetitive, annoying wads of noise trying to pass as progressive jam music.
When Pink Floyd’s "One of These Days" came over the speakers after the set, it was as if somebody was not-so-subtly saying: "Hey guys, this is how you do it."
THE NAUGHTY BITS
Up next was the first true, unbridled, magical, had-to-be-there-moment of the festival. It was magical. If by "magical" you mean gross, surreal, certainly illegal, and kind of awesome. Naturally, it happened right smack-dab in the middle of the Decemberists’ main stage set.
During the epic ebb-and-flow of "The Wanting Comes in Waves," a weird roar kept weaving its way from the back of the bowl to the front. I was confused at first. But finally I looked back to see thousands of necks crooked up and to the left where, on a cliff just off the top of the amphitheater, two naked bodies were furiously humping each other. Which is to say, they were having sex. Full-on, naked, head-tossing, back-arching sex. Despite the illegalness of the deed, it was kind of beautiful. The sun was just climbing off its boiling crest, which cast the two lovebirds as a pair of black silhouettes acting (and I would guess, overacting) out a couple of pages of the Kama Sutra.
The crowd roared its approval (and Colin Meloy and the rest of the band tried to contain their laughter) until security finally managed to pull the couple off each other (just try and imagine those poor dudes).
Here’s the video (don’t worry, you can’t see any naughty bits):
How do you top hilltop fornication and a rock opera? You don’t.
But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs did all right. As the sun finally finished its descent, the ever-flamboyant Karen O came out dressed like a mix of Peter Pan, Sacajawea, and a box of neon Crayola crayons. I was living in New York when these guys first broke out, so I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat to their rise to dance-rock royalty. But I had only ever seen them play clubs. Could they fill a open-air stadium with twenty thousand or so people? Hell and yes. The YYYs, and especially Karen O, were totally engaging. Cool, stylish, hard and nasty at times. But she never stops smiling. There is no better front woman in rock music right now. And when they whipped out a stripped-down acoustic version of their hit "Maps," it was an amazing moment. Sincere and fun … a brief break in the jittery, rocking, furious set that put a smile on everyone’s sunburned face.
Tomorrow … Sunday. Day 2. The day the ladyfriend and I got up onstage in front of five thousand or so people and a band from Seattle kicked my butt and blew my mind. Again.