Photography by Alex Crick
“Everyone I was with took drugs and disappeared,” one Sasquatch! festivalgoer announced to anyone who would listen while waiting for Vince Staples. It was only Friday evening, and the insanity was already starting. But the thing about Sasquatch! is that it’s a controlled chaos. People delve more into the weird than the chaos. You’re more likely to find someone dancing to Florence + The Machine in a bacon costume than someone asking for their hair to be held back.
Not everything is weird at Sasquatch!, though. It’s been said again and again and again that the Gorge is the most beautiful venue in the country. But with great beauty comes a great price. Being completely exposed to the elements is hard but often manageable. However, this year saw major winds coming through the Eastern Washington venue, causing major delays and cancellations on the main stage. Acts like Houndmouth and Frightened Rabbit never got a chance to play, while others like Tacocat and Allen Stone were shuffled to the dance tent last minute. Leon Bridges saved face by performing unplugged on the lawn to everyone’s surprise. All things considered, the festival handled these unexpected hurdles as best they could.
In a festival climate where the representation of female artists on lineups is consistently being discussed, Sasquatch! is far ahead of the pack. Sunday, in particular, was stacked with powerful women fronting bands, from the menacing howls of Savages, Bully, and Hop Along to the pop prowess of Purity Ring. The additions never felt niche or forced – these are just some of the best bands out there, and they happen to have two X chromosomes.
It was also a celebration of transcendent DJs. This year, El Chupacabra, the designated electronic music tent, improved the sound tenfold from past years. The dance parties overflowed out into the concessions area, the enthusiasm was infectious, and it wasn’t just at the tent either. Major Lazer brought the spectacle to the main stage with twerking and a blinding light show, plus a surprise introduction from certified dingus John C. Reilly in character as Dr. Steve Brule.
Parsing through the four days of musical onslaught is exhausting, but fulfilling. The majority of the acts were playing at their prime, making any weather detours seem minuscule in perspective. Having said all that, there were a lot of great performances, but the following were simply a cut above.
Let’s start near the end, shall we? Ten o’clock at night on the last day of a four-day festival weekend can be brutal. Your body starts to fall apart from all the dancing, standing, and whatever you’ve put into it — be it alcohol, food, or whatever substances the kids are into these days. Four Tet’s rare stateside appearance worked against these conditions and gave a revitalizing wave of sound to whoever dared enter the tent. His beats were caffeine, and his abstract, colorful visuals were shots of adrenaline while the strobe lights kept everyone’s eyes peeled. In a weekend of great DJ sets, his UK house vibes added a unique flavor to keep things fresh. Sleep be damned while Four Tet exists on a bill.
These charming lads have seen their status skyrocket in the past few years. Headlining the main stage on Friday night showed just how far Disclosure have come. The duo cleverly absorbed the stage with swirling colors and large, bold visuals; for instance, during “Omen”, a line drawing of Sam Smith synced up with their performance. The duo may be young, but they carried themselves like seasoned festival veterans. Jumping between bass guitar and drums, they were able to add live percussive elements to their songs that blended seamlessly with their electronic production.
Titus Andronicus didn’t draw the largest crowd of the weekend, but they may have had the most devoted. The small yet mighty group jumped and cried out every word to every song. Frontman Patrick Stickles and his bandmates held up their end of the bargain, too, delivering a barrage of back catalog cuts at a fiery pace. They opened with “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” off 2010’s The Monitor and carried the intensity through tracks off The Most Lamentable Tragedy like “Dimed Out” and “Fatal Flaw”. The band didn’t need numbers to produce a killer set, just the energy from their die-hard fans.
Dancing hot dogs gyrated behind Wimps during their afternoon set. The Seattle punk trio love to lean into their slacker aesthetic, penning anthems about being mistaken for parents at house shows and settling on leftovers in the fridge. Instead of loathing the process of aging, the songs are actually giddy and snarky – and played at breakneck speeds. The band even joked about trying to stretch out their 30-minute catalog to fit 45 minutes. “I soaked my underpants in LSD,” frontwoman Rachel Ratner admitted. “It’s a secret trick I learned from Jimi Hendrix.” Such quips and attitude were indicative of the Seattle scene, and it was a pleasure to see the Wimps hold that festering mantle.
Purity Ring made a sonic leap on their second album, Another Eternity, and their live set reflects this. They’ve amped up their performance, forgoing the muted lanterns of their previous tours for the spectacle of light-up crystals and hanging lights – the latter of which swayed and shook in the harsh evening winds. Frontwoman Megan James swooned across the stage as she showcased her fairy-like vocals, oozing with confidence that wasn’t there in prior years. In a festival climate where big-sounding electronic acts are king, Purity Ring are making a serious move in this MPC-driven game of thrones.
Caribou was one of the most stripped-down sets to perform in the El Chupacabra tent (that is, if we’re not counting Tim Heidecker’s soft-rock ballads about hot piss). Performing with a full band, mastermind Dan Snaith recreated tracks from his back catalog and his recent record, Our Love, with newfound grace and energy. The group opted out of any video support, letting the lights silhouette their frames, instead. Snaith showcased dynamic vocal range, revealing that the melodies on his records weren’t just samples but crafted organically. While electronic acts don’t need full bands to stand up to rock acts, it was a welcome and exciting change of pace.
Sunday’s wind troubles were one of the biggest bummers of the weekend, keeping the main stage closed throughout the day. Yet when it finally opened up again in the evening for Alabama Shakes, the vibe was quite celebratory — there couldn’t have been a better band to rechristen the stage. The crowd was ready to rejoice, and the outfit’s roots rock sound was true to the revival spirit. Vocalist Brittany Howard’s howls echoed throughout the Gorge, spearheading a set that was grizzly yet tight and formidable. Her face contorted with every note, making it even more of a visceral experience. In hindsight, the Shakes were always going to be great, but having the added context of the cancellations made their gig feel even more powerful.
Florence + The Machine
Leave it to Florence Welch to completely and accurately define the entire weekend: Earlier in the evening, the epic songstress asked the crowd to be her “choir of hung-over angels,” running barefoot across the stage in her flowing jumpsuit. At one point, she leaned over a fan, who handed her a crown, officially making her the Sasquatch! queen. In all honesty, it’s rather unfair to put Florence + The Machine on a list like this because they’re just so remarkably consistent and probably deserve a list of their own. They maintain their flourishing energy during every show and make each performance feel new again for every crowd.
Hop Along frontwoman Frances Quinlen’s voice produced the best growl of the weekend, and the band’s performance of “Tibetan Pop Stars” was the most euphoric. Devoted fans rallying in the front row pumped their fists in the air, embracing one another and screaming along to every heartbreaking line. The Philadelphia quintet have been hyped up for the past couple years, and this excitement culminated in their set. Guitar rock anthems blasted through Quinlen’s inspired lyricism. Her sneer and smile wooed the crowd while the band did their part to elevate the performance, layering up elegant guitar lines and thundering drumming. It’s hard to believe that Hop Along will be relegated to rookie spots like the Yeti stage much longer.
Photo by Jim Bennet
Walking into the El Chupacabra dance tent during Todd Terje’s set was like stepping into a disenchanted Wonderland. You could have watched an awkward love triangle form between a woman and two guys dressed as a cow and a vaping dinosaur. You might have passed by a dancing man with a four-foot ponytail and light-up gloves. Come to think of it, Terje’s disco-electronic music is really the only thing that could soundtrack this beautiful mayhem. Besides, it’s not like you’d miss anything on stage as Terje spent most of his time in the shadows of his album artwork. No, the focus is supposed to be on the crowd, a concentrated blend of weirdness that belongs at the Gorge.
Alice Bognanno’s vocals are unparalleled; every scream and contortion raised the stakes of Bully’s set. Nearly a year removed from their 2015 debut album, Feels Like, the Nashville punks are running on fumes, yet the songs feel just as vital. As the band waged a war on the stage, the crowd grew in numbers as more and more passersby stopped by to hear their thriving rock ‘n’ roll anthems. The wind seemed to encapsulate the energy as Bognanno’s blond hair whipped across her face. She didn’t seem to mind.
Closing out the weekend is a difficult task in the larger context of the festival. It can be seen as the culmination of everything prior or one last hurrah before returning to reality. Jamie xx was more than capable to handle this. His DJ set became a life-affirming affair. Between splicing in bits of his remarkable solo album, In Colour, the UK producer worked in crowd-pleasing moments like The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us”.
People embraced. People danced. People beamed with joy. It’s easy to be annoyed with excessive partying at festivals, but a lot harder to be cynical about adoration for life. Transitioning from his Gil-Scott Heron remix of “I’ll Take Care of You” to his own “The Rest Is Noise” was a transcendental moment, further heightened by the smiling faces of the crowd who had spent four days in the Washington desert to experience art with their friends.
Before Long Beach rapper Vince Staples hit the stage, he was preempted by bass — so loud it rumbled in your chest — and a quiet vocal sample calmly announcing, “This is a Vince Staples show, so make some fucking noise.” It was an appropriate introduction, exemplifying his brash and thunderous voice. Wearing a tucked-in shirt and a pair of Chucks, Staples’ body contorted while stomping around the stage, almost as if he was running against a gust of wind. He’d periodically sit on the catwalk, admiring the crowd with nonchalance, and while he was short on snarky quips, he was full of vicious energy.
Are Digable Planets basically a Northwest band at this point? Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler has always hailed from Seattle, but the crew has their roots in Brooklyn. What’s more, their two reunion shows have both been in the great state of Washington. If so, their eclectic vibes and laid-back attitude suits the Evergreen state well. Backed with a full jazz band, their set exuded joy. When they rap “It’s Good To Be Here”, it’s easy to believe.
Nostalgia abounded. “Why are all you cheering for 1992? You wasn’t even around in 1992,” Butler laughed. In the crowd, this infectious attitude was felt. A group of dancers brought a square of linoleum to break dance during the set. Everyone was grinning, not taking themselves seriously, and feeling the lush beats. Digable Planets have been gone for awhile, but their cool is evergreen.
The Cure has the power to transcend any makeshift generational boundaries. Every kid has felt sad, and every middle-aged adult feels sad, too. Seeing these worlds come together to join in the choruses of “Just Like Heaven” and “Pictures of You” was absolutely powerful. For the band’s part, they sound like they haven’t missed a beat since their ‘80s heyday. Opening with a three-song Disintegration suite, Robert Smith and co. played an onslaught of hits with deep cuts sprinkled in. The setlist gave everyone a chance to engage — not just the die-hard fans. Decades later, The Cure remain a treasure, and their headlining set proved why they’ve stayed around in the public’s consciousness for so long.
Ty Segall & The Muggers
Ty Segall walked to the end of the catwalk with a flurry of distortion behind him. He stared at the crowd while wearing his trademark baby mask. He stood still in a deeply unsettling way, but it was about to get a whole lot weirder. Case in point: A shirtless man bleeding from his scalp rampaged through the crowd alongside backpack-clad festivalgoers, upping the ante with every one of Segall’s yelps.
Between songs, the punk rock hero delivered classic one-liners, like “Fuck you man, I’m gonna eat all the fucking eggs”; “You guys fucking partying or whaaaaaaaat?”; and “Mommy, where are you? I thought we were supposed to go to a fun festival together. Maybe you’re with your new boyfriend.”
Sans guitar, Segall reveled in punk ethos, and the crowd mirrored his attitude. The singer-songwriter is constantly reinventing his sound, but this homage to the obscure and ugly recesses of punk is one of his most thrilling yet. Whatever he does next, let’s hope it’s with the same tenacity. Let’s be real; it will be.
Grimes’ set felt like a Saturday Night Live Stefan sketch: “This performance has everything. Dance Dance Revolution-style beats, women dancing with daggers, and an acclaimed Canadian producer rolling on the ground while screaming in Russian.” Yes, Grimes has turned into a full-blown pop star, but she’s doing it on her own terms. Onstage, she’s like a Spice Girl from Planet X; even her attire tends to reflect the jagged styles of the early ’00s heartthrobs.
At the Gorge, her beats bellowed out like alien transmissions. She’d roll around and bounce alongside her dancers, exuding a hellish intensity. All that mystique immediately disappeared, however, whenever she addressed the crowd, sheepishly and charmingly babbling apologies and thanks. Then she would suddenly howl like a death metal singer. It’s a breakneck contrast to witness in person, and only someone with the talent of Grimes could pull it off.
Sufjan Stevens’ second run of the Carrie & Lowell tour has been an overabundance of joy, balloons, and smashing banjos. For the Gorge, the singer-songwriter offered up a greatest hits of the different iterations of his celebrated career, from the tangible, sing-along Illinois era to the apocalyptic weirdness of Age of Adz.
It’s wild how he pulled it off, too. A dance remix of “All of Me Wants All of You” may not sound like it would work on paper, yet his execution was flawless. To go from that to an acoustic portion, well, it actually felt just right. As Stevens contended, “It isn’t a Sufjan show without songs about death.”
Even though the stage was marred by a slew of mixing issues, the visuals and enthusiasm pushed the band through. One minute, he was standing on a silver disco ball throne, the next he was quoting Beyoncé. It was undoubtedly the most organically jubilant set of the weekend.
Stevens has reinvented himself a number of times in the past, but this new bold iteration may be his best yet.
The term “epic” gets overused with M83, but for a reason. Stepping into one of their sets is like transcending beyond this universe: space graphics beam around, Anthony Gonzalez’s voice reverberates out of the cosmos, and an onslaught of blasting synthesizer arpeggios and guitar crescendos ricochet around.
Opening with “Reunion”, the level of intensity stayed steady throughout the performance, even when they turned to slower ballads like “Wait”. And for those who are still unsure about his latest record, Junk, seeing it live pushes the music into a new light. A polarizing single like “Do It, Try It” managed to paint the crowd in ’80s arena-rock bliss.
Yeah, it was epic.
Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth prowled the stage as a dust cloud rolled in behind her from the distance. It was an all too perfect personification of the band’s sound: dangerous and thrilling. Despite the sun beaming down on happy festivalgoers, Beth and co. were going to will the crowd to enter their vital darkness.
Bassist Ayse Hassan’s low rumble never let up throughout their set, keeping the crowd hypnotically engaged. It didn’t matter where anyone was in the crowd, Beth was going to get in their face. She repeatedly jumped into the audience and even stood on people as she proclaimed her mantras. If Ty Segall’s set was the punk equivalent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Savages was American Psycho. They were sleek, measured, calculated, and ready to obliterate.
At one point, Beth acknowledged all the other bands playing and dubbed themselves “the good shit” before coolly adding, “If you’re bored, leave.” She continued to stalk the stage like Henry Rollins in his prime, carrying a new black flag. There was no divide between the crowd and band. These women were not to be ignored and not to be fucked with. They’re a band operating with extreme urgency.
Bottom line: When Savages are on stage, they’re the only thing that matters.
Click ahead to see an exclusive gallery from Sasquatch! 2016.
Photographers: Alex Crick, Jim Bennet