"It almost smacks of too much effort," said DFA 1979 drummer-singer Sebastian Grainger about the stunning natural environment at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in central Washington last Friday, as the red sun gently dipped into the shadows of the Columbia River Gorge.
The river, Grainger said, must be trying to compete with the wind-carved cliffs, the tumbling brush, and three-nerved violets covering the hills behind the Gorge Amphitheater. The 105 acts performing over four days faced a similar dilemma. How could anyone's music lure listeners' attention away from a scene so breathtaking?
Grainger's jab was cynical, but clearly meant to garner laughs. Most of the artists whose sets I saw also paid respect to the Gorge – in awe and gratitude.
"This will probably be the most beautiful place I ever play in my life," said Jenn Wasner of the Baltimore duo Wye Oak during their warmly gothic Saturday afternoon set. Every rote "thank you" offered up to the thousands of fans who camped out or drove out for the day from some Pacific Northwest city was superseded by a different kind of gratitude: an almost spiritual delight in being blessed with cumulus-kissed skies and the sonics of a natural agora.
Throughout the weekend, performers rose to meet the beauty surrounding them. Sets were expansive and relaxed. No one sound defined the artists who made the biggest impact this year – the most buzzed-about sets in the circles where I wandered came from Seattle folk sweeties The Head and the Heart, New York City stoner-rap intellectuals Das Racist, Austin blues cookers Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Southern singer-songwriter Sam Beam's Iron & Wine, and Montreal club music goofs Chromeo. Instead, the big story was about a mood, a tacit pact made by 25,000 festivalgoers to step off the hamster wheel of competitive daily life and just enjoy: music, self-expression, and the space to breathe.
The good feeling got me thinking about a concept that's key to the way I understand music: set and setting. Timothy Leary coined that term to describe the interaction between a person's mental state (the "set") and the environment in which she finds herself. Leary, the guru of LSD, was describing chemically induced inner journeys – not an irrelevant category at this fest, as at most. But I'm more interested in how set and setting influence how music is made and received.
Summer festivals and other location-based pop experiences increasingly define our concertgoing lives. Clubs still thrive in major cities and smaller towns, and chart-toppers still lay siege on sports arenas. But in 2011, when fans and artists alike are economizing, many will approach live music as more of a vacation experience: they'll seek it less frequently and hope that when they do, it's truly memorable. Festivals embody this approach to live listening.
Regional by definition, festivals take on the attributes of their home bases. Coachella catches the stardust and the fantasy-prone imaginativeness of Southern California. Bonnaroo, in the humid summery South, is both gritty and laid back. When All Tomorrow's parties invaded the historic Catskills resort Kutscher's, that venue reflected and even encouraged the knowing hipsterism of arty indie rock.
The emotional current that runs through a particular festival isn't just determined by the acts that perform. This is one reason why every fest provides a unique experience – even if many headliners (Foo Fighters, for example, who played Sasquatch Friday night) use the circuit as a way to tour. Sasquatch, curated by festival founder Adam Zacks, is a model of well-paced programming; stars like Death Cab for Cutie find their spots next to veterans like Bob Mould as well as hot upstarts like Das Racist, Robyn and Sleigh Bells, in a four-day schedule as efficient and natural feeling as an expertly built algorithm.
Sasquatch does, however, share many bookings with other major festivals throughout the summer. The stars draw many ticket buyers, but they don't rule the event. Even deeper into the bill, where rising artists make their mark and sometimes change their careers, it's not just the line-up that draws people and keeps them dancing on the grass.
What matters is the interaction between the artists and their fans, orchestrated by the festival organizers. At Sasquatch, that meeting of minds, hearts and happy feet feels particularly good-natured and resilient. Over the weekend, I did see a few of the crises that plague all such gatherings – a fight here, a disturbingly drunk person there. But I saw more hugs, more group dances, more crazily costumed kids just loving life.
Certain aspects of this year's Sasquatch (my third) indicate that it's changing. Zacks told me that he's particularly proud of this year's electronic music line-up, and late night sets by Bassnectar and Ratatat drew notable raves. I saw Sleigh Bells drive the crowd that packed its tent into a truly Dionysian state. I'm hoping that even more hip hop and electronic music makes Sasquatch bigger and better next year.
At times this weekend felt like the end of something and the start of another. The beloved indie rock band Guided By Voices, for example, drew a small but thrilled crowd after Chromeo's masses dispersed. Yet one generalization fit every set I saw, no matter how many ears heard it: fans' enthusiasm never waned.
Was the particularly hearty nature of Pacific Northwesterners the reason for this? This weekend, I've run across Sasquatch regulars from all up and down the West coast and as far as way as the Midwest and the coastal South. (The boisterous Canadian contingent, well served by appearances by artists like the Sam Roberts Band, Basia Bulat, Dan Mangan and Wolf Parade, deserves a write-up all its own.) The clichés about Pacific Northwesterners – that they're rugged artisan types who appreciate quality beer and know how to rock a Gore-Tex jacket – are not totally fabricated; the revelers assembled for guitar masters Rodrigo y Gabriela only rocked harder Monday when a cloudburst drenched them.
But was the home base of these Sasquatch newbies and veterans what made them so prone to delight? I think not. It was where they'd come, for one brilliant weekend: a place like no other. A places as perfect as wherever you will enjoy your own favorite festival this season.
Ann Powers was part of NPR Music's team at the 2011 Sasquatch! Music Festival in George, Washington. To hear more than 40 archived concerts from the festival, visit npr.org/sasquatch.