Reflecting on the Gorge: 10 Things I Learned at Sasquatch! 2015

Vortex Music Magazine

Making sense of the bizarre alternate reality of a Memorial Day weekend spent at the Gorge Amphitheatre. Photos courtesy of Sasquatch! Music Festival

It’s the day after the 2015 Sasquatch! Music Festival and I’m stretched out on a futon in SW Portland. The floor is littered with beer-soaked camping supplies and my brain hurts. Just a few minutes ago, my neighbor’s dog looked at me like I wasn’t a real human anymore. He's probably right.

I'm not sure if I should blame the ringing in my ears on the bludgeoning bass of “Backstreet Freestyle” during Kendrick Lamar’s prodigious headlining performance Monday night or Tame Impala’s beautiful guitar solos earlier that same evening. I just know that both were totally worth it.

This happens every year. Thousands of us make the trek up to the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington for a weekend of music, partying and complete lack of sleep—then come back and try to make sense of it all. We’re left with hazy memories of incredible performances by our favorite musicians and incredible memories of hazy moments with our friends.

As I write this, a high school senior from Lake Oswego named Houston (who was camping next to my friends and I) is sitting somewhere with an electrical burn on his ass because on Day 3 he volunteered to get tased by a man in his mid-30s who was camping on our other side. I have no idea why that man brought a taser to a music festival or why Houston wanted to get tased under my sunshade in front of 20 people, but I know it’s a memory I couldn’t have gained anywhere but the bizarre alternate reality that is Sasquatch.

This year, I’m going to try something different. Before these memories fade away and my recollection of the festival is replaced by a handful of Instagram photos and the general feeling that the weekend was just a self-indulgent escape from adulthood and responsibility, I’m going to take a moment and attempt to take something away from it all.

Some guy named Mao Zedong once said, “If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.” I’m as curious as you are as to why he felt the need to bring pears into this, but I understand his general point: People learn by experience. Sasquatch! 2015 was most definitely an experience and I’m sure I learned some things along the way. Let me share them with you...

1. Kendrick is King

There was a moment during Kendrick Lamar's headlining set on Monday night when I looked up at the denim-clad Compton rapper and thought to myself, "Holy shit, I'm watching a legend right now. I should probably get my phone out and take a picture so my future kids will think I'm cool someday." That's how impressive Lamar's stage presence is. I haven't felt something like that since watching Kanye West and Jay-Z during the Watch The Throne Tour in 2011.

There were only a few times during the weekend that I completely lost track of all distractions and became totally absorbed in what was happening on stage—and this was one of them. For 90 minutes, I forgot about my friends and the thousands of strangers around me. I didn't care who was playing next in the dance tent. I couldn't care less that my sunburnt face was throbbing and I had to pee. I think I even forgot that I was at the Gorge altogether. I was watching one of the best rappers of my generation. Nothing else mattered.

I hate to continue throwing over-the-top comparisons at a 27-year-old rapper, but Lamar's ability to package intricately written, socially conscious lyrics in an accessible package that an entire festival crowd can party to is unlike anything we've seen in hip-hop since Tupac. Watching thousands of drunk kids—myself included—singing every word to "Swimming Pools (Drank)" (a song that not-so-subtley warns against the downfalls of alcoholism) was somehow just as beautiful as it was ironic. Lamar knows exactly what he's doing right now and it's fascinating to watch. Some people were disappointed that he only performed one song ("Alright") from his new album, To Pimp A Butterfly, in his first festival appearance since the record's release, but the set flowed together flawlessly as it was. I can't complain. This was one of those very rare moments when the performance I was most excited for pre-festival actually became my favorite set of the whole weekend.

DISCLAIMER: There's a huge possibility that everything I just said above was clouded by the surreal experience of watching one of my friends get called up to perform "m.A.A.d city" on stage with Lamar halfway through the set. After hinting that he'd like to pull a fan on stage to rap with him, I watched as he invited my friend Luis on stage. For a minute, I thought maybe someone had slipped a hallucinogen in my drink back at the campground. Then I wiped my eyes and it was still happening. After a few moments of second-hand nervousness, I watched as Luis jumped around on stage and perfectly recited every word of the song in front of the biggest crowd of the weekend. Nuts. Here's a link to a video of the whole thing taken by a stranger up on the hill, if you're curious.

2. Something Will Go Wrong. Go With It.

In many ways, Sasquatch feels like a magical dreamland where the inconvenient realities of everyday life don't exist and the only worries you ever have are trying to decide which stage to walk to when two of your favorite bands are playing at the same time. Over the course of a four-day weekend, something will go wrong, though.

Your friend might drink way too many Bloody Mary's before noon and start throwing up alarmingly discolored vomit, causing you to miss an afternoon of shows. Your neighbor might drunkenly break the sunshade you borrowed from your roommate during a game of beersbee and it will add to the wasteland of mangled metal structures littering the campground at the end of the weekend. Maybe your friend will get a bloody nose while dancing and have to walk around with a tampon up her nose for 15 minutes. Actually, all of those things happened during my weekend. Seriously. Here's a video I randomly happened to take while she got that bloody nose. It's so weird.

Anyway, those mishaps usually turn into great memories in their own right. Stay back at the campground and nurse your drunk friend back to health with water and a group nap. The friendships you form/strengthen at Sasquatch will probably last a lot longer than the career arcs of most of these bands anyway. Don't worry, you'll laugh about it all on the drive home.

Changes in plans might actually lead you to a great new band you've never heard of, too. I don't know how many times I've missed out on seeing an act I was looking forward to, only to discover another artist I ended up liking much more. Sasquatch rarely books subpar musicians. Last year, I stumbled across a Canadian group called Austra that ended up being my favorite set of the whole weekend. This year, I was very pleasently surprised when I accidentally caught a wonderful set by Jenny Lewis at the main stage on Sunday evening. Also, pro tip: It turns out if you're really drunk or tired at the end of the night and jokingly stick your thumb out for a ride from one of the staff golf carts, they'll actually give you a ride.

3. A Transcendent Year for the Royalty of Portland Music Continues

Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-KinneyCarrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists were already having a pretty decent year for themselves. Sleater-Kinney returned from a long hiatus to release the critically acclaimed LP No Cities to Love in January and The Decemberists followed their chart-topping 2011 album The King Is Dead with my favorite work of theirs to date: What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World. Two of the most successful bands to call Portland home in the last couple of decades made smooth returns to the public eye and reminded everyone why they've been so influential in creating the thriving music scene the city now enjoys.

Their return to prominence became even more obvious on back-to-back nights at the Gorge as both bands took advantage of prime set times on the main stage to deliver performances that routinely popped up as the answer to the inevitable question—"What's your favorite show been so far?"—among attendees throughout the weekend. At a festival that boasts such an impressive stable of buzzworthy national acts like the afforementioned Mr. Lamar, that speaks volumes for two aging bands from the Northwest.

4. Embrace The Campground

Remember that story in the intro about a high school senior happily getting tased by a man in his mid-30s at my camping spot this year? Moments like that are what make the Sasquatch campground such a magical place. Sure, there are lots of frat guys who play Skrillex remixes of New Kids On The Block every night until sunrise. And yeah, a disturbing amount of human laziness and filth is revealed when the field quite literally turns into a garbage dump at the end of every festival. But if you're in a friendly mood and are willing to embrace what the campground has to offer, it'll likely redeem itself.

Festivals have always been about community as much as they've been about music, and Sasquatch is no different. Especially as you get older, it's tempting to look down on your neighbors and spend the whole weekend isolating yourself while complaining about everyone around you. But at that point, you have to admit to yourself that you're no different than the old guy down the street from your parents' house who yells at neighbor kids to stay away off his lawn. Don't be that guy.

In its own quirky way, the campground experience is what makes Sasquatch. It's where most of your memories will come from—for better or worse. Embrace it. You might find yourself in a surprisingly intellectual conversation with a high school kid and have your faith in today's youth restored. Or at least you'll get to watch him be joyfully tased by someone's dad. I'm bad at math, but I'm pretty sure that's worth having to listen to at least a few Skrillex remixes.

5. There's Something Magical About Sunset at The Gorge

I would be more than content sitting on the grassy hill at the main stage watching the sun dip below the mountains at the Gorge without the accompaniment of music. It's a gorgeous slice of the Northwest that should be seen by anyone who, you know, enjoys pretty things. Of course, when you throw incredible musicians on a giant stage into the mix, things get extra magical. As the sun sets, this beautiful thing happens where everyone in the crowd is energized by the incredible setting and the musicians on stage are overwhelmed and inspired by being able to perform in such a majestic place. Then the two combine and incredible performances happen. More than a few of my all-time favorite music-related moments have taken place during sunset at the Gorge. Two years ago, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros pulled off the best festival set I've ever seen at sunset. This year, watching Tame Impala perform a breezy version of their buttery hit "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" as the sun lowered felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was unreal. Lana Del Rey's already dramatic stage presence was pushed into "Am I watching a movie right now or is this real life?" status at dusk on Sunday night as well.

6. James Blake Can Party

I've always thought of James Blake as some kind of ethereal woodland creature whose sole purpose on earth is to make pretty electronic soundscapes for my "Sleepy Time" playlist—but he revealed another side to me at a packed Bigfoot Stage on Sunday night. James Blake can party. Realizing he was playing to a festival crowd anxious to dance, he turned up the tempo a bit and was able to get everyone moving. The bass in "Limit To Your Love" rattled my chest a little harder than I'm used to when I drift off to sleep every night and the synths in "Overgrown" got everyone bouncing. I had to check to make sure I hadn't gotten disoriented and ended up at Cashmere Cat over at the dance tent (El Chupacabra). It was awesome.

7. Chromeo Can Party Even Harder

On paper, I don't want to like Chromeo. They call themselves "Tha Funk Lordz" and take their own name so literally that they cover everything on stage in actual chrome. Gross. In person, though? I fucking love Chromeo. Especially on a Saturday evening. Outside of the dance tent, there wasn't a bigger dance party all weekend than the one that broke out during their set at the main stage. As the sun set, they kept the energy ridiculously high and got a surprising amount of hillside loungers off their feet and up to dance. The crunchy synth riffs of their hit song "Jealous (I Ain't With It)" are still bouncing around my head. Damnit, I'm totally a Chromeo fan now. Don't tell my dad. He thinks I went to Sasquatch for Robert Plant.

8. The Best Spot Isn't Always Up Front

There's nothing like being front and center for your favorite band, but at Sasquatch, the edge of the crowd has become my favorite place to catch a show. Freed from the tangled mess of limbs and backpacks that exists up front, you can flail your arms around like you're one of those inflatable dancing guys at a used car lot without any fear of accidentally punching someone in the face. Several of my favorite memories from this year's festival took place at the far edge of the Bigfoot Stage late at night. On Saturday night, my friends and I used the extra room to run/dance around and bask in nostalgia as we loudly sung along to our favorite songs from high school as Spoon ran through a set of their greatest hits (solidifying themselves as one of my all-time favorite bands to see live). Then on Sunday night, we found ourselves in a dance battle with strangers in the same spot as heavy bass from SBTRKT's late-night set shook the ground.

The far right pocket of the main stage can get a little more crowded at times, but it's another favorite spot of mine as well. I could write another paragraph to explain why, but it would probably be easier if you just watch a short video I took during Milky Chance's Sunday afternoon set instead.

9. El Chupacabra is home to the sing-along (and other things)

Discovering new bands is one of my favorite things about festivals like Sasquatch, but sometimes all you really want to do is sing along to recognizable songs with your friends. If you're ever in one of those moods and the evening's schdule is made up of a bunch of bands you've never heard of, head to El Chupacabra (or "the dance tent" as it's more commonly called on the festival grounds). Inside, you'll likely find a DJ putting their own touches on that Katy Perry song that you and your friends have been replaying over and over back at the campground. This is your chance to hear it on a professional sound system with a thousand other people who are similarly inclined to dance and sing along.

This year, one of my friends had been obsessing over Ryn Weaver's "OctaHate" all week and was more than stoked when the song randomly started playing during Cashmere Cat's Sunday night set. I later learned Cashmere Cat was actually a co-producer of the track, making the moment much less random—but it was a perfect example of El Chupacabra's role as Sasquatch's home of the sing-along. Of course, it's also home to a bunch of sweaty kids on drugs, but it's worth it.

10. Sasquatch has Triumphantly Returned to Form

Last year was a bit of a mess for Sasquatch as the festival originally expanded to two weekends before canceling weekend two and having to deal with a PR nightmare in return. This year, they returned to form. Reemerging as a four-day, single weekend festival, the 2015 incarnation of Sasquatch boasted one of the most diverse (and appealing) lineups they've ever had, and besides an unfortunate incident involving an intoxicated driver in the campground, the weekend was free of any real mishaps. With one of the most gorgeous venues in the country at their disposal, Sasquatch doesn't have much of an excuse to pull off anything but one of the finest music festivals of the summer every year—and that's exactly what they did in 2015. See you next year.

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