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Sasquatch! Dispatch: Friday and Saturday Highlights

An indie-rock summit turns up electronic dance and hip-hop accents

By Jonathan Zwickel
Special to MSN Music

A decade-plus into its loud, scenic existence, Sasquatch remains a music festival reflective of the moment. What started in 2002 as a single-day jam-band fest featuring a dozen acts has evolved into a four-day extravaganza with a lineup 100-some bands deep anchored by a slew of electronic dance outfits. The sounds have changed and the moves are different, but crowds still flock to this remote corner of Washington state to unabashedly get down against the backdrop of the Columbia River Gorge.

Santigold (©AP)

Enjoying Sasquatch is easy — as long as the weather cooperates. This Memorial Day weekend, the 18,000 gathered here have seen nothing but balmy skies and cool weather, ideal in comparison to previous years' maelstroms of wind, rain, hail and heat. Pair that perfection with an eclectic, adventurous lineup and the most beautiful venue setting in America to get a big-commitment, big-payoff recipe for an unforgettable weekend.

Bing: 2012 Sasquatch

Check out the exemplary disparity in main stage headliners: Friday night featured electronic solo act Pretty Lights, the nom-de-stage of Colorado-born Derek Vincent Smith; Saturday night featured rock legend-in-the-making Jack White. Pretty Lights was aptly named — the act is essentially a stupendous light show dressing up unremarkable hip-hop-inflected beats. For the entirety of his performance, Smith was firmly ensconced within a massive console of indeterminate digital equipment, a fixed point in stark contrast to the madly dancing, glow stick twirling crowd. And in stark contrast to White. The next night, the erstwhile White Stripe stalked the massive main stage like the aloof, self-possessed rock star he is.

Read more: Sasquatch! Dispatch: Sunday and Monday Highlights

White is touring with two separate bands, one all-female, the other, which played here, all-male. He pulled mainly from "Blunderbuss," his just-released, hard-rocking solo record, but inspired the biggest crowd response when, towards the end of the set, he pulled out "Seven Nation Army" and a few other White Stripes tunes. These were a surprise given White's intent focus on his new material. Less surprising was a mandolin-backed cover of Hank Williams' "You Know that I Know," White deftly showing his honky-tonk roots.

Prior (and superior) to Pretty Lights was Girl Talk, another of this year's few dozen electronic acts. Girl Talk, aka Pittsburghian Gregg Gillis, played elaborately composed mashup music -- 50 Cent into Vampire Weekend into Jay-Z into Snoop Dogg into Wu-Tang into Beck into a zillion other hilarious transitions. "Sasquatch are you with me??" Gillis called out while standing on top of his digital equipment, half-naked, surrounded by 100 or so dancing fools pulled from the front row. Simultaneously brainy and sensual, his music was a full-sensory massage gorgeously lit by a watercolor sunset.

Photos: 2012 Sasquatch! Festival Preview

To close the set, he played a slew of Beastie Boys tracks on top of each other, a sonic union of big beats and vocal samples in tribute to Adam "MCA" Yauch, the Beastie who died earlier this month at 47 years old.

Earlier on the main stage, Santigold played a peacock-hued set of sizzling electro-rock backed by a three-piece band in plastic flattop wigs, a pair of costumed dancers, a life-sized horse puppet, and, midway through, 50 or so members of the audience. "Is anyone from Brooklyn in the house?" she asked, introducing "Brooklyn Go Hard." Little response — The Gorge is a long way from Williamsburg. Which perhaps prompted altered lyrics: "Sasquatch we go hard!" she sang. To which, of course, the crowd went wild.

On Saturday, Charles Bradley and Blitzen Trapper also took advantage of the main stage's impressive stature. Bradley's early afternoon performance was essentially an adoring tribute to James Brown. Bradley is hardly an original, nor does he have to be. The 64-year-old former James Brown impersonator needs only interpret the very idea of classic soul; his chops and his style provide the necessary authenticity.

Backed by the Extraordinaires — a crack R&B band put together by Dap-Tone Records — Bradley is essentially 2012's Sharon Jones, a revivalist who looks right and sounds right, engineered to hook young and eager crowds. Which he did: His version of Clarence Carter's mini-hit "Slip Away" swelled from the stage like a warm breeze and caught the audience with it.

Portland quintet Blitzen Trapper is an Americana-rock band right now reaching the peak of its prowess. Noisy but melodic, fiery but precise, they played a triumphant main stage set right after Bradley. "Black River Killer" and "Street Fighting Sun" were almost more White Stripes than Jack White proved to be a few hours later, spiked with a bit of Joe Walsh-style guitar pyrotechnics from lead guitarist Erik Menteer.

The main stage is the obvious scenic draw — lay out a blanket on the massive lawn, gaze down onto the stage and beyond to the gaping chasm of the Columbia River Gorge, and take in the day. But Sasquatch's secondary stages have seen consistent musical quality from young, hungry artists. Saturday, Alabama Shakes of Athens, Ala., tore through a rapturously received set of vintage southern rock on the Bigfoot Stage. Singer Brittany Howard looked like a blogger but sings like a woman possessed of The Spirit. Her vocals on "Hold On," right now making the rounds of mainstream rock radio, were an astounding feat of breath control.

Fellow Athens-dwellers Reptar opened the Bigfoot stage at noon. Their sound is far too loony and oblique to make it to mainstream radio, which is exactly what endeared the young quintet to its Sasquatch crowd. Songs like "Sebastian" and "Please Don't Kill" came off like the first generation spawn of mid-aughts indie heroes, working Vampire Weekend's trebly vocal ticks and Animal Collective's unhinged, electronically enhanced percussion. If there's one band on 2012's Sasquatch roster that could've come from 2002's jam-band generation, this was it.

The connection between rave-ready electronic music and squiggly jam-band improvisation is real: Both go long compositionally, both are built for drugged-up dance marathons, both appeal to the Western world's never-ending supply of frivolity-seeking college kids. All weekend, that connection has been most evident at the Banana Shack, a massive steel-girded tent hosting electro music and its attendant, continuous dance party. On Friday evening, Portland's Starf----r worked the live-band angle of dance music; their finale of "Boy Toy" had the crowd convulsing ecstatically. Saturday afternoon it was Purity Ring, a brand-new electronic duo from Montreal.

Vocalist Megan James and electronics whiz Corin Roddick unraveled luscious, mid-tempo grooves just this side of house music, one dusky track after another. Two people in the crowd presented the quintessential Sasquatch cross-section: patchworks-wearing, dreadlock-sporting, 30-something Deadhead dancing next to a face-painted nubile in mirror shades and neon spandex. Ten years in, same as it ever was.
Jonathan Zwickel is senior editor of City Arts magazine in Seattle and contributes regularly to SPIN, The Believer and MTVHive. His book "Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography," was published last year by Greenwood Press.

Jun 2, 2012 10:06PM

Actually "The Gorge" at George, WA is no where near the "Columbia River Gorge".  They are a good 4 hours away from each other.


Jun 2, 2012 9:54PM

Mr. Zwickel of Seattle:

Please take a look at a Washington (the state) road map. You may notice in the lower left is Long Beach, the lower right is Walla Walla, the upper left has Neah bay and Spokane is close to the upper right.  These are the corners of Washington while the Columbia River Gorge at George is within 30 miles of the geographic center.  The rest of your artice is very correctly informative. 

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