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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sasquatch! 2014: Outkast, the National, M.I.A. & More

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Tue, May 27, 2014 at 11:29 AM

Another Memorial Day weekend, another Sasquatch music festival at the Gorge. Each year the festival finds a happy middle ground where legacy acts and on-the-tip up-and-comers can meet. This year felt like the festival’s least rock-oriented festival yet, with no big band reunions gumming up the headlining slots. Rather, most of the excitement was geared toward hiphop and dance acts: Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, Major Lazer, and of course Outkast. As a barometer, Sasquatch doesn’t quite have the currency of Coachella, and some of the indie-rock blog acts of the ’00s feel very long in the tooth (looking at you, Cold War Kids). But the setting in the Gorge is phenomenal, and the programming is diverse and thoughtful enough that almost all the bands are worth seeing to some extent. Almost.

Plainly, Outkast were the stars of the weekend. Andre and Big Boi performed a great, energetic set that drove the crowd crazy, running through hit after hit from their full career. Although they’ve only been gone for eight years, it felt like longer; this was a ’90s and early ’00s revival trip, pure and simple—I’m sure a big part of the Sasquatch crowd was still in grade school when “Hey Ya!” came out. While Outkast’s set didn’t point the way to the future (Big Boi and Andre still seem like flipsides of a coin, rather than a fully integrated duo), it was still a terrific show. I was told by someone who saw their first show at Coachella that the Sasquatch show was miles better in every way.

The National headlined the second night to a far smaller crowd, but were no less stirring. It’s always remarkable how the band’s low-key moroseness translates to such a powerhouse live show—largely due to frontman Matt Berninger’s wine-soaked extroversion—but the National’s sound reached the upper lip of the bowl easily. At the end of the set, Berninger ran into the crowd, trailing a mic cable behind him; the band closed a set with the standard un-mic’ed rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” tearing down the artifice and volume that characterized the rest of the weekend.

M.I.A., meanwhile, recreated her 2008 Sasquatch performance by inviting a huge group of people up on stage. Otherwise, her set felt a little like karaoke, despite the well-choreographed dance team—perhaps a recurring theme of the weekend, as I felt like the majority of bands, in all genres, relied a bit too heavily on backing tracks. Perhaps that’s the sign of the times, and perhaps I’m showing my age, but it really does make for less interesting live music. Needless to say, Damien Jurado was a dramatic exception, and the only solo performer I saw at the festival (other than Panda Bear and the stand-up comedians, although even the hilarious Hannibal Burress relied on a DJ for some of his punchlines). Jurado’s set was like an eye in a hurricane: hushed, unhurried, almost too subtle for its surroundings.

One of the other highlights was an early Friday set from the Stepkids. The Connecticut trio’s brand of nutmeg funk put their staggering level of musicianship above almost all else, but it wouldn’t have meant anything without good songs to back it up, including a well-timed cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free.” Trading virtuosic vocals and instrumental licks—and some very un-virtuosic dance moves, which were hilarious—the group ran rings around everyone else at the fest. Lucius on Sunday were a close second, stitching together the band’s inventive arrangements and the stunning harmonies of (identically coiffed) co-lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig with bright, energetic renditions of songs from the group's winning debut, Wildewoman.

Tacocat were irresistible, as ever. Playing the first slot on Sunday didn’t faze the Seattle band, who got a sizable crowd whipped up and ready for the rest of the day. It even carried over to the end of their set, when Miley’s “Party in the U.S.A.” came over the PA and drummer Lelah Maupin came to the front of the stage and danced; singer Emily Nokes eventually had to drag her off so the next band could start setting up. It was the best.

Parquet Courts was one of the last things I saw on Sunday, and they were more than solid. I kept thinking they sounded like Real Estate covering Motorhead, which probably sounds like a slight, but it suited me fine—the perfect level of pep and ease for the end of a three-day music festival. I also appreciated Jonathan Wilson’s breezy California psychedelia, which was a perfect soundtrack to a sunny Saturday. The laidback, Floyd-y “Desert Raven” unexpectedly became one of the more potent memories in a weekend where it was difficult to retain much information.

What else? Die Antwoord’s late-night set was strong, and suitably grotesque. While the emptiness of their shtick wears thin when you look at it too closely (as do the implications of their post-apartheid South African personae, in particular Ninja, who surely didn’t choose the Juggalo-approved safeword for “ni**er” as his stage name by accident), the spectacle worked on the largely white teenage crowd. Chance the Rapper was a much more thoughtful highlight, performing a very musical set that was uplifting. Tyler, the Creator was disappointing in comparison. Same with the much-ballyhooed Princess, which was basically a neighborhood-bar-level Prince cover band with a famous singer. When you’re tackling the output of someone as transgressive as Prince, it takes a lot of hard work to make those phenomenal, roboto-funk gems of his early ’80s catalog (“Head,” “When U Were Mine,” “Controversy”) sound pedestrian. But even with some silly costumes, that’s what Princess did. Sorry.

Some other quick thoughts: Haim sounded great from where I was, and the crowd adored them. They managed to drive off the only raindrops that fell all weekend (the weather really was perfect this year), replacing it with bursts of sun. Violent Femmes were like your dad’s garage band crashing the party (I appreciated it). De La Soul were fine, but paled in comparison to those superlative sets from Outkast and Chance… Austra will probably be the perfect thing for little girls to graduate to when they get too old for Frozen… Same goes for White Sea, the solo project of M83’s Morgan Kibby. The young group’s live show isn’t quite dialed in yet, but it will with time—those songs are pretty great, so the rest will come. Panda Bear’s solo electronic set felt like a ’70s singer/songwriter updated for the computer age. The Dodos were excellent. The little bit I saw of Kid Cudi had tons of energy, perhaps the most boisterous thing of the weekend, which the younger element of the crowd ate up; ingeniously, he was scheduled at the same time as Rodriguez on another stage.

I don't think there's much point in summing up a weekend of reasonably diverse music into a pat thesis about the "state of music today," or attempting to put the now very-well-established festival in context of where we're at as a culture. The crowds get younger every year, which is expected and necessary, and the music remains good. Perhaps this year was not as crazy as past years that I can recall. But perhaps Sasquatch is right where it needs to be. While the organizers' attempt at extending the festival to the Fourth of July holiday weekend went down in flames, the May edition remains a rousing success. It was a three-day party, and while exhausting at times, like most parties, it was a lot of fun.

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