review and photos by Josh Bis (Science vs Romance)
Big festivals are odd beasts. Unlike club shows, where there’s just you, the bar, and the occasional superfan for distraction, once you pack up all the bands and move them to a spectacular outdoor settings there are many more opportunities for attention to wander. Multiple bands playing at the same time in different places and different elevations! Elephant Ears! Hackysacks to dodge! People in fuzzy animal hats! And, of course, the ever changing weather.
At times, it’s easy to start wondering whether the climate is inspiring the bands of whether it’s the other way around. For instance, when we roll in on Saturday afternoon with enough minutes to spare to grab a bowl of noodles before Beirut‘s mainstage set, the sky is Beginning Oil Painting blue with strategically arranged clouds perched in place to cast occasional cold shadows across the already thick crowd. Zach Condon says that the setting reminds him of his onetime New Mexico home, and hundreds of New Mexicans in the crowd applaud in recognition. Singing with his horn perched on his shoulder for much of the time, at the ready to quickly switch gears, he leads the band from an opening brass chorale to some of the highlights of their latest album (The Flying Cup Club) noting the sensitivity of ukuleles while tuning for “The Penalty,” back into Gulag Orkestar territory. Reflecting the cheery weather, “After the Curtain” takes on a sprightly violin and piano dance mix tone. By the end, they have played a cover (whose name I missed -- it was in Spanish), “Elephant Gun” from the Lon Gisland EP, and showed-off a new carnivalesque song written during a stay in Mexico.
Next, we scale the giant hill to bask in the meadow while waiting for Canadian alt-country singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards and her band to start playing. They were new to me, but came highly recommended (for good reason, it turns out). Her voice is rich and expressive and their songs are heavily grounded heavily in the “adversity” part of the “triumph over...” without being depressing. There’s certainly a real life happy ending to at least one of them. For the video for “You Get the Glory, I Make the Dough,” Edwards was able to realize a lifelong dream of spending some time on the ice with Marty McSorley (who, according to Wikipedia is the fourth-most penalized player in NHL history). Yes, sometimes in the case of Canadian hockey obsession, stereotypes are grounded in reality.
We didn’t arrive early enough to catch the first Fleet Foxes performance, but by virtue of The National’s tour bus breaking down, they got a second swing through the Mainstage in the early afternoon. I think this is good news, all around. While they’re already rapidly charging beyond the “up and coming” category, the band deserves as many new followers as they can possibly get. And broadcasting their front porch hymnals and soaring nature-infused spirituals to a hillside nestling into their blankets as the clouds gather overhead seems like a great opportunity. With the band filled-out with J. Tillman on drums, they continue to sound better and better with each performance. As an aside: Along the way, they pause to reflect on the venue. Robin Pecknold mentions that way back in his youth he visited the Gorge to see Radiohead’s Kid A tour (Just *how old* does //that// make you feel?). Closing out their set with “Mykanos,” it’s clear that Pecknold and company’s rich harmonic rounds are more than well suited to filling canyons.
Rather than scurry about between sets, I stuck around at the mainstage waiting for The New Pornographers to assemble. It’s always a bit of a mystery before show, wondering which members of the indie-pop super group will be assembling. But with Destroyer playing a few hundred yards uphill, it seemed like a horrible piece of scheduling to pit Dan Bejar against his own band. Soon, though, it became happily apparent that the whole New Pornographers family was reuniting for the big show. I wonder if it’s a little depressing for the rest of the Pornographers to sense that everyone in the audience is holding their breath hoping that Neko Case will be part of the ensemble. Not that we have anything against A.C. Newman, Kathryn Calder, and the rest of the gang, but the songs really are so much better when everyone’s there.
Not only was Neko on stage with tambourine in tow, but they were also able to harass Dan Bejar into joining them for a few songs. I can’t think of many other bands that require so much cajoling to get a reticent member to play and sing his parts. From “Myriad Harbour” on, it often seemed like they were just pulling together songs that would mess with Dan’s desire to hide in the wings. Like the now cloudy with occasional shafts of sunlight sky, the setlist was a bit mellower than usual, drawing mostly from _Challengers_ for much of the first half. As they entered the homestretch, they rewarded our patience with old time bouncy favorites like “Mass Romantic,” “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” and “The Bleeding Heart Show.” Then, neglecting their own deep catalog of some of the decade’s finest pop songs, they close with a rowdy cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” to prove their capabilities of freshening up a bit of old time rock and roll.
Up at the Yeti Stage, Seattle’s own sort of supergroup Grand Archives are playing “Miniature Birds” to a nice crowd when I arrive. Dressed in jackets and sunglasses in preparation for the threat of evening rain, they play through most of the material from their recent self-titled record with the swelling standout being the freshly arranged “Torn Blue Foam Couch.” I still remember the band from shows that we short simply because they hadn’t yet gotten around to writing a record’s worth of material, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear them already playing a couple of new songs -- one for the first time before a live audience, even -- and ending by putting their own spin on Jimmy Buffet’s “Another Saturday Night.”
[ed. -- wait, is this The Wrens' Charles Bissell?]
I had hoped to catch all of Okkervil River‘s set, but they started about twenty minutes late. What I saw was typically theatrical, engaging, and emotive and I was thrilled that they followed up opener “The President’s Dead” with my absolute favorite from Black Sheep Boy, the simultaneously boisterous yet retroactively seething “Black.” Suited up and looking a bit like someone from Wes Anderson Central Casting, Will Scheff leapt off the stage at times to swagger and wave, bringing raw emotion just a step closer to the wall of devoted fans pressed up against the barricade.
We ended up skipping out early because word had spread that the delayed The National had found a new spot on the schedule as the closer for the Yeti Stage. I think that this turned out to be a great stroke of luck. Hearing The National’s heavy-lidded whiskey-drenched songs under a blistering summer sky just might be the type of thing to induce crippling cognitive dissonance. I had suspected that they were the kind of band that should only be viewed indoors, with low ceilings and haze of smoke to match their mood, but last night made me reconsider. Under a heavy overcast sky at sunset just might be the most perfect way to appreciate them.
After a funny roast of an introduction by the seemingly ubiquitous Rainn Wilson (there to promote The Rocker by way of inter-set banter and oh so many branded bandanas), the band launched with “Start a War.” While I’d argue that every member of the audience should be provided a nice bottle of Bourbon to best enjoy the show, Matt Berninger’s smoky baritone provides a suitable substitute.
Often, at festivals, I just keep wishing that bands would play the hits and make everyone happy. During The National’s set, I realized that I consider just about every song on their two albums “hits”; so I was an exceedingly happy camper. In Wilson’s introduction, he deadpanned the lyrics to “Squalor Victoria”. And yes, it was funny hearing the nonsensicality of them, the band’s seeming obsession with shirts and jackets, the frequent references to drinking, yet when they’re sung, accented with a wall of guitars, back-up vocals, a viola, and a horn section, it all sounds more than reasonable.
They round out their set with “Fake Empires” (which, if I’d been paying closer attention at the time would have been among my most favorite songs of 2007) and a raging rendition of “Mr. November.” By this time they’d already won my vote for Show of the Day Award. Then they were coaxed by overwhelming applause to return for an unanticipated encore. I think now they’re the hard-to-beat front-runner status for my Performance of the Festival Award.
I have to be honest and confess that I’d barely thought about R.E.M. more than once or twice in the last six years. So, I didn’t really have any sort of expectations from their big headlining spot on the Mainstage. By this point, the rain was touch and go, from light showers to almost downpours, but the band came out in weirdly high spirits. Their set was thoroughly rocking -- they played enough of their new album to remind everyone that they are still very much a current creative force and not just a nostalgia act, but enough from the deep back catalog to please the increasingly wet fans.
A few songs in, and Michael Stipe rid himself of his shoes and relied on a regular resupply of towels to keep from slipping. I suspect that everyone had a personal list of their top three songs that they hoped the band would play and each of us probably got one of them. For me, it was “Losing My Religion,” for the guy just behind us, it was “Orange Crush.” That oft-shouted request seemed increasingly unlikely as song after song went by, the band played an acoustic circle around the piano, and closed their main set. But that fan’s dream was realized when they returned and opened their encore with it. Ending with a single from their new album “Supernatural Superserious” and classic “Man on the Moon,” Stipe had us all out of there minutes before midnight, a little wet and a lot happy.