What came first: the festival or the festival culture?
In recent years, it seems that festivals have geared towards the latter. The fashion, selfies, and gimmicks (inflatable toys, matching costumes, an excess of cultural appropriation) seem to take away from the reason for the festival: live music. But has the American music festival really deteriorated with each flower crown placed upon a perfectly coifed head of braids?
This is what I pondered at the 2016 Sasquatch! Music Festival, held May 28-30 in the Columbia Gorge in Washington state. Each morning, I arose from my tent, dust already coating my throat and eyes as I listened to my camping neighbors getting ready for the day. The three female college students took turns sitting in the front seat of their car, applying makeup in the sun visor’s mirror. They debated outfit options as if they were preparing for battle.
But they were only soldiers in a much larger army. Around me, the festivalgoers prepared for the day. A bugler even played “Taps” from a jerry-rigged platform on the top of a truck. There was enthusiastic applause as people washed their hair and brushed their teeth in the cold spigot water. The goal, of course, was to make it look like you were not camping out of the back of a car and using a porta-potty.
Sure, it can be seen as frivolous, but the festival look is as much of a performance as the actual acts. Instead of taking away from the music, the blue lipstick, body glitter, and leftover Halloween costumes add to the magic that can only come from seeing four of your favorite bands, right after each other, in a sleepy daze in the middle of nowhere. Artists themselves are embracing the new festival mode. During her set on the last night of Sasquatch! Florence Welch asked the crowd to find a friend, new or old, and get on their shoulders, a festival staple that no doubt gave the security guards panic attacks.
Having a crew of backup dancers seemed to be the latest festival trend, with Grimes, Sir the Baptist, Thunderpussy, Tacocat, and even Sufjan Stevens employing a “squad” to keep the energy going. Beneath the glitz, though, was good music. While these accouterments created the mood, it was carried through with every guitar solo and never-ending chorus. And the audiences were active participants, singing along, holding signs, and Snapchatting friends not lucky enough to be there.
As everyone removed the layers of makeup, packed up the crop tops and cutoffs, and drove back home, it was officially time to go back to the real world. The war was over, with only a few bruises and sunburns as battle scars. Until next year.
New York-based duo Lion Babe opened the festival with a bang. Singer Jillian Hervey (daughter of Vanessa Williams) eased the audience into the festival spirit with killer dance moves and powerful vocals backed by producer Lucas Goodman. She came back later that night to perform with Disclosure.
Listen to: “Where Do We Go”
Most artists who experience a Lenny Kravitz style wardrobe malfunction would stop playing and change. But retro-inspired crooner Andra Day simply tied a jacket around her waist and continued performing, still looking and sounding straight out of 1955 with a twinge of ‘90s R&B. That’s true artisanship.
Listen to: “Forever Mine”
Clearly, this was a year for great female-fronted bands, and alternative rock band Wolf Alice was no exception. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell’s vocals are comforting, but have a slight chilling effect that is complemented by the band’s trudging, guitar-heavy melodies.
Listen to: “Blush”
While garage rock musician Ty Segall might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the creepy mask he came onstage wearing and his slow, robotic dance moves made it an enjoyable set. It was also great to see Sasquatch! alumnus King Tuff on guitar.
Listen to: “Candy Sam”
With highly choreographed outfits and ‘50s-inspired tunes, Oakland-based group Shannon and the Clams walks the line of being a caricature of the aesthetic it is both embracing and appropriating. The band would be trying too hard if singer and bassist Shannon Shaw didn’t have such powerful vocals to carry the pop ditties.
Listen to: “Rip Van Winkle”
Chicago rapper Vic Mensa has gained success with his hit song “U Mad” ft. Kanye West, but during his performance, he decided to feature “16 Shots,” a track honoring Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed by police.
Listen to: “16 Shots”
There might not be a more appropriate band name than Savages. The London-based rock group, fronted by Jehnny Beth, fits somewhere in the overused “art rock” realm. Beth embodies the group’s fierceness, frequently leaving the stage to sing in the faces of unprepared audience members.
Listen to: “Adore”
On the third day of the festival, main stage performances were postponed for most of the day due to high winds. That didn’t stop gospel darling Leon Bridges from playing a humble acoustic show with an engaged audience seated around him. He ended his set with a soulful rendition of his hit “River” with fans singing along.
Listen to: “Smooth Sailin'”
Shamir doesn’t exactly fit any musical label, and the start of his set proved that despite his young age, he is an artist who his confident in his singular style. He sat on the edge of the stage, smoking a cigarette before jumping into high energy tracks off his debut album
Listen to: “On the Regular”
Clearly, a Sir the Baptist set is a religious experience. The son of a preacher has a complicated relationship with God, both praising him and criticizing the institution that often protects abusers. Despite the heavy overtones, William James Stokes (aka Sir the Baptist) had the energy of an enigmatic preacher, performing with a small choir, tuba, and never standing still, ever.
Listen to: “Raise Hell” ft. ChurchPeople
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down gained success in 2013 for their banjo-heavy track “We The Common.” This year’s A Man Alive, though, was a shift for the band and was influenced by the contributions of Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus. The band stuck mainly to songs off A Man Alive, and lead singer Thao Nguyen fluidly shifted from electric guitar to mandolin to of course banjo.
Listen to: “Nobody Dies”
At one point during his set, Sufjan Stevens said, “It wouldn’t be a Sufjan Stevens show without a few songs about death.” The prolific multi-instrumentalist delivered, playing darker songs off of last year’s Carrie & Lowell, including the title track and “All of Me Wants All of You.” But after just coming off the album’s tour, he favored older, often more cheerful tracks such as “Chicago” and “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”
Listen to: “Casimir Pulaski Day”