It’s tempting to employ a bit of hyperbole and call the Timber! Outdoor Music Fest a tremendous success. But that would be misleading. Timber! was a success, no doubt. In this, its first year, the festival attracted 2,000 people to the heretofore largely unknown Tolt MacDonald Park, 30 miles east of Seattle near Carnation, Washington. But it was a little too relaxed, too anodyne in even its most raucous moments to seem tremendous in any sense. It was, rather, a tranquil success, which is really what anyone opting to attend the festival, held on the same weekend as the notoriously tremendous Capitol Hill Block Party, might hope for.
Staged on the footprint of a Boy Scout Camp at the Eastern edge of the park, the festival was accessible only by crossing the Snoqualmie River on a footbridge, a symbol if there ever was one. Once on the other side, away from the campsites, parking lots of cars and the highway, one could indulge in modest offerings that benefitted from the natural surroundings rather than overwhelming them.
Timber! hosted only a couple stages and the two never ran concurrently. Music began Friday night at the Campfire Stage where a rustic canopy sheltered the musicians while two fire pits lit them from below, not with fire, but stage lights. The night was held together by Andrew Joslyn and his Passenger String Quartet, which opened the festival and then provided accompaniment to sets by Jenn Ghetto and Avians Alight. The evening’s headliner Bryan John Appleby eschewed his full band for an intimate solo-acoustic set, an ideal set-up for him, even with a chatty beer garden humming in the background. The performance was highlighted by a moving rendition of Simon & Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence” during which the singer stumbled a bit, but was held up by a forgiving crowd. As if to signify that this was a special show, Appleby encored with “Cliffs Along the Sea,” a song from his debut EP that is a fan favorite but which the singer “doesn’t really like.” Still, he sang high and loud and the fans sang along.
By 10:30, the set was over and part of the crowd moved on to a special after-hours performance at Pete’s Grill & Pub in downtown Carnation. There Baltic Cousins and Hobosexual played edgier bar rock sets to a mixed crowd. Discerning the bearded, baseball-cap-wearing urbanites from the bearded, baseball-cap-wearing townies made for a fun pastime. Fashion tips were most likely exchanged before the fest-goers headed back to camp.
The next day was split between two locales: the river, where city-dwellers immersed themselves in the Cascade Range run-off, and the Main Stage, a half-mile hike away, where music played to a relaxed crowd throughout the afternoon and on to sundown. Early sets from Lemolo and Kithkin impressed, the latter featuring Seattle Weekly staff writer Kelton Sears munching on a banana mid-performance, and Hobosexual emerged from the bar into the sunlight for a growling set before rolling away in its black van, with canoe on top. Ivan & Alyosha, filling in for a recently disbanded River Giant, was met with an enthusiastic reception, their pulsing pop songs playing well to a crowd spiked with root beer-addled kiddies.
Portland duo Quasi offered a contrast to I&A’s polished sound with a set of blues-based rock songs that came the closest to unsettling the serene setting. And yet it was during their set, highlighted with the gargantuan riff strangled out of Sam Coomes’ guitar during “Never Coming Back Again,” that a bald eagle criss-crossed the sky above, offering one of the weekend’s greatest natural highlights. “That is the first time I have ever had a bald eagle fly overhead during a song,” drummer Janet Weiss said. “Bald eagle rock,” replied Coomes. “Freedom rock!” someone shouted from the crowd to muted chuckles and groans.
Fruit Bats followed with a set that revealed leader Eric Johnson’s predilection for the Grateful Dead, retrofitting his band’s sunny pop hits with spaces to spread out and jam. It was a good fit for a crowd ready for a mellow moment. Headliners Helio Sequence played the sun down with a shimmering, if somewhat uniform, set of electro blues, before the crowd headed back to the Campfire Stage, where it all started, for two idyllic sets from Vikesh Kapoor and Noah Gundersen. Then the crowd split, some off to drink at their campsites, others to rest up for the next morning’s “unofficial” Timber! 5K run/walk, and still others to an organized stargaze, a final look at the adorned heavens before heading back to the bright lights of the big city.
The buzz throughout the weekend was how Timber! resembled the much-heralded Doe Bay Fest on Orcas Island. The similarities were there in many of its performers, its relaxed atmosphere, its natural setting and the fact that it was put on by Artist Home, which had a big hand in establishing that island festival. But there is much different from Doe Bay, which is happening the weekend after next. There is the fact that Timber! isn’t an all-or-nothing affair. Festgoers can choose their level of commitment to this fest: escape for the full weekend and plan on a campout, day hikes and winding mountain-bike rides, or come out for a night and drive back home to sleep in your own bed. And, looking to the future, there is room for this festival to grow. Doe Bay, being located on an island resort, has a set capacity and has naturally bent toward a more exclusive vibe. Tolt MacDonald, on the other hand, has room to spare and can be as inclusive as King County will let it be. So, yeah, maybe it will become a huge, tremendous success. But for its inaugural go, Timber! felt more like a wonderful little secret.