Putting together a festival is not unlike putting together a mixtape. Not only are the band and genres different, but you can put bands on that audiences only need to enjoy for 15 minutes. Charles Bradley is fun for 10 minutes, but there's no need for any more. That doesn't make him a great headlinging act, but for a festival with four stages and more than 100 acts, it's golden. The whole is greater than the sum of the feathers in the fest's headdress. With that in mind, I didn't see all of every one of the following sets, but I got some good bites (also, it's effing late/early, so if you would be so kind, please point out my typos in song, not snark, in the comments):
Charles Bradley (1:05 p.m., Sasquatch Stage): In theory, this guy's act is a really good idea. But it comes across as a novelty, an amalgamation of history's soul characters with a set of songs reduced to a growling cliché.
Blitzen Trapper (2:10, Sasquatch: On paper, this Portland band that toes the hippie/hipster line is one I'm supposed to really like. I keep trying to get it, but with no luck. Mainly, I this has to do with the fact that with so many words in their songs, that it leaves very little room for their hooks and melodies--something thicker for audiences to grab ahold of. To stretch, they need to stop trying to do so much inside every track.
Portlandia (3:10 p.m., Banana Shack): "You did not come together, but you're both in an animal thing (costume)?" Carrie Brownstein asked a pair of contestants she pulled on stage for a contest. "But, do you see how easy it is to write our show sometimes?"
The Civil Wars (3:15 p.m., Sasquatch): "I am like a month away from having a baby," co-vocalist Joy Williams told the audience, just before jumping into a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."
Alabama Shakes (3 p.m., Bigfoot Stage): The buzz band of the moment plays southern blues with vigor. Frontwoman Brittany Howard was described to me during the set as a black Janis Joplin. I don't disagree. The music is formulaic blues rock, but still exciting.
Sol (4:25 p.m., Maine Stage): This up-and-coming Seattle rapper almost caused a riot on the "Maine" stage. Extra security had to be brought in--a burly crew that mostly-obscured the slight Sol. This kid's star is climbing fast. Catch him at the Showbox on June 16 before he skips town.
Dum Dum Girls (5:10 p.m., Bigfoot): Dee Dee has amassed a crackerjack group of beautiful ladies to support her, most notably drummer Sandra Vu, who was easily the most authoritative drummer of the day. On stage, the band's sound expands off the garage-rock that dominates its records and churns out a far more expansive sound on stage.
Renee McMahon Dum Dum Girls
Helio Sequence (6:20 p.m., Bigfoot): The electronically-assisted drum-and-bass duo teased a few new tracks from their forthcoming Sub Pop LP, including the soaring "One More Time," which provided a highly appropriate soundtrack to the Gorge's expansive scenery.
Tune-Yards (7:30 p.m., Bigfoot): The most inventive set of the festival so far came from Merril Garbus and Co. The four-piece band includes an electric bassist, two saxophones (tenor and alto), and Garbus, who alternates between a skeletal, stand-up drum kit (which she loops), vocals (which she also loops), the ukulele (yes, more loops, but not obnoxious). As one colleague poignantly commented, she focuses on making sounds as much as lyrics. It's not that she's always compelling, it's that she's moving in a direction that's different than every other artist on the bill--and in pop music--and is building an audience (she last played on the smaller Yeti stage, in 2010) while doing it.
The Shins (8:10 p.m., Sasquatch): James Mercer has a great new band that includes SW favorite (and Deep Sea Diver leader) Jessica Dobson on guitar. But Mercer has yet to parlay indie-rock gold into an exciting live show--he stands there, grips his guitar, and shouts. The stage, you could say, is this Shin's Achilles heel.
Renee McMahon The Shins' James Mercer Renee McMahon The Shins' Jessica Dobson
St. Vincent (9 p.m., Bigfoot): Taking the stage with the look and sass of Harry Potter's Bellatrix Lestrange (seriously, I pity the soundperson who provoked her ire), St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) roared through her set on the Bigfoot stage. I only regret that I missed her rugged crowd surfing, which occurred after I'd headed over to see Jack White. Until White took the stage, the day's most charismatic performers were all women--from every one of the Dum Dum Girls and Tune-Yards to The Shins' Jessica Dobson and, finally, St. Vincent, who shredded her axe with more intent than any artist not named White.
Renee McMahon St. Vincent
Jack White (10 p.m., Sasquatch): Former SW editor Mark Fefer isn't always wild about straight-ahead jazz (he needs some kink). So, when told him one of my favorite records is Bad! Bossa Nova by Gene Ammons--a relatively straight-ahead sax player--I was somewhat surprised to hear he was a fan. Ammons played it straight, he said, but he did it so well, it was incredibly compelling.
Renee McMahon Jack White
Jack White is the Gene Ammons of rock and roll. It's not that what he's doing is especially inventive--his ensemble is of a standard instrumentation (save for the violin-playing pedal steel player), and the songs are fueled by the blues and garage rock. But he does it so well--as a performer and songwriter--that he's become one of the most imitated artists of the past decade. Last night, he showed off every chapter of his much-documented career, pulling re-arranged catalog cuts from The White Stripes ("We're Going to Be Friends"), The Raconteurs ("Steady As She Goes"), the Dead Weather ("I Cut Like a Buffalo"), and his recent solo record, Blunderbuss ("Take Me With You When You Go").