While the stunning views of the Columbia River Gorge may be Sasquatch! Music Festival’s go-to selling point, the venue’s remote Central Washington location also serves as an ideal testing ground for musical engagement. Sure, smartphones still get reception out there, but even the kids scrolling through Instagram plant themselves in front of the stage before doing so (gotta share those Insta stories, after all). If there’s something special that makes a musical act especially captivating, the wilds of Sasquatch! amplify it. Here are a few factors that the acts on the 2018 lineup maximized.
It’s honestly hard to believe the amazingness of David Byrne’s live show. The art-pop legend continues to innovate, and it’s clear he’s having so much fun doing it. His mainstage set on Friday featured an untethered band that plays everything wirelessly while marching in choreographed steps. When the band itself is having a dance party while playing Talking Heads hits, it’s impossible not to join along. Even at 66, Byrne radiates a joy while performing that few—if any—musicians can match.
Byrne’s free-flowing band certainly has a gimmicky aspect, but there’s nothing wrong with stacking an A+ visual gimmick on an already stellar musical product. Similarly, David Bazan’s songwriting makes Pedro the Lion a must-see anytime, but now the band now also boasts one of the most dazzling light shows in the business.
That said, even just having a super-strong gimmick can work to draw folks wandering around the Gorge because of the isolation of it all. Case in point: Too Many Zooz. Why is there a three-piece brass band with a crazy dancing baritone saxophonist on the Bigfoot stage? It’s a question that surely crossed many minds, but the curiosity drew a large crowd and many stuck around to enjoy the energetic oddity.
Sometimes the lineup just breaks perfectly for an artist. Such was the case for Japanese Breakfast. Michelle Zauner’s indie-pop solo project overflowed with enthusiasm during its Sunday-evening set at Yeti, drawing the weekend’s biggest crowd at the fest’s smallest stage. It just so happened that the performer at the Bigfoot stage—Noname—played a set that went short, so there was a 15-minute stretch before Neko Case took the mainstage in which Japanese Breakfast was the only thing happening outside the El Chupacabra tent. The timing worked brilliantly for Zauner to pick up stragglers, but it was her performance that kept them around.
With the EDM lineup scaled way back (and even then relegated to the night), festivalgoers needed a way to let loose crazy energy during the day. Ultra-high-energy rock and pop punk—not a normal staple of Sasquatch!—helped fill the void. Japandroids finally graduated to the mainstage and ripped through the blistering anthemic rock tunes that got them there with a sweaty fury. Pup and Jeff Rosenstock made the outdoor stages briefly feel like underground D.I.Y. shows with well-executed mosh pits and fans screaming along. On the sugary side, Charly Bliss got the crowd at Yeti bouncing along to their infectious ditties.
On the also-thin hip-hop side, Lizzo once again showed why she’s a sure thing in a festival setting: The MC’s body-positive swagger wins over pretty much everyone who watches her, making things like a moment of massive group twerking possible.
Watching Vince Staples slyly poke at the overwhelming whiteness of Sasquatch! attendees proved a captivating treat. There’s an intellectual playfulness to the MC’s provocateur bent. Between songs at Friday’s mainstage set, it was evident in the knowing glances he’d shoot the crowd during banter. But it was most crystallized when he asked the audience to sing along with one N-word-laced refrain, and then deadpan asked why more people weren’t repeating the words. Staples is here to agitate and make people uncomfortable while they bounce lively along to his hip-hop tracks, and it’s a marvel to witness.
Outside in the sun is far from the ideal setting for super-sad singer/songwriter tunes, but it’s telling when artists of that ilk manage to get the crowd to mentally invest. When you can get the kids to stop chattering about their campground party plans during a quiet song (while louder noise bleeds in from a distant stage), you’ve got something special. Phoebe Bridgers did an excellent job of this on Sunday at Yeti (while also managing to keep from melting in full festival goth attire), but the gold medal in this category must be awarded to Julien Baker for slowly getting an early-Friday mainstage crowd to fall almost eerily silent with rapt attention using only her voice and electric guitar. But when her voice hit those powerful emotional musical crescendos? The cheers poured out.