Heading up to The Gorge Amphitheater in central Washington, the morning after Galactic played a blowout show in Portland at the Crystal Ballroom, is no easy task. Around 7AM the alarm blared next to my head, and I was off and running. 4 and 1/2 hours of scenic beauty rushing by is all that stood between me ant the inaugural Sasquatch Festival. With a one day line up including SCI, Ben Harper, Galactic, Soulive, Jack Johnson, Maktub, The John Butler Trio, and more, there was no time to waste.
The weather started off great. Scattered clouds filled the sky providing some much needed shade, and unlike past Gorge experiences it was not too hot. As the day rolled on there was a threat of rain, the stage hands even placed tarps over the equipment, but our luck held out. I arrived at the Festival around noon, and had just enough time to settle in, set up my tent, and head into the show.
Maktub started things off. A five piece band from Seattle, Maktub seemed to conjure visions of Curtis Mayfield with their soulful vocals, and laid back groove. Maktub played a few tunes from their newly released album Khronos including "Just like Murder" which was warmly received by the traveling Maktub faithful. The highlight of the set had to be when lead singer Reggie Watts kept belting out the line "This is where I want to be." To the thousands of us inside this glorious amphitheater, more truthful words could not be spoken. His vocal prowess was evident, as he hit the high notes, and even showed off his skill with a impressive beat box display. Maktub showed a lot of potential, and was a fine way to start off the fun.
Soulive was up next, and their delicate balance between jazz, funk, and rock did not disappoint. After seeing them on the East Coast about a month ago, I had thought they permanently added a full horn section to the band, but only after Eric Krasno, and the Evans brothers strolled out onto the stage alone, I realized that was not the case. They opened with one of their many funk/jazz number "Uncle Jr.," which had a sweet jam led by Krasno on Guitar. This was followed by "Turn it out," a great tune that started off spacey and loose, but gained momentum as the song progressed. There was a hot solo by Neil Evans on the Hammond B3 during the composition, and the song climaxed with hard driving beats from Soulive’s virtual M.C. Allen Evans. Soon there after Sam Kininger came out on stage with sax in hand, and the foursome was together again and ready to roll. They played "Hurry up and Wait" the first track off their latest release, Next. It was a great, tight version that dazzled the fans. The band kept altering the tempo, faster then slower to create intense moments of tension and release. The addition of Kininger rounded out the sound, as he provided great leads and fills. "Flurries," another track of their newest album was next, and it brought the heavy funk. All four members of the band stepped up for this one, and really had the crowd up and dancing. After finishing up their set, one by one they left the stage, eventually leaving Kininger alone to serenade the crowd with his SAXual prowess.
Galactic entered the stage and wasted no time. From the first note it was easy to tell how excited they were to be playing this gorgeous venue. Stanton Moore was jumpin’ around behind his kit, arms and legs flailing at a feverish pace. Robert Mercurio was layin’ down a deep and funky bass groove, and everyone else fluttered around this driving rhythm section to create a textured collage of funk. After a couple of tunes Theryl "Houseman" deClouet made his first of two appearances. His time in the limelight was brief, and didn’t have the usual flair that is expected when he takes the stage. Even his typical pimpin’ attire was absent, instead he was simply sporting jeans and a tee shirt. After the "Houseman" left the boys got back down to business. Crowd pleaser "Crazyhorse Mongoose" was up next, and had the crowd groovin’ to the familiar sound from their title track from the 1998 album of the same name. Ben Ellman led the jam with his baritone sax that from a far seemed to dwarf over him. Galactic kept playing throughout the set with the force, funk, and flair that have made them a nationally successful touring band. "Houseman" returned for another go round. This time his vocals had more power, and his ability to get a crowd excited came through. He sang the classic song "Yes We Can" made famous by the beautiful version by the Pointer Sisters with Herbie Hancock, which oddly enough was the set break music after Galactic’s set. The Galactic set all in all was tons of fun, and had great energy, unfortunately there wasn’t enough focus on the fine guitar work of Jeff Raines or the keyboard skills of Rich Vogel. Both are talented musicians, but they never really had a chance to shine through during this show.
Jack Johnson was up next, but first there was a Sasquatch sighting. The furry beast himself came onstage between acts to sing the Star spangled banner. At this point of the afternoon I had my biggest problem with the Sasquatch festival. The progression of the music from one band to the next was uncomfortable and should have been thought out better. To build the energy up, starting with the laid-back groove of Maktub, then increasing the energy with the Soulive jazzfunk, and peaking out with the insanity that is a Galactic funk party was great and flowed perfectly, but now they had scheduled 2 1/2 hours of ultra mellow acoustic music with Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, before closing with SCI.
I understand that Ben Harper was a headliner, and I am not criticizing the players or the quality of their music, rather the lack of a natural flow of music from one band to the next.
Jack Johnson began by playing a few tunes on his acoustic guitar alone. By the noticeable presence of a higher pitched screams from the crowd it was evident that many women in the crowd loved him. He dedicated a song to the rest of the world, asking "God to bless all the countries of the world, not only the U.S.," which had some deep political and meaningful lyrics, and had a good crowd response. He was joined by a drummer and a bassist for the rest of the set, and proceeded to cover the Bob Marley tune "Stir It Up" which segued into a cover made Famous by Jimi Hendrix of "Who Knows." The set was good, but a little to slow for my taste.
Ben Harper followed by performing a rare solo acoustic set. His singing was soft and tender, and his playing followed suit. His soulful lyrics, and gentle playing had much of the crowed captivated throughout the set, especially since there was a large contingent here specifically to see Ben play. Leon Mobley armed with various percussive instruments came out for the second half of Ben Harper’s set, including a great transition between fan favorites "Burn One Down" and "My Own 2 Hands." Most of the place jumped to their feet for this combo, and he was greeted with a raucous round of applause. Toward the end of the set, and to the delight of the crowd Ben covered the Motown favorite, "Sexual Healing." To close his set as the sun began setting behind the stage, Ben played great versions of both "Momma’s Got A Girlfriend Now" and "The Woman In You." As he left the stage the sun ducked past the cliff side in the distance, and the cold nighttime wind began to blow.
Looking to keep warm I wandered around the festival and stumbled on a side stage where Soulive was listed to be playing a short set, before SCI. Since Blackalicious called out sick, the schedule was off all day. To my delight the John Butler Trio was setting up instead. Having never seen them before, I was excited to sample some authentic musical treats from the land down under. As the set began John Butler went over to his bass player Rory Quirk and gave him a huge hug. I figured maybe this was a tradition before each gig, but soon after John Butler revealed to the world that this would be Rory’s last gig with the band. It came to a shock to most of the onlookers, and emotions were evident on the stage. Rory took a long bass solo to get things going, and the shortened set was under way. It was a very enjoyable set, complete with the visually stunning remnants of the sunset. The John Butler Trio had the crowd up and dancing. It is a shame to be turned onto a band for the first time, and realize that band won't exist in that form ever again, but as they say, "ce la vie."
Closing this night of magic out was the String Cheese Incident. As their only stop on the west coast this Summer, fans had heavy expectations of this show. The energy form the band and the crowd seemed to be missing something as the set began, I don’t know if it was the difficulty in following two acoustic acts, or the cold wind chilling the crowd and the band alike, but the power that can be felt with an Incident wasn’t fully there. After a standard "Search" and "Cant Stop Now" with Keith Moseley on vocals, SCI launched into a cover of the Talking Heads classic "Naive Melody (This must be the place)" which was led by the powerful vocals and keyboard stylings of Kyle Hollingsworth, arguably the best keyboardist on the scene today. Kyle's notes danced all over this number, and the crowds reaction at the songs onset and finale made this evident. "It Is What It Is" followed, and again something was missing. The Stevie Wonder classic "Superstition" was next, and featured Ben Harper on Lap slide guitar. This was funky and seemed to rile both the band and the crowd up. A bluegrass Duo of "Windy Mountain" and "Daryl" followed, and both were fun to boogie to. Then things got interesting. "Joyful Sound" began, and at this point I was a little disappointed with the song selection. It was late in the set, and the song is a little too slow for my liking. Just as I started to feel like the set was going to wind down, the boys launched into a funk jam that transitioned beautifully into "Rivertrance," which got a huge reaction from the crowd. I don’t think there is a more enjoyable song to dance to then "Rivertrance" and this version had some great jams that only increased the intensity. The boys wasted no time on this song, playing a huge rocking jam in the section just before the end refrain of the Irish jig. Michael Kang’s solo on his fiddle took off, and almost dared the dancers to keep up. They followed "Rivertrance" with a cover by Keller William’s "Best Feeling." This song is always funky, and is a monster when they hit it just right. It was a good version, not the best I’ve seen, but really who could complain? After a long jam the tempo slowed and melted into "Round the Wheel" another monster, and for SCI to close with these three heavy hitters in a row, satiated the crowd’s appetite with the finest Cheese had to offer. Another big jam occurred, another dance party ensued, and after about 2 1/2 hours their set was up.
Time for an encore, or so I thought. The String Cheese Incident did a wonderful job showcasing the various musical elements that make up a prototypical Incident during the encore. The traditional bluegrass tune "High On a Mountaintop" seemed like a perfect encore to finish the festival, because of the Gorge’s beautiful locale. It took us all for a ride on the bluegrass roots of the SCI experience. Followed by the instrumental funk tune "!BAM!" which featured Kyle Hollingsworth again, and really shows the synthesized funky direction the band has been taking the last few years. Finally they closed with "Restless Wind" one of the core SCI tunes, that express their playful songwriting style, and their affinity to jam songs to their absolute peaks.
Sasquatch Festival was an amazing experience, that I shared with friends both old and new, that I will never forget. To have crammed all that music in a single day is miraculous, and I can only hope for next year, that the festival promoters will try to book bands for a full weekend.
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