Daily Readers! Let’s all give a warm Miltonian welcome to our new commentator, Matthew K!
The outdoor rock festival, as a genre, is perhaps in many ways an entirely operable malignancy on the ass of music, easily excised from a life: the rucksackers, the tribalists, the hemp-necklaced bros bro-ing down with pumping fists, packs of 16-year-old girls in very short shorts that make you feel creepy, 11-dollar beers, 5-dollar pretzels, 4-dollar tapwater, gates manned by security guards off-duty from prison work camps, sunstroke, sunburns, the elements in general, alcohol fatigue, a depressing lack of coffee, interminable afternoon languors, tent farms, asphyxiating crowds, &c., &c., all yours at the price of 30-150 dollars and an inevitable, interminable pilgrimage to the middle of the desert somewhere.
And it is, I’ll admit, difficult for me to effectively absorb more than one or two decent shows in a day. Perhaps it is that I’ve grown tired and old and are unable to learn more than one thing per evening. Or perhaps it is that lately, once my heart fills once, it keeps what fills it and doesn’t make room for anything else.
It is, perhaps, a failing.
But unafraid, we soldiered ourselves in a gang of two to the Sasquatch Festival, at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington, which looks, stunningly, without benefit nor need of special effects, like this:
But first, of course, the drive, which very often looks like this:
This was along water so wracked by wind it broke like ocean waves. We rubbernecked by the occasional pack of kite surfers, nervously expecting a transient gust to pluck them like grapes from the water and cast them against the cliffs.
So we were already primed for spectacle, is what I’m saying, by the time we got there.
Except, there was no spectacle, really, for quite some time, just a lot of wandering around on the grass, some mediocre-to-horrible sound systems at the adjunct stages, and very little interaction among weary-looking attendees—it was a festival of solipsists. The Beastie Boys managed somehow to make their jobs look boring.
What’s the deal, we wondered? In the words of Miss Peggy Lee (R.I.P.)—who learned courage, she said, from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein and Cary Grant—is that all there is?
No, it really wasn’t. Arcade Fire, I was surprised to discover, may well turn out to be the most exciting show I see this year. I hadn’t, I’ll admit, jumped on this particular bandwagon early. Perhaps mistakenly, perhaps justifiably, I had decided that this was a band for people younger than I, for college radio programmers and overemotional teenagers.
But there’s something about ramshackle sincerity in a large setting that can be downright affecting even amid packs of hippies who make sincerity feel like a front for soft-drug smuggling or pyramid marketing schemes—something, that is, about 8 people on a stage all lined up in a row, all ecstatically shouting the same thing, asking you to please, please, please, for the love of mike, feel something.
And here’s the part where the genius of the outdoor festival kicks in. We needed the festival to love this show.
With the hugeness of the crowd and the fighting of the crowd and the tedium and length of the rest of the day, we had been broken down to our emotional baseline and made terrifically susceptible, like a Guantanamo detainee or Joan Crawford’s children. It was as if we’d been in a death camp, gotten released and then suddenly heard Vivaldi on the record player. One couldn’t help but get a little misty.
There were stage gestures, of course, things made for stadiums: drums being tossed around, winded sprints from instrument to instrument in the middles of songs, a tom being held by an audience member while a band member pounded away from the stage with the mic stand.
What really made things happen, though, was that the band itself seemed still surprised by its own music and by themselves, and still a little unrehearsed, still uncynical about their own spectacle in a venue that itself was a spectacle. The singer kept his game face, but the rest of the band slipped into involuntary, unguarded, unstaged smiles on a semi-regular basis. That is to say, they were having fun up there.
We are in favor of this. This is as it should be.
In two years, three, four (who knows?), they may become as cynical and workmanlike and tediously self-important as the two bands they resemble most—that is, U2 and the Boss, both of which were once just as surprised and awestruck at their own songs as they played them as the Arcade Fire appear to be now.
But if they’re lucky, they’ll instead go the route of Jonathan Richman and live forever in wonder. And we would very much like for this to happen, so that we can forever be in places where the pretty French Canadian behind us jumps excitedly up and down in place, desperately shouting, “”Il me faut plus d’espace! Je veux danser! Je veux danser!” as if dancing were the most necessary and important thing that ever existed.
In the end we all gave her more space, and she danced. Cutely, excitedly, and—because French—very badly.