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Originally published May 30, 2011 at 6:10 PM | Page modified May 31, 2011 at 6:33 AM

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Sasquatch! Fest a heady brew of old and new

A review of the 10th annual edition of the Sasquatch! Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre.

Seattle Times arts writer

quotes Head and Heart high lighted the show for me. Read more

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Festival Review |

In the food court Friday at Sasquatch! — a triumphant 10th year for this now nationally prominent rock festival at The Gorge — a trim, forty-something fellow noshing on a snack confided earnestly he was about to betray a longtime crush.

"I've probably seen Bob Mould 20 times," he said of the founding member of the great Minneapolis trio Husker Dü. "This year I'm forsaking him for Against Me! They're what punk sounds like today. Bob Mould is punk 20 years ago."

This was said with the kind of affection only a hard-core music lover could muster. But because of its savvy booking of breaking acts as well as the tried and true, Sasquatch! attracts not only hard-core but casual fans. This year's festival sold out the 25,000-seat Gorge for a nonstop blowout on four stages over four days.

The site, of course, is part of the attraction, with the main stage's backdrop of the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. Sitting on the lush green grass of the amphitheater, soaking up sun and sound, looking out over the river and brown hills has to be one of the best ways in the world to listen to music.

Folks flocked there for it, including a sizable contingent from Canada, many dressed in pagan animal headdresses and other outlandish costumes (terry-cloth pajamas, red nylon body suit), which seem to have become a festival trademark as much as the lively campsite where patrons revel through the night. For an event that draws so many people (who ingest so many substances), the whole affair had a remarkably mellow Woodstock vibe.

The weather cooperated, too, with cool temperatures, a few light sprinkles of rain and alternate hours of overcast and sun, which brought out acres of sunburned flesh and the smell of coconut oil.

As things turned out, the punk-rock fan was not the only one who decided to pass on Mould. Only a handful drifted down the amphitheater hill to see him, which was a shame, since his solo singer-songwriter set was one of the highlights of a weekend full of lovely surprises.

Many fans were simply too young to know what they had missed. After listening to Canadian band Tokyo Police Club's dreamboat singer Dave Monks croon "Wait Up" on the same stage Sunday, it wasn't surprising to discover a gaggle of twenty-something girls from Victoria, B.C., representing for the home team who had no idea who Mould was.

But that is the way with pop music. Each generation comes to it fresh, learning about the past as they go.

Festival programming wizard Adam Zacks roughly themed out each day — Friday, punk; Saturday, folk; Sunday, groove. (Day four, not reviewed here, appeared to have a populist bent.)

Friday's skinny-jeaned, yelling guitar-lungers did, indeed, as predicted in the food court, have their apotheosis in Florida veterans Against Me!, who delivered the old-school stuff with passion and precision. Foo Fighters closed the evening with a magnificent set of ingenious melodic counterlines and rhythmic change-ups, punctuated by lead singer Dave Grohl's disarming amiability.

Less attractive were the warbling, psychotic-sounding vocals of the Toronto drum and bass/synth duo Death From Above 1979, but its spare instrumentation served to highlight how many stripped-down bands with multi-tasking musicians were on the bill. A question of the economy? Maybe.

Electronics may have something to do with it, too. Synthesizers handily enlarge a band's sound and there was a lot of that going on, some of it smart (The Radio Department, S. Carey, Beach House), some gratuitous (too many to list).

Bands also used a lot of instruments not normally associated with rock: French horn, vibraphone, glockenspiel, violin, cello, tuba, euphonium, pedal steel, autoharp and acoustic bass. Soulful horn sections abounded in a music too long dominated by electric guitars and synthesizers.

The acoustic instruments and soaring harmonies on folk day were refreshing, particularly from Seattle's earnest, bouncy The Head and the Heart, whose pitch perfect performance and parlor piano prompted a spontaneous line of swaying, locked-armed sing-a-longers the whole width of the amphitheater.

Saturday also unveiled Secret Sisters, whose sibling harmonies and aw-shucks manner will surely catapult them to success. Along with Basia Bulat, who rocked out Polish songs on autoharp (yep), they were the weekend's best discoveries.

But there was a lot to like. Long-gray-haired Sub Pop veteran J. Mascis' solo set shimmered with mystery. Jenny & Johnny salted silvery folk-rock harmonies with attitude — a punk boy-girl lounge act? Portland's tough-and-tight trio, The Thermals, also projected hope, even as they angrily denounced hypocrisy.

Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie topped Saturday with a sparkling set that made it clear Ben Gibbard continues to be one of the greatest song-craftsmen in pop.

Sunday's grooves had historical reach, from a rare, butt-shaking set by Wheedle's Groove, a revue of overlooked funk musicians from Seattle's '70s, to politically progressive Brooklyn hip-hoppers Das Racist, whose syncopated, sarcastic triple flow cut through Northwest utopianism like a sharp wind. ("People who will die in the revolution," declared Hari Konabolu, brother of Das Racist's Dap, in a stand-up routine: "People who wear feathered headdresses and face paint at Sasquatch.")

Some better-known acts, such as Iron and Wine (sleepy), Bright Eyes (coy) and Flaming Lips (silly) were surprisingly disappointing. As for the many bands breaking in, no doubt some of them will find an audience.

Then those young girls from Victoria will ask, with astonishment, "What? You've never heard of Local Natives? We saw them at Sasquatch! back in 2011!"

Paul de Barros: pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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