Last year, City Arts stalked the 10th annual Sasquatch! Music Festival, asking more than 100 sun-baked fans one simple question: “What’s your greatest Sasquatch! memory?” Here are the results: the people’s history of the Northwest’s most ecstatic, dramatic, sometimes traumatic musical event.
In 2002, a booking agent at House of Blues named Adam Zacks decided that the Pacific Northwest needed a destination music festival, something similar to Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Coachella in California, two other emerging, world-class festivals. Zacks reserved a day on Memorial Day weekend at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington. A three-hour drive from Portland and Seattle, the Gorge sits in a bend of the Columbia River, offering breathtaking vistas of Eastern Washington’s dramatic desert landscape.
Keeping with his booking sensibilities from when he was a student at the University of Oregon (and capitalizing on jam-band fans’ willingness to travel long distances to see their favorite bands), Zacks lured Ben Harper, Galactic, Blackalicious, the String Cheese Incident and a few other jam-circuit bands to his inaugural festival. More than 20,000 fans showed up. Sasquatch! was born.
The two guys I went to my first festival with had come here before. They said, “Just wait till you get to the top of that hill.” And then I got to the top of the hill and it’s just, like, are you serious? We get to watch music against this backdrop all day?!
Whitney Smith, Alberta, 2007, 2011
The first year, my two best friends were here and it was Jack Johnson and Ben Harper then, and it was pretty amazing. They were playing a set together and a shooting star went all the way across the sky right over the amphitheatre. They didn’t see it but the entire crowd saw it and was like “wooooah” and they stopped playing. It was insane. It gives me shivers to think about it.
Raederle Swanson, Seattle, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2011
When I came to the very first festival it was only one day. The band I liked the most at that time was the String Cheese Incident and they headlined, playing last. I would say half the crowd left after the band before them, Ben Harper, because no one had heard of the String Cheese Incident and you had all the space in the world down in front of the stage to dance. They played a one-set show, but it was almost three hours long and it was amazing.
Trevor “Sasquatch” Reno , Seattle, 2002, 2011
The first time I saw the Flaming Lips live was here in 2003. They had all the amazing balloons and confetti. I was sitting up in the grass and was having such an amazing time that I wanted to get down with the people; I wanted to be as close to Wayne Coyne, physically, as I could. But in those days you couldn’t have your beer down on the ground level. So I had to take a Coors Light tallboy and crimp it so I could fit it in the waist of my pants and cover it. But when I crimped it, I unintentionally tore the aluminum. So, as I’m walking down, it’s spilling and filling my underwear with Coors Light and I get down there and I’m ready to take it in. I pull out my Coors Light and there is just a little bit left, and I look down at my pants and my genitalia are just soaked with Coors Light.
Luke Burbank, radio host, Seattle, 2003, 2010, 2011
The first time I came out here was the second year of Sasquatch and KEXP wanted to broadcast live. So we set up in a yurt backstage and we did the ISDN line test and we were good to go with a live broadcast. Once we started, we lost the connection, right away. We never really even got on live. It was kind of embarrassing. It was all a big giant experiment for us then. But we took the model of what we learned to CMJ, to SXSW, to Bumbershoot and to all the KEXP remote broadcasts.
Kevin Cole, KEXP, Seattle
In 2005, I got heat stroke and had to go to the first aid tent. They put two IVs through me and I got to listen to Arcade Fire with IVs going through me and it was amazing. They said if the second one didn’t work that they would have to take me to the emergency room, but I managed to make it through the day and see the Pixies.
Grant Granger, Seattle, 2005, 2007, 2011
Throughout those first few years, high-caliber artists like Kanye West, the Postal Service, Wilco and the Pixies played Sasquatch!, as did emerging acts like Arcade Fire and the Black Keys. By 2006, the festival had fully divested itself of its jammy roots. So successful were the booking decisions that the festival expanded to three days, doubling the number of performers from 26 to 54 and giving the unpredictable Eastern Washington weather a larger window to wreak havoc.
The most epic moment was seeing one of my favorite performers, Neko Case, in 2006. It’s sunny out, we go up to get close, the skies open up and everyone is kind of laughing about it. It gets a little bit worse, then the big hail starts coming down and people start screaming and running. We actually pulled the plastic off the fences and put it over our heads.
Jen Stippich, Seattle, 2002–2009, 2011
The whole crowd started chanting, “God hates Neko Case!” She stopped for a bit. Then the hail kind of died down and she came back on stage and everyone cheered her on.
Ashley Haynes, Vancouver, B.C., 2006, 2010, 2011
When it suddenly started hailing, RA Scion of Common Market made the best of that crazy experience. I think their power went out and he did, basically, an acoustic, unmic’ed set, but really freestyling in the moment.
The best thing that happened out of that entire hailstorm is that people built a slip-n-slide from the very top of the Mainstage hill down to where the fence is at the end of the grass.
Michelle DeBruyn, Seattle, 2006, 2011
We saw all these people in a column that were sliding down the hill and we began giving everyone nicknames—Yellow Suit, Superman Guy—and chanted them while they flew down the hill on their bellies.
Dan Freeman, Nova Scotia, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011
The day after the massive hailstorm, during Matisyahu’s set, there was the lightest sprinkling of rain to cool down the crowd. From that little sprinkling a giant rainbow emerged on the horizon and it was just a sign of goodwill. And Matisyahu talked about how the rainbow is the promise from God that he would never flood the Earth again.
Karl Nielsen, Salem, Ore., 2006–2011
I had never shot a festival before and I was really excited to be in a giant photo pit. It was Arcade Fire. I think I only shot one of the three songs and I just sat there and watched the other two. That was one of the best performances and the best place to see it and the chance to get to shoot them made me realize how amazing this is. There were one or two shots that I really loved. One of them was a shot of the crowd going nuts, and the other one was of Win Butler. He wasn’t singing, he was just resting, but you can tell that there is this great energy to the set.
Kyle Johnson, photographer, Seattle, 2006–2011
I had gotten the Arcade Fire album the week before and then I saw them on the Mainstage while the sun was setting behind them. And it was the perfect temperature, the perfect lighting— this gold behind them on the wonderful landscape—and I was just so ecstatic to see them. All these things hit at this one perfect moment.
Chris Marsaglia, Salem, Ore., 2004, 2006–11
Being able to see R.E.M. in 2008 was the best. It was raining out, so we were afraid that they would cut the concert short. Michael Stipe comes out, slips on the stage, and we’re thinking, this is gonna be bad. He takes his shoes off, says, “Look, you guys are standing out here in the rain. I’m going to play with my shoes off.”
Barry Miller, Spokane, 2008–11
My dad raised me on the Cure and then I got to see them live, with him, at my first Sasquatch! It was in the rain. It didn’t matter.
Rachel A. Miller, Spokane, 2008–11
Favorite memory was seeing Beirut in 2008, afternoon show on the Mainstage. I had been dying to see them all year and everyone was in awe and the weather was perfect. They’re such a relaxed, chill band that you feel like you’re all just hanging out in a field, under a tree. It was moving. I had a tear. It wasn’t just one; it was probably two little tears.
Dylan Flesch, Seattle, 2006, 2008,2010,2011
I heard rumors that if you show up early, the Flaming Lips would give you tickets so you can dance onstage. I showed up at 10 a.m., an hour before anything even started, so I was the only one here. At 4 p.m. they finally started handing out tickets and eventually I got one. I was in a giant inflatable astroman costume and in the middle of the set, it started deflating on me. They dug me out of there and then gave me a hardhat and a vest and I spent the rest of the time dancing up there.
The Flaming Lips UFO show blew my mind. The lights, the strobes, the huge dome mirrors on the balls, just watching that thing come down and watching Wayne Coyne come out of that bubble was fucking amazing.
Charles Wingert, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2006, 2008, 2011
The first time I ever got turned on to the Flaming Lips was here in 2008. It was probably one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Wayne Coyne came out he said, “When I wrote this song, I imagined people getting naked and dancing around.” And about 30 seconds later, 20 or 30 naked people jumped onstage and danced the entire set.
Christopher Nelson, photographer, Seattle, 2007–11
I was at Crystal Castles. It was my first time ever stage diving, and every time I stage dove, the security would be like, “You’re done, leave the property.” But there was no chance. At one point I jumped in and the crowd had my hands and the security guards had my feet and they were having a tug-of-war. The crowd won and I flipped over, landed on my head and got gum in my hair.
Jeremy Matheson, Victoria, B.C., 2009–11
Nine Inch Nails’ final performance here, because it was the last show that I got to see on their tour and I had been a fan for so long; it was a big deal for me to be able to see them with a big light show at the Gorge.
Phillip Karagas, Tempe, Ariz., 2009, 2011
The Bon Iver show was so great. Everyone just came together. I went up to the front and I got on the shoulders of someone I didn’t know and we became friends.
Chelsea Williams, Seattle, 2008, 2009, 2011
Murder City Devils came up and weren’t even playing music. The lead singer was trashed and was going off about being bullied in the hallway. “We were the chess club and we were the nerds and now you drive in your little cars to come see us here!” Everyone was like, “Play music and stop ranting!” I think they actually turned the mic off on the guy.
Thomas Milne, Spokane, 2009, 2011
I witnessed the starting of the one-man dance party during Santigold in 2009. I was sitting near him and he started dancing, all on his own, and slowly people started joining him one at a time. All of a sudden we all ran in and started dancing with him. I knew it was right about 12 minutes into his solo dancing. When I joined, there were about 100 people there. It’s totally cliché because it was all over YouTube, but it was amazing.
Jesse Hitchcock, Edmonton, Alberta, 2009, 2011
And then there was that time the couple had sex up on the mountain during the Decemberists’ set. It was hilarious to see the Decemberists wondering why no one was looking at them and then they realized. But they didn’t miss a beat.
Marcus Boykin, Tempe, Ariz., 2009, 2011
The first time that Mad Rad played, Nate climbed up on the roof of the stage during “Qu’est-ce Que C’est,” and it was like, oh my god, what is he doing? At one point, Buffalo Madonna climbed up the poles, like 30 feet in the air, then he wrapped the mic around his arm and climbed up on the roof. I was, like, this guy is gonna die and I’m gonna watch it.
Benjamin Verdoes, musician, Seattle, 2009–11
I love it when I get my schedule for the weekend and I have no idea who any of the bands are. Then they get on stage and they’re killin’ it and I get excited because I found a new band that I like. I get into it. I play air guitar when an act is really killing it.
Steven Martin, stage manager, Gorge Amphitheatre, 2008–11
The very last show of 2009 was Chromeo and I was like, I don’t care, I’m getting kicked out of here. I decided to climb the speaker tower and into the main structure of the domed tent. I was hanging from the roof and I looked down below and there was nobody underneath me because they were scared they were gonna get landed on. When I finally jumped down, security was on me in seconds. But they were really nice, because I was like, “I know what I did was wrong! It’s the last show of the night, I’ll leave.”
Rob Cumming, Victoria, B.C., 2009–11
There were about 15 or 20 of us all gathered in a group on the hill during the LCD Soundsystem set and we were all pretending to do a bobsled. We would yell, “LEFT! LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT! LEFT-LEFT! FORWARD! BACK! FORWARD-BACK-LEFT!” And then, all of a sudden, there were at least 40 to 50 other people joining in on us with one person on the ground going “LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT!”
Krista Johnson, Vancouver, B.C., 2009–11
The National is my favorite band by far. The lead singer was jumping down into the crowd during songs and giving out wine. And then he comes down, gives me a wine cup and hugs me.
Charles Renwick, Seattle, 2010–11
I saw Phantogram for the first time and they were magical. I remember the singer’s hair blowing in the wind and the most amazing sound I have ever heard come out of a woman’s mouth. And I looked up at the sun over the Gorge and that’s when I realized why people do this.
Kelsey Slayter, Portland, 2008–11
Passion Pit on a Monday. I couldn’t drink because I had to drive home. I was pretty disappointed by that and was just settling down to sleep all day. But my buddy brought me down to the front of the stage when Passion Pit came on and it was brilliant. It was the first time I was sober all weekend. That’s probably why I can remember it.
Ryan Glancy, Ireland, 2010–11
It Never Ends
As a multi-day festival, Sasquatch! bloomed. Rare Northwest appearances by blockbuster artists including the Beastie Boys, Björk, Beck, Massive Attack and Nine Inch Nails solidified the event’s reputation, turning it into a guaranteed sell-out and attracting more than 20,000 fans each day. While Coachella and Bonnaroo have swelled to four times the size of Sasquatch!—due largely to their less restrictive geographies and more central locales—the Gorge has earned a place alongside both as one of the premier destinations in North America for adventuresome indie rock fans.
For its tenth edition, Sasquatch! expanded once again. With the help of a fourth day—which in 2011 was devoted to rockers like Foo Fighters, Death From Above 1979 and Against Me!—the festival brought even more fans into the fold. Indie rock and hip-hop remain at its core, but now the festival also includes electronic dance music and comedy—not to mention the cavalcade of weirdness provided by those who attend.
Bassnectar, at the start, when the beat first dropped and all the glowsticks came out. Everyone tossed up their glowsticks and it was a blanket of glowsticks.
Kien LaCroix, Edmonton, Alberta, 2011
We declared one day as “Waldo Day.” I have 50 friends who were all dressed as Waldo. We just had to find where’s Waldo and we would find our friends and then we had a big dance party.
Becca Bauermeister, Eugene, 2011
My favorite of this year was during the Bright Eyes set. It was a pretty mellow set, but then some guy stole one of the Domino’s Pizza flags and ran straight down the hill with it. That actually entertained me, unlike Conor Oberst. It was in the middle of one of his rants.”
Eric Nelson, Portland, 2009-11
Death From Above 1979 was a memorable moment. I loved them all through middle school and they finally came to Portland, but it was a 21-and-over show and then they broke up three months later, so I never thought I’d be able to see them. And I remember telling a friend, ‘I will give up my first-born child if I ever get to see them live! Then I heard they were in Coachella and I was almost in tears because I wasn’t going. Then they announced that they were going to be at Sasquatch! and I got my ticket right away and I am so glad I did. It was a dream come true.
Nicole Marsaglia, Portland, 2006–11
This is my first year, so I don’t have a lot of memories yet. But so far it’s the Yeasayer show last night. There were hundreds of people so happy to see them, waving their hands in the air and doing goofy jungle dances. The crowd just felt it.
John Landolte, Portland, 2011
Expanding from one day to three transformed Sasquatch! from a weekend road trip into a semi-spiritual campout odyssey. The campgrounds are a temporary town of intoxicated unrest, filled with rain-weary revelers drunk on blue skies and box wine determined to keep the party going after the music stops. In 2011, the large swath of land covered in tarps, tents and RVs was nicknamed “District 9” after the movie that takes place in a Johannesburg shantytown. Culturally insensitive? Sure. But when in George…
I’ve been dancin’ on this RV from noon to 3 p.m. every day. I’ve been a DJ at house parties and stuff, but being able to put on a super loud stereo and blow it over two, three hundred campsites, and have people come up to us and give us beer, or mixed drinks, and have them say, “Fuckin’ nice guys,” that’s definitely my favorite.
Brendan McKay, Vancouver, B.C., 2009–11
One thing we noticed last year was that security was trying to break up parties, as they tend to do, and these kids just ran up to their little go-kart and they took it for a joy ride. It was, like, the ultimate revolt. Unfortunately that revolt ended right next to our tent, so the security came up to us and were like, “Hey, what are you guys trying to do?” and we were like, “Just takin’ in the show.”
Paul Donald, Portland, 2009–11
My friends and I got really drunk and decided to sell our tickets for Saturday and instead we sat there and got shitfaced at our tent, which involved a lot of shotgunning of beers. Three of us shotgunned a Steel Reserve at the same time and then we all puked.
Emily Halloran, Vancouver, B.C., 2009–11
We didn’t do any drugs or party till the very last day, and then I took a baller hit of acid. Didn’t see any music. I’m a visual artist, trying to do some crafting to support the fine arts. I make crowns and we do feather hair extensions and I make earrings. Somebody tried to barter me with some blackberries, but I’m not a big blackberry fan, so I turned them down. I like other art trades; art trades are my favorite. Other than that, I’ll take weed or acid. It has to be good acid though.
Eleanor Price, Olympia, 2010–11
Walking through tent village on the last day, it was Hooverville. Half the people were naked, everyone was just like, what do you need, is everyone okay? Someone gave us their couch. They were leaving early and were like, “Hey, do you want this?” They brought it over to our campsite and it was so comfortable.
Shaun Summers, Portland, 2009–11
We Don’t Wear Shirts
Two Canadian bros take on Sasquatch!
Last night I lost all my money and all my friends, so I stole a sweater from a campsite, stole a bag of chips, tried to walk all the way around the back of the Mainstage to break in. Security got me, but I was all high on mushrooms, so I told them that I was bit by a rattlesnake—’cause there were all these tumbleweeds and stuff out there—and they were all worried about me and all medic-ing me out. Then some negro fella walked me around the side. He was supposed to walk me out, but he just let me go and told me to stay away from the whole right hand of the stage.
Nicholas Lyne, Langford, B.C., 2009–11
Pretty much every time we come, we don’t wear shirts or pants because it can get so hot and we don’t really prepare very well. It’s never really cold when you’re going into a show and I don’t like shirts anyway. Then it gets so godawful cold later and people are kind enough to give us their coats and pants to keep us warm, every time. Yesterday this guy at the beer tent gave me his jacket to wear the entire night and I brought it back to him the next day. Lots of kind people out there taking care of one another.
Justin Prevodors, Galiano Island, B.C., 2009–11
Nicholas: As far as a rock ’n’ roll festival goes, it seems like people don’t really tear that hard here. There should be more people tearing harder.
Justin: You want there to be riots?
Nicholas: Yeah, like riots and fights and cars flipped over.
Justin: I completely disagree with your fuckin’ views.
Photography by Nate Watters