The Gorge Amphitheatre is a hell of a lot more than just a hole in the rocks out in the middle of Washington's inland desert. That may have been the reaction to it when it first opened its gates 18 years ago, but today the Gorge is recognized the world over, among fans and performers alike, as nothing less than the best outdoor arena in North America.
Perched on majestic basalt cliffs high above the mighty Columbia, the natural beauty of the site is unmatched, while the natural shape of the amphitheatre produces outstanding acoustics. In the evening, the amphitheater turns orange as the sun dips over the river gorge. This stunning spectacle slowly unfolds behind the stage and performers, putting lightshows designed by mere mortals to shame. Guest services are also part of the Gorge plan. Food, water, beer and wine can be found in copious quantities on site while the adjoining 130-acre campground provides concertgoers with overnight accommodations (complete with a store, hot showers, restrooms, a recreation area and security) to the tune of $30 (in advance) or $35 (at the gate).
The 2004 Gorge season blasts off this Memorial Day weekend with the rather impressive Sasquatch Festival on Saturday, May 29, featuring some of the tastiest indie bands to come down the pipes in quite a spell (Tickets: $50). The Gorge cleanup crew will have to work double time to get the venue ready for the Classic Rock Fest the very next day -- Sunday, May 30 -- featuring dinosaur rockers from eons of yore: Styx, Peter Frampton, Kansas and Blue Oyster Cult ($44-$59). The Dead and the Allman Brothers Band will do their best to heat up the Gorge crowd and warm hell's frozen lakes on Saturday, July 3 ($57). The Van's Warped Tour, a movable punk rock feast, returns for another season on Saturday, July 10 ($31). Country is the catch of the day on Saturday, July 17, with Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors ($40-68), while God rockers own the weekend of July 21-24 with the Creation Festival ($14-$31). The annual hip-hop extravaganza known as the KUBE Jam comes around again on July 31 ($76) and our old pal, Dave Matthews is back, of course, this season to rake in the green with three shows September 3-5 ($48- $60).
On the eve of this festival's inaugural season two years ago, members of The Inlander staff could be overheard dismissively referring to Sasquatch as "hippie fest" due to the predominance of jam bands on the bill. Well, this all-day, all-night eclectic music festival has since dramatically (and thankfully) shifted gears -- from lethargy to overdrive.
"The focus has always been an eclectic mix of college and critical favorites," explains Adam Zack of House of Blues, the company that books and operates the Gorge Amphitheatre. "We want to continue to change and keep it fresh. It's just been such a banner year for indie rock."
This year's multi-performer lineup is one of the best we've ever seen -- anywhere -- featuring some of the biggest, brightest and most respected names in independent rock: Sleater-Kinney, the Shins, Built To Spill, the New Pornographers, the Roots, the Postal Service, Cat Power, the Long Winters, the Black Keys, Gary Jules, the Decemberists, Donovan Frankenreitter, Alexi Murdoch, Preston School of Industry, Nellie McKay, Fruit Bats and DJ Cherry Canoe. MC-ing the whole mess is the truly hilarious comic and raconteur David Cross.
"Sasquatch is trying to be an alternative to the prefabricated touring festival," says Zack. "This wouldn't work in a lot of markets, but it works for the Northwest. For a big chunk of these bands, Seattle is their biggest market."
The action out at the Gorge will be raging on two stages on Saturday from noon until nearly midnight (for a complete schedule, visit www.hob.com and look for the Sasquatch link). And like Sunday brunch at a five-star hotel, it all looks so good, we don't know where to start. But here's a nibble.
Preston School of Industry (Plaza stage, 2:45 pm)
When I finally caught up to Preston School of Industry's Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs, formerly of Pavement) he was hauling an armload of Pavement material from the 1993 Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain sessions into a Seattle basement studio to begin the process of choosing worthy extra tracks for a soon-to-be re-issued deluxe edition of that most worthy album. Last year, Kannberg's label, Matador, released a similar version of Pavement's groundbreaking debut, Slanted & amp; Enchanted, to critical raves and a chorus of hallelujahs from fans.
Kannberg has assumed the mantle of de facto archivist and caretaker of the group's impressive 10-year legacy.
"Yeah," he says, laughing at the bittersweet aspect of the mission. "I guess I'm the only one who cares."
It's no secret that Kannberg wasn't completely satisfied with the Pavement years. Though he and lead singer Stephen Malkmus conceived of the band together in the late 1980s (Kannberg came up with the name), it was Malkmus who quickly emerged as the group's principal songwriter. In fact, by the time Pavement released its 1999 swansong (the appropriately titled Terror Twilight), Malkmus had almost completely taken over the band, relegating the rest of the members -- Kannberg included -- to playing essentially supporting roles. An acrimonious collapse soon followed.
Yet it's clear from his attitude these days that Kannberg has moved on.
"It was fun while it lasted," he muses.
Indeed. But this story is about the now. And so, we will refrain from further dwelling in the past -- except to declare one last time that Pavement cut some of the most intelligent, fun and flat-out best rock of the '90s.
"Well, if you heard some of these outtakes... I don't know," Kannberg laughs. "They're not the best songs."
Kannberg's new Preston School of Industry offering, Monsoon (Matador) -- recorded in Seattle, mixed by Alien Crime Syndicate's Joe Reineke and featuring guest performances from Wilco, Minus 5's Scott McCaughey and others -- is, on the other hand, damn good. It's also distinctly different from his first outing, All This Sounds Gas, in that it sounds more like an album and less like an assortment of songs.
"The first one was a collection of songs I wrote over three or four years," he confirms. "While this one I pretty much wrote from scratch. On that first one, I was working with something like 30 songs. And it was pretty hard to make. I didn't really know how to make a record without Pavement around. This time I started with 15 songs, and I really tried to pare it down. There's not like every single idea I have put into one song."
The approachable, easy feel of Monsoon, coupled with the addition of pedal steel on several of the tracks, has earned the record some notice in alt-country circles, something Kannberg says he'd like to avoid next time out.
"I'm banning the pedal steel from the next record," he says. "You get pegged with this 'Americana' thing, and I don't think it's that."
PSOI just completed a two-month touring stint with Kannberg on guitar and vocals, Dan Carr on bass, Chris Heinrich on pedal steel and newest member, Darius Minwalla, on drums. ("He didn't play on the record, but we used his drum set," says Kannberg.)
When the band first went on the road two years ago, the reception to Kannberg's new, enigmatically named post-Pavement project was somewhat tepid.
"But people have figured out who we are now," he says. "The shows this last tour were really well attended, and the vibe we got was great."
Saturday's Sasquatch Festival appearance by PSOI will be part of a quickie mini-tour that will take the band through the Northwest. The next major touring cycle for Preston School of Industry starts this fall. Watch for it. (Mike Corrigan)
The Black Keys Plaza Stage, 8:45 pm
We just want to play music until it's not fun anymore," Dan Auerbach says sweetly through thousands of miles of telephone wires.
He's driving around his hometown of Akron, Ohio, trying to find a part for his car -- and he quickly honks the horn.
"Oops, I just honked accidentally," he apologizes.
Auerbach couldn't see me shake my head in confusion -- but I couldn't help but be baffled by his pleasant phone demeanor. Was this the same person who'd been delivering his heart on a platter to me over my headphones all morning? Couldn't be.
But it was, and my surprise quickly waned. Perhaps it's because I've been nothing but shocked by the Black Keys since I first gave their latest album thickfreakness a listen. The duo is made up of two 23-year-old guys. More specifically, they are two 23-year-old white guys. Better yet, they are two 23-year-old white guys who are quickly making a name for themselves as some of the grimiest, grittiest blues-rock artists around.
They're not from the Mississippi Delta, they've probably never been to the Crossroads and they don't even play to blues audiences.
These guys are from Akron -- the home of Devo and the Rubber Capital of the World.
Yet their sound reeks of experience in life and music. Their style wasn't the most popular in Akron, but Auerbach says that they didn't have any problems getting an audience at their shows.
"How could you not be popular when you have so many family and friends in town? Every show is like a big family reunion," he says.
Auerbach and Carney continued to play small gigs, and eventually recorded a demo that was picked up by a tiny label, Alive Records. He says their booking agent took them all over the country to unknown towns at first.
"We played a show in Upland," he says.
"Exactly!" Auerbach yells into the phone.
But hitting the pavement in towns smaller than Akron proved to be beneficial for the Keys. After shopping around the big leagues, they decided they'd feel more at home with Fat Possum Records -- a label dominated by old-time blues crooners like Solomon Burke and Junior Kimbrough.
That's not to say that they're calling themselves a blues act.
"We don't try to play to blues audiences ever. We don't play blues clubs, and we don't really try to. I don't know if we'd go over well or not."
Auerbach sings the songs of young blues man -- tunes of broken hearts and anthems to the open road. Technically, he sings "the blues," but the Keys rarely attract the audiences that would usually want to hear it.
"Our crowds are pretty awesome. We get a mixed kind of thing -- the older dudes that are into Cream, and then the young hipster kids," he says.
Their sound is pleasantly scuffed, like a fraying old guitar case. Auerbach snarls and clumsily moans and growls, sounding like a new age Bob Dylan with a lot more spunk. Carney beats his drum, and the sound is tinny. Their raw sound is hardly prefabricated -- negating any comparisons to the White Stripes that the Keys commonly run into.
They'll wrap up the night on the Plaza Stage at the Sasquatch Festival this weekend -- adding blues to the eclectic lineup of electronica and indie rock acts at this year's show.
Capitalizing on the success of thickfreakness, the Keys plan to release a third record this fall. Staying loyal to their hometown roots, they recently recorded it in an old tire factory in Akron. (Leah Sottile)
Sleater-Kinney (Mainstage, 5:15 pm)
Though initially lumped in with the Northwest riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney soon made it very clear that it was a breed apart. This all fem trio sound like no other group in modern rock and have shown remarkable poise in the face of media scrutiny and critical slobbering. The interweaving twin guitar attack of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein is melodic, driving and refreshingly bent. Janet Weiss is a thoroughly inventive and powerful drummer. Couple this with provocative, intelligent and, at times, intensely romantic lyricism and you've got some of the most potent rock on the planet. Not to be missed.
The Decemberists (Plaza Stage, 6:45 pm)
The Decemberists make music look so easy. With simple melodies and brainy lyrics, the Portland-based quintet has added yet a smarter element to the already versatile indie rock scene. They wowed listeners with their first two, Five Songs (which actually has six tracks) and Castaways and Cutouts. On their latest, Her Majesty the Decemberists, singer Colin Meloy breathlessly serenades listeners -- singing the adult experience through the voice of an adolescent. The album made Amazon.com's top 20 best albums of 2003, and into the CD players of most all devoted indie rock listeners.
The Shins (Mainstage, 7:15 pm)
There are a lot of bands out there who are vying for your attention and hard-earned money by the most boneheaded of all means: by turning it up all the way and screaming their fool heads off. No so with this literate, mild mannered Albuquerque, N.M., quartet. The Shins craft delicate and sparkling pop jewels out of post-punk, garage rock and Brit-pop touchstones. Their new long-player on Sub Pop, Chutes Too Narrow, is a fine follow-up to their amazing 2001 debut, Oh Inverted World.