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Bigfoot Strikes Again

The Polyphonic Army got blown away in Washington.

Take their performances as a whole and the two Dallas acts on the bill of the Sasquatch! Festival in George, Washington, perfectly epitomize the May 26-27 experience: a combination of unexpected transcendence and disappointment.

Even in challenging circumstances, St. Vincent and the Polyphonic Spree did their best to show that strange and wonderful music can come from a city as bland and cruel as Dallas. Things would have been perfect if they'd played a day earlier.

On Day 1, nice weather and marvelous performances by the Arcade Fire, Neko Case, Ghostland Observatory and the Beastie Boys easily overpowered any disenchantment from the visa-related cancellation of Sri Lankan lady rapper M.I.A., the near-total absence of MC Sarah Silverman or the shamefully inflated concession prices. Besides, those problems were easy to dismiss: Great Lakes was an acceptable replacement for M.I.A., Silverman's cute-chick-plays-innocent-and-makes-shocking-remarks shtick is getting tiresome anyway, and why pay $11 for a beer when you could take a step in any direction and catch a contact high?

The performances on the medium-sized "Wookie" stage and small "Yeti" stage were no more crowded than an average club show, as the cushy soft grass and dramatic sight of the river winding behind the "Bigfoot" main stage tempted many festivalgoers to eschew the side stages entirely. Austin's Ghostland Observatory cranked up the Yeti crowd with hypnotic, synth-heavy hard rock. Lead singer Aaron Behrens darted and slithered around the stage, whipping the crowd into a frenzy until the duo rocked just a little too hard and blew out the power. The problem was fixed quickly, though, and the band immediately picked up where it left off. The Beastie Boys' Wookie set, billed as "instrumental," turned out to be a long performance generously leaning toward Check Your Head and Ill Communication hits with a couple of funky jams from their upcoming instrumental album; MCA later explained in a press conference that they called it "instrumental" because they couldn't think of another way to explain that they would be playing their instruments, proving that longtime stoners aren't so good with the, uh...what's it called...word choosing. The highlight of Bigfoot was the Arcade Fire, who gave raucously enthusiastic versions of songs from Funeral and Neon Bible before Björk's gorgeously weird headlining set.

In short, Day 1 was everything organizers and attendees of an outdoor festival could reasonably hope for. Unfortunately, the Dallas acts played Day 2.

Your Lips Are Red (but Will Soon Be Blue)

On Sunday morning, the chill of the previous night was slow to lift. The previous day's pleasant, cool breeze was replaced by colder and stronger winds, unpleasant foreshadowing of the weather to come. The sun was still struggling to warm the crowd when St. Vincent, the band name for former Polyphonic Spree guitarist Annie Clark's solo work, began her side-stage set promptly at noon. Clark started alone onstage with her guitars and a stomp box, easing the crowd into the music with a slow bird-whistle-accented number. That was followed by a mesmerizing version of "Your Lips Are Red," most memorable for its steady, pounding percussion thump at bowel-loosening, teeth-rattling, ear-popping volume. It reinforced my theory that if you can't feel the bass in every bone, it isn't loud enough; this was just right. After her darkly funny murder ballad "Bang Bang," she called up the rest of her band, which consisted of a rhythm section, trombonist and violinist. Leading the crowd in complicated clap-along rhythms and showing off the fretwork that earned her a spot in the Spree, she tore through the second half of her set as the crowd grew from a few dozen to what looked like at least a couple hundred. Hopefully she won over enough fans to get her on main stages by this time next year, or at least playing at night, which better suits her crazed, eclectic and theatrical songs.

Blown Away

By now the story is legendary, at least among Polyphonic Spree fans: During a 2002 performance at the Royal Albert Hall, the power cut out during the middle of their set.

Refusing to let the show end in disappointment, or perhaps sensing an opportunity, singer Tim DeLaughter belted out the next song and urged the band's choir and acoustic instrumentalists to join in. Just as the song reached its crescendo, the power came back on, thrilling audience members out of their seats and further propelling the band's buzz-fueled rise.

The band's day set at the Sasquatch! Festival could be the other side of that coin.

The Spree was scheduled to play just under an hour, starting at 4:20 p.m. By the time Spree members and crew began setting up the stage, the wind was strong enough to suck paper plates from under funnel cakes and whip them across the amphitheater. The lighting rigs above the band rocked ominously as the two dozen musicians began a slow-building "Running Away." Band members and audience alike nervously eyed the heavy equipment swaying above their heads. DeLaughter, looking thinner and more energetic than he has in years, leapt around stage with a wind-proof grin even as it became obvious that this time they would not conquer the elements.

The band had already agreed to cap off the second day in a phone company-sponsored "after-party" on a side stage, so DeLaughter let the disappointed audience know there would be another chance to see the band as soon as the Beasties finished their Day 2 set.

"We'll play all night," DeLaughter yelled. Weak scattered cheers indicated that most of the crowd guessed how cold those winds would be after the sun went down and decided his "all night" guarantee sounded more like a threat than a promise.

For the next three hours, confusion reigned as main-stage acts were moved to side stages and side-stage acts were abbreviated or cancelled. The wind grew colder and stronger. Vendors sold out of commemorative long-sleeve shirts and hoodies. Otherwise upstanding citizens resorted to criminal mischief, wrapping themselves in radio-station banners for protection from the cold. Mercifully, the Sasquatch staff relaxed the "no in-and-outs" policy (a terrible, greedy idea in the first place) to allow those who'd paid $100 for the privilege of camping to grab sleeping bags and extra clothing layers.

The headlining Beastie Boys had promised an incredible show, but their Day 2 performance was merely good. It felt a bit too polished after the loose jamming and comedic riffing of the day before, and there was way too much overlap of the two days' set lists. Worst of all, they reneged on their promise to a child. The previous day, Ad-Rock had responded to a 9-year-old boy who requested "Brass Monkey" by saying, "Come to tomorrow's show," but Sunday's show was void of anything from Licensed to Ill.

By the final notes of "Sabotage" (again), only a couple hundred die-hards were in the mood for more music. "Sorry we blew you away earlier," DeLaughter said by way of introduction, earning more groans than laughs. It would have been the perfect opportunity to give an impromptu history lesson and dust off Tripping Daisy's "Blown Away," but the band launched into a new song instead.

I admit, by then I was exhausted, cranky and freezing my ass off, but the Fragile Army material—more like operatic prog-rock than their earlier sunny orchestral pop—didn't do much for me. Worse, that night's painfully forced quality to the band's uniform cheerfulness didn't jibe with the sincerity of their older songs, making the whole thing seem vacuous and stupid. Of course, the Polyphonic Spree is expected to be uplifting if nothing else and don't have too many songs suitable for hideous weather. Short of handing out space heaters and coffee, there was nothing they could have done to put a smile on my face. Fortunately, the bouncing, dancing, singing-along crowd proved my grouchiness wasn't widely shared. For them—most of whom came from Seattle or Portland, where chances to see the band are few and far between—even a flat Polyphonic Spree performance was an awesome spectacle. I was just relieved that DeLaughter didn't live up to his promise to last all night.


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