Sasquatch and the Three Tiers (of Community)

The beauty of the Gorge, home of Sasquatch! 2010

My name is Steph Bowen, and I’m a music festival addict.

It’s been one week since I returned from the Sasquatch! festival at the Gorge in Washington, and I don’t know if I have the strength to hold out until my next scheduled festival, in August.

My love affair with music festivals began in earnest in 2008, when I attended the ill-fated-yet-incredible Pemberton fest. It spurred me on to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and prompted a weeks-long volunteer position with Rifflandia in Victoria in 2009. At one point I was so entranced by music festival culture that I attempted to conduct an auto-ethnography of my time at Pemberton for my graduate thesis. Then I remembered that I hoped to secure employment post-graduation.

My journey to Sasquatch!, which hosts 40,000 attendees and 100 indie-rock bands over Memorial Day weekend in the US, illuminated some of the motivation behind my compulsion. I have always been dedicated to music and a fan of live shows, but last week I realized that, like so many of my extracurriculars, my love of the festival actually boils down to a deep-rooted love of community.

Beyond merely celebrating artists, multi-day music festivals take you away from the ordinary of everyday life, strengthen existing relationships, fuse friendships between strangers, and contribute to an overall sense of oneness with the tribe.

The crowd on the grassy knoll (photo courtesy of Seattle PI)

This can occur in myriad ways, but there are typically three tiers of community development in action at any large-scale festival, as my experience at Sasquatch! 2010 demonstrates.

Tier 1: The Team

Generally teams consist of those you make the journey with, and are hence an extension of one’s home-based community. I was lucky enough to travel to the Gorge with my two best friends and one of their boyfriends. He was a good sport, too, only writing “Help Me” backwards on his window as a plea to other vehicles once along the way.

The four of us were a lean and highly mobile music-seeking unit, from the moment we threw down our backpacks and danced crazy to Broken Social Scene, to the final group sway to Ween as the festival closed.

Our sense of unity was remarkable, but not unusual. Your team keeps you fed, sheltered, and motivated. It provides comic relief in low moments and camaraderie in high ones. They are the individuals you will reminisce with post-festival, when you struggle to recapture the energy of the event in your day-to-day life. Your shared experiences will also strengthen and enrich the community you collectively belong to back home.

Tier 2: Camping Companions

I missed this crucial component of the festival experience when at Pemberton in ’08: there is nothing like being parked in a field, sleeping in a tent, cooking over a single gas burner, and not showering for four days to bring people together.

Our camp-based community began with an oversight, as we’d forgotten our Coleman stove and were attempting to cook meals for four people over a tiny hiking stove. The lovely Montana couple camping on our left offered up theirs, while the three Midwestern academics to our right provided highly coveted barbeque space.

During our four-day interaction we also shared beer, reviews of our favorite shows, and details of our lives at home with the freedom relative anonymity allows. By the festival’s final day we were sitting together on a grassy knoll at the main stage, passing around bootlegged drinks and laughing like old friends.

They look like they're mindlessly worshipping celebrity, but really they're building community (During Broken Social Scene, photo courtesy of Seattle PI)

Tier 3: The Tribe

There was a moment during the LCD Soundsystem set when I looked up from in front of the main stage to the top of the Gorge’s natural amphitheatre and saw that the entire hillside had broken out into coordinated dance. The movement spread rapidly to the floor, and in seconds I found myself dancing along with the crowd.

More than being visually stunning, this kind of spontaneous, large-scale coordination creates a sense of oneness within an otherwise disparate group.  It’s a visual representation of what’s going on just under the surface at any festival: individuals sharing the joy and beauty of art with like-minded individuals. You can’t help but feel at peace with your tribe when you’re all cheering, or clapping, or dancing perfectly in sync.

Be it with your closest friends, people you’ve just met, or a more universal crew of music lovers, the festival is ideal breeding grounds for community development. Give one a try. But be warned: you can get hooked your first time, and the effects may be far-reaching.

Toronto’s Music Scene

Misha Bower of the Bruce Peninsula

Years ago Thursday nights were for parties, cheap drinks at the Golden Lion and very late nights.  As I count down the last few weeks of my twenties, Thursday nights generally see me in bed at about the same time as every other weeknight.  Last Thursday, however, I found myself on a streetcar at 1:30 in the morning wondering if I’d make the last northbound subway.  The Bruce Peninsula’s tickets said nine o’clock and I naively assumed this meant they’d likely start the show at some point between ten and eleven.  Instead there were two opening acts, pushing the BPs back to midnight.  This put Katie and I in an awkward position, as we’d invited four people to come to the show with us.  Thankfully, after a few hours of waiting, the Bruce Peninsula put on an amazing show and everyone left really happy and only a little tired.  This concert was the last in a string of great concerts we’ve been to in venues around Toronto.

Friends in Bellwoods 2

This started with the Friends in Bellwoods 2 CD launch party, headlined by Ohbijou at Lee’s Palace last August.  This double CD introduced Katie and I to a lot of great local acts and inspired us to start following the concert listings more closely.  These concerts have made me realized just how amazing Toronto’s music scene is at the moment. I already knew Toronto has produced a range of major successes like the many groups that combine to make the Broken Social Scene (including Feist and Metric), Blue Rodeo, and John’s favorite rapper: K’naan.  Sadly, the cost of tickets to see major shows at venues like Massey Hall normally exceeds the limits of my student budget.  Thankfully, there are dozens of great bands on some of the smaller independent labels in Toronto who play cheaper shows at Toronto’s smaller venues – (many of which are featured on the Friends in Bellwoods charity compilation CD).  Not only do these shows cost less money, but you also feel more connected with the local community when you are sitting a few rows back from the band’s parents or friends.

Six Shooter Records

Six Shooter Records has an amazing list of artists including Justin Rutledge, Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet.  We were lucky enough to see these three perform at one of my favorite Toronto Venues, Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in the Annex neighbourhood.  In the months that followed we returned to the church twice more to see Basia Bulat and the Great Lake Swimmers.  The acoustics in this nineteenth-century building more than make up for the somewhat subdued atmosphere (not much dancing on the pews).  If you are not familiar with Basia Bulat yet, check out this video from a CBC radio program:

Finally, returning to last week, we discovered a new venue on Dundas West called the Garrison.  It had a small stage in the back of an unfinished bar.  This led to crowding, as the Bruce Peninsula had between 7 and 9 people on stage.  Their high energy gospel-choir-folk-prog rock had me rocking and clapping awkwardly in something resembling dancing as the power and energy of Marsha Bower’s and Neil Haverty’s voices blew us all away.  Have you been to a great local show lately?  Please share suggestions of local bands that might make there way to Toronto in the months ahead.

For more on the Toronto Music scene, watch some of the short films produced by City Sonic, including this one on Justin Rutledge’s start at the Cameron House: