One had played one of the most memorable sets in Sasquatch! history. The other had played one of its more forgettable ones. Yet there they both were performing on the final night of the 10th installment of the festival to send its weary, sunburned masses home.
The Decemberists appeared as conquerors with an uncertain future — though they were promoting their No. 1 album The King Is Dead and returning to Sasquatch! for the first time since a pair of festivalgoers famously got it on during their set in 2008, the popular PNW prog-folk troupe was also playing its last show for the foreseeable future with keyboardist Jenny Conlee, who is being treated for breast cancer.
Meanwhile, headliner Wilco was back at Sasquatch! to redeem itself for a lackluster appearance in 2005, when technical issues hindered still-sobering-up Jeff Tweedy and his then freshly rearranged band.
When all was said and done, both bands had dodged threatening weather from angry-looking (and lightning-peppered) skies, and instead put together some of the best music the whole four-day ordeal hosted.
Helped out by modern popgrass star and Nickel Creek alum Sara Watkins on vocals and fiddle, The Decemberists ripped through a set that leaned heavily on the country-tinged, mostly acoustic King is Dead. While that was all well and good, the group shined with their older material, such as rollicking opener “The Infanta,” theatrical, crowd-incorporating sea-shanty closer “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” and Watkins’ twangy take on metallic-prog piece “Won’t Want For Love.”
While Wilco was able to avoid difficulties later on, The Decemberists weren’t so lucky. But being the cocksure, unflappable Oregonians that they are, they made the most of it. With frontman Colin Meloy sorting out problems with his acoustic guitar, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk (dressed in a full-body, albeit headless, Sasquatch suit) took over for a good five minutes, telling a joke in “Sasquatch” (or really bad gibberish), scatting as “Jazz-squatch” with “Jenny Conlee and the Sasquatch-ka-toons,” and finally leading the band in a good-time sing-a-long of The Outfield’s “Your Love.”
A half-hour after The Decemberists wrapped up their all-too-short set (the crowd was demanding an encore, and nearly got its wish), Wilco took the stage in front of the smallest audience any main stage headliner saw over the weekend. It’s a damn shame too, because that means a great deal of ticketholders missed a masterful 22-song set by the 21st Century’s best group of American song craftsmen.
Wilco opened the Memorial Day set with the mournfully fitting “Ashes of American Flags,” and it was a sign of things to come; the group returned to cuts from its landmark album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot time and time again (eight of the record’s 11 tracks by night’s end). But even the songs from other albums were opportunities for the die-hards on the floor to belt out (or whisper) along with Tweedy, whether it was early avant-folk touchstones “Shot in the Arm,” “Misunderstood,” and “Via Chicago” (the one with the CRAZY-ASS freakouts behind the calm and collected Tweedy and bassist John Stirrat, for those of you wondering), or later, poppier stuff like “Theologians,” “Handshake Drugs,” and “Impossible Germany.”
After 17 songs, trippy Krautrockian epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” served as the end of the main set, with Tweedy forcing the non-participating contingent to clap along. The crowd wasn’t done with Wilco, however, and the band was drawn back out for household chores anthem “Hate It Here,” lyrically superior “Late Greats,” and fan favorite “Heavy Metal Drummer.”
Oh, but that had one more trick up their sleeve.
Reaching into the back catalog, Tweedy and Co. pulled out Mermaid Sessions (and therefore Woody Guthrie-penned) rocker “Hoodoo Voodoo” as the finale — and what a finale it was: jazz-freak-of-nature guitarist Nel Cline (who I can’t believe I haven’t even mentioned yet IS the Wilco live show) and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone (a well-kept secret of a blues-rock guitarist if I’ve ever seen one) traded some SERIOUSLY ripping leads; Tweedy narrowly avoided getting hit by a glowstick, then brazenly and playfully invited any and all takers (he was never hit, and as a result delivered just one of his many zingers on the night — “You guys suck! No wonder the Mariners are having a tough time, man.”); and then the show stealer, a tight-pantsed, mustachioed roadie brought onstage specifically to bang the cowbell for that one tune. He didn’t waste his moment of glory, rocking the tricky percussion part while dancing all over the stage like an absolute sex machine. I mean, if I could have even one-tenth of this man’s dancing ability, I’d be the best dancer in a 200-mile radius (instead, I’m just the best dancer in a 60-mile radius).
Early on, Tweedy revealed to the crowd Wilco’s checkered past at The Gorge, including the ‘05 Sasquatch gig (which he called the band’s worst) and an opening job for Steve Miller (which just sounds like a terrible thing). At that point, Tweedy declared it already their best show at The Gorge.
Tweedy was selling Wilco short, though. When the six-piece finished up, it wasn’t just their best show at The Gorge; it was one of the best shows by any band at the Columbia Basin venue.