Doe Bay 2011: As much of a vacation as a music festival

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The view from the beach during a Hannahlee performance

Music festivals are generally anything but relaxing.  After several days of dealing with bustling crowds, tight security, and lack of bathing facilities, festival-goers tend to feel the drained effect of needing a vacation from music.  After doing extensive photo coverage of festivals such as SXSW and Sasquatch, I was expecting a similar experience at Doe Bay Festival.  Imagine my surprise when I left Doe Bay feeling supremely relaxed and more excited about music than ever. This was the magical Doe Bay effect that my friends had raved about, and it was amazing to experience for the first time.

Since its inception in 2008, the Doe Bay Festival has grown in popularity, and this year’s attendance was the largest yet with 700 attendees.  When online sales for this year’s Doe Bay Fest opened, tickets were gone in three minutes, before the music lineup was even announced.  After seeing Sound on the Sound’s beautifully captured Doe Bay Sessions and hearing raving reviews from friends, it’s hard not to at least be curious about what makes this festival so appealing.  Truly, the overall appeal is of Doe Bay itself, with the musical lineup just being the cherry on top.

Champagne Champagne stole the show at Doe Bay

There are several factors that contribute to the Doe Bay effect and make it unique and beloved by attendees.  The festival is held on the Doe Bay Resort, located on Orcas Island, a ferry ride away from Anacortes.  Its isolated locale makes for a largely natural environment where little to no city lights compete with the stars, and network connection is limited. The latter proved to be a blessing as all electronic distractions were eliminated by default, allowing for the Doe Bay experience to be maximized.

Another key element of the Doe Bay Fest experience is having musicians blend in with the rest of the festival goers.  The Doe Bay experience truly begins and ends while waiting for the Anacortes-Orcas Island ferry.  Take our ferry ride to Orcas as an example: parked one lane over from us was Charity Rose Thielen of The Head and the Heart; grabbing coffee at the ferry terminal was Kendra Cox of Lemolo; schmoozing on the ferry ride was Travis Barker of Elk and Boar.  Even at the festival, it wasn’t uncommon to see a musician lead a rousing set on stage, and then be standing in line with you for the Honey Buckets. All festival-goers purchase the same tickets and are on equal ground.  VIP sections don’t exist, and even the backstage is a non-exclusive area open to the public. In general though, the audience lounged on picnic blankets soaking in the sunshine, basking in the music and each others’ presence. Everyone was on equal ground and acted like so.  It’s a refreshing, very community-based way to interact with musicians and fellow festival-goers in a way that few other festivals allow.

Doe Bay favorites The Head and the Heart

While the festival itself officially begins on Thursday evening and wraps up on Saturday night, the best way to experience Doe Bay Fest is by staying at least an extra day. By Sunday evening, a chunk of festival-goers had departed for home, and in the midst of the more open spaces, I finally felt the full effect of the magical Doe Bay appeal.  Seeing many impromptu acts throughout Doe Bay had been a huge expectation of mine, and besides a few who took advantage of Jake Hemming’s (of Big Sur) self-built busking station and late night jam sessions, there hadn’t been as many as expected. On Sunday, however, the Otter Cove Stage turned into an open mic session of sorts, with impromptu sets by Kris Orlowski, The Local Strangers, and the only scheduled band of the day, Youth Rescue Mission.  Also vying for attention that day was a massive slip and slide that took over the main stage area, and The Head and the Heart’s beautiful Doe Bay session down at the beach.  Perhaps it was the extreme reduction of crowds or simply the lack of scheduling or something entirely different that made this my favorite day of Doe Bay.

In terms of the music at Doe Bay Fest, it is largely of the indie-folk genre, with many musicians being from the same community and often hopping on stage for each others’ sets. To be fair, I managed to see most live sets, but not all.  Personally, I was largely familiar with bands such as Ravenna Woods and The Head and the Heart, both of whom performed top notch sets that got the audience on their feet and dancing.  It was however my first time seeing Pickwick, Campfire OK, and Kelli Schaefer, and all three of them blew me away. Not only is their music infectiously catchy and begging of audience participation, but the stage presence of all three of them is energetic and fun.  These bands also invited their fellow musicians on stage, which only added to their overall energy, although the stage nearly broke when Pickwick invited the entire audience to join them on stage (and many obliged).

Campfire OK at Doe Bay 2011

The most surprising act that stole the stage at Doe Bay Fest was Champagne Champagne, a local hip-hop group that seemed out of place in an otherwise indie-folk lineup.  While a chunk of the crowd petered off after Ravenna Woods’ set, they were replaced largely by festival youth and kids, all of whom chanted “Champagne Champagne!” long before and after the duo performed.  The group’s epic outdoor performance and catchy mantra were so infectious that Campfire Ok adapted the phrase into “Doe Bay Doe Bay!”

Each night by 10pm, out of respect for the Doe Bay neighbors, official festival events were moved indoors to the tight quarters of the cafe and yoga studio.  These were the moments when Doe Bay Fest began feeling like a larger event in that space was limited and there was competition for key viewing spots.  On Friday night, dream pop duo Lemolo played a riveting set in the yoga studio, and although I could only see through the foggy window from the outside, they sounded so amazing their record was the first of many I procured upon returning home.  As the small spaces quickly reached capacity, many were left outside with no other musical options than to create their own singalongs which were fun in their own rights. The first night, warbling warbling notes of “Tiny Dancer” and “Margaritaville” echoed throughout the campground.  On Saturday night, the main stage came alive for a torchlit acoustic set by John Vanderslice and Damien Jurado.  Meanwhile, Ravenna Woods invaded the beach for an impromptu moonlit session that echoed through the bay. Between those lively late night jam sessions and waking up to the soothing notes of Bryan John Appleby warming up for his Doe Bay Session, it’s impossible to complain about being inundated with too much music at Doe Bay.

Pickwick performing with a few friends

Still, there are many indications that Doe Bay Fest is fast reaching its limit or, in the eyes of some, becoming too big.  Structural integrity of Doe Bay’s facilities came into question when Lemolo’s set in the yoga studio attracted so many people, the studio’s balcony broke. Similarly, Pickwick’s set invited artists and fans up on stage, resulting in partial damage to the main stage. A few crimes also occurred, such as the disappearance of the Tea Cozies’ guitar and a handful of artist badges from the check in table. These crimes indicate that interest in Doe Bay Fest has grown outside of the local artist and Conor Byrne crowd.  There also seemed to be fewer impromptu sets, which was a huge expectation I had for Doe Bay Fest.  Whenever they did occur, such as the recording of The Head and the Heart’s Doe Bay Session at the beach and their later set at the yoga studio, word spread like wildfire, and the venue capacity issue once again came into question.

Is Doe Bay Fest getting too big? Well it certainly seems capped at maximum capacity, meaning ticket sales and general operations will likely (and sadly) get stricter.  In the sense of popularity, Doe Bay is definitely big due to SOTS’ Doe Bay Sessions and more and more attendees get fixated on having the Doe Bay experience year after year.  As Joe Brotherton said in his closing speech, you can’t leave Doe Bay Fest without having nearly every thought in your head refer back to it.  Unlike the music overload feeling that often results after attending a bigger festival like SXSW or Sasquatch, Doe Bay Fest leaves you feeling relaxed and at peace. It feels as much like a vacation as it does a music festival. And you wonder why people rave about it so much?

Suzi Pratt

About Suzi Pratt

Suzi Pratt is a Seattle transplant from Hawaii. When she isn't out at shows taking photos she spends her free time traveling.