I went to Treefort Music Festival and all I got was this hometown pride

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A native Boisean's account of a DIY attempt to go big.

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Dale W. Eisinger | April 4, 2012

finn riggins treefort festival

The crowd for Finn Riggins, by Glenn Landberg

It’s been just over a week now since departing the first version of the the first four-day Treefort Music Festival in my hometown of Boise, Idaho. In truth, I’m still reeling from the over-sensory experience – reasons musical, social, commercial, familial, chemical and habitational all burn in my brain like a cattle brand. In other words: we all left floored. Somehow, Boise’s first foray into tier-1 market models was beyond a success, the kind of “first” ready to spin out of control in the annals of oral rock myth due to moments you were not present for, will not remember, and will have no way to verify when they become the incendiary “were you there for … ?” memes. I mean this not just for the stars of the shows but also all the others who volunteered, played, rocked, partied, and packed every club, restaurant, and hotel in the Boise metropolitan area to the gills for the fest’s trial run. It was a beautiful, tightly wound, and well-organized mess. Look: no one was sure it would work, but it really worked.

Though it’s the third-largest city in the Pacific Northwest, Boise, commonly known to New Yorkers as “in Iowa” or “part of the Midwest,” gets the shit end of the stick on most major artist tours for being too out of the way or too undersold – though this latter criticism is hard to sustain when there isn’t even an effort to sell. Understandably, a large portion of Boise’s musical set has gone wanting always for bigger, better bands. To understand how this festival came to flux, Josh Gross’s Boise Weekly explainer basically opens and closes the book on the subject – it's hard to retrace, but it took years of DIY booking to put this festival together with no corporate backing. And even as Stereogum’s doing its best to support the city and Pitchfork insists on shitting all over the whole lot of us, there’s no explanation for the feeling of community and energy that arises from an event like this. The result of Treefort 1.0 was something unmistakably fresh and energetic. The consensus is Boise will no longer be the same, at least when it comes to music. This was felt by all the artists I spoke to, who lauded the festival on stage, who were so surprised to find something so “cool” in Boise, and who were simply surprised to be performing in Idaho.

I don’t think I would be alone in saying I sensed an apprehension in the air before things really got rolling Thursday afternoon. The streets seemed too quiet, but that was just nerves on how things would play out. It was probably silly to evaluate the situation offhand without recognizing the efforts of the dozens of contributors. Namely, Eric Gilbert is given the lion’s share of credit for spearheading the conception; he and six other staffers, with the help of 200-plus volunteers, and the countless club owners, bartenders, bouncers, and sound guys pulled things off with little more trouble than a Friday night house show.

The Hive Dwellers by Christine Birkenbine

The Hive Dwellers by Christina Birkinbine

For the most part, the major music press couldn’t be bothered to show up; this didn’t stop the city from making this thing a success. In a great piece by Michael Deeds, The Idaho Statesman reports The Neurolux, Boise’s bastion of independent live music and culture, more than tripled its capacity nightly – at least 1,000 people rolled through for four days straight. Paste and Apes on Tapes took pics from around the weekend. Music Festival Junkies skipped SXSW in favor of making it to Boise. SSG Music came through to check out some shows. Be Portland came over to cover the event. A photo of Kevin Barnes performing the closing night on the mainstage made it to Rolling Stone. Treefort already has a Wikipedia page. Even this much attention is unusual for Idaho.

So far, I haven’t even mentioned the music, but cripes, local bands without question were shown inordinate love. Local heroes Built to Spill were an obvious performance to look forward to, but the likes of Boise’s Finn Riggins, Teens, and Mozam all stole the show. A combination of scene-vet and young-gun bookers took the opportunity to find balance between palatable, out-there, progressive, and punk for Boise’s small- and mid-sized clubs. Headliners around town were mostly established groups unfortunate enough to have frequently missed the City of Trees on tour up until now, like of Of Montreal, Why?, EMA, and Blitzen Trapper – with the exception of Built To Spill, who’s set Saturday night on the largest main stage was one of the best I saw all weekend. Yeah, Doug Martsch and the boys are road-weary and travel-tested by this point. (Martsch even showed his veteran ears during sound check Saturday morning, asking the mix man, “can you pull that reverb back like six milliseconds?”) But Saturday night was all crowd surfs and sing-alongs, with the obvious crest coming during the band’s classic stack-em-up anthem “The Plan.” I made a vow to never see Built to Spill outside of Boise because that’s clearly where the energy belongs – at least to a young Idahoan like me.

Au by Christine Birkenbine

AU by Christina Birkinbine

Finn Riggins, also Gilbert’s band, played the festival’s opening set. At 5 p.m. on a Thursday the Neurolux was at capacity. That’s when that jittery feeling in the stomach revealed not nerves but arousal—this was a serious, long-fought moment for the Boiseans. I had played with and seen this band too many times to count, including at SXSW a week before, and this was the best I’ve ever caught them. Gilbert and vocal/lead guitarist Lisa Simpson seemed possessed, perhaps a catharsis of all the work and toil leading up to that very moment. Drummer Cameron Bouiss kept the trio together, tighter with each turn. “Thanks,” Gilbert said near the end of the set, “we have about 137 bands left.”

Teens’ Saturday night show at the storied Red Room was packed to the gills and only gave room to breathe when much of the crowd expanded onto the stage to sing along to the band’s surf’s-up dance rock. I honestly feel like only in Boise can this phenomenon go down with such lack of pretension. Pure excitement for the drive of the community, fueled by some thunderous bass and a lot of darkness.

Mozam late Friday at the Linen Building was a down-tempo tranq, warming up to the night’s headliner, araabMUZIK. I hadn’t heard the Mozam project since habitual experimenter Christopher Smith – formerly of Nom De Plume – joined with habitual mastermind Trevor Kamplain (who I once toured with in a band called ATTN). Kamplain dropped the Krauty/heat-wave mash EP Créme de la Kremlin under the Mozam Beaks moniker last year; it was a tight collection of driving, rigid beats and swarthy tropical trance. I was very glad to hear the duo get off the strict grid of sequenced Reason beats, since Smith joined up with some old-school analog zeal. They swarmed around a pulsing directive, fusing warm ambient dust with baby-blue, powder-coated break beats.

Dustin Wong by Dale W. Eisinger

Dustin Wong by Dale W. Eisinger

This isn’t to say the out-of-towners missed the mark—far from that, there was not one set I saw that lacked—standouts were easy: Sierra Leone’s bubu master Janka Nabay going overtime, singing a capella as his band tore down; Woodsman’s zoning out; Talkdemonic’s vocal- and violin-driven beat-themed art rock swooning; Pictureplane’s bonkers set at the Owyhee Plaza after party; Portland experimentalists AU on the mainstage touting new touring member Holland Andrews with a mind-bending solo, warping a looped clarinet through pools of her precision vocals for what seemed like minutes; Snake Rattle Rattle Snake’s frontwoman Hayley Helmericks sporting an Atomic Mama tank top; Dustin Wong’s chromatic pedal ring matching his overtly stylish socks; Portland’s monstrous Typhoon band taking their time building huge waves of joy through their large-collective, eclectic rock; getting to play the mainstage myself with In The Shadow Of The Mountain; watching araabMUZIK wrangle his two bulky MPC pads through airport security Sunday morning.

If there is one gripe: The absence of metal from the entire scene – though I know a discussion is in the works on the issue – left a huge part of Boise’s music community wanting. Sure, Boise local sludgecore favorites BLACKCLOUD hit the Red Room (You may recognize them from a track I played on a recent Newtown Radio/Impose Bieber Side-Boob Hour). Had Justin Cantrell’s new secretive warehouse space over at The Shredder been given official sanction from the fest, who knows the kind of nasty, heavy shit the veteran booker could have pulled in? We stopped by there early Thursday night for a Sun Araw DJ set with Mozam, as well as Bodie Lee in hot pants, with resident video jockey Tyler Bowling getting colorful all over it. Even with the draw of an arcade and a miniramp, the show was low on bodies – again, it was very early (~11 pm–midnight). It is my fault for leaving and I apologize if this critique is unbalanced.

Why by Christine Birkenbine

Why? by Christina Birkinbine

However, this points to a lesson the community might learn from SXSW, beyond the structure Treefort modeled itself after: the unofficial shows are just as important. Because of the transient nature of the festival, a “Treefort” party can happen anywhere, anytime during the fest. Treefort’s official branding is now simply a nice backer—Treefort as an institution is a community force. But is the population of Boise really large or motivated enough to take the festival’s impetus into its hands, as Austin’s citizens do, with or without permission? Only time will tell.

The festival is already in the works for next year. I have trouble imagining something that could top this iteration of the jam. It’s an unbelievable coup for DIY culture in Boise, especially considering the entire event was able to go down with not a single large corporate backer—this was built in, around, and for Boise, Idaho. The issue of its sustainability is no longer a concern. Gilbert asked us to build it. They all did come. We all will come again.

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