“You’re just a tree in the forest.”
"I have a feeling I'm going to live here someday. It just feels like the right place."
Touche Amore vocalist Jeremy Bolm
“You're a bunch of animals!”
Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke
Foxes, beavers, deer, cranes, hawks, and even golden eagles reside in Boise, Idaho, the remotest large city in the U.S. Even in downtown, a 1-square-mile patch in a river-lined valley beneath scenic mountains, it’s not unusual to see people make way for ducklings or spy a stray rabbit.
Also living in Boise (pronounced BOY-See, not Boy-ZEE) are about 215,000 human beings - a significant uptick from the 136,000 who lived in the Pacific Northwest city in 1990. Most of them set up camp in the city so they can conveniently revel in the nearby wilderness and all its trappings: ski runs, bike paths, hiking trails and hot springs.
On the one hand, Boise’s growth is remarkable in mostly rural Idaho at a time when America’s white working class is dwindling - and despairing. On the other, the growth isn’t surprising given the city’s enthusiastic embrace of trends like buy-local branding, craft-beer brewing and food composting (the latter of which was just introduced citywide two weeks ago). Boise is a bright blue dot in an otherwise crimson-red state.
Six years ago, the City of Trees also climbed aboard the music-festival train, launching the Treefort Music Fest. Finally, Boise residents didn’t have to drive seven hours to attend Bumbershoot in Seattle or MusicfestNW in Portland. They could indulge in their favorite local acts, as well as national artists that might not otherwise visit Boise, by walking just a few blocks.
Now, Boise and Treefort are facing a similar predicament. How does the city - dubbed “The West’s Best-Kept Secret” - continue its sprawl without encroaching on the precious wilderness? Or become overpriced, overcrowded, and overhyped like the PacWest’s two bigger cities, Seattle and Portland? Meanwhile, how does Treefort expand without going the way of South by Southwest, which crescendoed about three years ago after oversaturating its hometown of Austin, Texas?
Sandwiched between the music-industry-centric SXSW and the U.S.’s most high-profile music festival, Coachella, Treefort couldn’t be much more different than either: It’s a music festival with almost no industry presence or corporate sponsorships, and operated almost entirely by volunteers. Boise – recently named the 33rd happiest place to live in the U.S. - is also a refreshing place to be compared with hipster headaches like Brooklyn, New York, and Silver Lake, Los Angeles, where the industry unfailingly turns to find TNBT. Boise is filled with consummately friendly and unpretentious people, something even Seattle and Portland can’t claim. While Treefort lasts five days, the festival feels relatively manageable compared with the high-intensity, headlining-grabbing SXSW and Coachella (where Treefort’s highest-profile artist, Mac DeMarco, doesn’t even make top-billing).
Treefort’s trained focus on propping up unexposed local talent that can’t afford to tour hasn’t changed, with roughly half the participating artists hailing from the Boise area. Nor has its goal of grabbing national acts that would otherwise route their tours around the city, since turnout at concerts can be maddeningly low (Angel Olsen would tell Sunday night’s crowd that 12 people showed up at her last Boise gig). For many locals, though, Treefort is now an overwhelming experience, having grown from about 100 artists and a handful of stages in its early days to more than 400 artists and two dozen venues in 2017. In practical terms, there aren’t many more venues - or much more space - into which Treefort can spread, even if organizers want it to. Moreover, doing so would inevitably force organizers to hike ticket prices, which they probably can’t afford to do. Yes, Coachella charges $400 for a general-admission three-day pass, while Treefort offers single-day tickets for under $100 and a $300 wristband allowing priority entry at almost all venues. But $400 is peanuts in Los Angeles, where the median home price is more than $500,000. In Boise, $300 pays a half-month’s rent.
Despite complaints about ticket prices, the turnout appeared to be strong this year. And even those who don’t attend rally around the massive tourism-driver. Local banks allow painters to plaster their walls with murals. The Capital Building features incessant Treefort ads in its lobby. Local restaurants, bars, and bike shops offer deals to attendees. After all, it’s only once a year that 30,000 visitors descend on the City of Trees - plus, quite frankly, there isn’t a hell of a lot that goes on here. Treefort is pursuing a “more is more” approach by expanding with offshoots such as Filmfort, Alefort, Yogafort, Comedyfort, Skatefort, You-Name-It-Fort; organizers say the expansion furthers efforts to boost city pride. But then again, it is called the Treefort Music Fest, and diluting its focus on music could spell doom for Boise’s most celebrated event of the year.
Future years will tell what direction Treefort takes and whether it will be rewarded or penalized. But for now, we can bask in the glory that was its splendid (yet imperfect) 2017 edition.
It’s Wednesday, the first day of Treefort - and, at 61 degrees, arguably the most gorgeous day of the year in Boise. Puffy clouds hang over mountains whose snowcaps just melted away after the city’s worst winter in decades. The festival isn’t going to begin for another few hours, but there’s a bristling feeling in the streets, almost like the nervous excitement that comes on an election day. “It’s happening,” one of the grinning volunteers says, as Drowned in Sound picks up its press credentials. “You can feel the energy.”
Like Boise (and Idaho, for that matter), Treefort encourages exploration. After all, with hundreds of lesser-known bands on the bill, the element of discovery is a key component of the festival. But Drowned in Sound - in order to maximize its concert-going experience and avoid getting lost in a morass of mediocre acts - draws up a detailed map to which it mostly adheres over the course of the festival.
A half-hour before Treefort’s first official band begins at 6 pm, RecEx gets the ball rolling with an off-site acoustic performance by the Meat Puppets. The Pacific Northwest legends are an apt choice to kick off the bash, performing a series of acoustic songs that mostly all revolve around nature and the elements - including ‘Plateau’ and ‘Lake Of Fire’, which they famously played on Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ special from 1993. Curt and Cris Kirkwood have gained a lot of pounds and grey hair since then, but their harmonized vocals still sound strong, and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood cooly counteracts his dad Curt’s crankiness with some comic relief. Indeed, RecEx’s packed crowd - probably the biggest of all the shows the store hosted over the long weekend - eats up the Meat Puppets’ eight-song, half-hour set.
With Treefort beginning quietly with mostly unknown artists, DiS capitalizes on the chance to visit Tonic Room Studios, Idaho’s largest recording studio. Daytrotter had set up camp there to record live-streaming performances by artists in between their formal sets. All it takes is a ten-minute bus ride to get to the studio, located a few miles south of downtown. Sadly, Boise’s Valley Ride system is underutilized, and the city misses a golden opportunity to convert Treeforters into bus-goers. While Valley Ride lets them ride buses for free, it doesn’t extend the service’s woefully limited hours of operation (last buses leave around 9 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on Saturdays; there’s no service at all on Sundays).
At the studio, London alt-rock trio Happyness have some issues with phasing, monitors, and tuning before playing three of their sunny, poppy songs. But the wiry, handsome kids handle the technical difficulties with ease, sharing a beer and joking about a rainstick one of them worked into the set. After that, a quick 15-minute bike ride gets us back to the Treefort epicenter, where we find camaraderie with hundreds of other bicyclists. We hit the already-jam-packed El Korah, home of the elderly Shriners, who (inadvertently?) rented out their space to GosT, a skull-masked, neck-tatted thrash-tronica musician who claims to hail from “Hell, Michigan.” Not to be confused with Sweden’s equally Satanic metal band, Ghost - or, for that matter, the defunct experimental rock group of the same name from Japan – the synth-waver invokes all the evil he can muster. This pleases at least one fan, who yelled ridiculously before the performance, “If you believe in Jesus Christ, you should leave now!” Uh, OK.
The festival’s top-billed Boise act, Magic Sword, takes the stage next and puts on one of the best performances we catch. Three cloaked musicians wearing Cylon eyebands wow a crowd that includes EDM fans, throngs of bros (and in meat-and-potatoes Idaho, these guys are fucking huge) and even families with kids waving fluorescent swords. Magic Sword has the whole package: branding, an original apocalyptic sci-fi story that has its own comic book, and music worthy of Goblin or John Carpenter. Watching them, it becomes even clearer why Treefort needs to exist: An act like this would be huge if it hailed from L.A. or New York. But despite all the technological advances that have made communicating (and making music) easier, one thing hasn’t changed: You still need a plane ticket - or at least seven spare hours - to get from Boise to another city.
It’s Day Two, and time for a visit to Radio Boise, the city’s nonprofit community radio station - which, like RecEx and Daytrotter, is hosting bonus performances by visiting musicians. Rituals Of Mine - an electronic/soul combo from Sacramento, California - are wrapping up a set in which singer Terra Lopez belts it out as if she’ll never have to sing again. Impressively, she’ll give it 110% again later that night at the Shrine. After chatting with the band, we bike a few blocks to Neurolux, Boise’s go-to rock club/dive bar. The city’s own Logan Hyde plays cool, loungey soft rock that is trending among this year’s batch of indie bands (c.f. Mac DeMarco, Delicate Steve, Why?, etc.). Hyde has the tender singer/guitarist thing down pat, and the considerably sized audience lets him know as such.
Next up is a triptych of performances taking place (gratefully) at the same place: the Boise Contemporary Theatre. Comfortable and intimate, this turns out to be the best venue involved in the festival, although the seats might be making us biased. While we’re unfamiliar with the first two Boise-bred artists, we wanted to make sure to secure a front-row spot for the third: Doug Martsch. We split the difference with the openers, snoozing our way through Sleepy Seahorse, who can’t seem to get his acoustic guitar tuned right or his laptop in sync with it, but marvelling at very pregnant singer/guitarist Bijouxx. She reveals that she’s playing her quieter songs because she usually has to compete with other noise; indeed, Bijouxx’s songs are so fragile, they would’ve cracked into pieces at a club.
Kids who just got out of school file into the theatre and sit down right on the floor in front of her. It’s a touching reminder of both the artist’s approaching maternity as well as how children - when faced with truly captivating musicianship - can be even more well-behaved than their cellphone-distracted elders.
Closing out the mini-showcase of Boise musicians is another singer/guitarist, this one a guy who sounds remarkably like the frontman of Built To Spill. Whereas Martsch’s band served as the headliner for most previous Treeforts, this year he gives a grippingly expert solo performance that has most of the audience in a trance-like state. As a set closer, he invites his friend Ivy Merrill to perfectly cover Wye Oak’s ‘Civilian’. Martsch, in so many ways, sums up Boise. He’s dressed in a simple T-shirt and jeans, he’s not in great shape physically, and he has let his hair bald naturally instead of shaving it all off. He’s humble, quiet, understated and sincere; it’s no wonder he never left this town.
The rest of Thursday night is, unfortunately, underwhelming. Open Mike Eagle will tweet later that he had a blast performing at the Shrine, but we weren’t blown away by his mostly stationary and uneventful performance. Why? closes out the night at the same venue with pleasant-enough orchestral pop, but it’s nothing to write home about. Even with the chimes. And the maraca. “Why are we here?” we wonder. We pop over to the nearby Linen Building to see if Chastity Belt or the Coathangers are delivering anything captivating, but unfortunately the venue turns out to be the crappiest one of the weekend. Not only is there virtually nowhere to get a good view (is the floor actually slanted upward?), the speakers suck. The bands aren’t to blame: Chastity Belt play light-as-a-feather songs with no distortion, while the Coathangers churn out expert riot-grrrl riffage. But both sound equally cruddy through the speakers. Fortunately for each band though, the crowd give rousing rounds of applause. It’s another mainstay throughout the festival: generous crowds that reflect Boise’s reputation as one of the friendliest cities in the U.S.
Our festival Friday gets under way shortly after 4 p.m. at RecEx, which is hosting Toronto experimental rockers Weaves. It’s hard to take our eyes off perma-smiling singer Morgan Waters, who is dressed in a pyjama onesie and carpenter boots with platform soles - except when Jasmyn Burke churns bizarre sounds out of his guitar by scraping it with his mouth. As soon as Weaves wrap, it’s time to finally head to the Main Stage for its first performance. The band is Thunderpussy, and they turn out to be arguably the highlight of the whole damn thing.
It’s finally raining, as many festival-goers had feared would happen, and most are standing beneath a strategically placed tent not far from the stage. It’s cold too - but nothing of this is bothering Thunderpussy, who hail from Seattle, where rain is omnipresent. In fact, it’s not even stopping them from stripping down to their “Thunderwear” (bras and underwear). Delivering stadium guitar rock to a venue at least half that size, the ladies bring it - and they know it too. They whip the crowd into a frenzy, with lead singer Molly Sides and guitarist Whitney Petty playfully pretending like they’re going to make out. Their chic fashion - as well as that of their Main Stage successor, surf-rock Treefort vets Delicate Steve - is in striking contrast to the crowd’s outre wardrobe of acid-washed cut-off jeans, tie-dye T-shirts, poorly dyed hair, and even more poorly executed man-buns. It’s a reminder that Boise hasn’t really caught up with the times. Oh, and vaping? So passe.
Friday’s early evening is spent at our now-beloved Contemporary Arts Theater, where we arrive early to secure another front row, dead-center seat - this time for Portland ambient solo artist Grouper. Catching an artist we knew nothing about, as we did yesterday at this venue, again pays dividends: This time it’s Ora Cogan treating the crowd to her “new baby songs.” She and her backing band performing playfully but thoughtfully, with skill and grace. Then comes the reclusive Grouper, who avoids making eye contact with or even addressing the crowd during her hour-long set. Regardless, it’s another one of the festival highlights: an immersive exploration of texture and sound in which Liz Harris plays light-as-a-feather guitar, coos indecipherable lyrics, and loops tracks below a screen featuring flashing close-ups of insects, facial features and abstract images. Kneeling on a tapestry, Grouper essentially takes the crowd through the journey of how a song is made, even if it’s virtually impossible to discern when one finishes and the next one starts. She delivers an art performance instead of a concert, and it would be perfect if it weren’t for about 75 members of the 230-person crowd walking in and out of the intimate space.
Friday night brings a dilemma - the only one of the weekend, really. Thanks to strategically planning bonus sets into our schedule, we avoid most of the clashes that appear on Treefort’s formal line-up. But now we must decide; do we see prized Los Angeles psych-rockers The Growlers on the Main Stage or Magic Sword again, this time staging their first-ever performance with the Boise Philharmonic - and at the city’s historic Egyptian Theatre, no less?
After catching a few songs by the Growlers, who seem to break character by performing without costumes or stage decorations, we opt for the latter. Word on the street says Magic Sword’s show is gonna be the festival highlight. We get to our seat at the Egyptian and wait excruciatingly for the show to start 45 minutes late. This is time that could’ve been much better spent marvelling at The Growlers. Not only that, but the collaboration does not, in fact, live up to the hype; the strings and horns are so quiet they’re immaterial, and the concert lasts only 45 minutes instead of an hour. Aside from a couple of spectacular moments when fans wave their fluorescent swords in unison (again: branding!), it’s a wash.
A bit deflated, we head to the Shrine to watch part of a Mac DeMarco show. The line is around the block - it’s twice as long as the one for Magic Sword, and proof why the easy-listening pop manufacturer is billed first at the festival. DeMarco plays songs he hasn’t played in Boise in seven years - like ‘The Way You’d Love Her’, ‘The Stars Keep On Calling My Name’ and ‘Ode To Viceroy’ - and the crowd flips out accordingly. Still, after getting an ample amount of soft indie pop thus far (and much more to come) at Treefort, DeMarco can’t compel us to stick around for his entire set. So we shove off for something louder: Touche Amore at Mardi Gras. We’re anticipating the screamo legends being holed up in a dank basement, but it’s actually a ballroom that’s often used for wedding events than concerts.
In another reminder that Treefort has overextended itself, the venue is only about half-full, no doubt due to Touche Amore competing against a dozen other artists, including DeMarco, Weeed and Wooden Indian Burial Ground. Nonetheless, the band appears to give it all for 55 minutes, and the fans who are there impressively recite every long-winded lyric screeched by vocalist Jeremy Bolm. Despite a low turnout, Touche Amore’s first show of its six-month tour - and first Boise gig in three years - sends us home satisfied.
Day four starts off on an impossibly pleasant note with Canadian singer/songwriter Andy Shauf serenading the Main Stage denizens on a crisp, sunny spring afternoon. Joined by two clarinettists – who, unlike the Philharmonic, can actually be heard – Shauf comes across like an early-career Paul Simon with much longer hair. After performing the breezy ‘Drink My Rivers’ and ‘Quite Like You’, he reveals to the crowd that he and his band drove through the night from Seattle to Boise. “We got a lot of energy,” a straight-faced Shauf jokes in a half-asleep drawl, before delving into ‘Eyes of Them All’ and ‘To You’. The throng reward him with ample applause, but really, that’s the case for almost all the artists we see during the festival. Unlike the picky crowds in L.A. or New York, or the even pickier ones at SXSW, these uncynical, unjaded festival-goers cheer for just about every performance. Similarly, and seemingly without fail, every accidental bump of the shoulder or stepping on a foot is met with a “Sorry” or “Excuse me.”
Following Shauf on the Main Stage is Jonathan Richman, the eminently esteemed punk-rock progenitor whose career turn as a childlike (or is it childish?) flamenco guitarist/storyteller isn’t as universally, um, appreciated. The eccentric Richman admits to making up the lyrics to most of the dozen songs he plays - and not even knowing what they’re about. “This isn’t a concert,” he declares toward the end. “It’s supposed to be more like a party: fest-ive.” It’s a party that can’t end soon enough, but around 55 minutes in, it does - mercifully. We watched Jonathan Richman for almost an hour. Where’s our cookie?
We saunter a few blocks away to the Woodlawn Empire Ale Craft brewery and find Austin indie psych-poppers Tele Novella playing alongside massive steel brew kettles. This is, in many ways, the essence of Treefort: a solid yet relatively unknown indie band playing to about 50 people in a room where craft beer is made. Tele Novella’s free show gives more credence to the notion that, despite complaints from locals, you don’t have to throw down $150 for a single-day pass to enjoy the festival. In fact, an astute planner could easily attend a few dozen quality shows over the five days, what with all the gigs at bars, house parties, RecEx and elsewhere.
As much as we enjoy Woodlawn’s atmosphere (the music carries really well in there too), it’s time to do some more wandering. First up is Neurolux, where just about no one is watching a show by Michigan’s very capable indie-rockers Minihorse. (Gratefully, they had a decent 8:30 p.m. slot at the Olympic on Thursday night.) Then we head back to the next-door RecEx, where Marco Benevento stages a hearty 50-minute performance, about half of it comprised by his seven-part suite ‘The Story of Fred Short.’ While this set is more poorly attended than the other ones we see at the record store, the gonzo-pop pianist Benevento and his two smiling, white-clothed bandmates (wait, is this a cult?) don’t seem to mind. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t played Boise before, perhaps it’s because they have a prime midnight slot later that night, or perhaps it’s because their songs are just that joyful.
We dart back to the Main Stage to catch the second half of a shimmering, spectral set by Berklee Music School-bred multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi. It's rare to see a festival crowd go so wild for a master of the violin, but the former Of Montreal contributor proves it can be done. Bringing a punk attitude to classical music, the result is a wholly original concoction that culminates in the crowd waving its arms in unison and dancing.
Making sure we get our steps in for the day, we trot back to the brewery to find heavy-psych squad Ecstatic Vision playing to - count ‘em - seven people. It’s another tragedy, but not one the far-out Philadelphians seem to mind. For one thing, they’re getting pints of Woodlawn beer hand-delivered to them onstage. For another, more onlookers filter in over the duration of their five-song set. After they’re done, we return to the Main Stage and discover a packed crowd bobbing up and down to body-positive rapper/singer Lizzo and her dancers, who are playing their first-ever show in Idaho. “When women stick together, some amazing things happen,” she says to the delight of the crowd, about half of which is female. “And when men support that, even more amazing things happen.” Amen to that.
Following Lizzo is DeMarco, who virtually replicates his performance from the night before at the Shrine – at least at first. A half-hour in, it’s time for us to secure an early spot to see the best band of the weekend.
Deafheaven is the only metal band (of significance, at least) playing here, and after a full day of watching artists perform, we need something to throttle us back into consciousness. But before they do, we watch their tour partners Emma Ruth Rundle and This Will Destroy You set the stage at Mardi Gras. Rundle, a singer/songwriter hailing from Los Angeles (and a member of Red Sparowes and Marriages), courts the burgeoning crowd with six songs: ‘Run Forever’, ‘Hand Of God’, ‘So, Come’, ‘Protection’, ‘Marked For Death’ and ‘Heaven.’ Instrumental post-rockers This Will Destroy You play an hour-long set that ranks as one of the festival’s strongest, with drummer Jesse Kees delivering the fiercest drumming we see all weekend. And then it’s time for Deafheaven, who play their first-ever show in Boise.
“Sorry it took us so long to get here,” remarks vocalist George Clarke, sporting a new beard and hair that’s growing long on top. It’s an apology that could be made by probably half of the out-of-town bands we see. The shoe gazing black-metallers play eight lengthy songs, trudging up their years-old cover of Mogwai’s ‘Cody’ and drawing their last three selections from 2013’s critically lauded Sunbather. Clarke dives into the crowd and beckons the frothy masses to push forward – which they do, almost to Pearl-Jam-at-Roskilde-like results. One fan doubles over the front of the stage and proceeds to make multiple (and hysterical) “I’m not worthy” bows. Arms push against the monitors to protect bodies from crushing against the stage, while staccato guitar riffs on ‘Baby Blue’ and ‘Come Back’ cause eruptions in the crowd. This is what happens when you finally sate the appetite of restless fans in rural America. Thank heaven for Deafheaven.
Could it be that it’s already the last day of Treefort? We’re totally knackered. We visit RecEx one last time to see Tall Tall Trees, a.k.a. Mike Savino, a.k.a. the only experimental psychedelic banjo-playing solo artist on the planet (one must assume). Savino has pretentiousness written all over him; he’s a young guy with a two-foot-long beard and a tatted arm singing really high and whistling while playing a friggin’ banjo with a violin bow. Yet, somehow, he’s massively charming. Kishi Bashi joins him onstage, with Savino later returning the favour by doing the same during Bashi’s ensuing set. After his brilliant performance on the Main Stage yesterday, this a unique opportunity to see Bashi up close, making loops out of his rapid-fire violin stanzas and beatboxing. “This is mostly improvised,” he admits during his five-song performance. Could’ve fooled us.
Bashi isn’t the only violinist in action this afternoon; there’s also Matthew Resovich, supporting Jimmy LaValle’s long-running ambient ensemble The Album Leaf. As busy as LaVelle seems behind multiple mixers, his group sounds minimalist. Equally contradictory, the mostly electronic group - playing Boise for the first time in ten years - projects a naturalistic feel that suits Boise’s outdoors to a T. By the time their 50-minute set is over, it occurs to us that this is the coldest it’s been at the festival so far. Thankfully, an indoors set by Brett Netson - one of Built to Spill’s original guitarists – is on tap at Neurolux. Joined by two percussionists, he delivers a solid 40 minutes of Zen-like drone music, intermittently chiming in with effects-heavy echoing vocals. He’s playing straight from his third eye, man. The welcome respite with Netson runs a little long, so we miss our opportunity to see Kate Tempest. But we do witness the entirety of folky singer/songwriter Angel Olsen’s closing Main Stage performance. It goes smoothly at first, but about halfway in, her guitar breaks. “This is awkward, super-weird,” she tells the crowd.
Olsen gets a replacement guitar but then, a song later, says, “Something’s wrong, I don’t know what it is. … We got some malfunction up here.” Shaking her head and clearly upset, Olsen basically mails in the second half of her set, shaking her head and laughing in the direction of her bandmates. While we watch a couple of mostly forgettable shows later on that night, by avant-pop duo Psychic Twin and psychedelic-rock trio Dead Meadow, it is Olsen’s set that represents Treefort in a nutshell: well-intentioned but imperfect.
For more information on Thunderpussy, visit their official website.