Treefort, part 1

The flight to Boise leaves at 7 AM, which means waking up around 6. I always pack in two stages, attempting a complete pack and allowing enough time before my departure to remember anything I forgot or needed to buy. This time it’s minimal – travel size toothpaste, deodorant, a power supply for a keyboard. The cheapest convenient flight I could find had a layover in Seattle, so we have the disorienting experience of traveling six hours to find ourselves only three hours later than we left, and then traveling an hour and a half to be two and a half hours later. I have not had time to eat breakfast, and am reduced to ordering the only sandwich on the plane: egg salad with ham. Miraculously, it does not make me ill, but I keep expecting it to, which casts an air of anticipation and dread over the journey.

I would be a little disoriented regardless of the day’s events. The day before was my last day at a job I’ve had for just shy of fifteen years. I have yet to find a way to write about work compellingly. Suffice to say that in any long relationship there are things you know are wrong and things that keep you there in spite of them. When you find yourself thinking about the first one more than the second one on the regular, it’s time to go. I am excited to move on to a new and entirely different job that I will also not write about. But it was bittersweet to leave, for sure. I started when I was eighteen, and my dad worked there before me, so some people have literally known me since I was a child. I’ve spent more time with my boss than with some of my close friends. Fifteen years is longer than I’ve done anything else I currently do except play music. I am not a natural risk-taker, and the sense of consistency will be missed.

It was the day of a department meeting, and my coworkers got me a lovely engraved beer mug and a basket of snacks from around the world, which is truly top-notch shopping for me. I got a lot of kind words and hugs, and a card with long and thoughtful things written in it. I was touched how many people thought I was leaving to do music full-time. Some of us went out for drinks after at an awful faux-Mexican bar near Penn Station, and it was a proper sendoff. I had one of those margaritas with an upside down beer in it, and a couple more without. I closed out the night at an awful faux-Irish bar with my IRL friend I work with. Used to work with. Of course we’ll still hang out, and I do hope to stay in touch with some people; not all these relationships have ended. But something definitely has.

All of this is to say that I have a lot going on in my head beyond the logistics of getting to Boise. It is fortunate that no major snafu has come to pass. During our layover I get a message from the guy who’s picking us up, and we find each other quickly. After a short drive we’re at the Modern Hotel, our quarters for the duration of our stay. We’re here to play at Treefort Festival, and after a night off we’ll have a show Saturday and a show Sunday. We are relieved to find the MIDI keyboard we ordered for Becca already in one of our rooms. We are also supposed to have a bunch of records from the distro, but it’s still early and I’m optimistic. If it weren’t for the band playing right in the courtyard outside, preventing any sort of proper nap, everything would be perfect. The Modern is indeed quite modern. The shower looks like what an ’80s movie villain has in their house, no curtain and just a giant glass pane, with one showerhead on the wall and one on the ceiling. The food downstairs is Basque. A friend from the area tells me there are more Basque people in Boise than anywhere else outside Basque country, and that we should absolutely eat some Basque food during our stay. I am pleased to see that one of the Treefort events is exactly that, a sampling of Basque foods, and mark my calendar.

We go to get our artist wristbands, and are also given a little paper bag full of swag. Each bag looks different because they are decorated by the students of Boise Rock Camp. Ours has a cool three-dimensional bit that looks like rainbow wings. Upstairs we pay a visit to the artist lounge, where there are snacks and tea and coffee. We run into Video Age, old buds from New Orleans who are also here for Treefort. The lounge has a nice balcony where I eat a reasonably acceptable free breakfast burrito. There are also beers, but we only get two artist lounge drink tickets for the duration of our stay so I hold off. It does look as though we are surrounded by good beer, and there is a whole area of the festival devoted to it (Alefort). Even on the plane over there was free beer, a small pour of a delicious Elysian stout. We are definitely in beer country. It becomes clear that if you hang out at the artist lounge they just keep bringing you different food. Here a pizza, there a tray of sandwiches, now some Rice Krispie treats. There is a small cooler of Red Bull which appears largely untouched. This tells you a lot about Treefort, which is now in day three. If this were SXSW there would be a volunteer standing between you and the Red Bull, because everyone would be trying to grab as many as possible to get through the week. Treefort feels a little like Hopscotch, another great festival in a small city where it is possible to enjoy yourself and even relax. There are a lot of kids and dogs around, a lot of regular-ass people who do not maintain sponsored posts on social media, and minimal corporate presence. You can go see a show on the main stage and actually see it, and not get trampled even a little bit. Good vibes all around. With a day off today and shows Saturday and Sunday, I’m excited to hunker down here for a bit.

After an attempt at napping, Julian and I head over to the main stage to see Liz Phair. I saw Liz Phair ten or fifteen years ago and it was all right. Like a lot of people I mostly just wanted to hear Exile in Guyville and maybe a little whitechocolatespaceegg, and it was at a time when she was particularly ambivalent about that material, trying to do the pop thing. She did “Mesmerizing” and didn’t even play the bluesy guitar hook on the chorus. I remember a ride back from New Year’s more recently where we talked about Liz Phair going pop and reread some of the old reviews, like the famous 0.0 from Pitchfork on her self-titled record. I remember that album coming out and just hating it, “selling out” and all that. Looking back at it now, I can see that her desire to just make a pop album was genuine, and how boring it must have been to be the blowjob queen/fuck and run girl to multiple generations of smug male rock critics. How much she must have wanted to do something different and change the narrative about her, and how no artist owes fans anything. But man, that self-titled record and what came after it range from not that good to very bad. Like, I agree that Liz Phair did not get a fair shake from the rock establishment, but listen to “Bollywood” and tell me it’s not one of the most bizarre and awful things you’ve ever heard. A lot of the music I love comes from people with really low batting averages, from New Order to Harry Nilsson. The juxtaposition of brilliant and terrible artistic judgment fascinates me. But the terrible remains terrible. So coming into this show I have no idea what to expect.

Seeing her now, she seems to have made peace with the Guyville material. It is the triumphant 25th anniversary and she is giving the people what they want. Maybe she feels a little conflicted about it still, but we should all be so lucky as to write even one song anyone wants to hear again tweny-five years later. She opens with a sludgy, distorted version of “Flower,” as if to signal to the audience that, yes, it’s gonna be that kind of set. She does “Help Me Mary” just immaculately, resigned and then furious and finally defiant. The coda carries so much more weight coming from her now, older and wiser and undoubtedly a bigger deal in the world than whoever she was thinking about when she wrote the song. I remember getting Exile in Guyville in high school because all the girls I had crushes on were into it. I wanted to understand something about girls who were into Liz Phair, and also for them to think I was cool. I was entranced, and went through intense phases of listening to only it every couple years, and was newly gutted by it every time. My relationship with this record has far outlasted any of the relationships that got me into it. It is true that, as one critic whose name escapes me wrote, a lot of the initial appeal and success of this record was due to her being an attractive, educated woman who sang about sex and blowjobs. But there are so many perfectly pithy observations of how men and women can relate to each other, and at fifteen or sixteen I wasn’t ready for how much I was going to be implicated. “They make rude remarks about me/ They wonder just how wild I would be…I make myself their friend/ I show them just how far I can bend.” It took me a while to figure out that wasn’t about the sort of alpha-jock jerks who would be the antagonists in a college movie. It was about all sorts of guys, even or especially nice liberal-minded feminist guys like the guys she met at Oberlin, who still amongst themselves made rude remarks about she, wondered just how wild she would be. Guys like me. Thanks to the performative wokeness of the internet age, self-flagellating “male feminists” are all over and this sort of revelation is no longer novel. If they’re the right age they probably love Liz Phair too. But there was a time when, alone in your room without Facebook or, God forbid, Twitter to go sound off on, Liz Phair could be the one to make you face yourself. And she did it so beautifully you had to keep coming back; for the pure sonic pleasure of her voice, the elegance of her writing, and in case you had missed something.

I’m kind of a raw nerve already, having just left the job and all, thinking about the future with more hope and more fear than usual. She does “Never Said,” a little slower and groovier than the original. I feel an intense need to get closer to the stage, and gradually make my way forward. She does an impeccable version of “Go West” with just one of the backup guitarists playing and singing harmony and that’s it, I’m tearing up. She is singing about leaving, and her voice is like a warm blanket. I can’t remember the last time I had this intense of an experience at a show. I hardly let myself cry around people I know and I’m not about to do it here, so I try and pull myself together. She does “Mesmerizing” with the guitar lick this time and it kills. She does some more fantastic old stuff like “6’1” and some acceptable mid-period stuff like “Polyester Bride.” She does a new song called “God Loves Baseball” of which I do not know what to make. She does the much-maligned “Why Can’t I?” and I try to give it a chance again. Even in my vulnerable state it’s just not as good as the good stuff. She has the melodic and formal skill to make straightforwardly pleasant, poppy music, but that’s not what makes her special to me. I have to hand it to her for still playing this one though. Either she thinks some people in the audience really want to hear it, or she stands behind it and doesn’t care what people think, or she’s banking on people hating it and it’s a troll. Whichever it is, respect.

I have a feeling she’s going to give us some more Guyville next. Sure enough, it’s “Fuck and Run,” and as God is my witness it starts raining exactly when she gets to the chorus. Perfection. You couldn’t put this scene in a movie, it would be too much. Is she going to close with that? No, she is going to close with “Divorce Song,” because it rocks harder and fucks you up more emotionally and she knows what we’re here in the rain for. Come for the blowjobs, stay for the catharsis. I am almost to the front of the crowd when it ends. What are you even supposed to do after an experience like this? It’s still early. Julian and I head off to another show.

1 response on Treefort, part 1

  1. One of the finest pieces of writing about experiencing music I have ever read. Keep on it, Ethan. I’m glad your pal Julian was there with you.

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