Carnation, WA – Seattle takes its music pretty seriously. Indeed, it’s so vital to the city’s lifeblood that a year passing without at least five separate music festivals within the borders of Washington State is considered a travesty. There’s Sasquatch, Bumbershoot, the Decibel Festival, City Arts, and of course, the Capitol Hill Block Party.
This last event is notable for a number of reasons. The aforementioned Block Party is held in Seattle’s cultural and spiritual nexus, Capitol Hill, and is quickly becoming THE event of the summer. Originally conceived as a modest celebration of Seattle’s best neighborhood, the Block Party has ballooned into a musical bulwark for the city as a whole, and as such, attracted such big names as The Flaming Lips and Girl Talk in 2013.
Yet 2013 also saw the birth of a brand new festival, one that was conspicuously positioned against Capitol Hill’s Block Party in both the thematic and literal (calendar) sense. The Timber Music Festival was arranged by the same people who have put on the Doe Bay Festival for the last few years, and it’s hard to see it as anything but a refutation of the urban music festival ethos that characterizes such outings as Bumbershoot or the Capitol Hill Block Party. And while the Doe Bay Festival has always had the subtle flavor of exclusiveness, what with the hard-to-reach location and scarcity of tickets, Timber felt like it was for everyone.
Located in the Tolt-MacDonald Park, in Carnation, Washington (a reasonable 30-ish miles from downtown Seattle), the Timber Music Festival was far enough away from the city to give it a removed feel, yet close enough to home so that urban-dwellers didn’t have far to travel. The park straddles the Snoqualmie River, which was responsible for dividing Timber’s main camping and parking areas from the stages. A picturesque feature, to be sure, the river also served a wonderfully practical purpose for anyone weary from too many hours in the sun, and in need of a quick, refreshing, cool-off splash in nature’s swimming pool.
And really, that was the point. The Timber Music Festival is for a particular kind of music lover, one who appreciates brilliant music, yet sometimes laments the locations chosen for live performances. Sure, it’s entirely possible to have a blast in a crowded, sweaty club, or jam-packed amphitheater seating 50,000. Folks that are serious about their music understand that to see a great band or performer, one must regularly brave less-than-ideal venues.
The folks that put on Timber seemed disdainful of such compromises, however, and gave those that attended their first-annual festival a look at the alternative. Staffed with groups that sported fan-bases ranging from modest-to-moderate, the acts at Timber were all impressive, yet not of a caliber that would entice a person to show up just to see one band and/or their hit single. No, the folks that came out to Carnation, WA did so because of the entire line-up, and what the whole weekend, and not just one act, could offer.
As things kicked off on Friday the 26th, it became clear to all festival-goers that this wasn’t a normal music event. With only two stages, Timber didn’t make any pretenses about its line-up, or the scheduling that permitted each act to play without competition from another. Too often, a person at a music festival must make hard decisions to see just one band when promoters have put two excellent acts up against each other. This was not the case at Timber, for while there where two stages, neither was occupied if another happened to be.
A small thing, to be sure, yet it was a decision that allowed those at Timber the luxury of seeing all the acts, good or bad. In the former category, there was any number of examples, one of the first of the festival to truly stand out being Avians Alight. A one-woman act composed of Jenna Conrad and her personality-laden guitar, Avians Alight sounds like Florence and the Machine with a Neko Case backbone. She came on right before sunset on Friday evening, and played with the festival’s house band, of sorts: The Passenger String Quartet. The strong lyrics and Jenna’s gentle, shy vulnerability seemed to soften even the hardest hearts in attendance (admittedly, there weren’t many), and acted as a wonderful lead-in to the evening’s “headliner,” Bryan John Appleby.
Classified as a member of the “new folk” scene, Appleby’s music is more complex and nuanced than what any one genre might offer in the way of a description. Soulful without veering into sappy, sensitive yet devoid of whining: Bryan John Appleby is what a person might listen to if they were looking for something Elliot Smith-y, yet weren’t in the mood for sorrow. It’s hard to imagine a better closer for Timber’s first evening, as Appleby’s rich guitar and vocal harmonies found a perfect companion in the long shadows and weary faces looking on in the fading twilight.
Saturday’s performers were not outdone, however. The day began with Jacob Miller & the Bridge City Crooners, a Portland group that may as well have been the house band for some bayou roadhouse in New Orleans. A remarkably tight, well-rehearsed four-piece that sounded like Leon Redbone on cocaine (in a good way), these guys may very well have invented a brand new musical genre: hipster dixieland. Possessed with an infectious energy that seems to draw the band’s 1920’s and 30’s influences right to the surface, their fearless blend of old-time beats with a raw, rock-and-roll soul captivated the assembled early-afternoon crowd.
Another early stand-out from Saturday included Hobosexual, a rock-and-soul fusion duo that came off like the love-child of .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Kithkin was another pleasant surprise. Composed of three drummers, a guitarist, and a keyboard player, Kithkin wasn’t your average band. Using a relentless, driving percussion rhythm to blaze a trail through each of their songs, Kithkin electrified a very hot, sun-baked audience that had begun to slow down in the later afternoon hours.
This was entirely necessary, too, for the day was leading up to the festival’s headliner and biggest draw: The Helio Sequence. A Portland, OR based duo comprised of Brandon Summers and Benjmin Weikel, The Helio Sequence have successfully cultivated, maintained, and expanded a fan-base that’s never known the band to have an “off night.” Indie Rock mainstays, the duo’s success is largely the result of their tireless touring habits and mesmerizing performances. To hear The Helio Sequence is sufficient for liking the band, yet to see them is enough to make a person a fan for life. Creative chord progressions, electro-rock synthesis, complex rhythms, thoughtful lyrics, and an ever-evolving musical voice define The Helio Sequence, and all of this was on display when they took the stage just after 8:30 p.m.
As magnificent as Benjamin and Brandon were (and this journalist can speak with some authority on the subject, having seen The Helio Sequence perform not less than 15 times), the most memorable moment involving the band, or the entire festival for that matter, came half an hour before they even hit the stage. A child had wandered into the backstage area, where Benjamin Weikel was arranging his drum equipment prior to his band’s set. At Timber, the lines between the crowd and the performers are thin and meekly guarded, and allow for magnificent and pure moments just like these.
As security and the kid’s mother looked on with smiles, Benjamin spent the better part of ten minutes chatting with the small boy about his drums. The child was enthralled, and reminded this particular journalist why he enjoys music and concerts in the first place. These festivals are meant to bring people closer to the performers they enjoy, to provide a personal experience one cannot get via a CD player or iPod. Some festivals have forgotten this, or worse, abandoned the notion wholesale, and that’s a shame.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Timber and the other western-Washington music festivals, for aside from its proximity to the summer-festival season, Timber has another thing going for it: it does it better than everyone else. In the same way that Seattle owns the summer season, Timber nailed the whole music festival thing. Out here in Seattle, we love our summers. This probably isn’t a surprise to most people, for if this city is famous for anything, it’s our rain. Yet people in Seattle (and most of the Pacific Northwest) don’t live here because it sucks, but rather because of the four or five months out of the year when the weather is absolutely, 100% brilliant.
Out here, we embrace the summer months, and spend as much time outside as humanly possible when they are upon us. Indeed, the rain and clouds largely inspire this behavior, and lead residents of this region towards a summer attitude that seems entirely appropriate to the season. Out here, people treat the months of June, July, August, and September like cherished prizes to be enjoyed and spoiled shamelessly. Harkening back to some latent childhood proclivity, most residents of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest spend their summers the proper way: outdoors.
In this way, the Timber Music Festival was entirely proper, and appropriate. The event brought people together without crowding them; it gave fans their favorite groups without the separation that normally accompanies such venues; it offered music without the burden of having to make hard decisions; and most importantly, it presented attendees with a setting that allowed people to enjoy themselves in an environment altogether appropriate for the season. Summer exists for life outside, not within, and by giving people the opportunity to enjoy good music in just such an environment, the people at Timber have performed quite the service.
Sure, a person could have chosen to sweat it out on the streets of Capitol Hill this last weekend, watching big-name bands perform in over-capacity venues, or on asphalt lined streets with bad acoustics. For his own part, however, this particular Capitol Hill resident would take the Timber Music Festival over the Block Party any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Neighborhood-treason this may be, yet the truth it is also.
by Warren Cantrell