Idaho's Treefort Is Better Than the Mega-Festivals
Why I traveled all the way from Australia to Boise, Idaho in a time when the lineups for most music festivals all seem the same.
Photo of Vince Staples at Treefort by Maggie Mattinson
On my final day in Boise, Idaho for this year’s Treefort Music Festival, an email fell into my inbox touting a list of “the best festival experiences” money can buy. The summer getaways outlined in the email are million-dollar daydreams, destination holidays designed for rich kids who never got out of the Contiki Tour phase of their lives: you can experience ”glacier raves and midnight sunshine in Iceland,” “party in a 17th century fortress in Serbia,” dance “on the stunning Adriatic Coast.” The lineups of these festivals seem like afterthoughts; one bill sports The Black Eyed Peas and Pussy Riot, while another includes techno giants like Charlotte de Witte and Carl Cox alongside, uh, Greta Van Fleet? At the end of the day, specifics don’t really matter anymore. In 2019, music festivals are a multi-billion dollar industry, and a surefire way of turning under-visited places into tourist destinations.
That email was timely, because Treefort Music Festival happens to be a destination festival in none other than Boise, Idaho. It would be hard to equate the cold, high desert landscape of Boise with glaciers or fortresses—Boise has hot springs and a pretty good jogging track, I’m told—but Treefort, now in its eighth year, is significant for the Boise tourism industry in the same way I’m sure those summer getaways are for Poland or Serbia or Iceland. Sponsored by Idaho Tourism and Boise State University, Treefort takes over Idaho’s capital for five days each spring, shutting down main roads and making use of nearly every venue downtown. Drawing in around 400 bands and 20,000 punters each year, Treefort turns the decidedly sleepy Boise, with its population of 226,000, into a slightly less sleepy haven of art and indie rock. But despite the population swell, this isn’t Indio; its community spirit and idiosyncratic booking (the headliners this year were Toro Y Moi, Liz Phair, Vince Staples and hometown heroes Built to Spill) mean Treefort is a far cry from your average megafestival. The presence of buzzy left-field international artists like Japan’s Chai and Australia’s Divide and Dissolve, too, means there’s a certain trendy oddness to Treefort’s aesthetic.
When Treefort offered to fly me from Australia to Idaho for the festival I was skeptical. There’s something incredibly crass about these kinds of large-scale festivals backed by government agencies to lure in young people, tourism dollars and, perhaps, university enrollments; while they can occasionally be transcendent (I’m thinking of Tasmania’s Mona Foma), I find that a sudden influx of newcomers to a town often highlights the inadequacies of arts funding during the rest of the year. Stuffing venues and turning non-venue spaces into venues for one week feels like an easy way to spend arts budget without having to think long term about the sustainability of a community.
Going in with preconceived notions about the event I’m supposed to be reviewing probably makes me a bad critic, but honestly, find me the critic who doesn’t roll their eyes at the newest festival on the market; the modern music industry is a diseased ouroboros where festival bookers pay top dollar for the artists with the largest streaming numbers and playlist curators give precedence to the artists with the biggest font size on the poster. An algorithm didn’t book Coachella but it might as well have, and you could probably say the same about many of the other major festivals around the world. Slight deviations aside, the posters for Coachella and Lollapalooza and Primavera are basically the same words in different fonts. I’m not trying to sound like the fun police (I love Coachella as much as the next Instagram-obsessed Generation Z deadshit) but there’s a lot wrong with festivals right now. Like new iPhones and Iron Man sequels, you can’t help but gaze upon the newest festival and think “Did we really need another one?”
Fortunately, Treefort Music Festival turned out to be a pleasantly unwieldy experience: a strange and unique celebration of community and culture that, despite my many opinions on The Problem With Festivals, left me feeling a lot warmer on them by the time it was over. I’ve been thinking a lot about what in particular made Treefort feel more special than your bog standard music festival, and have come to the conclusion that the human element of it all—the handmade-ness, the decidedly bizarre and stridently anti-algorithm lineup—created an environment surprising and engaging at every moment.
In its organization and programming, Treefort strikes somewhere between the industry-focused scramble of Austin, Texas’ SXSW and more traditional festivals that orient around a main stage and other, smaller stages. There’s a large outdoor stage in the center of downtown Boise, but the vast majority of the festival’s programming takes place in Boise’s many venues and bars, meaning that you have to spend a little bit of time walking around the city if you really want to see everything. The lineup leans heavily on the hundreds of unsigned or unknown artists from around the west coast that fill the outer reaches of the bill. These bands usually play a couple of times at different venues, as well as unofficial parties that are free to the public. If it sounds like chaos, that’s because it is; you can hear music nearly everywhere, whether you’re in your hotel or walking through the city. But it also alleviates the stress of trying to see everything. Many of the best acts from the week were ones that I happened upon, rather than ones that I had set out time to see. All of my favorite Treefort 2019 artists, in fact, felt strangely outside what an algorithm might show me in a "Daily Mix" playlist, outside what friends or colleagues might ordinarily recommend. Treefort felt decidedly unfashionable, which is a wonderful, and increasingly rare, trait.
A perfect example of this was Austin band Why Bonnie, my favorite band that I saw at Treefort and one that I undoubtedly would never have heard otherwise. I didn’t intend to see Why Bonnie, but after serendipitously hearing them soundcheck as I walked past an outdoor stage, I decided to catch their final Treefort set. Why Bonnie make low-key indie rock that probably doesn’t have any place in the current zeitgeist, but is wonderful all the same; their music is a kind of winsome, muscular jangle that centers the lyrics of lead singer and guitarist Blair Howerton. With a knack for hooks but no propensity for showiness, Howerton writes with an eye for fine detail, in the style of Real Estate’s Martin Courtney or Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison. Their daytime Treefort set, to a scant handful of people, felt frustratingly under-attended; they are the kind of band that I would love to find an audience. There’s nothing particularly showy about a great quality indie band like Why Bonnie, but because of that it feels like I might not have found them during a more traditional festival.
Other discoveries felt particularly attuned to the part of the world I happened to be in, artists from Boise and the surrounding area who had rarely played outside their hometowns. One such band, Seattle trio Tres Leches, put up a particularly thrilling Saturday evening set on local community radio station Radio Boise’s public stage. Despite playing to a relatively small crowd, Tres Leches went all out, their wonky, melodic, bilingual punk providing an abrasive counterpoint to some of the more straightforward wares being shown at Treefort. The gleeful chaos of the band’s live performance—at one point, lead singer Ulises Mariscal threw his bass onto the stage—spoke to their visible excitement at playing the festival. For a band that’s only really played around such a tight-knit scene, playing a festival a state over can seem like a dream.
Similarly gleeful, although perhaps for not quite the same reason, were Nagoya, Japan four-piece Chai, who played some of the most rapturously received sets of the festival. Chai, touring their second album for Burger Records, Punk (after releasing a series of EPs on Sony Japan), pair a kind of insurrectionary feminist attitude with late 2000s indie aesthetics; their music can be, at times, a dead ringer for Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix, or CSS. Chai’s guiding principle is a concept they call “neo-kawaii”—essentially, an appeal to broaden cultural ideas of what’s cute. Chai’s sets were undoubtedly the most raucous of the festival; trying to get into their packed set at the surreal El Korah Shrine venue, a strange clubhouse with murals of ancient Egypt on the walls, was futile. The lucky few hundred who did pack into the space turned it into a heated, livewire mass, where your only option was to either move or risk getting crushed by the crowd. The reaction to Chai isn’t surprising; the band radiate positivity. Lead singer Kana rarely sports anything other than a wide grin, and it’s hard not to grin back. The language barrier (Chai play all their songs in Japan and only speak enough English between songs to explain neo-kawaii) didn’t seem to be a problem for the Boise audience. By the time they played their final set of the festival on the main stage, it felt like they had been anointed de facto Treefort MVPs; they were the only band across the week called back for an encore.
The headline sets at Treefort were great, but they often didn’t feel like the main event. Really, though, the attendees of the festival seemed to be up for anything; on night one, a crowd of hundreds snaked around Boise’s Knitting Factory, trying to get in to see Jpegmafia and Vince Staples. The kids who made it into the small, sweaty venue—a little under 1000 capacity, small for a Vince Staples show these days—seemed ecstatic, but those who didn’t make it in weren’t phased. There’s always something else to see, after all. Liz Phair had fun with her unruly Friday night main stage crowd. A group of teens clutching each other and swigging from hip-flasks had congregated at the front of the stage, screaming along to every word. “I was always a rowdy crowd member,” she told the audience, “so I love that you are, too!” Very few sets at Treefort felt high stakes, even the most highly attended ones like Phair and Staples. After his show, Staples tweeted a sweet quip about Boise. “Wow [B]oise Idaho went crazy sold out and still had a line around the corner,” he wrote, “next time we will do two shows and also a potluck style dinner make your best casserole dish!” It’s funny, but after attending Treefort, it doesn’t seem that unlikely.