PORT TOWNSEND, Jefferson County — Jeff Tweedy got his cantaloupe, all right.
Wilco’s main man, one of the bigger names at the inaugural THING festival this past weekend, took the stage Sunday, on his 52nd birthday coincidentally, delivering the first of many laugh lines by acknowledging his melon-filled belly.
“I’ve eaten so much cantaloupe today I don’t think I can even sing,” he said, the dwindling golden sun hitting him like nature’s spotlight on the Parade Grounds stage abutting Puget Sound.
It was an in-joke everyone at Fort Worden Historical State Park seemed in on, having passed Chimacum Corner Farmstand’s sign along the main route from Seattle to Port Townsend imploring the indie-rock hero to stop for some free ‘loupe. Between the inside fruit yuks and the intimacy of Tweedy’s solo acoustic set — at times tender, vulnerable and hilarious — the moment perfectly captured the vibe of the small, first-year music-and-more festival not aiming for the masses.
Intimate and manageable despite being sold out, the roughly 5,000-capacity THING festival is the brainchild of Sasquatch! Music Festival founder Adam Zacks, part of a trend of so-called “boutique” festivals countering larger, commercialized fests that often rely on big (expensive) names to move tickets.
Rejecting the usual headliner race for hip club- and theater-level acts like Kurt Vile and the Violators, Khruangbin and Snail Mail, made the undercard all the more important, and there was no fat on the stylistically diverse lineup ranging from attack-and-chill jazz drummer Makaya McCraven to Mexico’s alt-rock vets Café Tacvba, celebrating 30 years of bandhood.
One of the most anticipated artists, Orville Peck, Sub Pop’s masked queer cowboy who seems on his way to indie stardom, packed McCurdy Pavilion — the decommissioned military base’s old zeppelin hangar converted into a 1,200-seat auditorium — early Saturday. His rolling psych-country odes to Vancouver drag queens and highway tales, delivered in his Johnny Cash-evoking croon, had the standing-room-only crowd hooting and hollering at every turn.
Two of the weekend’s most electrifying sets came early Sunday, with Los Angeles violinist/singer Sudan Archives slaying the pine-encircled Littlefield Green stage with her hypnotic, fiddle-scorched electro-R&B. Later, universal hip-hop fusionists Tank and the Bangas reignited the stage’s still-smoldering coals with their soul-funked rap/jazz/rock hybrid, providing entry points for anyone who likes fun.
Absent the megafest lineup bloat that often results in overlapping sets and hard decisions, the nonmusical programming — live podcasts and speaking engagements, like writer Lindy West and “Shout Your Abortion” co-editor Amelia Bonow humorously rebuffing anti-abortion talking points in the tiny Wheeler Theater — still lent a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure feel to the festival crawling with laid-back young hipsters, stroller pushers and gray hairs in equal measure.
First-year kinks at any festival are inevitable and for the most part, THING’s were relatively minor: the occasional (free) shuttle bus pickup-zone flag placed at the wrong part of an intersection (though they mostly ran smoothly nonetheless), an opening-day logjam at the main-gate box office and drink ticket line. Some fans reported waiting nearly an hour for wristbands during Saturday afternoon’s prime arrival time and feeling confused about the concession ticketing system, which required separately colored tickets for alcohol and food/water from certain concession areas. Meanwhile, the food trucks — like Port Townsend farmers market favorites Paella House and Gypsy Coffeehouse — that comprised the bulk of the food options took cash or card.
Some of the biggest hiccups were likely beyond organizers’ control, as the small, 275-capacity Wheeler Theater stage ran roughly an hour behind schedule Saturday after an act purportedly failed to appear on time.
High winds later delayed the start of Café Tacvba’s Saturday night set, blowing a considerable programming hole in the peak of the night, at least for those who couldn’t get into McCurdy Pavilion for John Reilly and Friends. (The actor/Americana bandleader, whom we spotted among the crowd Sunday during Violent Femmes’ closing set, drew perhaps the only mind-numbingly long line of the weekend 45 minutes before showtime.) But it was a smart precaution considering the stage’s massive lighting setup, which looked like a disco spaceship landed on the Parade Grounds stage during the Mexico alt-rock vets’ after-dark time slot. On the other side of the park, hip-hop greats De La Soul — also celebrating a 30-year milestone for their seminal debut “3 Feet High and Rising” — rocked a much larger, and impressively hyped, crowd across the grounds.
The layout was free-flowing, with an open-to-the-public night market and the Architects of Air Luminarium — a psychedelically lit inflatable bouncy castle-esque catacomb — between the two main gated areas. While the largest Parade Grounds stage sat atop a bluff overlooking Puget Sound, water views were mostly clipped by fences, buses and trees, blocking what might have been Western Washington’s most spectacular festival stage backdrop. Still, a 90-second walk to the beach for a midfest reprieve is hard to beat.
“Now this is better than Woodstock 50 would’ve been, I gotta say,” quipped one of Parquet Courts’ members, comparing THING to the doomed, superstar-heavy festival during the post-punk bashers’ rambunctious set.
And that was exactly the point.