The fifth-annual Doe Bay Festival wrapped up this weekend and already feels like a dream, caught in the metaphysical space between self-mythology and collective imagination. Even as it expanded (a little) to include more bands and more fans, the folk-music-fueled gathering on Orcas Island felt more self-contained than previous years. The overabundance of documentation in 2011 perhaps led to a contraction this year, fewer cameras and crews and secret sessions in the woods heard about only after the fact. Those still happened, but with less cache attached. Instead what prevailed was a sense of calm belonging so alien in the Age of FOMO: Wherever you were, that’s exactly where you needed to be.
That calm came from Doe Bay’s setting, so distant from everyday routine: a summer-campy, clapboard-constructed resort surrounded by breezy woods and meadows, hemmed by low cliffs and rocky beaches, set beside the chilly, island-flecked expanse of the northern reach of Puget Sound. The Salish Sea, as it’s called. Orcas, one of 170 pine-forested San Juan Islands. Killer whales and bald eagles hang around there; they shared the space with the sold-out festival’s 1,200 or so attendees. Getting to Orcas is complicated, a morass of scheduling and rushing to wait. Once you’re there, all hassle evaporates into sky and grass and salt water.
Understanding the nurturing power of the landscape, organizers didn’t over-deliver to fans. Once again, Doe Bay was a stripped down event, two stages, a few dozen bands, one official late-night venue—and a million different self-made options. More so than other festivals, it played out like a Choose Your Own Adventure.
This year the weather was perfect—hot during the day, cool at night (plus the Perseid meteor showers!)—so the point was to spend as much time outside as consciousness allowed. Though reportedly fun, late-night sessions held in a cramped yoga studio were not an option.
Instead, how about a songwriters’ round robin under an apple tree at midnight? Bobby Bare, Jr., John Roderick, Daniel Blue of Motopony and Noah Gunderson sat between flickering tiki torches Saturday night. A hundred or so booze-sedated listeners prostrated attentively in the cool, dark grass, stifling exclamations as shooting stars volleyed overhead. Bare’s originals were the strongest, and his take on the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” injected a note of self-aware angst into his otherwise self-deprecating delivery. Gunderson was disarmingly earnest and impassioned, Roderick literate and arch. The other three accompanied themselves on acoustic guitar, but Blue sang a capella and performed a song called “A Place” that poetically and hilariously captured the ad-hoc clubhouse spirit of Doe Bay:
I swear to got one day I’m gonna find this gang a place
A place where we can come and show each other our true face
A place where we can be real loud and rowdy until dawn
A place where we can take it off and get it motherfucking on
The previous night’s special session was more ambitious in scope but less successful in execution. At 11:30 PM, several hundred people met at Doe Bay’s main field for a night hike through the forest, to a wooded clearing, where we were told to sit and wait quietly. It was Friday, people were drunk and, per Blue’s song, ready to get it motherfucking on. Instead they got John Roderick emerging from a treetop illuminated from beneath, delivering a 40-minute solo set. It was too early in the weekend to demand that kind of focus, especially when there was a free, volunteer-run, full service tequila bar on the beach a short walk away.
Music-wise, Blitzen Trapper delivered the weekend’s most exciting set on Saturday night, exploring the hesher/noodle sweet spot between the Grateful Dead and Van Halen. They’re a band on overdrive after six weeks of national touring and major festival dates and seemed to really dig the Doe Bay vibe. Friday night headliners THEESatisfaction played one of the hottest festival sets of their tour-heavy summer, moving the crowd in a way no other band did all weekend. Replacing the Cave Singers, who bailed earlier in the week to finish recording, Pickwick returned to Doe Bay a harder and more polished band than last year. Bobby Bare’s daytime set was at turns manic, funny and tender. For his final two songs he was joined by Jesse Bonn and Faustine Hudson of the Maldives on bass and drums, respectively, and they ripped freely.
But each year, the non-musical moments of Doe Bay Fest take greater precedent—at least in my experience. This is my highlight: 9 AM Sunday morning at the still, sun-drenched point overlooking the Salish Sea. Moments after sitting down and stretching out with a blanket, a pineapple and a bottle of cold pink champagne, my friends and I were joined by other friends, new and old, and their friends, and their kids, and more bottles of wine and more fruit and food to share. It was an accidental collision, convivial, graceful, grateful—exactly the right place at the right time.