SIFF 2019: Enormous: The Gorge Story

The sun is leaving behind the stage and in the afterglow of the final moments of fleeting luminescence, Eddie Vedder throttles the chorus of “Black”. The hair stands on the back of everyone’s neck as the valley cools. The winding streaks of the Columbia river gracefully intertwine between the sun-tanned rock formations. It looks like millions of years of natural work to construct a singular perfect moment in time, the right place, the right music, and the right geological construction to withhold ideas so big and amorous that they could not fit on any lesser stage. Really it was formed with the quick moving current of a flood chipping away at rock, making perfectly symmetrical line formations – creating the best god-given scenic backdrop for any concert, the world over.

The Gorge and its stunning concert environment.

You take one look at Eddie Vedder on stage and understand that he’s at home. You’re perfectly at home too. The Gorge is set just far enough out of Seattle and not close enough to Spokane to have any intrusion. All the light is natural, pouring from the heavens, and giving way to the stars, freed of air pollution. We sit on a large grassy incline. A part of the natural earth and firmly planted to the soil that has gifted such a magisterial moment. It was a perfect chill swept June evening where art had its own certainty, in our minds, every line of the Pearl Jam song echoing that illustrious formation, matching its natural acoustics, like they were made for the song and moment.

Behind us, the scene was a sprawling camping commune. Everyone pulled up in RVs and with tents for an extended stay. This was a momentary lifestyle. Many of them were hardened by past experiences. For me, it would uniquely signify the greatest concert I had ever seen. There was something about seeing a local act perform there. They knew the constructs of the land and the feeling of the people. Did Pearl Jam not already constitute that feeling in their music? They would agree it’s a good place – Stone Gossard says it’s the band’s favorite venue in the world. We cannot blame them, and the stage has shared the same experience for so many – each of them calling this their home, claiming it as their moment of permanence on the earth. It was so significant to them, they would release an album of their recording, along with the one from the previous year, called Live at the Gorge 05/06 (2007). It had to be captured forever because everyone there would never forget it and had to take it with them.

Eddie Vedder at The Gorge.

Recently, Brandi Carlile took the stage. As poignantly expressed in The Seattle Times, she was too cool to play it cool, amazed that a young local girl could camp there and then play to a staggering audience only a few years later. This captures the heart and the dreams of the place – a sacred land close enough to truly be home and far enough away from anything to feel like it gets to be totally and completely yours. The years have given the Gorge so many notable acts. The documentary signals that it hasn’t all been Sasquatch and music festivals, Chuck Berry played there, as did Bob Dylan, Phish have played it no less than 19 times.

Much of Enormous concerns the Dave Matthews Band’s sizable contribution to Gorge performances. It captures their space in the hearts of festival-goers and the easy cool with which Dave would prowl the campgrounds before those early shows, sometimes joining on with opening acts, giving them the stage moment of a lifetime. Out of personal interest, I must share my own story. Dave Matthews ran into my daughter and wife at a coffee shop. He told my wife we have the cutest baby in the world. I’m forever thankful he didn’t say she was the ugliest or not up to his baby standards.

Brandi Carlile at The Gorge.

That is what Enormous is like, memories out of a personal shoebox. The presenters will literally dig out a shoebox and show you the history of their experience with the Gorge. It was important enough that they might catalog it forever. Generally, musical acts can impassion this kind of personally significant draw, where we want to return to see all of the sets, to have the full range of experience with the band, maybe you follow them all over. The Gorge attracts the same fervent fanfare. Once you’ve been, no other stage is quite the same. The inherent beauty is that it’s a natural product. It does not require a whole lot of stage lighting, theatrics, and pyrotechnics to pull off. For people making and performing real music that is naturalistic and impressive unto itself, the Gorge is the perfect stage and spotlight for their act. When I hear Pearl Jam, in my mind, I’m always right there on the grass, blissfully aware of how alive I was at that moment.


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