Atwood Magazine’s writers break down Boise, Idaho’s Treefort Music Fest 9, a buzzing breeding ground for the arts that feels like home.
article by Sophie Prettyman-Beauchamp, Kelly Liu, and Ben Niesen
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It was September, and at the center of Boise, Idaho is Treefort Fest, a music festival that feels like home. On stage, locals Built to Spill returned with intricate rock and folk sensibilities; Japanese Breakfast stole the crowd’s heart with her pink, Jigglypuff-like dress; Mdou Moctar tore up El Korah Shrine and wielded his guitar chops; Haley Heynderickx washed over you with a sound tender like a forest’s embrace. Within the crowd, you might encounter a man hanging out with his two pet parrots, who, if you play your cards right, would happily perch on your arm. Elsewhere, you spotted a trio of roller-bladers wearing giant eyeball space helmets. You thought to yourself that Treefort might just be the most beautiful, quirkiest music festival you’d ever been to.
On day one, before Monophonics’ set, Treefort co-founder Lori Shandro took the stage to say a few words. The story, as I gleaned from the community, goes like this: Shandro fell in love with Boise decades ago, and as she was planning to open a music venue called Duck Club in honor of her late husband, someone else proposed the idea of a multi-day local music festival. From there, Treefort was born, and Duck Club became its overarching music production company.
Since then, Treefort had become an art and music breeding ground. Often boasting over 400 bands, the festival also includes drag, comedy, skateboarding showcases, and readings. In the past, musicians tended to leave Boise to pursue their music; now the town, bolstered by Treefort, Boise State Public Radio, and local record store and hub The Record Exchange, has gained a newfound allure. More and more musicians are able to envision a creative haven in Boise, as the current generation of artists give way to the next.
Next March, Treefort will be celebrating their 10th anniversary with a recently announced lineup that includes Kim Gordon, Men I Trust, Deafheaven, bbymutha, Kari Faux, Indigo De Souza, and more . As we anxiously await the arrival of spring, read below for our thoughts on Treefort 9. – Kelly Liu
📸 © Sophie Prettyman-Beauchamp full Treefort 9 gallery at end of article
:: TREEFORT 9 ROUNDTABLE ::
Which act were you most looking forward to seeing at Treefort 9?
Ben: For me, it was all about Mdou Moctar. I’ve been a big fan of Saharan blues since I first heard Bombino’s Deran and since then I’ve been infatuated with anything he, Tinariwen, Tamikrest, or Mdou Moctar have done. There’s a Guitar Power interview from 2018 wherein Mahamoud Souleymane states he had only recently learned of Jimi Hendrix and, to be honest, it should not surprise anyone. He did not need to know any Hendrix in order to be the Hendrix for the Kel Tamasheq of the Sahel (basically the lesser desert of the Sahara).
In every single way did his performance at the El Korah Shrine live up to the hype—specifically the live rendition of “Tarhatazed.” The man shredded his way through a 10 minute rendition that saw a mosh pit form and fans pushed literally on stage. One guy was sitting right in front of Souleymane, taking what I presumed to be videos of the guitarist and the crushing mêlée his chosen instrument compelled in the audience. It was probably the most dangerous, visceral and exciting thing I saw during Treefort. At one point during the set, he held his guitar out for people to touch and strum. The smile on his face is seared into my mind.
Kelly: Japanese Breakfast was the artist I couldn’t wait to see. I wanted to experience how an emotionally intimate and expansive track like “Posing in Bondage” would translate live, how the energy of “Be Sweet” would carry over onstage, and her set did not disappoint. Singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner’s performance was expressive, connected, and wildly joyous. She would dance and swing her mallet to hit a gong placed in the middle of the stage; she would stand at the tip of the platform and close her eyes while crooning, “Closeness/Proximity/I needed/Bondage.” Japanese Breakfast’s set fostered a sense of togetherness: As Zauner and husband-slash-bandmate Peter Bradley played their guitars facing each other, inches apart, and as the crowd waved their iPhone flashlights in the air, a palpable sense of connectedness could be felt through the night.
Sophie: I’m with Kelly on this one (thank you for singing and dancing along to every JBrekkie song with me!). Currently touring her best-selling memoir Crying in H Mart and new record Jubilee, Michelle Zauner’s Japanese Breakfast is one of the most exciting acts on the road this year. As a long-time fan who spent their college days treating her discography like scripture, I couldn’t wait to see her live for the first time, especially as a headliner at such a stacked festival. I was not disappointed—Zauner and her band put on a joyous celebration unlike anything else I witnessed at Treefort. It was a larger-than-life moment in which time truly felt unreal, and the entire band exuded such a palpable love and infectious happiness (side note: Zauner and her husband had the sweetest on-stage chemistry I’ve ever seen). I was so moved by the show that I’m actually going to see Japanese Breakfast two more times before the year ends.
Which act did you most enjoy?
Ben: This one is too unfair. Haley Heynderickx has to be up there; all three of her performances saw a different Haley and a different setlist. I think my enjoyment of American primitive guitar (basically new age Americana) really clicked with her performances at the Main Stage and the Record Exchange. Another candidate is Acid Tongue. That Seattle-based psych garage duo has good albums, but their live band was on fire for all three shows. Finally, I think I would be remiss to not mention Arooj Aftab. She’s my final answer in fact. Her guitarist Gyan Riley and harpist Maeve Gilchrist were on it with their improvisation game for the night. And to call that live rendition of “Last Night” a “performance” is to undersell the absolute spiritual experience you will have.
Kelly: I’ll have to second Ben on Haley Heynderickx. She was able to magically transform the scale of each her set to match the space she occupied: on Main Stage, she debuted a big, anthemic song about being a bull. In El Korah Shrine, the quiet jubilance of “Oom Sha La La” bounced around the walls. Hand Habits and Torres were both fantastic as well. The former, the songwriting project of Meg Duffy, was a late addition to the lineup. Duffy took the stage alone in near-darkness, with just a guitar and loop pedals, and played a series of beautifully stripped down songs. Torres, on the other hand, packed the Linen Building and delivered a buzzing set that could be heard from a couple blocks down, in true rockstar fashion.
Sophie: Mannequin Pussy absolutely shredded at El Korah Shrine. I’ve been a huge fan for years and hadn’t seen them since pre-pandemic times, but I was still blown away by the sheer force of their performance. Despite the fact that frontperson Missy Dabice twisted their ankle mere days before the performance, she owned the stage with a commanding ferocity. The crowd went wild singing along to emo anthems like “Drunk II” and “Romantic,” and we all joined the band in a cathartic and much-needed group scream. Their set came to a thrashing, climactic close with bassist Colins “Bear” Regisford on lead vocals for the pummeling “Pigs Is Pigs,” an anthem for Black lives and anti-police brutality that he penned for the band’s recent EP Control. Experiencing Mannequin Pussy live makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself—they’re truly a rock band for our times.
Which venue did you most enjoy?
Ben: From the outset, I knew El Korah Shrine was where I was going to spend most nights and frankly, yeah. Both sound-wise and aesthetically, it just hit me right. I love the wood floor ballroom venues and I don’t think I’ll ever forget watching Built the Spill for the first time in my life from backstage.
Kelly: I was a big fan of Neurolux, which is a trendy bar that featured some of the smaller acts on their hazy stage at night. Neurolox fills up quickly, but there were always people mingling out on the sidewalk and drinking a beer — that tight-knit community atmosphere is what made Neurolux stand out for me. It’s quite the Boise staple.
Sophie: While larger venues like the Linen Building and El Korah Shrine were fantastic (the latter really does have one of the most beautiful bathrooms in Boise), I enjoyed spending time visiting the various smaller venues around town. I caught the tail end of Vundabar’s set at The Shredder, where I got an immersive taste of the city’s underground scene. The dive barcade typically hosts punk and hardcore-leaning DIY shows (along with some established rock acts, as I learned from the show flyers wallpapering the space). Another worthwhile mention is the Mardi Gras Ballroom, where Xiu Xiu and AJJ performed back-to-back intimate sets to a packed dance floor.
Which fort did you most enjoy?
Ben: Skatefort is probably the best use of a highway underpass possible. And I think it set my photography fever afire more than any other. I went and saw Help, a Portland-based punk trio and was just blown away by their energy. More than that, watching wave after wave of skaters just hit tricks all along that bowl as the live music played was an experience unto itself. And if that wasn’t enough, seeing lead guitarist Ryan Neighbors skate on his own guitar was just the cherry on top. Of all the photos I took, the close-up shots of each of the Help members and the skaters are my favourite.
Kelly: Storyfort was my personal favorite. Located in Cherie Buckner-Webb Park, Storyfort was the perfect retreat from the bustles and hustles of a music festival. It was small in scale and tucked away, decked with pastel colors and complete with a rustic wooden podium — the readings, set by a wide expanse of grass, gave me a chance to sit down, relax, and simply listen. There was the reading from Boise State creative writing undergraduates ripe with stories and poems about love and vampires, and there was the Michelle Zauner reading that drew a crowd so large they spilled from the chairs onto the grass itself. In either case, I felt like I was temporarily transported into a different world.
Sophie: From the glittering opening festivities at the Balcony to a delicious, locally-sourced brunch and drag show to wrap up the week, Dragfort did not miss. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13 runner-up Kandy Muse captivated the Balcony crowd at the Dragfort Kick Off along with an all-star lineup of local queens. Delightfully audacious host Denimm Cain brought laughs and glamour as she kept the party going, but her message of uplifting the local queer, creative community was a heartening and unifying reminder of what we were all there to celebrate. The warmth and unapologetic queerness that Dragfort brought to Treefort was much-needed and much appreciated.
What surprised you the most at Treefort 9?
Ben: The accessibility of the artists was insane. Especially for the ones who worked multiple days or were locals. If you saw an artist live one day, there was a higher than normal likelihood that you would see them the next day, attending another show. It made meeting them and sharing a personal appreciation for their music with them that much easier. If ever there were a festival for meeting the music makers, Treefort is the one.
Kelly: The people, for sure. Treefort attendees varied so much in age and style, but one commonality among them was how approachable and welcoming they all are. In between sets and when there are downtimes, you might end up chatting with fellow music lovers or even performers while you grab a drink at Neurolux. You could come to Treefort alone, with friends, or with family. There are no rules. After all, as their motto goes: “Treefort is for everyone!”
Sophie: As someone who has lived in LA their whole life, I was pleasantly shocked by how genuinely friendly the people of Boise (and Treefort) are. Even though I was bouncing all over downtown to try and catch all my favorite bands, I was still able to make and spend time with plenty of new friends. Many of those connections have lasted beyond those five days of music, and that’s not something I can say about past festivals I’ve been to. The warmth with which everyone treated each other was one of my favorite parts of the Treefort experience, and it definitely gave me a reason to return soon.
How do you think the festival handled COVID-19 regulations?
Ben: I mean the numbers don’t lie—out of 695 tests, only 18 came out positive and 76 people were vaccinated at the festival. However, I think the more encouraging thing to see was the amount of mask compliance. Really, I feel the major problem for the future is going to be people lying about their vaccination status, so no matter what Treefort or any other festival does, there’s always going to be a margin of error. But, in terms of leading by example, I think Treefort does more to show you can run an independent festival of a reasonable size and still have patrons do the right thing. I saw better care for fellow festival-goers here than what I saw at the Minnesota State and Renaissance Fairs held only three weeks earlier.
Kelly: Incredibly. No other word for it. Attendees were required to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and unlike other recent festivals like Lollapalooza, where photographs of the events show scores of people in close proximity without their masks, people at Treefort really did mask up. It was wonderful to see a community come together like that.
Sophie: I was extremely apprehensive about returning to festivals while COVID remains such a real threat, but the Treefort team eased my fears upon arrival. They were dedicated to not only helping artists and vendors get back on their feet during these tough economic times, but also to ensuring the overall health and safety of all involved. Staff and artists encouraged masking and social distancing practices as much as possible, and the vast majority of attendees did their part in trying to prevent the spread while still enjoying themselves. Treefort set out to prove that we can make a return to live music and communal gatherings if we implement and respect health safety precautions, and they got their point across.
What would be your first recommendation to anyone attending their first Treefort?
Ben: Don’t fret about having to see different bands at different venues; most are extremely close to the point of being walkable in under 5 minutes. They’re also clustered in ways that make dipping out of a curiosity show you don’t like for the one you might fairly easy. And frankly, if one show goes over another by 10 minutes, you’ll probably make it in time to enjoy the climax without missing too much.
Kelly: Go catch artists you’ve never heard of! One of the best things about Treefort is its commitment to showcasing local and emerging talents, and there are so many hidden gems in the lineup. I personally discovered Y La Bamba, Smokey Brights, and Boise-based Fest opener Aka Belle this year. Back in 2017, Lizzo also performed at Treefort, before the release of her breakout album Cuz I Love You. It’s not hard to imagine that hiding somewhere in the lineup is the next superstar.
Sophie: Come with an open heart and mind, and experience as much as you can. I’m a big proponent of traveling around on foot (or electric scooter) as much as possible—you really get to know Boise and all its colors that way, plus it feels like an adventure. Make the most of your time at Treefort by talking to as many people as you can, it’s so much more fun when you’re learning from the locals and making friends to enjoy all the festivities with. Most of all, don’t be afraid to venture out on your own or step outside of your comfort zone. Treefort is the perfect place to see all of the artists you love, but there’s so much opportunity to discover new favorites as you choose your own adventure. With so much community involvement and variety, I truly believe it is a festival that anyone and everyone can enjoy.
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📸 © Sophie Prettyman-Beauchamp