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Treefort Music Festival shares Boise’s best-kept secrets

03 April 2024, 17:00

Photography by Preston Velles, Amanda Morgan and Christina Birkinbine

Legacy, longevity and a punk ethos remain central to Treefort Music Festival. Sophie Leigh Walker heads to Idaho and finds an event changing the face of the state capital's music scene.

You find yourself, of all places, in an El Korah Shrine social club in downtown Boise, Idaho.

Snaking stairways lead to narrowed hallways lined with the near-identical portraits of the members of this Masonic organisation – legions of old men wearing fezzes – alongside kitsch oil paintings of puppies with extraordinarily wide, sad eyes and posters making cryptic inquiries such as, ‘Does your best friend know from whence you came?’

One of the doors leads to a powder room where women are prone to disappear: an award-winning plush carpeted wonder with a mirror-lined vanity and textured pink wallpaper that appears untouched since the 50s. Stalls: three. Tissue boxes: three. Sofa: one. Silk floral arrangements: more than you’d expect. The stairs beyond lead to two dancefloors, one on top of the other. The bottom lies in the red-lit, almost Lynchian bar where Boise’s drag queens huddle in booths, where you find an uncanny, strangely delightful performance from an artist who turns out to a legend of outsider music; upstairs, in the ballroom, the bass for a Boise psych band is so loud your teeth rattle in your skull. This is forty minutes of your five days at Treefort Music Fest.

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Treefort is ruled by its own climate, just like the snow-capped mountains which surround the city. It’s a place you might not imagine leading the charge of new music discovery beyond the algorithm: a countercultural, punk-driven festival built and sustained by its own community. Idaho at large is a red state, but Boise is an air bubble of liberalism. Every spring, the talent which ferments from its vast plains, humbling vistas - and just the right amount of small-town boredom - is excavated and brought to light.

For its twelfth year, this rapidly growing festival has kept pace with the city’s own expansion. Last year, Boise was ranked fifth among the fast-growing cities in the US, and with that, Treefort has welcomed 420 artists to venues across the city with representation from 21 different countries from around the world, attracting more than 25,000 festivalgoers. Its origins lie in transmuting grief into positive change: following the sudden loss of her husband in a private plane crash, co-founder Lori Shandro chose to dedicate her resources to building a legacy for Boise’s arts and culture scene. Though the city has been a wellspring of talent, with its most notable export being the defining indie-rock band of the 90s Built To Spill, it still struggled against an exodus of emerging artists headed to the promised lands of Seattle and LA. Treefort was born from a desire to prove to the world – and Boise itself – that the city is worth sticking around for.

Shandro’s entrepreneurial instincts were fortified by Eric Gilbert, a veteran of the Boise music scene as both an artist himself and DJ for the local radio station. Later joined by producer Drew Lorona and marketer Megan Stoll – and over 700 volunteers in the community – Treefort’s first edition commenced in 2012. Local businesses extended discounts to attendees and painted murals in their windows, while venues offered up their stages for artists who wanted to play even more shows; hotels, decent meals and a willingness to accommodate artists who wanted to stay for the festival are the tokens of hospitality that are still intrinsic to Treefort over a decade later.

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Photo by Christina Birkinbine

Today, Treefort sprawls across this patchwork city with strands of programming – or ‘Forts’ – which extend far beyond music alone to showcase a richer tapestry of culture in the Boise community. You can head down to the old Greyhound Bus Station to catch Filmfort’s screenings in collaboration with the Idaho Film Society; or you can curl up with a cocktail at Ochos to listen to readings from trailblazing authors including Megan Nolan, Lily Lady and Cash Compson as part of Storyfort. There is also Hackfort, with workshops that will teach you how to crack a password (and safeguard your own), how to build a ‘bracelet’ from Binary and ASCII code down to the hallowed art of picking locks, and the legendary Dragfort programme which celebrates vibrant self-expression and Boise’s thriving queer community. That’s without mentioning Skatefort, Comedyfort, Podfort, Kidfort, Yogafort, Alefort and Foodfort. Five days to explore it all, and it could never be enough.

You don’t go to Treefort to play it safe, for the comfortable fulfilment of expectation. You go for the thrill of the risk. There is a strident disregard for obvious choices; none of the spoon-fed sounds you’ll find pollinating Spotify playlists – and yet, you find yourself falling in love over and over again. A show entices you here through word of mouth, a tip-off from the abundantly friendly Idahoans, or on the promise of an artist outlined on the app (which, for what it’s worth, is one of the best for a festival I’ve ever used). You could be killing time, or drawn to where the droves are heading, and after forty minutes, you leave a changed person. You’ve just been let in on a secret.

For its curation and these precious moments of serendipity, we can thank Treefort Director and Boise native, Eric Gilbert. As an artist himself in the band Finn Riggins and a voluntary host on the city’s community radio station, his ear is always attuned to underground tremors in the music scene. “It’s all about having a deep passion for elevating lesser-known bands,” he tells me. “The local talent in Boise continues to level up. The city still hasn’t seen its golden age yet, and there’s this really cool energy around defining its identity now and what it’s going to become.”

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CMAT by Amanda Morgan

Keeping their punk ethos intact as the festival expands and the costs inflate has been a challenge. “The community spirit around the festival is really strong, and as things grow, it can become harder to maintain that connection,” Gilbert acknowledges. “The biggest risk every year is how we can make sure we keep that connection with our community and team. It has been hard post-pandemic, the cost of things is up, and we put a lot of pride in being an artist-forward festival, prioritising artist care – but it’s such a huge community collaboration that we are naturally held accountable, which is great.”

Integral to Gilbert’s booking approach is the open submission platform. While global live agencies are increasingly collaborating with Treefort to bring trans-Atlantic top cards including CMAT, Porij and Channel Tres, almost two-thirds of this year’s line-up has been drawn from the open submissions. Through creating a free and accessible application platform, the festival can boast having hosted performances from Lucy Dacus and Lizzo long before their breakthroughs. “It was frustrating to me when I was touring more and applying to festivals that it cost $30, or something, just to put in a submission,” he shares. “That’s a big tax on artists who are just trying to reach out. It’s hard for an independent band to get a foot in the door of festival line-ups and get that experience. I love that we’re accessible to talent from all over the world.” Treefort are passionate advocates of making the festival itself accessible for the Boise community, with plenty of “officially unofficial” performances in the most unexpected places, including the Treeline bus (you’ll do a double-take when you see it).

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Photo by author

A significant portion of Treefort’s artists call Boise their home. Born in isolation but raised with Treefort, there has been an entire generation of creatives who are a product of its possibilities. You may catch a band here when they are just an idea doused in lighter fluid, searching for a lit match – and the best of them burn the whole thing down.

One such band introduced themselves on the downtown streetlights. Postal service labels were defaced with an urgent, nib-crushed scrawl: “COME KILL JOHN GORBUS AT THE SHREDDER, MARCH 23RD 7PM”. After spotting one, I saw them everywhere; another with a collar-grabbing demand, “IF YOU ARE AT THE SHREDDER SPIT ON JOHN GORBUS” – and if these weren’t compelling reasons enough, then here’s one more, imperatively scribbled in so-fucking-serious red: “JOHN GORBUS OWES YOU MONEY”.

The Shredder is a punk club in an innocuous car park which just so happens to be Treefort’s best venue. The entrance is crammed with old-school arcades and pinball machines, which leads to a cavernous two-storey stage area where a coffin hangs suspended over the pool table, a disturbing animatronic of your worst nightmare holds a screaming baby by the leg, and a sign behind the stage lights up in a dazzling display of ‘FUCK’.

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John Gorbus by Preston Velles

And so it was there that I found a rogues gallery of seven young Boise natives who each introduced themselves, in turn, as John Gorbus. It was a performance after which I had defined my entire Treefort experience in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’. The noise-punk collective unleashed sounds spawned from the far side of hell, a cyclone with sharpened purpose. The frontman, or, the master of ceremonies, is conjured from cartoonish proportions: sharp and angular like a lightning rod, bedecked in a two-piece suit with a kitchen-scissor mullet half-red-half-blue. He’s pacing as if possessed, screaming into a microphone concealed as a telephone receiver bleeding out into a maniacal, static blare: “We’ve got to kill John Gorbus, if it’s the last thing we do!”

The band bite into raw orange bell peppers, offering them to the audience like a sacrament. The sharp sweetness of the flesh lingers in your nostrils, and the crowd are thrashing as if in the throes of electrocution. He disappears from stage while his counterpart vocalist with a shock of blue hair takes the mantle, delivering vitriol this time with cathartic, emotional release. A sharp elbow in the ribs; re-enter John Gorbus #1 - with a hammer.

By now, there is a clear line between two divisions in the audience. Those scared to get too close, and those who can’t get enough. They bring a strange effigy made of plywood panels, scrawled with drawings and words (“YOU LOST URSELF, COME HOME JOHN GORBUS”). As he bludgeons it, he offers fragments to the audience like blessings before handing his chosen disciples the hammer. He pours tomato sauce over his head, another vile display of excess and consumption; he climbs the rafters and swings from the stage’s metal beams as the band anoint the front row with stickers placed on their forehead. They throw the roll to the crowd, and as people pass them around it turns out they’re small Pixar Cars stickers. The audience don’t know why they should take one, but there’s something oddly sacred about it all that leaves you with the lingering thought that the detritus of John Gorbus might be worth saving.

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John Gorbus by Preston Velles

There are costume changes, too, as John Gorbus #1 re-emerges in a cut off vest proclaiming “BEER, BBQ, FREEDOM” and trousers that are less a garment and more a wearable collage, of scraps, underpants and a spider stitched to the knee. But there is a moment among the carnage which is strikingly tender, a song in which another John Gorbus sings, cradled by another on the ground. Despite the acts of showmanship that will leave you slack-jawed, there is feeling here and the beginnings of something that feels sincere, unspoiled. It’s a rare thing, and it exists here.

I find John Gorbus #1 in the smoking area later that night, miraculously alone after becoming The Shredder’s new deity. He is less terrifying than his onstage persona, his politeness at odds with the chaos, though no less unreal to behold. It was their first show ever, he tells me, and the first time that all of the band were present at once. He’s scrolling through the barrage of tagged videos and pictures on their Instagram, in a barely-concealed daze. “Wanna see something cool?” – he shows me a picture of an arm he signed after the show, now inked into the skin the very same night. The frenzied passion exerted by Boise’s artists is reciprocated by the people with equal force.

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Boise's Basque Centre by Amanda Morgan

Treefort builds an infrastructure that can retain and nurture this kind of talent that would usually be lost to and swallowed by America’s musical strongholds. “I think Treefort will help put Boise on the map, but the important part of it doing so is helping young people feel like Boise is a place they can stay – or at least stay for longer and develop their talents and strengthen their abilities. They don’t have to be isolated in Boise. They can make connections in the industry and use this as a home base,” says Gilbert. The encouragement begins from childhood, with Kidfort showcasing budding artists from the Boise Rock School which develops their songwriting and performance abilities. It’s an invaluable vote of confidence in Boise’s future.

You feel that sense of community everywhere. It’s in the Skatepark, where kids help each other while Die Spitz rages on the platform beneath the overpass; it’s in Foodfort’s Street Eats event showcasing dishes from 14 of the city’s finest restaurants, and in the Basque Centre, where their homeland’s rolling hills and vibrant musical spirit is preserved, honoured and evoked.

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Photo by Preston Valles

Marissa Lovell writes From Boise, a newsletter about life in the city which she sends twice a week at 2:08pm. Her perspective on its subcultures carries a depth and understanding that only local journalism can offer; her writing on Boise’s skate scene and its burgeoning film society carry immeasurable value. “If you want to do something, open a restaurant, start a band, write a newsletter – you can reach those dreams here,” she tells me. “Everything is very accessible, and there’s a lot of people who will root for you along the way and show up for you.”

Treefort, she says, has legacy and longevity as its driving force. “They were never going to just do a festival for one year – they were going to change the music industry, in Boise and beyond,” she says. “We’ve had three or four new venues open, and an entire generation of creatives following paths that never existed before. There are people who work on the Treefort team who were 10 years old when they started going to the festival, who are now 23 or 24 and want to be a part of it. It’s a special thing. It’s encouraging city officials and decision-makers to see that art and music is an economic driver and should be taken seriously.”

More and more, people are wondering, ‘What’s going on over there in Boise?’ The answer lies with the anonymous techno producer Street Fever chained to a crucifix, dragging it across a ballroom floor and transforming it into Berghain; the homespun wonders of Sasha The Band in the afternoon sunlight and the friends who turned out to support them. It’s found in the skaters, the food, the punk bands, country artists and every shade of sound in between. You choose your own adventure.

Next year's Treefort Music Festival runs from 26-30 March 2025 and tickets are on sale now

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