The capitol of Idaho - which lies close to the Oregon border - is a liberal pocket in a red state and oozes with a frontier charm that sits comfortably alongside its vibrant and progressive social scene. A few years back, NPR called it the next Portland, Oregon, and in 2022 it’s a place in bloom: Boise is clean, safe and punching far above its weight in food, music and arts. It’s the little city that could, and did.

The transformation of Idaho’s capital has been marked - if not carried in some part by - its annual music festival. Treefort is decade old this year and runs across a five-day stretch less than a week after SXSW ends. The festival takes its name from Boise’s own nickname - the city of trees. According to one story, European settlers climbed a hill and were impressed with the vast forest (“les bois!”) that stretched before them.

Treefort began as a modest affair with an initial plan for 60 bands to play a two-day event. Its launch in 2012 actually saw 130 artists stretched across four days and 13 venues, with reviews from the time comparing it to a nascent SXSW. The following year more than 100 more names were added to the line-up along with yoga and film events; 3000 people attended the festival that year and 2013’s event sold out in just under 17 minutes.

A decade on, the festival counts over 500 artists performing. There are more than 50 venues and a programme that includes strands (or “forts”) taking in literature, comedy, drag, food and skating. There’s a hackathon, live podcast recordings, and a healthy programme of debate on the future of the music industry, queer creativity, and mental health. These forts have taken the event into a whole new space that’s helped highlight the city’s strengths while pumping millions of dollars into the local economy.

Downtown Boise is dominated by Treefort for almost a week, with the festival’s scout-style badge logo emblazoned on bunting almost everywhere. The core of the event is a wristband-accessed main stage on a blocked-off street lined with food trucks as well as beer, wine and cocktails stands (aka “Alefort”). Boise is home to almost 20 breweries as well as a couple of distilleries and over 70 selections from the area are on offer, from barrel-aged horchata stouts, to a blackberry and boysenberry sour.

It wasn’t always this way though. The event was born into a city still clawing its way out of recession, with high unemployment rates (over 10 percent in 2010) and local businesses struggling to survive. Boise’s music scene was also in a slump; as well as being excluded from the national touring circuit, local bands had to leave town to make something of themselves.

Against this backdrop, Lori Shandro, one of the festival’s original team, found herself wanting to invest in a worthy cause following the death of her husband in a plane crash in 2009. She found a kindred spirit in Boise State MBA student and fellow music fan Drew Lorona who worked at a local bike shop, Eric Gilbert, a local musician who had been involved with the Boise Showcase at SXSW, and, Megan Stoll, a marketer looking for her next job.

“My wife and I had a college band and we were just DIY touring,” Gilbert tells me over coffee at local hangout Neckar. “I was doing all the tour booking and management. We were on a label run out of Portland but loved living in Idaho, and we’d played a bunch of these multi-venue style festivals like SXSW and CMJ.” Gilbert had developed a wider sense of how the music industry worked around the turn of the decade and the friends put a business plan together with the aim of building a more prosperous local scene. “I love the multi-venue-style festivals because it's such a fun hang for bands,” Gilbert explains. “I love seeing bands and small spaces and wanted the opportunity to showcase the local scene, but also showcase Boise as a legitimate stop for touring acts.”

Gilbert knew Boise was ripe for something to happen, and some of the bands in town saw it too. "You could feel a change in the energy of the local scene at the start of the decade," musician Catherine Merrick from AKA Belle tells me of the time before Treefort. “There was a very healthy DIY scene, but it was hard to do anything even though there were a bunch of artists in the 90s like Caustic Resin, and Dirt Fisherman, and of course Built To Spill who are the really big band to come out of here.”

“I think some of the shine from Seattle started to make its way here after grunge,” says Sam Merrick, Catherine’s husband and musical partner in AKA Belle. “But that’s because all the people from Boise were moving up there!” adds Catherine.

The festival grew quickly, bolstered by support from the local mayor’s office - who named it as Cultural Ambassador for Boise during its fourth year, recognising both success in capturing the energy of the local scene, and its vision in connecting the creative community with others nationally and internationally. Treefort also became the first certified B-Corp music festival in 2015, a categorisation reflecting its values-based business operation and its self-described status as “for-profit entity run like a non-profit”.

Covid stalled the event in 2020, and almost scuppered the 2021 event, which moved to last September. “It was still a lot of the same bands that were meant to play in 2020,” Gilbert tells me. While the delta variant rose in Boise and hospitals were in bad shape, tight protocols and compulsory masking didn’t bring the event down. “Everybody was just thankful that happened,” Gilbert remembers. “The artists were super stoked.”

Gilbert’s approach to booking the festival is firmly rooted in music discovery, showcasing gems in Boise’s local scene alongside the best new music from further afield. “A lot of it is built around the sort of people who get what we’re trying to do,” Gilbert says. “We look at headliners that the bands are excited about. That’s what’s important to us - the kind of headliners who inspire the smaller bands: naturally, that will bring fans. We’re not trying to book the hottest headliners.”

That approach led to the festival nabbing Lizzo just before she broke. This year Enumclaw are here, fresh off their SXSW buzz. The DC four-piece bring their nostalgic indie scuzz to the expansive confines of The Linen Building, a 1910 Art Deco gem in the northern part of downtown Boise.

They pop up again in the audience of Fly Anakin’s set in Reef (pictured above). The Richmond-based rapper is coming off a strong year with his (sort of) debut Frank finally seeing him break through after years honing his talent on the underground. He’s also brought collaborator Bbymutha with him and the pair headline an incredible night of hip-hop that closes out the music programme on the final day of Treefort.

GIlbert’s formula sometimes leans on nostalgia, too. At this year’s event, Lightning Bolt (pictured below) is a personal favourite for him (“I wasn’t shocked that we got him, but I was so excited about it!) along with Kim Gordon. “There are probably a lot of Boiseans who are like ‘Kim Gordon? Who is that?’ But she’s the matriarch of cool rock n roll and most of the bands worth their salt playing here will know her.”

While the main-stage hosts the festival’s better known names - among them Snail Mail (playing her first show since 2019), Osees, Deerhoof and local heroes Built to Spill - it’s in the imaginative choices of venues dotted around the local area where I spend most of my time in Boise. Sonic Temple was once a Freemason’s Lodge and hosts some of the week’s more interesting experiments in noise and expression, including NY bands Gustaf and Geese, and an beautifully understated set by Jens Kuross, known for his work with RY X and The Acid.

Local artists aren’t marginalised in the line up. A super-group of sorts, Gilbert’s own band Floating Witches Head also pops up at Sonic Template for a show on the opening night. Veterans of the Boise scene, AKA Belle have also been part of every edition of Treefort and play a show this year in at the site of a former brothel. They’re still excited when the festival rolls around each year and remember well its first few editions: “It was exciting to walk around and have this buzz and see these musicians that you know had never been here and they're experiencing our town,” Catherine Merrick tells me. “It's always been really positive from the get-go.”

Catherine and Sam also credit the festival for its transformative effect on the scene they’ve been part of for most of their lives. “It’s great for making connections,” Catherine adds. “If you’re going to go on the road, then you've met all these people here who can give you some place to stay or hook you up with a venue.”

“The Boise we grew up in was not big enough to support a local band,” explains Sam. “It’s five hours to Salt Lake City and eight hours to Portland. It’s really hard out here. Bands coming here in the past… it’s not worth the gas money. It's more economical to just go straight from Salt Lake to Portland.”

Everyone I talk to agrees that the Treefort is important in helping local artists raise their ambitions. “Bands like Blood Lemon (https://bloodlemon.bandcamp.com/album/blood-lemon) really sound like a national act, they’ve upped their game,” says Sam. “It’s probably the influence of seeing what the outside world brings: you gotta be better!”

Gilbert credits a lot of Treefort’s success to its decentralised management - it empowers its staff to flourish in their respective roles. “All of the different forts have happened because someone from a different niche in the community came to us and were like, ‘Hey, what about our Storyfort? Or a Foodfort?’ Yeah, cool! You wanna do it? From a management perspective it’s not difficult - we give them all a lot of autonomy, and ​​they’re booking things that are exciting to other active players in that scene.”

A recent addition to the festival celebrates the city’s vibrant drag scene. Largely centred around Boise’s most popular gay club The Balcony, Dragfort aims to centre LGBTQ+ culture and build community through performance and dialogue. Among the highlights of the nightly drag show include appearances by Drag Race stars Kornbread “The Snack” Jete (Season 14 Super Queen), and headliner Heidi N Closet (Miss Congeniality of Season 12). The Corvette Collective (https://www.facebook.com/CorevetteCollective)- a local group of queer fae performers - also pop up around the city throughout the weekend.

In 2022 drag feels as central to Treefort as its music programme and has become an integral part of the festival’s commitment to centering queer performers. An annual pride celebration has been held here for more than 30 years, drawing crowds of 80,000, and the city has a growing and thriving LGBTQ community. Queerness feels ingrained into all aspects of its culture.

Dragfort director Cole Calvin (pictured above right) had a strong foundation to build on when he first started working with the city’s drag queens. “There was an older generation of queens that started a drag review and they’d do monthly shows all over town,” he explains, “and the Imperial Sovereign Gem Court of all of Idaho, which is like a non-profit that has a crowning of a queen and a king every year. But things really started popping off when they started doing Boise’s Next Drag Superstar at The Balcony. There’s been three seasons and a drag king’s edition too.”

The Balcony - located in the central hub of Downtown Boise - has been a vital hub in fostering the city’s drag scene. “It’s good at building up performers and giving them the repetition, and the experience to build their chops, “ Calvin explains.

Like many others involved in Treefort, Calvin has a long connection to the festival. After a few years pouring drinks, he graduated to venue manager for the first two years of Foodfort before another two running the main stage. “That’s where I met Jeni Rose, our artist relations manager,” he explains to me. Rose had worked with the likes of Coachella and with her help and guidance they convinced the Treefort leadership that the event needed some drag programming. “That was 2018,” Cole explains. “Obviously, everything fell apart the following year but in 2020 we brought it back scaled down, and we’ve been able to grow it into what it is this year: two amazing headline performers, a local drag review on Thursday night, and then drag brunch on the Sunday. We were also so fortunate to get some of these big Ru Paul-famous queens like Heidi N Closet, which has been really special."

How does Calvin feel the inclusion of drag in Treefort benefits Boise’s LGBTQ+ scene? “Being able share in a queer community outside of Pride has been really special for a lot of the community here in Boise,” he answers - but it’s the smaller things that he finds the most personally affecting. “We had a queer-creators meetup on Wednesday and I got to connect these two women who were both from Bozeman, Montana - who didn't know each other - and came to find out they were at a party together the week before. People finding new friends and making meaningful connections is the biggest part of it for me. I just want to get more queer creatives together and collaborate on telling their stories and continuing to push the narrative that queer people have value.”

While the team behind Treefort aren’t looking too far ahead with regard to the future of the festival, 2023 will see some massive changes. The location of the main stage is due to change thanks to the development of downtown Boise, and excitingly, the booking agency behind Treefort is also getting its own permanent base for the first time. “We have a brick and mortar of our own that's gonna open with a developer not far from here,” Gilbert explains. “So it's gonna be an interesting challenge.”

Treefort leaves an impression to all who come here; it's a festival tailor-made for the truly curious-at-heart, curated with care, intelligence and surprise. But Gilbert is most proud of the way its brought music discovery to his city: “There are so many people in Boise who historically would never have gone to anything where they didn't know who it was,” he tells me. “They weren't the type that would just go down to the local club just to see some band they haven't heard. Now we've got people - you know, relatively normal humans - that are not on the scene who, sight unseen, buy a ticket every year and just trust the curation we have and are excited to go discover some new bands.”

As I stroll around the city on my final night in town, I meet 28-year-old John, a former-Californian looking for a cigarette. He confides to me in almost whispered tones how he came here five years ago and never looked back: “Everyone just talks to you here, asks you how your day is like they’re genuinely interested and want to hear your story. There’s no other place like Boise,” he tells me with a smile. "Don't you go telling too many folk about this place!"

Find out more at treefortmusicfest.com