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Treefort Music Festival 2023 Highlights

Drawing an impressively diverse crowd and a selection of the underground’s best and brightest across all genres, Boise lived up to its friendly reputation. 

by Ben Boddez

Photos by Brandon Loureiro and Amanda Morgan

Spanning across five days, with over 500 acts and 43 stages spread out across downtown Boise, Idaho, the 11th iteration of Treefort Music Festival was incredibly expansive – but not only did that kind of reach draw an impressively diverse crowd, every moment of it was packed with something new and interesting to discover.

Part of the festival’s mission statement involves giving equal exposure to its headliners – this year’s including Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Dinosaur Jr. and Leikeli47 – and its lesser known rising stars. The festival’s sheer size gave each band the space to play longer sets, many of them playing on multiple days, and often having acts play within a few metres from each other. There was music to be found in every corner, and stumbling across a new favourite act was always a possibility. This is the kind of festival where there was even a rotating group of artists playing on local city buses each day.

And according to the locals – one of whom approached RANGE to dub Boise the world’s friendliest town before any of the festivities had kicked off – there couldn’t have been a better location for an open-minded crowd to bond over the love of great music. Younger crowds were often seen turning out in full force for older bands, or groups decked out in punk gear could be spotted enjoying a country show. And despite the weather attempting to halt the proceedings, with snow and hail briefly coming down from time to time and temperatures nearing freezing, the energy couldn’t be dulled. It seemed like the sentiment was more so in line with wonder at experiencing a great set while the snow was coming down.

Aside from the music, other activities – divided up into 12 other “forts” that included food and drink, film, podcasting, tech, and even yoga – could be found from 10 a.m. to the early hours of the morning each day. For festival-goers looking for other artistic disciplines, the places to be were Dragfort, where we saw drag kings and queens spoofing SpongeBob and Twilight, Comedyfort, where locals and acts from nearby states traded rapid-fire sets, and Skatefort, a picturesque park built under a viaduct that featured an appearance from none other than TikTok superstar Doggface208. Artfort also represented a big part of the fest, with various installations all over the festival grounds at Julia Davis Park including a whale skeleton and an enormous, roving pink praying mantis.

An unnamed participant walks the pink runway at Treefort Festival 2023. (Photo: Brandon Loureiro)

But of course, the majority of the attendees were there for the music, and they returned the energy in kind no matter the time of day or the conditions. The Treefort kick-off party was on Sunday, March 19 when Canadian pop punk legends PUP and their tour mates Joyce Manor stopped down in Boise for the final stop of their three-week tour to break in Treefort’s shiny new venue, Treefort Music Hall, and RANGE was there to capture the action from the front row. 

Three days later Treefort Festival was officially underway and California feminist punk trio Destroy Boys kicked off the proceedings Wednesday afternoon on the main stage, eliciting one of the biggest crowd responses of the whole festival. Mixing in Nirvana and Weezer covers while toasting to the fellow LGBTQ+ members of the crowd and calling for an “all girl and non-binary mosh pit,” frontwoman Alexia Roditis’ charming and conversational stage presence complemented the band’s proggy tempos and punchy melodies.

Dinosaur Jr. at Treefort Festival 2023 (Photo: Amanda Morgan)

Headliners Dinosaur Jr. took to the main stage later in the day, becoming one of the first bands to acknowledge the drop in temperature by recounting a tale to the audience about getting stuck in a nearby Mountain Home for three days after a winter tour bus breakdown, but their extended blistering solos and parade of their biggest hits kept the energy up as J Mascis backed up his reputation as one of rock’s greatest guitarists.

Meanwhile, the bars and clubs were getting fired up across town, but those in the know were at RANGE cover star DEBBY FRIDAY’s set. Only a couple days out from her album release, FRIDAY walked onto the stage of Neurolux in leather and sparkly boots as she experimented live with vocal filters and took control over her glitchy, industrial beats.

As the sun rose on Thursday and the schedules started earlier and got even more jam-packed for the rest of the fest, local act Nick Delffs was making the most of his early time slot on one of Julia Davis Park’s side stages. Showcasing his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, he and his band switched up their instruments for each song and put on a 15-minute rock opera with some extravagant power-pop reminiscent of Elton John to close out his set. When it came to showcasing multiple musical skills, however, illuminati hotties’ set showcased why they’ve been capturing so much critical buzz lately.

As frontwoman Sarah Tudzin put on one of the most manic and energy-filled sets of the whole fest, laughing like a cartoon villain, dropping freestyle raps about the festival and running through crowd call-and-responses, the self-proclaimed “tenderpunks” combined elements of jangly dream pop with crunchy guitar chords, steel drums, and acerbic lyricism. The highlight was inviting an 11-year-old guitarist, who booked a spot at Kidfort after her parents wouldn’t let her attend the festival to see her favourite band, up on stage with her heroes.

Rockers of all varieties represented the largest contingent of musical acts and continued to dominate Thursday’s festivities with unique and captivating sets. The local favourites Built to Spill took the main stage in front of a reverent audience – we overheard one fan mention that it was his 20th time seeing the band – and set off a chain of crowdsurfers during “Carry the Zero” from the band’s iconic 1994 album, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. When two of them met and collided, they simply hugged in mid-air.

Doug Martsch of Built To Spill (Photo: Amanda Morgan)

Death Valley Girls took hold of the Bus Station – an abandoned Greyhound terminal converted into a performance space – with their trippy visuals, double-time madness and scuzzy distortion backing some impressive belts coming from an unexpectedly miniscule frontwoman. But the most appropriate melding of performer and venue came from a late-night set by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

The famously mysterious band took to the Egyptian Theatre – an enormous movie theatre with imagery of ancient pyramids and crypts and a lingering scent of popcorn – to bring their typical performance style to a mesmerized, mostly seated audience. Shrouded in darkness as 16mm cinema reels played behind them, the Montreal ten-piece presented their hypnotic instrumental chamber-rock protest pieces, the imagery on the screens of gatherings and fires getting more intense as the music did.

Performing four times at the festival, country duo Dusty and Stones finally made their way to the park on Friday afternoon, delivering one of its most magical sets as the snow started coming down heavier than ever. Born in Eswatini – formerly known as Swaziland – the story goes that the two fell in love with an American country music station while herding cattle. With a variety of charming stories about their songs’ origins and eliciting massive singalongs for “Folsom Prison Blues” and “The Gambler,” the duo more than met the task with some impressive bass notes and guitar wizardry. After wishing for a way to take some snow home with them, the best moment of the whole festival might have been hearing the two applying their native language of SiSwati to some country stylings as the snow cascaded.

Dusty & Stones perform at Treefort Festival 2023. (Photo: Amanda Morgan)

Friday was certainly a day to discover some of the genres that weren’t as represented at the festival: local Tejano outfit Tejano Outlaw brought the power of the accordion to life as they took to the Basque Centre, a rustic building and historical meeting place for Idaho’s extensive Basque immigrant community that housed a variety of Latin-adjacent acts, while a hip-hop showcase of rising stars took over the Knitting Factory bar later that night. While lFlorida’s 454 dropped some quirky, Playboi Carti-esque bangers and MIKE’s commanding low voice captivated the crowd, Earl Sweatshirt affiliate Mavi’s charisma and crowd work stood out – especially as he got them to sing one of his samples throughout a full song.

Extending past midnight, Louis Cole Big Band put on another of the festival’s highlights. One night after bassist Blu DeTiger put on a DJ set in the same building that saw her using a loop pedal to combine her impressive plucking skills with pulsating house beats, Cole showed why some of today’s most virtuosic musicians like Thundercat and Vulfpeck are scrambling to work with him, utilizing a loop pedal of his own – and nine other musicians with various orchestral instruments – to put on 80 minutes of blistering jazz-funk and dizzying solos.

If you could brave the increasingly frigid temperatures, most of Saturday’s excitement took place around the main stages at the park. Another ten-piece band – though appropriately, this time made up of children – San Francisco’s CHILD took to the stage with thunderous percussion from the interlocking rhythms of their five drummers. Not to be outdone in the instrumental department, Hermanos Gutierrez – a brotherly duo from Switzerland who play instrumental guitar music together – provided some of the most cinematic music of the fest as they performed tunes that could have soundtracked a spaghetti Western.

Sidestepping her one-hit wonder status with some of the festival’s most impressive vocals, Lady Wray – formerly known as simply Nicole and famous for her 1998 smash hit “Make It Hot” with Missy Elliott, released when she was only 17 – unleashed some spellbinding vocal runs and gospel-tinged growls as she tackled a variety of social issues in her music, most powerfully in a song about her brother’s incarceration.

Ani DiFranco performs at Treefort Festival 2023. (Photo: Brandon Loureiro)

But when it came to a sense of social justice, nobody got a bigger response than living legend Ani DiFranco, who sent the crowd into the festival’s biggest frenzy while walking out onto the main stage and kept it up while addressing America’s political climate growing increasingly hostile towards women in her music. With the overall vibe of a withered troubadour with decades of knowledge to dish out, DiFranco’s acoustic folk set ran through her major tunes – a decision apparently made on the spot, as she told the crowd “If you’re going to stand in the cold, I might as well play some stuff you actually want to hear.”

If you’re looking for a music festival that’s truly in the spirit of musical discovery and open-mindedness, then Treefort 12 should certainly be on your radar when it storms back next year. With exciting acts in almost any downtown Boise venue you could enter and an audience of full-on music nerds rather than the typical festival-goers walking around trying to be seen, it was a lover of the musical underground’s dream.