Going into Jagwar Ma’s Saturday night set at the Yeti Stage at Sasquatch, fans had plenty of reasons to be excited about the Australian trio’s hour-long set. The group has opened for Tame Impala and the xx, two other bands who have made being an introvert sound very cool again, and they've released two stellar psych-dance albums — 2013’s Howlin’ and 2016’s Every Now and Then — showing considerable growth between each LP. They've also earned comparisons to acid house masters Primal Scream as well as hugely adored and readily danceable Australian electronica act, Cut Copy. It's all serious praise not to be taken lightly.
Once the band starting playing, it wasn’t hard to detect the crowd’s well-founded level of excitement. With the nervous energy of a kid talking to their crush, the crowd was quick to affirm anything the band did, said, or sang. At the beginning of the set, bassist Jack Freeman only had to toss his fist limply in the air and, regardless of what was going on in the music, the crowd would respond with shouts. During recognizable gem, “O B 1” — if you’re reading this post, you’ve heard it on air — glow sticks rained down from the sky and into the photo pit, a perhaps overzealous response to the song’s arrival. During the incredibly catchy psychedelic pop of “Come Save Me,” a few audience members filled in the song’s simple backing vocal — a shout of “yeah!” in response to frontman Gabriel Winterfield’s. One security guard, who picked up a green glow stick and tucked it behind her ear like a pencil, even danced a little in front of the speakers.
At the same time, the band didn’t necessarily do their part to give this pent-up energy an outlet. The music sounded fine, at times great, but something was missing from really setting the show off. You could sense that Winterfield himself felt the frustration of the show’s untapped potential — realizing that all the materials were there for an absolute banger of a show, but not being able to find the means to get there. Every once in a while, Winterfield would test a new tactic for getting the crowd engaged, trying everything from a slightly cheesy call and response of the band’s name — “I say Jagwar, you say Ma.” — to asking the crowd to get down on the ground and rise just in time for the beat to drop and everybody to, ideally, go ballistic.
In the case of the latter technique, the delivery was botched. He asked for the lights to dim, the crew didn’t hear him for a few bars, by which point he’d dropped to the ground and asked the crowd, who also didn’t quite hear him, to do the same. They looked around at each other and, because Jagwar Ma are a group worthy of following, dropped down to their knees. But instead of getting the group to rise up slowly with the beat, as I’ve seen bands do before, the beat came in abruptly, Winterfield sprung to his feet, and the audience, caught off guard, rose up after him, probably wondering, "Why did you make us do that again?" It was an inspired idea, and would work well with Jagwar Ma’s climactic music, but it just wasn’t executed properly.
The real problem was that Winterfield and Jagwar Ma didn’t maintain their attempts to engage the crowd. A great show is often like a garden; it takes constant care and attention. In the case of their show at Sasquatch!, the band just didn’t check in with the crowd enough, verbally, sonically, or otherwise. Whatever momentum Jagwar Ma gained with each of their attempts to ramp up the energy fell slowly back into the band’s psychedelic sprawls.
To their credit, Jagwar Ma have created music that is hard to pin down and, by the same token, hard to figure out how to translate live. There are few clear templates. Jagwar Ma have electronic influences, but they aren’t EDM obvious. The band has a handful of pop perfect hooks, but their choruses aren’t overdone folk-pop “woah-oh” singalongs. This is subtle music and it is going to take Jagwar Ma, still a young band by many counts, a nuanced and attentive approach to get — and keep — the crowd's feet off the ground on their own accord.
And what a show that will be.
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