Pop Break Live: The Dave Matthews Band Live at The Gorge Amphitheater with Molly Tuttle and The Golden Highway and Briscoe in Quincy, Washington — Labor Day Weekend 2023
Words and Photos by Kim Wessels
This mystical venue that sits in “The middle of nowhere. Center of everything.” Any music junkie has heard of it, especially if you’re a Dave Matthews Band fan. The die hards have been making the pilgrimage to Washington state for Labor Dave Weekend for years now, and once you go the first time, it’s immediately apparent why everyone goes back year after year. After finally popping my Gorge cherry this year, I finally get it. I finally understand what all the hype is about and soaked in every glorious second. This journey felt like a spiritual awakening and turned out to be a pinnacle in my life’s epic adventure of both highs and lows.
It’s roughly 2,800 miles from New Jersey to Washington to this epic venue. I love camping, but it’s easy to camp on the East Coast when all my gear is packed in my Jeep, parked right next to me. Some of my fondest memories have been spent camping with my good, good friends and fellow fans, whether it’s at SPAC in Saratoga Springs, NY or even in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. After 125 live Dave Matthews Band shows and off and on touring since 1996, it always seemed so daunting to camp on the Left Coast, the other side of the country, which is probably why I hadn’t made my pilgrimage until now.
Boy, do I wish I hadn’t waited so long — but everything happens exactly when it’s supposed to, and in the right timing of the universe. I truly believe I’m always exactly where I am supposed to be at that moment in time, and that there are no coincidences in this life, nothing happens by chance. Never in a million years would 1996/18-year-old me ever think she’d be a professional photographer, let alone photographing her favorite band on the other side of the country on one of the most epic of stages in the middle of nowhere, Washington.
I put in my photo pass request at the very last minute. I submitted formal requests on Monday August 28, fully believing it was a shot in the dark, that I stood no chance, and that it was just too close to the show date for any kind of approval. There was a box for “other comments” and I plead my case: that I had photographed the band the summer before for The Pop Break here in New Jersey, I rattled off the list of bands and artists that I’ve photographed before, and that I was director of photography for a large union headquartered in Manhattan. I’m sure I wreaked of desperation, but I was a woman on a mission with nothing to lose.
I spent Tuesday packing anything that would fit and not be too heavy to carry. I packed any camping gear crammed into luggage and threw some camera gear in my carry on, just in case. My new Canon R6, a 50mm 1.2 and my trusty 70-200mm 2.8, a couple of memory cards and an extra battery, just in case.
My friend Jessica and I were traveling together, and our flight was early Wednesday morning into Spokane, with a layover in San Francisco. I still hadn’t heard back from my Live Nation request, and I tried to push it out of my mind. I may have even forgotten about it – I was just as excited for what the rest of the weekend had in store, with or without a photo pass. We arrived in Spokane late that afternoon to pick up our rental. We rented a converted Mercedes sprinter van through the Outdoorsy app, and our van host picked us at the airport – shout out to Eric and Lori for being the best kind of people we could ever have rented from. Everything was going smoothly and according to plan.
After getting a quick rundown of the van and instructions on how to operate all the amenities it came with (a bed in the back, solar generator, water pump, a small sink, a small propane cooktop, even a toilet and a shower) – we were off. We made our way towards The Gorge Amphitheater which was roughly two hours away from Spokane. We ended up spending the night in an Ernie’s Truck Stop in Moses Lake and I even had my first experience of showering in a rest stop shower which I would gladly do again if the occasion called for it.
We arrived at the Gorge campgrounds early on Thursday morning, at the suggestion of one of my friends (Hi Chuck!), to be able to get a good camping site. As we were all parked in line to get through security waiting, we got out of our cars, campers, and trucks, as it was going to be a little bit of a wait. The guy in the car in front of us gets out his car and he’s wearing an Eagles tee-shirt. My best friend is an Eagles Fan, and I instinctually yell out “Go Birds!” (Disclaimer: I’m a Jets Fan) and he immediately asked if I was from Jersey. Turns out John Smith in the Eagles tee shirt was originally from Atlantic City. Of course, my camping neighbor would end up being from New Jersey, at least originally. I’ve met so many people from New Jersey in the oddest of places, I’m convinced we all have roots here, in some form or another. There always seems to be at least six degrees of separation between anyone you meet and the great state of New Jersey.
In any event, we got to our spots, set up camp and started getting acquainted with our neighbors. It was around 3:00 p.m. when I randomly just checked my email and literally could not believe my eyes. I was confirmed to shoot Friday nights Dave Matthews Band show Night 1 of the Gorge. I’ve never been so proud of past me for thinking to throw my concert lenses into my carry on just in case. I didn’t know whether to scream, laugh or cry. So of course, I cried. And then I told anyone and everyone I could tell. And they cried with me. These new friends that I had made, people who went from being strangers to camping neighbors to friends in a matter of minutes, cried with me. Somehow, without truly knowing me, everyone knew how special this moment was and would be for me.
That’s the thing about the Gorge. Yes, it’s in the high desert of Washington state, the views are spectacular and the music we were all about to witness over the next three nights would be insane, but it’s so much more than that.
It’s the people who were all gathered there together, all 28,000 of us, making the pilgrimage to this magical place, for the love of one amazing band that we are all so devoted to.
It’s meeting your camping neighbors Alexa and Dave, from Utah – who seconds ago were perfect strangers but are now lifelong friends and most likely staying with you to come visit for the Madison Square Garden shows in November. It’s Dave with the extra burner tickets for re-entry each night to be able to take your show posters back to the campsite safely so you don’t lose them.
It’s the stranger who ran over to help set up us with our canopy when we weren’t even really struggling with it, but it was still appreciated.
It’s the boys parked a few spots down offering food to everyone, Friendsgiving style.
It’s the way your heart drops as you crest over the hill at the top of the lawn to take in that view, whether it’s your first time or your 20th … that feeling of cresting the hill will always leave you breathless.
It’s trading stickers for bracelets and bracelets for pins and mini rubber pigs for flower crowns.
It’s the Freaks on Parade Parade, the costumes, the lovers, the dreamers, and the amazing camp set ups, all on display. It’s the fundraisers floating about, raising money for victims of Lahaina Fire in Maui.
It’s watching the sun set over the river as the band takes the stage.
It’s meeting Sanjay, the band’s photographer, fan-girling a bit and getting to talk shop with him, only for him to circle back around to find you to graciously hand you a guitar pick from Dave.
It’s that first note being played, as we all wait with bated breath, wondering what’s about to happen, what are they going to open with on this first night?
It’s the tears rolling down your face because you just can’t believe a second of this entire experience is actually happening. It’s being in the photo pit with other photographers, who are also in disbelief and just as excited as you are. It’s taking photos of each other with each other’s phones, making memories to last a lifetime.
It’s the row of hard-core fans on the rail, who can see you radiating with joy and wonder – and they’re just as excited for you as you are as you are for them, knowing that you all are about to experience something really special.
It’s the massive stage set in front of you, so unexpectedly high. It’s struggling through the first two songs you’re allowed to shoot because the stage is just so high, you’re forced to stand on your tiptoes with your camera above your head with a heavy telephoto zoom lens, viewing and focusing with the LCD screen instead of your viewfinder because it’s the only way your short self can grab a decent shot.
It’s your burning shoulders after an “American Baby” / “Break Free” two song intro – from holding your camera so high for so long – but you don’t even care because it’s the most thrilling experience of your life and the thrill of it all overtakes any pain you might be in.
It’s the years of hard work that you put in to get to this point in your concert photography journey, knowing that this is the pinnacle. These are the moments you worked so hard for and hopefully looking back over your shots of the evening, it would be worth it. It’s earning every single shot you fired off that night, either in that specific moment, or in the years leading up to it. It’s the years of dedication to your craft.
It’s the next two nights of music that you’re in store for. It’s being fifth row Night 2 with Warehouse pit tickets that you randomly managed to buy a week before flying out west. It’s managing a hat trick and ending up in the pit all three nights your first time ever at The Gorge.
It’s about the friends that you made in the Pit all three nights and finding them all on Facebook when you get home. It’s Sybil and Chris, Mechelle, Lauren, Tom, Matt, Kareem, Jamin, Bernie, Samantha, Ben, Katie, Nick, Chuck, Joandrea and too many others that I know I’m forgetting but they know who they are.
It’s the people who knew your story and took photos of you taking photos of the band from the rail and finding you on Instagram and sending those photos to you.
It’s randomly finding one person you were hoping to meet up with all weekend on N3 and getting the biggest hug on the 20 year anniversary of you being friends.
It’s the strangers you meet on the walk back to the campsite who you said looked like New York walkers because of how they were hoofing it and weaving out of people traffic, and it turns out they lived in the city for seven years.
It’s that cute boy who walked you back Night 3 to make sure you get “home” okay because you always seem to get lost on the way out of there and he was camped close to you and now you’ve become great friends and you can’t wait to see him again at the MSG shows.
It’s the music, of course. The band clearly loves playing at this venue, and the way the sound carries and bounces off these cliffs, reverberating over the Columbia River is not something that is easily describable and I’m not sure I’d even be able to do it justice.
I’ve been to a lot of Dave Matthews Band shows over the years, in some of the most beautiful places in the country. I was there for Listener Supported in ’99, I was there for “Two Step” in the rain at Giants Stadium. I was there for The James Brown show at MSG in ’02, and I was there for the Central Park Concert in ’03. Epic shows at epic venues that are still talked about in Dave circles years later.
I’ve been to amazing shows and famous venues, but there is truly no place like the magic of The Gorge.
Something about The Gorge just hits different. And I get it now, finally.