The Regrettes on the main stage | Photo by Amanda Morgan, courtesy of Treefort Music Fest
The Regrettes on the main stage | Photo by Amanda Morgan, courtesy of Treefort Music Fest
It’s about 9 pm on a weeknight in March, the weather in Boise is how you always hope springtime to be but it never is, and the excellent indie rock band Snail Mail just played a headlining set at Treefort Music Fest. The group definitely made me tear up by closing with “Pristine,” but exiting the show, I found myself getting even more emotional at the sight of the mountains that surround Boise as I meandered through the city, heading from one concert to the next. I continued to feel that sense of elation from all of the live music and the energy pulsing through the City of Trees that night, the next, and the two after that, because Treefort truly feels like a one-of-a-kind experience, transforming Boise, Idaho into a very special indie music lovers’ haven every spring.
At a time when a lot of music festivals feel the same, Treefort has managed to organically create a unique event. Sure, it’s hard to have a bad time when you’re seeing a weekend of live music, and plenty of festivals have eclectic lineups or are held in incredible settings, but many (especially corporate-owned ones) can feel impersonal and lack that something that makes them different. Treefort, by default, stands out—it’s a community-organized event with a mission to prioritize discovery and uplift its local Boise and Pacific Northwest creative communities.
This year, Treefort celebrated its 10th anniversary—arriving just six months after its belated COVID iteration, which was held in September 2021—bringing 470 bands to Boise from Wednesday, March 23-Sunday, March 27 to play at its main stage and venues across the city. The festival also curated experiences and talks from other spaces, such as drag, film, food, yoga, and more, to fill out the weekend and highlight everything happening in the area.
You can certainly sense the festival’s drive when you’re there, and that’s attributed to the fact that it’s why the festival exists at all. “In 2011, there were a few people on the founding team—[producer] Lori Shandro, [producer] Drew Lorona, and [festival director] Eric Gilbert—who all started talking about starting a music festival in Boise because Eric, who is a booker, realized that Boise wasn’t really a stop on people’s tours. It was just known as this almost isolated city in the Lower 48,” says marketing director and co-founder Megan Stoll. “So Eric was like, ‘We really need to actually make Boise a viable stop on people’s tour, and there’s really no better way of doing that than throwing a festival.'”
After strategically planning the first iteration after SXSW’s mid-March dates to catch bands who might be touring through the region, Treefort launched in 2012 with a four-day-long fest of a little over 100 bands—surpassing its goal of hosting at least 80 acts over three days. But ever since the beginning, “the lineup has ultimately been about pairing local talent on the stages with major national and international talent to really elevate the Boise community,” says Stoll. “From , we’ve grown and, in many ways, put Boise on the map, and the city itself has grown, too.”
Thrillist took a trip to Boise to see what Treefort is all about and found that it’s one of the best festivals out there, feeling truly special in an oversaturated festival market. Below, you’ll find what makes Treefort so unique, and why you should plan to attend it in 2023—and every year after.
The festival set-up is ideal
For the duration of Treefort, the festival literally takes over downtown Boise. It couldn’t be more convenient and well-planned, though: The city’s downtown, about 5 by 12 blocks, is highly walkable. Although next year the main stage will be located at a new venue that is currently under construction, for the past 10 years, the central festival grounds have been held on a blocked-off street that’s lined with food trucks, Alefort (the beer, wine, and cocktail tent), art installations, and the main stage. But as a multi-venue festival, most of the events are held at different venues around the city, with gigs in concert venues, makeshift spaces like coffee shops and record stores, and in the street. (It was especially fun seeing shows in the Shriner’s club, El Korah Shrine, which is a vibe, to say the least with Shriners enjoying brewskies in the room over from a dance hall lined with both Western and Egyptian aesthetics.)
Because the city is so navigable, you don’t have to do as much walking as you might anticipate—but should you need to hitch a ride, there is a shuttle bus that circulates a festival route and is even accompanied by live musicians. There also isn’t much crowd traffic in the streets as you go from show to show, or even at the main stage, which makes it especially comfortable to travel where you please and never feel like you’re going to miss a set. For those who aren’t native to Boise, it’s like the festival is designed to introduce you to as many cool spots in the city as possible, and gets you accustomed to its key locations very quickly.
The music emphasizes discovery
A lot of music festival lineups look nearly identical today, in part because it’s often the same promoters who book a handful of them. While up-and-comers do play some mainstream festivals, the element of discovery is baked into Treefort’s ethos—so much so that you can’t go a day there without stumbling into a show and finding a new favorite band.
“A thing that we’ve found being a local community-run festival—without having the backing of the typical giant names that you see in the festival world—we have this opportunity to have a really diverse and inclusive lineup,” says Stoll. “That’s been really important to us since the beginning. Our lineup does not look like everybody else’s lineup.”
It’s true: Music legend Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth was Sunday night’s headliner, but burgeoning indie acts, like Men I Trust and Snail Mail, held court on the main stage other nights. The rest of the lineup features emerging artists from every genre imaginable, many who play multiple times throughout the weekend so you can catch someone another day if you missed their first set. I, for one, came excited to see popular indie singer-songwriter Indigo De Souza, but walked away with several new bands I’m excited to follow, including Toronto’s Ducks Ltd., NYC’s Nation of Language, and Babehoven of Hudson, NY. Sharing the stages with them, too, are hundreds of bands from the area. What’s also special is that Stoll says that the unofficial Treefort catchphrase is “where the fans are bands and the bands are fans,” which speaks to how acts stick around throughout the weekend to watch other bands’ shows and make connections.
Stoll notes that one of her favorite Treefort memories ever is seeing Lizzo play the main stage in 2017—long before she released Cuz I Love You in 2019 and took home Grammys in 2020. An anecdote like that is a testament to not only Treefort’s taste, but their philosophy of recognizing and uplifting new talent.
The food is exceptional
Of course, other festivals like Bottlerock in Napa, California are built to be just as much of a culinary experience as they are a music festival, but Treefort has found a way to elevate its food and drink offerings as a primarily music-focused event. Throughout the weekend, Foodfort features a lineup of dinners and cooking classes organized by chefs from Boise, the greater area, and nationally. So rather than only offering quick bites from local businesses for convenience like many large-scale festivals do (and Treefort does as well), the festival makes dining a more holistic part of the weekend, intending to highlight cooking in the region and spark conversations about local food systems.
I was lucky enough to attend chef Carlo Lamagna’s dinner, held in the Alefort tent. Titled “Twisted Filipino,” the chef behind Portland’s Magna Kusina treated us to a four-course meal that was meant to encompass everything he loves about Filipino food and illustrate its place in the Pacific Northwest. He introduced each course, explaining where every dish was sourced and how, although Filipino food is often associated with “fusion food,” he’s learned to love his culture’s cuisine in its most traditional form. It was seriously one of the most delicious meals I have had in a long time, and I still can’t stop thinking about a cold, coconut vinaigrette-coated salmon dish, essentially Filipino ceviche, called kinilaw. My coworker attended Thursday’s dinner hosted at the upscale eatery The Lively and enjoyed a four-course meal, plus canapés, crafted by the restaurant’s chef and pastry chef, Edward Higgins and Samantha Hughes, Boise chef Sarah Kelly, and Top Chef regular Hugh Acheson. When you’re used to downing tacos at festivals between sets (and don’t get me wrong, I love tacos), the Foodfort options feel unlike anything else, and is a very intimate way to bring attention to the lively food scene in the area.
Similarly, a lot of thought has clearly gone into how beer, cocktails, and wine are served at the fest. For one, as the event aims to be as sustainable as it can be and hopes to become a zero-waste festival in the future, every ticket comes with a reusable metal cup that all beverages are served in. But what’s most interesting is that, while attendees can order drinks at any time, specialty spirits made in the region are served in Alefort at specific intervals. That also goes for cocktails, as local mixologists host brief cocktail hours where they serve a limited menu—making your drink order even more a part of the experience, rather than just something to passively sip.
All of the “forts” are seriously cool
Lots of festivals aim to bring in experiences aside from the music, whether it’s a food element, art displays on the festival grounds, or a lineup of another kind of talent like comedy—but Treefort has found an organic way to include a wide variety of activities for every minute of the day, including when you need a break from standing or loud music. Stoll describes the fest as having “something for everybody,” and it really does. There’s Artfort, Dragfort, Filmfort, the literary community’s Storyfort, Yogafort, and more—which all feature classes, presentations, and talks. Yogafort, for example, has a slate of classes for people of all levels that are hosted by local instructors and joined by live musicians or DJs. (The dance class I attended, which was all about embracing what your body can do and soundtracked by a pop-heavy DJ, was a very lively start to my Friday.) And all of the Dragfort shows (which includes drag brunch, late-night performances, and a couple pop-up runway showcases) were a blast and create a safe space for LGBTQ+ Boiseans.
The forts ensure there’s always something to do, but the reason they feel so cohesive to the festival is that they were created by the Boise community and represent every creative thing going on there right now. “Those forts have developed from the community totally organically,” Stoll says. “It wasn’t like [the founding team said], ‘We need to do a Yogafort.’ People from those worlds, like the Yogi world, have come to us like, ‘We wanna do something at Treefort.'” By listening to locals, the festival has created something that feels inclusive and expansive all at once.
The Boise scene is worth knowing about
If you haven’t considered Boise a city with a thriving arts scene, Treefort will not only convince you otherwise, but that it’s extremely overlooked. Not only is the city in a gorgeous, mountainous setting, it’s clearly a great place for a variety of creatives to work, collaborate, and support one another. The music scene in particular is very close-knit, which is, of course, a huge focus of Treefort. (Local singer Angel Abaya, for example, has also worked on the Treefort team for years, and the riot grrrl-inspired band Blood Lemon are big community organizers—and one member also plays with hometown favorites Built To Spill.) And while Idaho is traditionally a conservative state, panels hosted by Treefort and talent speaking out during their sets prove that tons of Boiseans are committed to progressive legislation and bettering the state for women and its POC and queer residents.
As a major music fan, one who is especially interested in under-the-radar scenes and indie music, Treefort has been on my radar for a while. The festival’s sheer existence had me intrigued about the lively music and arts scene in Boise—somewhere that I admittedly never thought much about—and going illustrated just how worthy of attention it is. “The city of Boise itself is blooming,” says Stoll. “I feel like we have known this all along and now everybody’s catching up. It’s a really unique, very beautiful place, and we [at Treefort] just want to share that with people.” Being there, you can’t help but feel that warmth, whether you’re chatting with a local who’s excited that you’re visiting or dancing to an undiscovered band, inevitably destined for indie fame, in the back of a brewery.