Last year, I had the privilege of flying out to Boise, Idaho for the first time to cover a rising festival called Treefort. A brief but inescapable romance with the festival ensured I would cover it again- now the festival’s eighth year running. The quickest comparison is a SXSW shrunk down and placed in an artsy Midwest city. With not just musical performances but panels, poetry/ prose workshops, large-scale yoga classes, tech seminars, live radio interviews, a beer garden - Treefort, on the surface, ticks the major boxes for a springtime festival that takes over downtown Boise at the end of March.

But this view is reductionist. What sets Treefort apart is not always what they do, but the intent and work behind every event scheduled. Treefort, even with the corporate sponsorships it gets to pay the bills, was and is not designed with a capitalistic approach. Events and panels aren’t built to sell tickets and prove trendiness among peers, but they are structured to engage with the attendants. Many of the shows had established artists playing small clubs, getting right in the faces of the fans. And with over 400 bands/ artists, musicians at all stages in the industry got a chance to showcase their art and garner new fans in an active and genuinely fun setting.

All of this allows Treefort to bring something to the table that other festivals can’t- empowerment. The team running the show isn’t a boardroom assigned by big donors. The showrunners are women, POC, queer folks who know that with intersectionality we all win. And this isn’t rooted in some misguided sense of duty. The world is diverse. Their dream is to capture that, to hopefully let those marginalized voices have the floor in some fashion. And what you wind up with is Treefort- a beautiful congregation of those deserving to be heard and those ready to listen.

Empowerment takes its first form with the interactive panels. These aren’t forums in large auditoriums designed to for the audience to be talked at. A Treefort panel is a discussion. Yes, the speakers do the majority of the talking- but you are right there in the action. Before showtime people are walking around talking, exchanging contact info. The panels are geared towards the audience but allow the speakers to truly bring a human side to an industry that often touts cynicism over earnestness. I attended three talks: one relating to music supervision/ selling music for commercial use, one on mental health and touring, and a songwriting seminar conducted by Laura Veirs.

The energy in those rooms. At the first panel, you have music supervisors providing direct steps and proactive tips to bands, managers, publicists in the audience. You had a fun and brief consideration of selling out vs. cashing in when it comes to supplemental income and selling tracks for digital/TV ad use. But most importantly, after the panel, the speakers were eagerly speaking with those in attendance- resource links being shared, contact info being provided, laughs being traded. At the second panel, a needed discussion on touring and its effect on mental health. Terra Lopez of Rituals of Mine, Jax Anderson of Flint Eastwood, and Laura, a former tour production manager spoke of the tolls being on the road. They also spoke of the effects once tour has ended. But for what could have been a sombre subject, the speakers approached it with deft hands, allowing for humour and a heartfelt discussion. It’s amazing what destigmatizing mental health can do! Jax burst from her chair as she told everyone how the first person she sees after tour is her therapist. It's this energy that slows the message to get to those who need it most.

The last talk I attended was a songwriting workshop by the legendary Laura Veirs. She opened up about her process; more importantly, she opened up about what she does to keep fresh and keep going. She described a card system she uses where she has 3 categories, takes a card from each category (music, lyric, inspiration) and writes a song based on those terms. What sets this apart- not just the fact the panel was the size of a small private university class or that she spoke directly with songwriters of all levels- is that, for all who attended, she provided a sample sheet for this card system. At the bottom of the sheet? Contact info for her team so you can let them know how her process worked for you. Art is for everyone. An established artist ignoring barriers and reaching out directly to empower those who need it- that’s Treefort.

Treefort also presents a plethora of artists for listeners to discover. With so many, scheduling conflicts are always going to happen. But there were so many shows that stood out because of the crowd interactions and how the artists handled their performances. You had Illuminati Hotties playing a raucous, late-night set, opening the pit at 1:00 am on Wednesday night. But with all the DIY antics shone a band that knows how to control that chaos and make something wonderful. You had Laura Veirs following a classical 4-piece. She played an acoustic set spanning her whole career; a reprieve from the urban and return to the sublime. She also revealed her limitations with playing her keyboard live- a call to those young artists in attendance that even your heroes are still human.

Or look at Cherry Glazer- a band that keeps progressing in its sound and line up in pursuit of art. Everything about their performance is precise to the point of being free. I had never seen so many smiles in a mosh pit. The show was all ages and you had tweens crowd surfing with 40-year-olds. You had Mt. Joy where fans were singing to every song at the packed main stage. They even brought up a couple so a young man could propose to his shocked and ecstatic partner. Her surprise and delight only added to their set. Tigers Jaw brought dynamics to the rock show. With solid vocals and no one blocking the drummer, its clear their performance was all about the fans. That enthusiasm for the fans was highlighted in my favourite performance of the festival, CHAI’s main stage show. Punk influenced by city pop; playful choreography by musicians who all fucking shred; a brief Japanese a capella rendition of ‘Dancing Queen’. The crowd reciprocated by having an all-out dance party in the rain. Closing out the festival was Toro Y Moi, bringing funk, pop, and soul to a Sunday night celebration. Brittney Parks of Sudan Archives was having a ball in the photo pit as everyone danced around. Everyone was free. On the other side of this coin, you had Low put on a show that gripped like a Midwest winter but promised the relief of spring. A late-night show, the music was the star and it offered to take you to another plane.

Treefort is also about empowering the artist. Many of the artists and bands spoke out to the audience directly, challenging them with their performances. Vince Staples was the big act the first night. A line wrapped around the block. A venue packed full of mostly Boise natives boppin’ along to a rapper who only speaks truth. He ended his live performance earlier than billed- but on the on-stage screen, he played a video of Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk performance and walked off. Truly digging into this choice requires a whole separate piece, but its this direct action and message to the audience that can’t be ignored. Sudan Archives blew minds with her performance. A one-person show, she combined loop pedals and perfectly timed backing tracks with her electric violin and midi. Her performance, her compositions, all stunning. But when you listened to the lyrics, she sang of colonization, embracing what is being stripped away. A black entertainer singing this to a mostly white, young, suburban audience living on stolen land- an open call for allies to start the real discussion.

With Rituals of Mine, you have Terra who uses the stage as her canvas and her body the paint. She’s a queer POC who embraces that not just in the music but in physical manifestations in her stage presence. The show is a statement. It’s the same with The Suffers. With a main stage upgrade from last year, they brought their Gulf Coast soul. And they make sure the audience knows where they are from, what sound they make- its about representation. They even through in some cumbia, showcasing the Latin roots in their sound. And of course, you had headliner Liz Phair. Listening to her, you hear so many of your favourite artists that came after. A songwriter that’s never been truly given her due, she played a career spanning set that truly is timeless. She’s brazen, witty, and a natural storyteller who deserved that packed main stage audience.

When a music festival is approached as a public good, not a money making/ funneling project, an urgency occurs, and new life is breathed into those in attendance. That’s empowerment. It's in every facet of this festival- even for press! Enthusiastic press contacts, an inviting press room, and lodging a stone’s throw from the action- it's these actions that proves there’s an understanding we’re all in this industry together. This isn’t something that’s immediately learned and implemented. The Treefort staff have a vision where the festival is the vessel; their goals are rooted in empathy. That can’t be taught like a business 101 course. But the hope is that eyes and ears are opening. That’s the first step to understanding. As Treefort grows, there will be new challenges. But with this team at the helm, there is only excitement about where things go from here.