Bumbershoot | 09.01-03.07

spaceneedle Joss Stone: Entertaining. Crazy to hear the voice of a 300-pound black woman come out of a 20-year-old white British woman. That's really all I have to say.

 

 

 

 

 

If the afterlife has some kind of personalized reward, my heaven will include an eternal music festival. There will be a large crowd, but still enough room to navigate while migrating from one stage to the next. There will always be a great spot to stand where my friends and family can see perfectly. The infinitely eclectic crowd will be as into the music as I am—and dancing. The schedule will be set up in a way that it is never necessary to skip one band in favor in another. Bathrooms are clean and lineless. The sound is perfect at every stage.

Bumbershoot, Seattle's 37-year-old music and arts festival held over Labor Day Weekend, is not the idealized version of my dream. In fact, much of this festival is probably on one of the circles of hell. Crowds, lines, people too cool to dance, challenges with sound….and very rough decisions on who to see and who to skip (it's tough being an obsessive music fan).

However, like that friend whom you love both in spite of and because of his flaws, Bumbershoot can be a world-class event.

The eclectic festival boasts over 200 different acts spread out over the three days of Labor Day weekend. Comedy, dance, film, spoken word, music…basically, if it can be considered art, it is probably represented in some way at Bumbershoot.

My wife and I are in our fourth year covering this festival for PLAYBACK:stl, and we have been attending it for eight. Now we have a 21-month-old child to consider while experiencing it, which significantly changes the way that we consume the festival. We used to (often literally) run around the 28-acre fairground, located in the shadow of the Space Needle, to catch different shows. As any music geek who attends a big festival knows, planning your experience takes careful planning and artful execution. There are always conflicting shows, but if you are flying solo or with a supportive co-pilot, you can really get your money's worth. The downside to that is you really only get to take a taste of everything, and deciding when to move on to the next show can be distracting.  

With a child, we tried to slow down and enjoy each artist more completely. Daisy (our daughter) further complicated matters by making life just busier in general. We didn't do as much planning for Bumbershoot this year, which meant we stuck to bands that we knew (fortunately, there were many).

We only caught music this year (our apologies to story tellers, comedians, filmmakers and dancers). Even though we could skip lines with our press passes—something we took great advantage of the past two years—we kept it real and only attended outdoor shows this year. 

Come with us, as we journey Bumbershoot.

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DAY 1

Crowded House | Main Stage

These guys opened the festival for a lot of people. Neil Finn and his boys put on a solid, professional show. I was enjoying what I was hearing, but this was Bumbershoot, and I needed more groove, or at least something more unique. This is a band that puts out good solid pop-rock (and I don't mean that as a dig). After hearing "Don't Dream It's Over" and "With the Weather," I felt I needed to move on. Unfortunately, I missed Eddie Vedder's surprise appearance on "Something So Strong." Them's the Bumber-breaks.

Side comment #1: The man is everywhere: Like every other public event of the past few years, corporate sponsorship had elbowed its way into Bumbershoot like a drunk teenager stumbling into my sightline. All of the outdoor stages formerly called things like "The Rhythm Stage," "The Bumbrella Stage" or "The Blues Stage" were being called "The Sound Transit Stage," "The Esurance Stage" or "The Starbucks Stage." We refused to call them by their corporate names. We do what we can to stick it to the man, even though the man could care less.

Cave Singers | Wells Fargo Stage (formerly the Jazz Stage)

The lead singer (Pete Quirk ex-front man of Hint Hint) sounds like Ed Kowalczyk from '90s post-grunge heroes, Live, while playing the washboard, shaker, tambourine, and crazy mouth-keyboard-thing. The guitarist (former Pretty Girls Make Graves and Murder City Devils bassist Derek Fudesco) plays some finger pickin' good blues arpeggios. The percussionist (Mary Lund, formerly of Cobra High) holds it all down with some simple kick drums and high hats with some other stuff thrown in. The result is a strange, haunting, raw, sparse sound that is far from folk and close to head-nodding roots-rock.

The Shins | Main Stage

Like Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, and Death Cab for Cutie, these Portland transplants have blossomed out of small clubs and proven to mainstream radio that Pacific Northwest music did not end with grunge. They have released three solid albums full of quality songs about heartbreak and love. This was my fourth time seeing them, and I have been more underwhelmed each time. Every song is good. I want to sing along. However, I was bored; they generally play by the numbers. It is far from bad, just nothing special. I left after hearing a couple songs to find something more interesting. Nothing personal, Shins; catch ya later.

Honeydripper All-Stars | Starbucks Stage (formerly the Blues Stage)

The best antidote for the predictability of The Shins and Crowded House was some solid blues! This band of crusty bluesman, soul-singing queen and a young whippersnapper on guitar and occasional vocals showed the folks in Seattle how to get dirty. This band was formed as the "house band" for the upcoming John Sayles movie Honeydripper, which is about a couple of rival Alabama juke joints in the 1950s.

The Saturday Knights | Esurance Stage (formerly the Bumbrella Stage)

Seattle has quite the fledgling hip-hop scene these days, and this is one of the newest stars on the scene. Two MCs (Barfly and Tilson) trade lines about partying. With a DJ and a guitarist/organist, they sort of go all over the place musically and the energy stays high. They are charismatic, and the Bumbershoot crowd loved them. They lost points by playing the same song twice in a row – but it was at the behest of the crowd, proving that they just want to make people happy. Isn't that all anyone wants?

Rosie Thomas | Wells Fargo Stage

Wait a minute! That folky lady isn't Rosie Thomas! It's someone named Alela Diane. Rosie Thomas was really the only reason my wife came to Bumbershoot on Saturday. I could have seen the Avett Brothers (who I heard really good things about). So, we took advantage of our press passes and went to the "Secret Location" where KEXP was doing some exclusive performances.

Side comment #2: KEXP. Greatest. Radio. Station. Ever.

Don't take my word for it. Click on the link; listen online to this listener-supported radio station with no commercials and wish that you lived in Seattle so that you could listen to this station on any radio. They have specialty shows (blues, reggae, world, country, punk, electronic, rockabilly, jazz, hip-hop) and their regular programming is better than satellite radio. Each DJ programs their own show, and they take requests via the Internet from all over the world.

Plus, they are nonprofit and huge supporters of the music scene in the Pacific Northwest, literally sponsoring or co-sponsoring every music event of note in the area. They have also been sponsoring shows in other cities; for the past couple years, they have a "city to city" challenge. They will travel to a city where listeners donate the most money and have a live broadcast for a week. Chicago has gotten it for the past two years, with NYC coming in second. Oh yeah, they also offer podcasts of live performances, songs of the day, and random mixes similar to their programming.

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Gogol Bordello (acoustic set) | KEXP's secret location

These crazy guys based in New York are actually from all over the world. They played a rare acoustic set (which you will can you can check out at KEXP's Live Performances section of their website—and you can also get this performance by signing up for the "KEXP Music that Matters Podcast").

It was great to be there to see it. They all sat on stools and played some great "gypsy" music. I believe that a true test of a band is their ability to create quality music when all of the electronics and fancy stage antics are stripped away. These guys truly showed that they are professionals. After the performance, a tired-looking Eugene Hutz took pictures with many crowd members, including my 21-month daughter Daisy who gave him high 5 and a "pound" (hitting his fist with her fist).

Menomena | Sound Transit Stage (formerly the Backyard Stage)

This Portland, Ore.-based trio had a 20ish person choir with them, and they pulled it off better than the Polyphonic Spree, whom I had been disappointed by both on albums and live. Menomena and their choir all had matching "monk"-looking outfits, and the instrumentation of the band switched around while they all sang at one time or another. These are obviously some creative guys, definitely living up to the "experimental" label that they have been given. Oftentimes, "experimental" can mean "atonal" or "musical masturbation." These guys try out lots of different things and still create some fabulously listenable and eclectic music.

menomena

The Gourds | Starbucks Stage

Since 1994, these guys from Austin, Texas, have shared their brand of alt-country with the world. They are expressive performers, with each other and with the crowd. Playing songs about their love of food, drink and women, they got the jaded Seattle crowd smiling and laughing—and they played their signature cover "Gin & Juice" to the excitement of everyone there.

Gym Class Heroes | Main Stage

If I were 15, I would think they were cool. No, wait, if I never heard 311 or any of the other rap/rock combos of the late '90s/early '00s, I would think they were awesome. They certainly have more flow than any of those bands, but it is a little too shiny for my taste.

Gogol Bordello | Esurance Stage

This was far and away my highlight of the weekend. Eugene Hutz, the lead singer, is a force to be reckoned with. On their live shows, he has been known to break bottles over his head and perform insane acts with the other band members onstage. Nothing like that happened at Bumbershoot this year. There was a huge crowd for this stage, and everyone was jumping up and down and cheering…while they were doing a sound check.

They ripped through the first part of their set with the energy of rabbits on crack. I had seen them for their acoustic set earlier, and the range that they are capable of impressed me. The music sounded just as good, but much louder. However, their onstage persona was mesmerizing. Hutz sprinted around the stage, mostly shirtless, channeling Iggy Pop. However, he was not the whole show. The fiddle player, with long curly hair and a huge beard, made faces like a crazy pirate throughout the set. One percussionist, a youngish dark skinned guy, hefted around a huge drum of some kind, while a female percussionist crashed cymbals together while doing high kicks. Their accordion player held down the cool, just putting out the music.

At the climax of the show, Hutz placed a fire pail over the mic and smacked it around with a drumstick, like he was mad at it. They did a great cover of a Mano Negra song (world music pioneers from France fronted by Manu Chao).

After the show, one of my friends commented that it seemed too much like an "act." The song "American Wedding," including such lines as "I've never been to American wedding….where's the vodka, where's the pickled herring" seem too over the top, more Borat than rock star. After all, he played the Ukrainian guide in Everything Is Illuminated.

Maybe….but throughout the entire show, the crowd was an undulating mass, jumping up and down and singing to all the songs. Seattle crowds are not generally known for being so expressive, but it was hard for anyone to stand still while the carnival of Gogol Bordello was around.

{mospagebreak}DAY 2

The Trucks | Sound Transit Stage (formerly the Rhythm Stage)

These cute little ladies from Bellingham, Wash., opened our day. They have pixieish voices, and their cute little crowd was filled with relatives and boyfriends and big fans that sang along to all their songs. However, their songs, which sound electronic and poppy generally, are some of the raunchiest songs I have ever heard.."Why the fuck won't you go down on me?" is the lyrics to "Why the…," or "What makes you think we can fuck just because you put your tongue in my mouth and you twisted my titties, baby?" on "Titties." They are not just a novelty act out to shock, but great musicians. Their live show is intended to entertain, and everyone was.

andrewbird

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club | Main Stage

They put on a typical rock show. The lead singer, Pete Hayes, thanked everyone for getting up so early (it was 1:30). They had both smoke and lights (which seems a little silly in the daylight). They got the meager afternoon crowd on their feet—well, at least the front half of the stadium. They are accomplished performers, and I was glad to hear that they can recreate all of the sounds from their albums.

Kings of Leon | Main Stage

Like BRMC, KOL put on a typical rock show. However, they have cut their hair and beards, so they put out a little more polish than previously. The crowd had swelled considerably for these guys—not as big as The Shins, but still big. People were generally standing, bouncing along to the songs. It made me a little sad when they asked people to sing along to "Holy Roller Novocain"—which is, in my opinion, not really a sing-along song (on the album, it is 12:00 long). Oh well, those crazy rock stars get an idea in their head….

Stars of Track and Field | Sound Transit Stage

I saw this Portland-based trio a few years ago at Bumbershoot, and they became a pet peeve. At the time, I thought I was listening to Belle & Sebastian. Since they took their name from a B&S song, that is not too surprising, but I thought, "That will only take them so far…" Then I heard some of their songs around and I kept thinking that B&S had another album out or something….but it was always them! I kept ranting at people about this, and mostly the reaction was "Uh, yeah…"

applesThen I heard a song by them that didn't sound anything like B&S…and another. I thought, "Hmmm…maybe I'll check them out live and see what they are like." So I did, and I was impressed. Their sound seemed to have changed pretty significantly. They were pretty straightforward with their music—well, straightforward in a no-bass-player-electronic-but-still-organic kind of way. I also thought that there was a female singer and lots of instruments—but there wasn't. In fact, they sounded nothing like B&S—so all my ranting suddenly felt really stupid.

The Apples in Stereo | Sound Transit Stage

These guys do not look like rock stars—more like the staff of a tech office who put on a great skit at the company BBQ. Well, except for the mutton chops and paisley on keyboard/tambourine player #1…and the space-age costume on keyboard/tambourine player #2. They surprised me with how much I loved them. They had fun on stage, smiling easily with each other and the crowd. Their poppy songs were without much embellishment, which I mean as a compliment.

Art Brut | Sound Transit Stage

The boys (and girl) from across the pond have been getting quite the buzz for the last year. Seeing Eddie Argos do his talking/singing thing with the rocky background of the rest of the band was quite a treat. Does he think that he is cooler than us? Yes. But isn't that all part of the shtick? Yep.

The fun is that they don't really take themselves too seriously; they only pretend to. Every comment could be construed in a couple ways, much like the name of their band, a French term for "outsider art" or "raw art," which means art created outside the boundaries of official culture. Their music has a very pop/rock sound, yet their singer sings with a heavy English accent…oh, the irony!

This sensibility is very much part of their live show. Literally every song began with a "Ready, Art Brut?" declaration from Eddie to the band. Like a good running joke on The Simpsons, this just got more amusing each time.

Not to mention they are a really fun band. Their music is surprising danceable, and it is fun to sing along with other people who are all winking and in the joke. Brilliant.

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Andrew Bird | Starbucks Stage

This past year, I got a bunch of this prolific songwriter's music from the public library. I had heard a couple of his songs from his most recent album, Armchair Apocrypha—and then I discovered he had released nine albums in the past ten years, ranging in style from swing to the difficult to categorize "indie folk." He plays guitar, whistles, mandolin, and violin. His violin playing is pretty impressive and unique.

Since I had been so enamored with him for the past several months, gobbling up all of his albums at once, I was not sure what to expect live. However, his live show was very much limited to his work of the past few years, during which he seemed to distance himself from the swing music with which he started.

With a drummer, a guitarist, and some live sampling, Bird created impressively haunting atmospheric music that is very difficult to define and describe. Unlike many of the acts that we saw this weekend, his music departed from his albums, remained recognizable and singable, and yet was not "jammy." On Sunday, he played an extremely mellow set live on KEXP—which, like that of Gogol Bordello, displayed the amazing musical prowess that not every band effectively pulls off. You never know what to expect with a musician like Bird, except that it will be interesting.

Devendra Banhardt | Sound Transit Stage

I was only able to check out this "freak folkie" for a couple songs. I saw a stick thin tall guy capering around, his body wavering like his warbley voice. He seemed to genuinely like the band members, rather than just display an amorous affect due to a combo of ganja and 'shrooms…but wait, that probably had something to do with that, too.

Zap Mama | Esurance Stage

I hadn't planned on seeing these folks, and I wasn't even sure what to expect. A friend recommended them, so I thought I would swing by on my way out for the day.

Whoa!

These ladies, especially the African lead singer, blew me away. They danced in unison, giving praise to the musical gods. Their music had a strong African sound, but it also bounced around a number of styles: rock, funk, blues, hip-hop, folk, it was all there. The strong backup singers, who also played instruments, complemented the lead singer's powerful voice. The crowd was all there, shaking their groove thing to the night right along with them.

{mospagebreak}DAY 3

Perhaps due to my lack of prior research, or maybe it was the little argument that wife and I got into, but the first half of this day was pretty lackluster. She went ahead and saw Andrew Bird at KEXP's "secret location," while I sat home waiting for Daisy to finish a much-needed nap. I arrived in time to check out the last couple songs of….

Joss Stone | Main Stage

Entertaining. Crazy to hear the voice of a 300-pound black woman come out of a 20-year-old white British woman. That's really all I have to say.

We wanted to experiment and wandered over to see….

Ohmega Watts | Esurance Stage

…where we ate some corn and met up with some friends. There was some socially conscious hippity hop in the background for a few minutes, but it was over by the time we were ready to pay attention. We debated going to see John Legend, but we wanted to see something we didn't know, so we headed over to….

Allison Moorer | Starbucks Stage

…only to realize we wandered over to exactly what we were afraid of running into – a female folkie! She toyed with making disparaging comments about Bush, which is far from revolutionary in left-leaning Seattle. We happened to be sitting near these two cantankerous graybeard guys who yelled at her to "just sing," while Daisy and her toddler friend appeared to annoy these two guys further by being a little too close to their space.

Meanwhile, a mysterious beeping seemed to come from our general area, prompting one of the security guys to ask the graybeards if they had cell phones; they both reacted a little aggressively to the question. One of them muttered for minutes afterward about how annoying the "infernal contraptions" are, and that he doesn't even carry "one of those damn things." Amusing now, but at the time, we just needed to get the children away…quickly and quietly.

Side comment #3: Washington State Liquor Board breaks up families

Probably for legitimate reasons regarding logistics and safety, drinking is only allowed in beer gardens. However, if you want to have a beer and see a band, you can't bring your kid into the beer garden. When you are at a festival all day long, it is nice to have a beer and see some music; it is all part of the relaxation for many people, it is not about getting crazy drunk. Unless you were one of the dotcom millionaires, you wouldn't really want to shell out $6 for a beer anyhow. Washington is a very annoying state when it comes to drinking. Being from Chicago and St. Louis, I just don't understand the bug that the Northwest has up its butt about drinking. Periodically, one of us would have to stay outside the beer garden with our daughter while the other would go into it with a friend, or alone, and down a beer. Hello, wristbands, people!!

Viva Voce | Sound Transit Stage

This attractive Portland-based husband/wife team plays an eclectic mix of tunes ranging from indie punk to downbeat electronica. There is something fascinating about watching two people create a big noise. I have been circling this band for a while, but different circumstances have made it impossible for me to see their live show — so I was really excited to finally see them. The first half of their set tended toward mellow, and then things picked up a bit. Just what you would expect from a band that goes all over the map with their sound.

Lyrics Born | Esurance Stage

This was one of the people who I have been excited about seeing for months. Apparently, I wasn't alone. The crowd went crazy, pumping their hands in the air and waving them around like they just didn't care throughout the set for this hip-hopper who lives to have a party and send a message at the same time. His wife/backup singer worked the crowd from his side, and the tight backing band laid the funk down over his rhymes. LB chatted with the crowd and razzed them here and there. I'll admit, I do tend to get a little annoyed when a hip-hop artist keeps saying "Where my people at?!" or something like that; I'm usually like, "Um, still here, dancing and putting my hands in the air…" However, for some people it really seems to work; the crowd responds and it doesn't get annoying. LB makes it work on every level.

Soulive | Esurance Stage

I have a friend (give it up for Seth Hayden!) who literally got in my face when I said I was only considering checking these guys out—he is that passionate about this jazz/funk band with their soulful and rocking jams. He is not alone; throughout the set, people shouted "SOULIVE" as often as you would see devil horns at an Ozzy show. soulive 

I have heard some of their album music, and I kind of wrote them off as an above-average jam band (I was on the jambandwagon in the mid '90s, but then tired of it). They started their set as an instrumental trio—drums, guitar and keys. Musically flawless. The most expressive was the keyboard player (Neal Evans), shimmying a little in his musical reverie. The drummer (Alan Evans) was very cool with his shades, motionless except for his arms and legs. Guitar player Eric Krasno was on his own planet, communicating with the band and through a guitar satellite. He made some incredible facial contortions as the notes resonated in his bones.

Soon, Toussaint joined them onstage on lead vocals. He's a Boston-based reggae singer, but you wouldn't know that from hearing him, except that he had dreads. He riled up the crowd into jamalicious frenzy as darkness fell on Bumbershoot. My friend Seth, along with many of the true fans in the crowd, was literally shaking with excitement at the end of the show.

Steve Earle | Starbucks Stage

This guy has gone all over the map with his albums. Bluegrass, country, rock—each album is pretty different, but always good. I was interested to see what he would be doing live.

He was proving that you only need a guitar and harmonica to communicate with music. Just one guy on the stage doing his thing. He was generally pretty mellow with the part of the show that I saw, and he was not talking too much—which was a little surprising, since he is known for his left-leaning politics, past drug addiction and prison term (I love to hear good stories). However, it didn't really matter. Talent is talent regardless of how you dress it up. His songs were mesmerizing and the big crowd was quiet while he plucked, strummed and blew on his harmonica…

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists | Sound Transit Stage

A few years back, I saw these guys play at one of the indoor stages at Bumbershoot. I had heard that this live show is a force to be reckoned with since then, and I had listened to their music a ton more, too. These guys played in front of a fairly small crowd to close out Bumbershoot (many people were "Entering the Wu," watching Wu Tang close it out). There were some knuckleheads in the crowd, too: stupid teenagers who didn't seem to get it, and a dumb guy who kept yelling things in between songs.

Ted took it all in stride and laughed it off. After someone threw a bread crust onstage, he commented, "This is the weirdest show I have ever played, and I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment." He joked with the new bass player who joked with the photographers (there were only three of them). I think he fired and re-hired the bass player a couple times during the show, too.

Leo and his band put out an incredible intensity with their punky power-pop. They jumped around while Ted attacked his guitar and mic with flawless professionalism. My favorite part of the show was during "Little Dawn," which he dedicated to Seattle, the Emerald City, they threw in a mash up of sorts. At the end of the song, they worked in "Emerald City" from the Seattle-based disco/electronica band called United States of Electronica. I didn't notice anyone react to the changeup; it seemed like people were like, "Oh cool, he is talking about Seattle," rather than, "HA! Cool curveball, Ted!"

I wasn't sure if he was messing with the crowd, being ironic, or serious…which makes it even better.

tedleo

 

BUMBERSHOOT SUMMARY

Total: 28 shows attended

Overall Favorite: Gogol Bordello

Most Surprisingly Entertaining: The Apples in Stereo, Zap Mama

Most Like Listening to Album Loudly: The Shins

Majority of Crowd Dancing: Gogol Bordello, Zap Mama, Soulive, Lyrics Born

Biggest Departure From Recorded Material: Andrew Bird

Disappointed I Missed: Avett Brothers, John Legend, Wu Tang Clan, My Brightest Diamond, The Holmes Brothers

Glad I Missed: Panic! at the Disco, Fergie

Wish I Had Skipped: Gym Class Heroes, Allison Moorer | Tony Van Zeyl

 

Photos by Lorie Betelyoun

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