Written by Tony Van Zeyl Tuesday, 22 September 2009 14:32
This was the first year that I actually stayed through the entire set of most of the shows.
The 39th annual Bumbershoot, Seattle's three-day music and arts festival, was the least crowded I have ever seen. A combination of the rain, an inconsistent lineup of headliners (pop stars Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry and Jason Mraz alongside indie superstars Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse and Spearhead, among others), and high ticket prices ($50 day of show) all contributed to the thinnish crowds. While that may not have made the festival producers happy, it certainly pleased the music fans. Smaller crowds increased intimacy with the performers and ease of navigating the festival grounds. Since my wife and I had both of kids in tow (ages 15 months and almost four years), it was heaven with the smaller crowds.
Typically I am running around the festival like a fly with ADHD who just shotgunned three Red Bulls. This was the first year that I actually stayed through the entire set of most of the shows. Even with doing that, I was able to squeeze in over 15 shows across three days. I'm gonna break it down for you like this:
These were the bands that I knew very little about and that made an impression on me. I would see them all again, and would possibly even pay for their music. Maybe. Check out the rating system...
Natalie Portman's Shaved Head
This young hometown fivesome (a couple of the folks in the band did not seem like they were old enough to drink) could easily be dismissed as overly trendy hipsters. Their songs are full of pop-culture references and self-aware dorkiness (see "Sophisticated Sideways Ponytail" or "Beard Lust"). Oh, look, check out the ironic mustache on the drummer! Listen to those '80s dance beats! There is a lot about this band that is easy to mock.
However, there are a couple of things that make all of those quibbles melt away. First of all, they are totally having fun with each other and with the crowd. And the crowd was eating it all up. The lead singer kept the crowd involved by leading round after round of rhythmic clapping. Secondly, their songs are totally catchy. Any attempts at putting them down just felt mean.
Mayer Hawthorne and the County
A classy-sounding relic from the era of Curtis Mayfield, the Funk Brothers or The Four Tops. This talented seven-piece band was dressed to the nines with shirts, ties and jackets. They brought out the soul and old-school R&B with slow jams and high-energy, happy tunes. With choreographed spinning swaying, they are a treat to watch. While this all sounds great, what makes it impressive is that the singer, Mayer Hawthorne, is a 29-year-old white guy from Ann Arbor, Mich.
Matt and Kim
Another of the many duos littering the indie soundscape, this time keys and drums. Like Natalie Portman's Shaved Head, the live energy of the band forces you to like them. The musical chops of this band don't seem to hold water, but it doesn't matter. In a small club, with the two of them playing off of each other and the crowd, the show would be killer; at an outdoor fest, it felt a little meager, though Kim's insane, positive enthusiasm and interplay with the crowd caused me more than once to smile widely in spite of my cynicism. It's almost like they are saying to themselves, "OH. MY. GOD! Look at us up here!" Plus, extra points for having a chick drummer. Who smiles all the time. And crowd surfs in the rain.
Dublin 2 Dali
This band possessed a great sound that I didn't realize my ears needed to hear. Some hip-hop, some Irish fiddling, some sitar, some Middle Eastern chanting, and even Punjabi dancing. Normally, I am too much of a gringo to appreciate Middle Eastern music, but hearing it in the context of hip-hop and Irish music...well, I may have to reassess my perceptions.
A crazy little trio with tunes that seem to fit into the new genre of genreless eclectic indie music. It reminded me of such bands as Man Man, Animal Collective and a little bit Of Montreal. They sounded electronic sometimes but use real instruments. There was jamming without too much noodling. Harmonies without a CSNY vibe. Anthemic without cliché. This music takes some work to "get" listening to the album, but live it just shines.
Vieux Farka Toure
This son of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure (who died in 2006 of bone cancer) has created a name for himself on the world musical stage. He clashes hip-hop, blues, funk, indie rock and African sounds to create quite a spectacle on stage.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
This impressive dirty blues guitarist really knows how to make it loud and fuzzy. His band is a group of talented musicians who also knows how to bring the noise. While this band is tight, it is far from clean. A fabulous horn section pushes the band to another level. I would love to tell you more, but I was distracted while in the beer garden, taking a break from the kids. It happens.
These are the established acts that most music fans already know about. Required viewing at a festival, and worth a night out when they are playing in your town. If you don't have any of their music in your collection, you should.
De La Soul
A full band of great musicians plus De La Soul equals great. Everyone waved their hands around in the air, yelled when they told us to, and showed them that one side of the crowd was better than the other. (Or maybe it is the people in the front? Or the beer garden? The ladies? The fellas?) Everyone was willing to be manipulated by these demands. Playing old and new songs, they got the place jumping...literally. My personal favorite, "Me Myself and I," was great to hear, and "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)" made me want to change my outgoing voice mail message.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
If you have been to a festival this summer, you have seen these guys. They are always satisfying, and their new album, It's Blitz!, adds a great dimension to their show. What was most interesting about their set was the way that the crazy weather added to their performance. The weather shifted from rainy to sunny and back again several times during their set, and it almost seemed choreographed with the music. That Karen O can do anything.
Michael Franti & Spearhead
He always makes me dance. I love the way he changes songs around, though I am a little disappointed I have not heard any songs from the Stay Human album for a couple years now. With a guest appearance from Jason Mraz and talk of their poppiest song ("Say Hey (I Love You)") breaking the Top 40 from their most recent album...well, I hope that doesn't signal what is to come. But, it's hard to be a hater of Michael and Spearhead. No matter how cliché things get, the positive vibe and sheer joy for life and music shines through.
Speaking of joyful moments, ending the festival with Modest Mouse turned out to be perfect. It is hard for me to speak with an unbiased cold critical voice here. Modest Mouse is not my favorite band, but they do have some great songs that I love. The Moon and Antarctica is one of my favorite albums, ever. They played all my favorites from that album ("Third Planet," "Gravity Rides Everything," "Dark Center of the Universe," "The Stars Are Projectors," "Paper Thin Walls" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes") in addition to their big, poppy anthems of the past couple years ("Float On," "Dashboard"). I was pretty far from the stage, but all that did was give me room to dance and rock out, unimpeded by those around me. As I walked out of the festival with my friends, I was slightly concerned that perhaps I had given myself whiplash. (I didn't; I've still got the moves.)
ODDS AND ENDS
These are bands I follow whenever I can. Also, a couple stories about my time at Bumbershoot.
Muscular chick rock! Lead singer Rachel Flotard has a strong voice reminiscent of Neko Case (in fact, she played on Neko Case's last couple albums), but the music is straight-up guitar rock. They played their new album straight through (well, with a little stage banter), and it was cool to hear. Turns out this album, Message to Garcia, also features Neko Case on some tracks and is a tribute to Flotard's father, who died of cancer in April.
Hip-hop with a band always makes me happy, and this time out the local Seattle duo had a full band and some dancers doing flips and break dancing on stage. I have seen them several times over the years, and their confidence is improving each time.
Brotherly hip-hop. Watching the interplay between literal brothers reminded me of the Avett Brothers. We, as an audience, are peeking into their family and their relationships. These guys definitely have love for one another, yet also jockey for dominance and attention. For their last song, they invited a bunch of young folks up to the stage, a couple of them only nine or so years old. While they were trying to play it off as cute and cool, I found it a little unsettling. Not to be all curmudgeon-y, but they have too many "f-bombs" and drug references for kids that age. Those Knuxleheads.
Unapologetic disco without detectable irony. They are happy and having fun, though I find their songs a little tiresome, I did dance with my one-year-old during their set, which was pretty special.
I was fortunate to catch Emily Haines and her guitarist play at a top-secret location onsite for the Seattle radio powerhouse KEXP. This was a mellow acoustic set which reminded me of Everything but the Girl's Amplified Heart. Emily had her back to the crowd for most of the show because she was playing the piano most of the time.
However, she led a great sing-along for "Gimme Sympathy"; it gave me chills. (Check it out at KEXP.com.) However, like any mellow sing-along, it is tough to recreate sonically without an array of mics. I like to think I can hear my own voice though.
While these guys were playing, I happened to find myself in front of the stage in a group of people who were dancing up a storm. While the crowd in general was sort of dancing, I had stumbled upon the group that was totally getting down. The interesting thing there is that this is not exactly dance music. This Seattle-based trio has a following in town, and some of their indie folk rock songs can make you wiggle. However, this was a special dance party I crashed: It was the "hippie guy" and his little crew. At Seattle festivals, there are a number of characters, like Scarfman and his unsettling sidekick, The Zombie (who I didn't see this year, unfortunately, so that is a story for another day).
Well, Hippieguy is a grey haired, bearded guy with a floppy hat wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt always dancing in the middle of a little dance party in front of a stage with his similarly aged hippie friends and some drunk college kids. His crazy dancing is what makes him unique, though. He capers around, flailing his arms and making crazy eyes at anyone around. Since I was part of his little dance party, I got an up close look. I even made eye contact with him several times and laughed loud, which seemed to break his intense hippie spell, causing him to laugh, too.
This is what live music is all about: community. People who worship at the altar of music don't care about the weather; they just throw on the layers and raincoats and get to where the music is playing. They dance, they sing, they high-five each other, and they gently pass the crowd surfers over their heads. | Tony Van Zeyl
Photos by Lorie Betelyoun
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