Written by Tony Van Zeyl Friday, 12 September 2008 03:52
For the first time ever, the Hokey Pokey actually worked for me. I enjoyed spinning myself around and I really understood what it was all about.
Festival-Going With Kids in Tow
Neko Case strode onto the stage and into the sun. With the reverb nice and high, she sang her heart out for 75 minutes. She bantered with the crowd here and there, but with a surprising lack of confidence. She kept apologizing for being in the sun, maintaining her music should be in the dark, and only after a couple of drinks. Hey Neko, it's cool outside during the day, too. Didn't you see me during the gospel stomp "John Saw That Number" with my arms up to the blueish, partly cloudy skies? Didn't you see me swaying during "Widows Toast" with my 13-week-old son strapped to me? Or when, during your cover of Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," our two-year-old daughter made friends and toddler danced with another little kid?
Then she mentioned that she was nervous because she was playing on the Main Stage at a festival she used to attend as a little girl. This is a homecoming for her, and many of the acts that play at various levels of this annual Seattle festival (since 1971!). She was playing on the same stage that would later in the day host legends like Lucinda Williams and Beck; and later in the weekend, (self proclaimed) King of the South T.I., a reformed Stone Temple Pilots, local (and now national) heroes Death Cab for Cutie and the Offspring. This is only a sample of the main stage lineup; there are seven other stages with equal diversity.
Bumbershoot is definitely not about keeping 'em separated; it is about finding where it's at. How can you check out the show with the two turntables and a microphone, and still make it over to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet, which is standing room only every year? But it is not just the diverse selection of art and entertainment making this long running festival unique; it's also the collection of people who are smashed together (and with the crowds on a sunny day, that is pretty literal). The pre-teens who were dropped off by their parents in the minivan to see pop-rockers Paramore on the Main Stage are having a very different day than that middle aged couple in the tight black jeans openly grinding to the sultry Latin jazz of Pacifika on one of the smaller stages.
Music festivals are all over the place now. With rising concert prices everywhere, they seem like the best way to maximize your exposure to new live music. For example, Bumbershoot costs $100 for a three-day pass. Big rock shows are $40 to 80-plus, depending on the seats; midsized club shows are $20 to 40. At Bumbershoot, if you're intense about it, you can see up to 10 shows each day; that's 30 shows for the whole weekend of Bumberfreak, breaking down to $4 per concert. Great value for any music fan.
Plus, there are three comedy stages with stand-up and sketch comedy; one literary arts stage with poetry readings, lectures and panels; one performing arts and one theater stage with a mess of eclectic performances (i.e., Reefer Madness! The Musical, a burlesque show, modern dance); and a carnival-like outdoor atmosphere including buskers, performance art, acrobats and a giant half pipe...not to mention the extensive exhibits of visual art, such as posters and photography. That's great value for any fan of culture.
Certainly, there are downsides: overstimulating crowds, unpredictable sound quality, short performances, long expensive beer lines, temperature shifts of 20 to 30 degrees, the threat or reality of rain, and frustrating scheduling conflicts. For example, this year they had scheduled !!! (that's Chk-chk-chk to you) at the same time as Beck at the same time as M. Ward.
Even so, no one gets the beauty of this better than a music geek (I mean, aficionado). The planning is a big part of the fun -- working the schedule, thinking about how to save money on food, figuring out what gear to bring, studying up on what to see....well, it's musical heaven.
The generation that grew up with Lollapalooza and HORDE fest (is that Gen X?) has started having babies. Hell, even Bonnaroo has been going for six years now. The teenage and college party will always have a place at the outdoor festival, but at some point the party gets a little old, and the music remains. Kids are had...and the show still goes on. There are only so many places a kid can experience live music, and an outdoor festival is perfect.
Any music fan with kids knows that Baby Mozart and Elmo are only a small part of a child's aural landscape (if at all). It is a game to get them to request music that young'uns in previous generations would not, and sometimes should not, know about. I know a four- and six-year-old who can sing every word to "Tribulations" by LCD Soundsystem. Our toddler, Daisy, knows the difference between Death Cab for Cutie and Cloud Cult. She breaks music down into "gentle rock," "dance rock" and "rock out"; sometimes we combine them for songs that are hard to pin down. There are movements for each style, too: swaying for gentle rock, pointing and jumping for dance rock, and fist shaking for rock out.
In that spirit, let's examine the festival experience with a family (see Jim Mancini's article for a solo perspective). The music is still important, but so is finding a comfortable place for my wife to nurse our baby Riley, wearing industrial-strength ear protectors (see: the guys on the airport runway), and keeping a toddler happy and cooperative.
After Neko Case, we used our stroller like a mighty scythe to part the dense afternoon crowd. We were off to check out the Asylum Street Spankers, an old timey band outta Austin, Texas, who played three shows on Saturday: live on the secret KEXP stage at noon, a smaller-stage kids' show, and an adult show at a midsized stage. We were seeing their kid show which would not include songs like "Shave Em Dry," "Scrotum" or "Hick Hop" (a country western murder ballad/gangsta rap combo).
The Spankers, as they are known to their fans, were decked out in casual attire that would fit comfortably both in a carnival sideshow and a hipster hangout in any modern city. Their music matched this look, as they played both vaudevillian ragtime jazz on songs like "Training Wheel Rag" or "Everybody Loves My Baby" and punk on "Mommy Says No!"
Kids love the music and comedy on the lounge croon of "Boogers," but like a Pixar film, there are lots of adult jokes that go right over their heads, such as the nostalgic description of a thermos in my personal favorite the blues tinged rock "You Only Love Me for My Lunchbox": "Batman on a skateboard, Ren & Stimpy in the sky/ telletubbies playin' poker with the Space Ghost guy." It goes on with more pop culture references.
Like all kids' music these days, this band is not just making jokes or teaching a lesson; they have musical chops. They are also entertainers. Sometimes it is a little too much: They closed with the Hokey Pokey, for god's sake. However, for the first time ever, the Hokey Pokey actually worked for me. I enjoyed spinning myself around and I really understood what it was all about. They went from putting in typical body parts to your epidermis and subconscious.
After this show, we traveled across the festival grounds to see Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. Singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen's energetic performance and rhythm guitar work overshadowed her band members. She is a great example of someone whose recorded work does not accurately represent her potential.
We were off to a special "secret" stage sponsored by local and internet powerhouse KEXP. This radio station is commercial free and listener powered (meaning its budget is fueled by donations from listeners). We were getting a chance to see !!!. It was a little odd to see the crowd all sitting, since the band's dance-tinged indie rock is really heavy on the dance. However, they were recording the show live on the radio, and them's the rules. I was surprised that they allowed us in, since we had a toddler and an infant. Everything went smoothly for us, though we were a little stressed about potential crying from the infant.
!!! were a fascinating band to see live. The lead singer was a lanky man in short shorts whose legs, pelvis and arms flailed wildly to the rhythms throughout their set. While the dancing was pretty zany, he took it very seriously, never cracking a smile and putting everything he had into every movement. They played mostly new material, since they were saving their "hits" for their nighttime show at one of the outdoor stages. The rest of the band was exciting to watch as well, including a tambourine-shaking female vocalist with a powerful voice, and the rest of the band playing keyboards, various percussive instruments, guitar and samples.
Back outside, we met up with friends and spent some leisurely time getting a beer (beer gardens split up families!) with the Walkmen in the background. We were not in the mood for the aggro indie rock of Walkmen just then, though it was nice to hear "The Rat." Our plan had been to go to the main stage to see Band of Horses (they have a song called "Saint Augustine" which is one of our toddler's favorites). However, we were convinced to check out Man Man, who was described by a friend as "playing music without pauses using an insane amount of random instruments."
Man Man turned out to be my favorite of the weekend. It was just getting dark; the infant was in dreamland strapped to my chest, and our toddler was very interested in what was happening up on stage. Several men in white T-shirts and much facial hair were banging a variety of instruments including kettles, drums and assorted objects. Toy horns and noisemakers would appear and disappear. The singer shouted out tunes in a Tom Waits voice about...well, I wasn't really following the lyrics. There were waves and waves of music that relentlessly washed over me. Songs would build and then spill into quiet moments. The music slowed, but never stopped for 60 minutes.
Until this point, having the kids at the festival was not much of a problem. It certainly slowed us down; we usually flit from one stage to another, never seeing a whole set. Living in that constant state of transition is too much for the little ones, so we usually found good places to lay down the blanket and then hung out.
As we closed in on 8:30, the toddler was becoming demanding and her attention was getting unpredictable. It was getting dark. She would shift her attention from dancing to the band to wanting to take a tour of the Dell tent (still in earshot of Man Man), which included a ping-pong table, Internet access and hairdressing. None of that was going on while we walked around; they had all closed up shop. It was just a bunch of people hanging out, chatting and looking up things on the Internet. I only wanted to dance, but she was still pretty fun to be around, as long as I didn't try and force her to do my bidding.
Our plan had been for one of us to go home with the kids and one of us to go see Beck with friends. Even with the attention issues of Daisy at this point, we felt that, since we would have seats for the main stage (thanks to the press passes), the stage show would keep her glued to her seat. This seemed like a good idea at the time.
Things got off to a rocky start, with several minutes spent trying to figure out where to stow the stroller. Suddenly, nursing turned into a challenge for the infant; big earphone hearing protectors made that pretty complicated. When the show started, Daisy was as fascinated with the stage show as we had predicted; there were lights everywhere, and from our seats, we could see the whole crowd in front of the stage going crazy for every song.
As with any Beck show, you never really know what you will see and hear, except that it will be different from a previous tour. He opened with a blues-rock version of "Loser," and this loud blues-rock remained the style for what we were able to see. It was exciting to hear Beck music like this, because it was so different than what you would expect.
However, this volume and energy was too much for the infant. We had to pull out of the show about 20 minutes into it, much to the dismay of Daisy (and Mommy and Daddy). Retrieving the stroller was an adventure, as we had to wade into the crowd near the first aid tent to get it. Once we were out of there, things calmed down quickly, and the kids were asleep by the time we got home.
It hurt a little that we were only able to see a few minutes of the artist that we wanted to see the most, but those are the sacrifices one makes with kids.
We let the kids rest most of the day and did not make it to the festival until the evening. It helped that there were not any standout, must-see bands for us. Usually, that is when I discover unpredictable musical gems, which is why I spent the day pining quietly for Bumbershoot. It didn't help that the weather, which had been forecasted as cold and rainy, turned out to be perfect.
When we arrived, Daisy was given the opportunity to ride some of the carnival rides that are permanently located on the Seattle Center grounds. Some of these rides are sketchy, but they have a carousel, toddler bumper cars, and cars on a track and go around in a circle. It would have been nice to see some music, but again, sacrifices must be made to keep the kids happy. Eventually, we were able to check out Pacifika, a mellow Latina jazz band that got many people grooving to their sultry rhythms.
After the failed attempt at the main stage with Beck, we did not even attempt The Black Keys or Stone Temple Pilots. I wanted to see Brother Ali, a rapper with a positive message and strong beats from the Rhymesayer label, but there were going to be too many F-bombs in that show for the toddler. We considered the indie rock of Tapes n' Tapes or the reggae dance hall pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry, but instead we stumbled upon female singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson.
As soon I heard her singing, I thought "this sounds like someone who has songs on Grey's Anatomy." Turns out, that's accurate. Her voice was crisp and clear, and her songs were not bad, just a little "vanilla" for me. The good thing was that her band (consisting of two or three other women at one time or another) was good, and that they were all attractive. She played the guitar, piano and ukulele, and the ukulele is always intriguing. She chatted in between every song, sharing anecdotes and self-deprecating humor. While these are all ingredients that I usually despise, for some reason I was into it.
Michaelson's chattiness was refreshing, rather than irritating. She seemed to truly enjoy being on stage, and talked to the crowd as if we were one of her girlfriends. The crowd devoured this enthusiasm by spontaneously singing along to some songs, and following her directions for others (she led the crowd in an a capella version of the intro from the early '90s cheese single "I Wanna Sex You Up.").
My personal highlight was her version of Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." This is one of Daisy's favorite songs (and one that we sing almost every day before bed), and blew her mind a little bit. It was the perfect way for us to end on a high note for the day, and get ready for the final day.
Again, we took our time getting to Bumbershoot today, missing the first several hours. We arrived in time to see Langhorne Slim and the War Eagles. This bluesy folk trio put out a bigger sound than their instrumentation should allow. There were brushes on the drums, the standup bass was being bowed, and the guitar work seemed to be standard (initially). However, the songs told some amazing stories with humor that would sneak up on you (for example, the song "Mary" about having the hots for Jesus' mother). Occasionally, a quiet country tinged song would break into a full on sonic assault. This whole show was an unexpected treat.
Next, we went inside to see electronic genius Dan Deacon, who has been getting a great deal of positive attention for his legendary and unique live shows. There were far fewer people in the crowd than I would have expected, but I figured it would fill out as the show progressed.
Deacon decided that, since we were playing in the daytime, he wanted the house lights on. He stood in the middle of the floor, off the stage, with the crowd packed in tightly around him. As soon as he launched into the first song, several rows of people encircling him went crazy, jumping up and down to the aggressive electronic beats that he crafted. This went on for several songs, with his purposely distorted vocals shouted over all of the songs.
Those who were not immediately around him, though, did not seem to be affected by the energy. Daisy took several books and sat against the wall, ignoring the crowd and jumping people in the center of the room. Amazingly, Deacon sensed the distance that existed in the room and directed people to move back. Then he facilitated a competition between two sides of the room, the "triangles" on one side and the "circles" on the other. There was a dance competition and a race down the length of the room, with his music as the background. Since the room was a hall, it was impossible to see unless the action was directly in front of you. This resulted in a disappointing show for most. After trying it out for about 30 minutes, we decided to get some culture by heading over to check out the ballet.
We spent over an hour trying to figure out where it was playing, thanks to a misread map, a crowded festival, unhelpful festival staff and our own indecision. By the time we got there there were no seats, and my wife needed to nurse, which is a little challenging to do while standing.
Instead, we headed over to grab some food and get a good spot to see the Old 97's. This band is a strange one for me. When I listen to one of their albums in its entirety, their alt-country rock runs together a bit. However, as it comes up in the shuffle on the iPod, I always sing along and never get tired of hearing it.
Musically, their live show was equally unremarkable. The songs began to run together by the end of their set. Lead singer Rhett Miller, sporting blonde highlights in longish brown hair, looks a little too "Hollywood" for what is intended to be a working-class band from Austin. However, onstage, he provides the energy and charisma that really carries this band. It turned out to be a great ending to our Bumbershoot experience: a danceable band whose songs we knew well enough to sing.
It was with a heavy heart that this was our last band, since there were many other acts we wanted to see, most notably Death Cab for Cutie. However, the responsibility of being a parent kept rearing its ugly head. We talked ourselves into being OK with the three other times we had seen Death Cab. It was 8 p.m., and we needed to get the kids in bed before things took a turn for the frustrating. When I was putting Daisy to bed, I let it slip that I was sad we didn't see Death Cab for Cutie or Mike Doughty (former lead singer of Soul Coughing, and another of Daisy's favorites). She thought for a minute and said "That's OK, we can listen to their songs before bed on the ‘nigh nigh CD'" (a CD of mellow tunes we rock her to sleep with before bed each night).
Overall, this was a positive experience. We were able to provide our toddler with exciting musical memories. Since we went, she has taken note of Neko Case whenever she is mentioned. Now, when she sees a picture of the Space Needle, she talks about Bumbershoot. She will randomly (and often incorrectly) say that a song on the radio was someone that we saw at Bumbershoot. The point is, she connects recorded music with live music and is excited about future concert experiences. We saw lots of kids with their parents over the weekend, and it is exciting to think that the odds are good that someday a few of them will return to the festival as an artist, as is the case with Neko Case.
As far as my wife and I, since Bumbershoot, getting things together to go to the park or visit friends seem really simple. The logistics of keeping the kids and us happy for three days at a festival was pretty complicated, but we pulled it off. We will try and do it again next year, and I highly recommend it to any music fan. The way to make it perfect, though? Get a babysitter for the evening shows. | Tony Van Zeyl
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