The annual Seattle headache -- lovingly known as Bumbershoot -- once again swept into town Labor Day weekend, swallowing up Seattle Center and its many tourist traps in parades of teenage fashion plates, street performers, and wandering journalists looking for the next big thing. In all fairness to the Bumbershoot grand tradition, this year's festivities produced a healthy share of memorable moments and performances, not to mention a few celebrity sightings for this intrepid -- yet soaked -- reporter.
Rather than bog you down in the minutia of day-to-day details of the Labor Day weekend festivities, it would be better to just countdown the best and worst of Bumbershoot 2009. Skimming over fine performances from the likes of Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, Eleni Mandell, Cordero, The Cave Singers, and No Age seems like a crime, but there are bigger issues to address and not-so-veiled insults to lob.
The Best of Bumbershoot
- Katy Perry Surprisingly, Katy Perry was a refreshing performer. It's easy for those of us caught up in indie revelry and hipster doom-and-gloom to glower at a pop-rock act as flashy as Ms. Perry, but the preacher's daughter does more than just shake her ass and jiggle her ample bosoms for awkward teenage boys. Granted, there isn't much substance to her 3-minute pre-fab chart toppers, but it's hard to imagine Perry out of place in the 1990s alt-landscape littered with corporate manufactured rock acts. The crowd, of course overflowing with women, was in awe of Perry's open and unaffected attitude, and while Britney and Paris set bad examples with a lack of talent mistaken as beauty and grace, Perry can competently strum a guitar and put away her saucy side for a glimmer of recognizable talent. If you need a comparison to Perry's attitude, think of a brighter Courtney Love with touchable skin and a discernable lack of cocaine nose.
- Hotels Love may tear us apart again, but in the hands of Hotels the thought that heartbreak is just a wrist-slash away doesn't seem so moribund. Replacing the maudlin poses of Ian Curtis with a bit (and I stress, just a bit) of happiness, the four-piece known as Hotels gave the demure sounds of Joy Division a slight angular upgrade and a dash of panache. Surrounded by the harsh glow of EMP|SFM's purple-and-blue light show and the haze of dust and body heat, the Hotels produced a cool all their own. They were an early highlight on Saturday—a day not short of spectacular showcases.
- The Honey Brothers Thanks to a famous drummer (Adrian Grenier) and an appearance on Planet Green, The Honey Brothers were able to draw a bit of crowd at the ever-fluctuating Starbucks Stage. Running through bar rock with the aid of ukuleles, mandolins, banjoes and guitars, The Honey Brothers supersede their pretty-boy superstar drummer in favor of delivering the sort of drunken anthems that will have filthy football hooligans and sorority sisters dressed to the nines and swaying in tipsy unison.
- Melvin Van Peebles The producer/director/writer/author/Wall Street magnate held an ever-growing crowd in the palm of his hand as he spoke about his classic films that burst down the iron-clad gates for minorities and women (Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song), his work in and outside of the film industry and its many unions and institutions, and the tales that have made Melvin Van Peebles grow from folk hero to mythical Man.
- Os Mutantes The band's set in the KEXP Music Lounge was a fantastic surprise, not because the Brazilian psych popsters weren't expected to entertain but because of the ease with which their blend of styles both South American and North American translated to an audience of all ages. Sadly, the greatest part of their radio performance wasn't captured for any ears but those in the room, when the band jammed out to song after song playing on the radio before their performance.
- Sera Cahoone I was lucky enough to chat up Sera Cahoone before her show. While that may lend a bit of favoritism to this assessment, there's no denying her set was notable amid a hard-blowin' wind and the festival's first substantial downpour. Because we talked about Merle Haggard and Buck Owens during our brief interview, I was expecting an upbeat show despite Cahoone's penchant for the darker side of country and folk, but the uproarious weather imbued Cahoone's show with a swagger and menacing shadow like the ghost of The Highwaymen (well, Willie and Kris are still kickin') riding into town to drink up the booze and make love to the women.
- Gang Gang Dance Saturday's slate, on paper, made it seem like the weakest of the line-up, but by the time Gang Gang Dance ran off a slew of scenesters while making fans out of masses of stunned youth, Saturday looked like the strongest day Bumbershoot had to offer. GGD was stuck at the Canadian border earlier in the day, missing their slot in KEXP's Music Lounge, but that pent up energy and frustration was unleashed at their regular festival slot within Exhibition Hall. A crowd fueled by free energy drinks was met with a band at the top of its game. Of course, Liz Bougatsos was the featured event, channeling Sheila E's finesse and mixing it with her own ferocity. The band's melody rang out like shot-up new-age jams; as if Enya was high on all of Sid Vicious' junk. The show was an hour of non-stop dance, with the only disappointment being found in a room of teenagers dressed like their favorite '80s pop stars unwilling to cut loose and dance along with Bougatsos and the rest of Gang Gang Dance. The set was one of the brightest moments of Bumbershoot…
- Akron/Family …And then Monday brought along Akron/Family, whose performances are the stuff of legends. Both of the band's shows — their KEXP Music Lounge appearance as well as their regular slot — were festival stealers. The festival audience, exhausted after three days of walking up and down Seattle Center's lawns and sidewalks, found a natural pick-me-up with the genuine enthusiasm of Miles, Seth and Dana. The same enthusiasm was found in the more intimate Music Lounge performance, though the crowd was unsure how to handle the noisier aspects of the music. Akron/Family's blend of folk, rock and abstract sound has always equated unrivaled bliss, and the tracks of Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free are no different — be it on plastic or in person. The vocals sparkled, the melodies were tight and yet the threesome are always able to coax every ounce of surprise from their regulated sets. They are the perfect festival act because no matter the audience and no matter the setting, they will make a fan out of any open-minded music lover.
The Worst of Bumbershoot
- Visqueen The aptly named Visqueen strutted on stage as a Monday deluge drenched the weary Bumbershoot crowd. Sadly, Rachel Flotard seemed equally blurry-eyed as the dry stage housed a dry performance. The four-piece slowly swayed through '90s knock-off after knock-off, which is shame for a band that is known as one of the Pacific Northwest's most blazing outfits. Consider it an off day, because Flotard promised the sopping wet masses electrolysis and all we got was a slight singe.
- The Yeah Yeah Yeahs The Yeah Yeah Yeahs found themselves slotted in the bad half of the Bumbershoot weekend not due to any shortcomings from Zinner or Chase but that of Karen O, who acted as if it was all one big joke. Karen is always full of daring spunk and it immediately draws eyes to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but even as I smiled a Cheshire grin knowing that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had a crowd that dwarfed many of the so-called mainstream acts that graced the mainstage during the day, I knew something was off. Karen O seemed content to just dance, donned in a colorful sheet. The vocals were scattered, rambling and out of focus. In trying to deliver a performance, Karen forgot that the music is a large part of the equation.
- Parenthetical Girls This was a real disappointment considering (((GRRRLS))) almost always deliver a Grade A show, but the band was more concerned at poking fun at themselves and Blink-182 (who will be headlining a radio festival later this month outside Seattle). The crowd was willing but the parenthetical flesh was weak.
- Mayer Hawthrone and The County Packing the same irony as [Jon Spencer's] Blues Explosion, Mayer Hawthrone's best impression of Buddy Holly's looks and Motown's Soul was a colossal failure. Where Spencer and his cronies are always biting firmly on their tongues, Hawthrone's Gryffindor outfit and liberal use of jive talk wasn't sincere enough to warrant undivided attention. A tight band can't make up for a slack motherfucker.
- Natalie Portman's Shave Head Speaking of irony, I get it — spandex, hypercolor and bicycle shorts are back in a big way for rave-pop. Sadly, Seattle already has one terrible '80s synth dance knock-off (the dreadful U.S.E), and while NPSH may house a slightly larger contingent thanks to a modicum of indie blog success, their show was steeped in sluggish attitudes — from both band and crowd — and a sense of irony so overflowing the Bumbershoot wanderers were more likely to be drenched from it than from the downpours that plagued Seattle Center intermittently all weekend.