This year’s Bumbershoot gave me a shimmering tear of nostalgia. Covering a festival for as many years as I have, I’ve watched the Labor Day happening reinvent itself as a demographic expanded and an economy collapsed. Last year’s festival ignored consumer price points in favor of excess, stocking stages with bursts of musical and comedic energy. This year, despite the addition of a stage to the Seattle Center grounds, the mediocre economy became the true mantra of Bumbershoot. Two tiers of ticket pricing became the buzz pre-fest, as people had the option of a nearly half-price ticket that eliminated the craziness of waiting in long lines for special entry into the mainstage. Yet the demand for the newly scaled-down mainstage was as palpable as ever. The number of acts was scaled down in favor of longer sets, allowing less of the rushed festival atmosphere and more leisure time to spend the “last” weekend of summer.
Splitting the festival up by day would only create a boring read, so enjoy the tried and true tradition of the best and the worst of Bumbershoot presented in a nice, neat package.
The Center Square Stage The newest addition to Bumbershoot, the Center Square stage — oddly placed just outside of EMP and the mainstage — caused not only its share of pedestrian traffic jams but stains on popular music. Save for a few acts, Center Square played host to those pre-teen bands that beg, borrow, and steal from the last 50 years of music without so much as an acknowledgement of their predecessors (save for Idiot Pilot, who lived up to their disastrous moniker with a worthless cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock.”). Even if you chalk my criticism up to me being too old to appreciate modern angst, the Center Square was hard-pressed to produce anything other than the robotic drek of modern rock radio.
Hey Marseilles Oh hey, did you know that The Decemberists (who also happened to perform at this year’s Bumbershoot) gave birth to a local Seattle buzz band just as painful as they are? Cut the umbilical cord and slap the baby known as Hey Marseilles. Technically, the band is tight, and it seems cheap to take a pot shot at them, but their sound is a clichéd mess and that it’s taken this long for period-piece dirges to spread and infect perfectly able musicians is a testament to indie’s fighting spirit. Hey Marseilles may as well have played one long song, as their set was stuck on one note for much of their allotted hour.
The Lonely H It burns to pick on Seattle locals yet again but The Lonely H are as generic as the indie rock they purport to play. No emotion in their music, no connection to their audience, and not a lick of originality to be found. If you’re going to stay put, at least stare at your shoes — maybe people will take notice.
Rise Against Rise Against are such an easy target, but my gripe is not so much about the band’s bland rock but about their attitude toward their sound. The band were apologetic about being on the mainstage, as if to hint that their over-the-top sound was an underground production rather than a stab at popularity and radio airplay. No one faults a band for reaching for the brass ring, but don’t be coy when your goal is achieved. Rise Against were always programmed for mainstream rock, and to deny it in front of an audience is silly. So are those clothes.
Fences We get it, Chris Mansfield is the tortured musician. His melodramatic delivery amidst a band clad in plastic animal masks and flesh dressed in tattoos may or may not be proof of Mansfield’s tortured soul, but boring is boring, and clichéd is clichéd. Fences — a buzzed-about Seattle band — are nothing more than that: public-relations buzz and image maintenance. The live show doesn’t parallel the somber tones of Mansfield’s tunes, and frankly, how is it still possible to trot out tongue-in-cheek gimmicks such as masks and members whose sole purpose is to beat on a bass drum? Call Fences an Animal Collective/Dashboard Confessional/Antony mash-up if you must, but know it’s the worst each has to offer. It proved an off year for local bands but Fences took the shit crown.
Billy Bragg It seems this should go unspoken. Bragg is all that’s left of punk’s beginnings. Still loyal to the Woody Guthrie ethic of sticking it to the man, no matter where he looms on our globe, Bragg only needs two guitars and an audience. Not only did Bragg deliver to a huge crowd, packed like sardines on the tiny lawn that lined the Mural Amphitheater’s Starbucks Stage, he was gleefully singing along to every lyric and laughing at every tale. Bragg poked fun at his voice while mocking Madonna, infused his spiel about drinking tea on a Starbucks-sponsored stage in the heart of Seattle with a quick jab at the emerging American Tea Party (“I’d be mad if I had to drink American tea as well”), and generally turned songs of depression, anger, and revolt into uplifting words in a time of economic desperation. It takes talent to sing songs that speak vividly about the audience’s daily plight and keep them entertained. It’s Bragg’s unique brand of talent and likely his alone.
Greg Kot & Jim DeRogatis Perhaps the last two remaining critics that maintain cache across all sectors of music, Kot and DeRogatis pledged allegiance to the changing music scene, the battle for net neutrality, and expressed weariness at the legitimacy of blogs and websites that house musical festivals and run micro labels. It’s easy to believe both are out of touch considering their frequent subjects (Wilco, The Flaming Lips, the “hip” NPR crowd), but in deep exchanges with the audience (my warbling self included), Kot and DeRogatis blanaced their love of ’80s and ’90s indie with the current changing of the guard. Kot’s forthright comments closing the discussion, encouraging the crowd to fight for net neutrality and ignore those who cry about the dearth of good music being produced. Music nerds were given more than an hour to opine, and Kot and DeRogatis provided the soapbox.
Plants and Animals The Montreal three-piece were tucked on a stage in an early afternoon slot on the fest’s first day and delivered a set full of energy without overdoing it. More importantly, with Montreal eating up plenty of space on music blogs and webzines, Plants and Animals are distinctly non-Quebec in their style — perhaps more akin to the Vancouver indie sound rather than the pomp of Montreal. Plants and Animals may seem like nothing special, but a workmanlike attitude and being good at what you do goes a long way.
Atlas Sound Bradford Cox truly stuck to his solo shtick, armed with an acoustic guitar, looping pedals, and ill-fitting clothes. There isn’t much to dissect considering Cox kept the set lean and clean. It was mesmerizing and sadly, over before anyone was ready for it to end.
HEALTH One of the few exceptions to station themselves at the Center Square stage, HEALTH was nothing but pulsating noise and unending energy. The photographers in the pit never relented from snapping pictures, while much of the crowd stood in awe at the abrasive show they were witnessing; the other half, completely ready to join in the fray.
Justin Townes Earle Admit it, Justin is just as cool as his daddy. GQ articles and fashion spreads aside, Earle is truly linked to the classic shades of country and folk all done with modern rockabilly sheen. Bumbershoot is a festival of strange demographics intermingling about the Seattle Center grounds, but Earle’s set was the delta where they flowed into a sea of unity.
Hole Earlier in the day, Courtney Love disappointed a room full of journos during a radio session for The End, stumbling through a Q&A (saying she hated Seattle) and covering Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.” The terrible cover (likely done poorly on purpose because it’s Courtney!) aside, Hole’s mainstage slot proved to be the heavy dose of loud rock ‘n’ roll Bumbershoot desperately needed. A solid mix of the new album (yes, some of those songs reek of nothing but sad stabs at getting back on radio) and old favorites, Love gave the crowd what it wanted. Legs on monitors, middle fingers, and a rolodex full of fucks. Listening to Love growl was surprisingly delightful and though this is said with caution, it was the “welcome home” moment that Love wasn’t expecting. No doubt her hatred of Seattle still lingers, but what the crowd didn’t know didn’t hurt them. What may anger her: Billy Bragg’s audience was just as large as hers.