Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
Rather than bore you with an individual breakdown of each day and my wanderings, I figured it'd be best to highlight some of the best bands of the three-day Labor Day institution. Bumbershoot is full of minutia, and the last thing anyone needs is a three-part article focusing on my fascination with how young kids dress like their belief system is straight out of an '80s teen movie or on how a high school kid caught me off guard while offering me a selection of 12, 13, and 14 year old girls. If I weren't in such a haze, I certainly would have responded with my usual "How much for the women?" but walking back and forth throughout Seattle Center's concrete jungle saps one's impromptu abilities. This lack of motor skills cost me my shining moment when I happened to pass by the likes of Greg Propps and The Gourds' Kevin Russell as I made my way from stop to stop.
Yes, Bumbershoot is really the place where gonzo Austin country artists, former TV personalities, and jaded teenagers eagerly awaiting their wristbands to see Panic at the Disco and Fergie intermingle with ease. As with most festivals, Bumbershoot is a microcosm of Seattle; the haves and have nots chatting up alligator on a stick as old ladies out for a good time dance to the Latin and Caribbean rhythms emanating from stage(s) unknown. Last year it wore me down, and I loathed every aspect of the festival, but this year I came better prepared to handle (and expect) the worst -- and other than how they handle the comedy stages, the staff and volunteers went above and beyond this year to make sure everyone had plenty to see and do.
When I decided to undertake Bumbershoot once again, I was a little apprehensive as I checked out the lineups. There wasn't much meat to sink my teeth in, but I slipped on my journalistic demeanor and decided that I would hunt for the good bands. It didn't take long for the allure of checking out nostalgia act Crowded House to grab me and drag me off to the main stage. I've been a fan of Neil Finn's solo work, but I was hesitant to check out his '80s incarnation for fear they'd sound stuck in a period I was happy to forget. But lo and behold, Crowded House sound like a band that has grown with the changing pop landscape. Other than the dreamy acoustic pop of "Don't Dream It's Over," many of the band's older tracks had an updated sound that played well to the young and not-so-young alike.
Soon after, I made way for the Starbucks Stage (hey, it's Seattle -- who else do you think would sponsor a stage?) to check out Magnolia Electric Company. Sadly, Molina found it easiest to play ballads to an early afternoon crowd more intent on soaking up the sun than on hearing him go for broke with his best Neil Young impression. He was killing my high with the mundane, so I ran across the center to catch The Cave Singers. The local trio, whose Matador debut is gaining a bit of buzz, stole what was left of my breath. Though the guys claim to be folk-ignorant, their tunes are so infused with the blood of the dust-bowl migrants and rail riders it's a wonder they didn't ditch their punk roots ages ago. I would have stayed for the entire set if I didn't have a prior engagement with the KEXP Music Lounge to catch an early performance of The Gourds. After some initial soundcheck problems, the Austin quintet tore the house down with their blend of bluegrass, country rock, and interpretive rap (in other words, they played “Gin and Juice”).
After the early adventures of joys of Saturday, many of the performances began to blend together. While I can tell the difference between the classic rock riffage of Iceage Cobra and the lounge jazz of Victor Noriega (Trio + 2), none of it bowled me over. Bumbershoot certainly had a dearth of talent, and there were very few acts that left me speechless. Menomena's act was riddled with bad sound and even worse pacing; The Watson Twins were a nice Sunday afternoon treat, but other than two beautiful women, there wasn't much soul to be found in their Kentucky brand of country and blues. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club slept their way through a set, and the likes of Kings of Leon and The Shins were as bland as their detractors claim. Those acts that did step up, however, turned in some of the best performances I have witnessed.
One of these highlights came in the form of Tibetan chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo. Her calm, collected demeanor was an unusual site for most of the audience. As she praised togetherness and preached against confusion, hoards of people would leave their seats as even more would apprehensively make their way closer to the stage. Yungchen had an allure that is unexplainable, and though she couldn't coax the crowd to join her in song or sit upon the stage for shade, she had them eating out of her palm with her beautiful voice and glowing aura.
Monday's only highlight (note that I was too sick to stay for Steve Earle and Wu-Tang -- both I have seen before and know to be tip-top) was Smoosh. At the time, the sisterly duo was joined by youngest sis Maia on bass, and though this wasn't the best Smoosh could offer, they're always a pleasure to watch because they remind many of us that music isn't to be taken as seriously as it is. But the festival's best act backs up this thought in spades: Art Brut.
Yes, I said it. I couldn't give two shits about Art Brut until I watched them tear Bumbershoot apart limb from limb. Their performance was energetic, kinetic, and electric. As they won over fan after fan (myself included), I couldn't help but wonder what it was that I was missing prior to this. Maybe it was actually watching the band live the brand, but more so I found myself realizing that Art Brut is just fun. There was a time when music was fun and the messages behind it were nothing more than anthems of good times and social revolution at the tiniest degree (such as the band's cry for actual albums in records store, not DVDs and video games). Art Brut may be Brian Eno's and Andy Warhol's wettest dream, but we shouldn't hold that against them. Never have I misjudged a band as I have Art Brut.
And perhaps that's the meaning behind Bumbershoot. Last year, I misjudged the festival, and though I didn't take the sage advice of a reader e-mail I received last year (“Take more drugs!”), I still found the high that is dragging oneself through thousands of people just to hear music, to see a band you may never see again or to discover a band you'll fall in love with for the rest of your life. Festivals may be the ultimate buffet, and you may be weary of who didn't wash their hands or who ducked under the sneeze guard while selecting your items, but sometimes throwing caution to the wind produces the best results. Bumbershoot won me over, even if the rampaging, teenaged crowds never will.