For three days each year, a few blocks on Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington are shut down for four stages of live music, one giant beer garden and all the cream cheese hot dogs you can eat.
Capitol Hill Block PartyCity: Seattle, Washington
It's hot. There was that one day in April when the entire city wore shorts. This would be the second day since then. I'm in the pit at Neumos, one of many local bars within the confines of the Capitol Hill Block Party. The air is sticky and empty cans of Rainier litter the floor. A wall of noise erupts from the stage and Woods close out their set. Some band called Cults play next, followed by Fucked Up. Ghostland Observatory, a Seattle mainstay, close out the main stage. I missed the opening hours of the festival, but the first night looks like it's going to close with a nuclear bang.
I don't care what anyone says about Cults' Clap Your Hands Say Yeah style of meteoric rise to popularity, or about how terrible of a singer Madeline Follin is, or how tinny they sound on stage, because this band is an absolute riot. Follin's a great singer; and as a five piece, Cults are a force on stage. As they hone in on their live sound and produce more music, they're only going to get better.
Minutes before Fucked Up took the stage, I overheard a girl in the crowd say to her friend, "I don't get the whole melodic punk rock thing. It's like they're afraid to play their guitars with any fo--" A three-pronged howl exploded from the stage, interrupting her comment. Melodic or not, Fucked Up are as raw and bloody as any of their forebears. Damian Abraham screamed, ran into the crowd, stripped off his sweater, smashed a plastic bottle against his forehead, stood on one of the bars, stage dove, then ran back on stage and invited Cults singer Madeline Follin to join him for a duet--a punk duet. In the middle of the crowd, a young couple kissed. Out of Neumos side door and about 30 feet away, a fist fight broke out among several people during The Head and the Heart's set. No further proof necessary: punk rock heals.
I could write all day about how great Yuck is. That '90s vibe, those clean guitars, their stompy beats and one super cool chick bassist. But it's all been said before about hundreds of bands actually from the '90s. Yuck are young, they write solid tunes, put on a great no-frills show and their drummer has a giant afro. Hooray for guitars.
About six years ago, KEXP--Seattle's non-profit hip-as-all-get-out radio station--were in love with a band called Ghostland Observatory, and with good reason. Lead singer, Aaron Behrens, is some weird Mic Jagger, Keith Moon, Tommy Lee amalgamation, dancing, strutting and air humping his way across the stage. Sound man, Thomas Turner, dresses in a purple cape and never looks at the audience. Their light show is so intense it makes drugs superfluous. KEXP doesn't show as much love to Ghostland these days, but they continue to put on one of the best live shows in Seattle. Some fans were skeptical if the light show would work in an outdoor setting. The skeptics wore proven wrong.
I've never understood seeing bands outside during the day. The live show's performance and mystery disappears. There's a bunch of gear everywhere, lights are pointless and it's uncomfortably hot. Either way, many bands played in the sunlight and my nostalgia for magical mystery music shows dissipated.
...was boring. I'm not sorry about it either. She needs her backing band. Her guitar sounded great and so did her voice, but every song felt the same; every movement looked pre-programmed; and the crowd stood around bored as Friedberger sounded. She's touring this fall with her band. Here's hoping she packs some variation into those shows.
After playing the Block Party, Handsome Furs apparently traveled east to play a show in Minneapolis. Before breaking into the second song of their flawless set, Dan Boeckner turned to the crowd and asked: "I'm trying to figure out a way to ask this discreetly. Does anyone have any mushrooms?" Laughter ensued, then someone responded with a yes. Here's to hoping their trip through Montana went well. As for their performance at the Capitol Hill Block Party, they were so good I hope Wolf Parade never gets back together.
Another Seattle acoustic-y, folk-y, jammy-y band, Ravenna Woods are a completely DIY three-piece consisting of floor toms, one guitar and exacting use of a xylophone. Guitarist and singer Chris Cunningham does a lot of fingerpicking and intricate guitar work. One would expect him to plant himself firmly in a chair and never look up from the fret board. Wrong. Just wrong, wrong, wrong. Chris Cunningham is such a hurricane on stage, I feared for his band mates' gear. At times it seemed Cunningham was inches from pulverizing drummer Matt Badger's kit. Sweat flew, xylophones tinked and toms boomed. Ravenna Woods just put on the best show of Saturday so far.
To cap off my excitement I purchase two tall boys of Rainier and a hot dog smothered in cream cheese, grilled onions, hoisin, harissa and sauerkraut. Stuffed, I head to the main stage.
In stoned out fashion, Bethany Cosentino and Best Coast took stage and played fuzzy love songs about cats and weed. The sun began setting and the entire main stage crowd smoked a collective bowl. I'm not sure what else to say. Best Coast sound great live, better on a small stage than a big one and have funny banter. There are times when Bethany Cosentino seems a bit too cool for school, but she is so how can I blame her?
Les Savy Fav:
Tim Harrington walked to center stage covered in a gold sequined shawl, microphone pressed to his smothered face. His sing-talked a bunch of indecipherable syllables and removed the shawl to reveal a partially painted face and purple-lensed glasses. At the start of their second song, Harrington grabbed a super-soaker, blasted the crowd and stage dove onto a bunch of unaware kids. I'm sure he squished them. He ran around the crowd, then back on stage. After leaving the press pit, I sat on the sidewalk next to the main stage fence. Les Savy Fav were to my left, apartment buildings to my right. After catching my breath, I looked up to the stage and saw Tim Harrington climbing the fence, microphone in hand. He falls on the sidewalk three feet from me. He then tossed his microphone up to an apartment window and ran to the building's entrance. In what felt like a full-on panic, I ran after him, camera in hand and no idea what I was doing. I arrived at the apartment building entrance and he asked me to unlock the door. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I'm with you." Someone appeared at the entrance, opened the door and Harrington ran up the stairs. The guy who let him in grabbed my shirt and pulled me in, too. The next minute, Tim Harrington is laying out of an apartment window and I'm next to him. I don't remember anything else: some white lights, laughter, screams, more white lights, nervous handshakes.
TV on the Radio:
Are not a festival band. They're brilliant musicians and they play complex, layered music designed for headphones and clubs, not outdoor festivals. They did cover Fugazi, however, and it was exciting to see them tap into their roots. Still, the sound was reprehensible. For a few songs, all I heard were guitars and vocal feedback. In a perfect world, TV on the Radio would have played Neumos.
And the best set of the Capitol Hill Block Party goes to Baths. Hands down. No one sounded better. No one danced harder. No one smiled more. I thought the audience for Baths would be slim at best, considering his time slot next to TV on the Radio. It was packed. That tiny Vera stage was the most alive space on Capitol Saturday night. Will Wiesenfeld has always been an important artist to watch, but seeing him perform places him well above his peers. Flying Lotus reps this kid for a very good reason.
I'm tired. I don't wake up until two in the afternoon. I don't really get moving until close to four. I have two bands on the agenda today: Battles and Explosions in the Sky. Nothing else matters. I'm tired.
I've now seen Battles three times. In 2007, they were a cyborgian Willy Wonka ear-candy explosion; last April, they were rough around the edges, grinding and unsure of themselves; at the Block Party, they were a snarling beast. With Tyondai Braxton out of the band, more music is relegated to samples and loops, which hones in a stronger synchronized sound and removes 25% of the human error factor. John Stanier is still 99% robot (the 1% human is located in his left middle finger: he sliced it open during his extended drum intro). Ian Williams and Dave Konopka have the most intense non-verbal communication this side of Jon Osterman and Walter Kovacs. Battles played a perfect set. Hearing "Atlas" sans Braxton was also a welcome treat.
Explosions in the Sky:
Yeah, I had a lazy Sunday. Almost 48 straight hours of taking photos, writing notes, and talking to press, bands, drunken fans and bouncers will take its toll.
When Explosions in the Sky took the main stage, all gears in the world fell into place. The sun began setting and casted a soft orange glow on the band and the crowd. The temperature dropped from somewhat hot to luke warm and reverb washed over Capitol Hill's ears. This was my first time seeing Explosions in the Sky and they did not disappoint. I'd always imagined their music to be the sound of a future war barely heard over an FM transmitter deep in a cave. Hearing them live only confirmed my imaginations. The swelling guitars and rumbling bass; the caterwaul of drums. The sheer joy reaped from destroying and rebuilding sound. Kudos to the event organizers for closing the Capitol Hill Block Party with Explosions in the Sky.
One final thought
And this is a stab at the Washington State Liquor Control Board: let patrons at festivals drink all over the festival grounds, not in a half block square. The number of hammer-smashed doofuses confined to the "beer garden" was enormous. Give these people some room. They're still going to be drunk when they re-enter the "all ages" zone.
The Block Party was a hit: bands played, kids danced, beer was consumed and a good time was had for 72 hours in the all-too-rare Seattle sun.
Here's to next year.