Bumbershoot 2011: 4 September 2011 – Seattle

I walked the line of the infamous Seattle Monorail thinking about what I had seen the previous day. The crowds. The stages. The booths. It dawned on me I hadn’t been to a legitimate festival in a very, very long time. It felt weird, this Bumbershoot. The festival drew in a crowd, that’s for sure, but I still couldn’t identify any specific reasoning behind it. I guess there was the history. Was that enough? I didn’t get any final figures on just how many people showed up this year, but the estimates from last year were roughly 40,000. I could see the same amount, if not more, packing Seattle Center again this year. At its busiest, the paths that connected each stage got extremely packed — never uncomfortably so, but you had to watch where you were going.

Getting down to it, the brilliance of the organizers was rooted in the appeal to different generations. There was music for young people, old people, mainstream audiences, fans of the experimental. Part underground/indie rock fest, part jazz/funk/soul extravaganza, the music alone could reach out to just about anyone. Throw in the other arts as well, and have it all going down in a relatively close location with ample parking and bike access, and well, you have an event that works.

The usual hums and drones and glamor became kind of passé at this point. We started our day on a more personal note by visiting Steve Withycombe and Chris McMohen, two artists from the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle who have been collaborating on interactive sound sculptures. Their featured piece at the festival, Potentially Annoying Sound, was hidden off in the corner by the press tent. Composed of old gears and mechanical apparatuses, the large, bulky structure, when activated with a crank of a wheel, churched the machinery, pushing air through an old, deconstructed pipe organ. Joe managed to use a field recorder and captured the audio, investigating what could be interpreted as annoying by some and fucking cool by most.

As was becoming custom, we established our musical foothold with a visit to the KEXP Music Lounge. The first act of the day was local “hipster hop” (a term I personally hate) tour-de-force Mad Rad, who probably brought out most of the Sunday crowd on their own. Emcees Buffalo Madonna, P Smoov, and Terry Radjaw, donning a blend of 80s attire and flannel, were complimented by the theatrical DJ Darwin. The amount of energy for a noon-time performance was startling, and yet, it made me think that hip hop should be more regularly performed early in the day.

Joe and I busted our asses over to see another Seattle emcee, Sol, whose more traditional style paid homage to the roots of the genre. Paired with a crew that was on-point and yet not distracting, Sol had the crowd more amped than any other Bumbershoot rapper thusfar. With hundreds of hands moving back and forth in the air and Sol coming natural with energy, I was struck: this is Summer. This is what this town waits for. That’s why people come out. And Bumbershoot has been noted on a historical level to be the gateway from the near-perfect sunny season to the days of rain and mist that follow soon after. No one like it, but it’s true. Better to go off with a bang than to utterly fade.

Following Sol we had a few minutes to roam around yet again before the next featured music. We visited the video installation of Leslie Lyons. EXPEDITION, which was setup adjacent to the other visual art rooms, was being created exclusively at the festival. Anyone could go into a back room and record 45-60 seconds of monologue (or dialogue, if you wanted someone to join you) in the style of a frozen corpse — that is, responding to the person recorded immediately before you. The results were played in sequence on large monitors outside of the recording space for the duration of the festival. There was a mixture of comedy, sorrow, shock and awe, and the boring. Frankly it was public so one could expect a little bit of everything. I gave it two thumbs up and we moved on.

For our first trip to the third floor of the EMC we got to see Wayne Horvitz and the Café Paloma Band, a truly exquisite jazz experience made amazing through the venue. When you step inside the third floor room, you’re greeted with cavernous architecture lit up in dark reds and oranges. It’s almost pitch-black and the stage is bright and attractive. There’s a balcony with a bar that’s perfect for viewing the stage. The entire room can probably only hold around 500 people, if that. What results is a captivating experience to say the least. We watched Wayne on the sax and his band — keys, upright, drums — take the astute, mature audience away. It was hard snapping out mesmerized bliss, but the festival instinct kicked in.

We passed giant stacks of meat at the barbeque stand, stopping to take photos on our cameras and phones. It was hot out, which is weird for Seattle. We got to the Mad Rad set at Fisher Green and I slowly entered the crowd. Within a few minutes I was surrounded by kids as young as 13, crowds and crowds, everyone smoking weed in their own ways. The contact high inevitable. I watched professional photographers take pictures of joints, groups piling on to each other dissipating like wolves. I wasn’t shocked, per se. It was a festival and this is Seattle, but I was curious. I was curious about how young these kids looked, and what the generation I was staring at would turn out to be? Maybe the generations had always been like this, but then again, maybe never to this degree. With tortillas being throw into the air in absurd fashion, the crowd getting thick and the sweat dripping down my back for the first in years, I enjoyed a few of Mad Rad’s energetic hip hop before moving on.

Broken Social Scene played the Key Arena. As much as I’ve been a fan of theirs for longer than I can remember, I had never had the opportunity to see them. Eight of the collective were present, having just flown from a show in L.A. the evening before and arriving to the Emerald City at 5 am. This was the most put-together rock outfit of the event, providing professional, encompassing sound with the complete rock experience, whatever that means. I don’t know what it means, I just kept thinking it the entire set. They sounded good, almost identical to their albums, but with witty stage banter and slight adjustments in speed, the experience was unique and memorable. It was indeed strange, as I heard many Bumbershoot attendees say, that Broken Social Scene played such a large venue, but they filled the space with their full sound successfully, and I saw more than one person in the crowd literally freak out with every passing song. I had no complaints. Even the columns of light, as bright as the sun outside, added a certain theatrical touch to the show. I was disappointed I had to leave Joe and the second half of the set, but there were other things to be seen.

The Sight Below played to an almost desolate crowd at the Sky Church, down-tempo/post-trance and heavy-bass tracks fun but not necessarily conducive to the festival crowd. Artist Rafael Anton Irisarri would have been a better fit for the After Hours party. I left abruptly and checked out more jazz at the Level Three stage, where Thomas Marriott’s Human Spirit performed jazz to yet another crowd of older folks. It was delightful and the air conditioning was appreciated, but the still, technical music was not what I needed. The heat was thickening outside and the festival was getting more packed than I thought comfortable. I started to feel like the crowd for the first time, like an extension of a larger body of people rather than my own person.

I walked over to see Thee Oh Sees perform at the Fountain Lawn Stage, another major stage propped up next to the central fountain. The performance, as wild as it was engaging, provided the psychedelic punk rock and lo-fi spirit I needed. I craved those antics, and those antics were met contrasted with ridiculously large amounts of people asleep on the ground throughout the rest of the crowd. I left and headed over to Fisher Green. DÅM-FUNK & MASTER BLAZTER performed to an incapacitated crowd probably also suffering from exhaustion, heat-overdose, and bright, pacific sunshine. I admire DÅM-FUNK for his experimental approach to funk and soul, but all I could think was: he sound like James Brown on meth and the beat can’t keep up with him. Moving back over to the Sky Church once again, I saw Shigeto who performed droney waves of synth matched with cool, leveled beats. The hip hop and glitch influence was mild and welcoming — a far cry from the insanity of Free the Robots earlier in the festival. Most of the visual footage was stock from Decibel, but there wasn’t something comforting about seeing waves of peacock feathers ruffle by and morph into fire dancers.

Joe was mysteriously out in the field, absent since Broken Social Scene. I went over to a talk on censorship moderated by Astronautalis and featuring ACLU spokesman Pat Gallagher and Miami hip hop producer X:144. The fascinating discussion covered censorship in the early nineties and compared it to cases of censorship today, including Lil Wayne’s recent nonsensically bleeped-out VMA performance. This led to a conversation on Egypt’s recent revolution and how media and censorship played roles throughout. X:144 had been trapped in Egypt during the riots and protests, and documented the whole thing. The discussion was one of the intellectual highlights of Bumbershoot for me, for sure, and the people in the packed crowd at the Words & Ideas stage listening probably would agree.

I ducked out early and made my way through the latent-afternoon waves of heat to the startling mass of people that filled the Fisher Green lawn to hear Das Racist. A band I’d never really enjoyed before turned out to be a bit of fun live. They played their stoner-esque songs nonchalantly, over-casually, chanting “Go Space Needle, Space Needle, Go!” and having the audience do a mocking “double wave” back at tehe stage. It was silly, low key, and I was highly unimpressed with the performance, but socially it was amazing the amount of attention the group was getting. I did laugh, however, when either Heems or Kool A.D. announced, regarding Mt. Rainier: “It’s crazy that is can be hot outside but you can stare at a mountain covered by snow all the time. I don’t know what you’re up to Seattle”.

After my fix of Das Racist, I passed by a surprise/secret “stage” located in a Toyota tent. Local post-emo rockers the Lonely Forest played sing-alongs for a small but devotional audience. It wasn’t my thing. Maybe ten years ago, but not today. I ran over as fast as I could and bypassed a line that was out the door waiting to get seats to Manos: the Hands of Felt, a puppet performance in homage to the classic shitty movie, Manos: the Hands of Fate. The performers were undoubtedly amazing, and the interpretation of what is considered one of the worst movies of all time was hilarious. Every technical and stylistic problem with the movie had its puppetized answer. I stayed for the whole god damn thing, all the while suffering through multiple babies in the audience who probably thought the puppets were the prettiest things in the world.

Butthole Surfers were playing when I got back to the center of the ground, and it was getting dark at this point. I was pretty motivated and happy to see them, a band I had grown up with knowing but not really understanding. I was disappointed when I got to the packed stage and again felt like I could have enjoyed the set ten years ago. The violent music videos being played behind the screen added a certain appeal, but I was tired, and needed more than loud chords and megaphone vocals to wake me up.

Post-coffee, I visited the Toro y Moi set. The band played some stuff off the forthcoming EP Freaking Out, and a bunch of older songs too. The entire audience was into this at-dusk performance. I finished the coffee, met up with Joe in the beer garden, and watched most of the set with beer in hand. The visuals were particularly awe-inspiring, project via high-def light board 2D planes of space in the tradition of early-90s PC FPS’s. It was the engagement and, for some, the wrap-up to the second day that most had been waiting for.

But not everyone. Before the festival’s close, we decided to check out the Kills, one of the biggest names on the Bumbershoot bill, or Bumberbill. Recently turned on to all of their albums, I was looking forward to seeing what Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart would provide. But this was, as I said, one of the biggest names of the entire festival. When we got to lawn, it was so packed that the crowd was spilling out into the sidewalks. I lacked the strength to push myself through the ranks and settled on a removed space. I enjoyed the performance, but it wasn’t breathtaking. There was strict set list and there was a strict way to play the set list. I felt like that’s how the band was interpreting the experience the entire time. I suppose that sort of expectation is warranted with popularity and success, but I’m not sure it’s what the crowd, exhausted and ready for one final push, wanted.

The wrap up, the second day of Bumbershoot sported some of the best music of the weekend. The heat was paralyzing and soul-sucking and the crowds were endless. What we needed was a downward slope, an ease out of the festival and back into reality. This would only come after the Bumbershoot After Party.

Bumbershoot After Hours, known by many as the next form of entertainment that Bumbershoot can sell to new audiences, is a quasi-rave that happens the first two nights of the festival. You don’t have to have a Bumbershoot ticket to get in, but you do need to cough up around $30.00 for the four hours of music. But despite the ticket cost, the music is worth it — there’s no doubt about that. The first night featured Craze, Claude VonStroke, Jokers of the Scene, and the Dowlz — all big name artists from all over the place. Apparently they were so big roughly ten people overdosed on illicit substances. As the security told us that second night, Sunday, people didn’t have their shit together and the fire marshal complained. The second night featured DÅM-FUNK from earlier on, whose work was much better for the downstairs Exhibition Hall where the party was held. Four Tet, who we didn’t up seeing because he didn’t start until 2am, and Z-Trip closed the night.

While in theory I approved of the After Hours setup, what it amounted to was a problematic venue. The Exhibition Hall, while being able to cut it during the day, looked merely like a high school gymnasium at night. Where high school dances sport teachers on every corner, the After Hours event sported yellow-suited security contractors and a few police here and there. What’s also weird is that this event was neither 18+ or 21+. If you were 16 and up, you could get in. Combine the slutty-looking minors with the overweight middle-age dudes and you have a really bizarre crowd indeed. There was even a “beer garden” in the corner of the room. Needless to say, we waited for the event to kick off, but after being there an hour and not willing to pay for a second $7.50 beer, we bounced.

Once again I was perplexed. I walked home without any of the questions I had asked on Saturday any more answered. I knew I had had a great time and knew the experience was worth it, and had I paid the admission I probably would have thought the same, but still, what did folks who did pay think? It seemed like it had taken an enormous amount of energy to research and agree upon the bands that we wanted to see. Even then, we could only see partial sets if we wanted to see everything we were interested in. Even on top of that, there was a lot of memorization to do before the event even got off the ground. I think at the end of the day I was searching for questions that really didn’t have answers. What it comes down to is this: people have a need for entertainment, they go to events to get that need fulfilled, and the events they go to are those that are made popular by good advertising, good history, or both.