Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party is an urban music festival in the heart of one of the city’s most vibrant and eclectic neighborhoods. The Block Party takes over the streets for one weekend each July, inviting the businesses and residents inside the gates to join the party along with the rest of the inebriated, sunburned throngs for three days of music and partying. The festival’s size and location result in a nice range of programming that includes some big names (TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend and Sonic Youth have all played recent years), as well as less well known regional acts. Covering the festival for PopMatters this year, I tried to take in as many shows as possible and it was a weekend full of incredible performances, swarms of people crammed in close proximity, expensive beers and grey Seattle skies blessed with the occasional burst of sunlight. Here are some of the themes that emerged for me over the weekend:
BANDS YOU SWEAR YOU’VE HEARD BEFORE:
I mean no disrespect to any of these bands by saying this, but there were a few artists at the Block Party dealing in some seriously eerie deja vu. The most blatant case was probably that of Twin Shadow, who channels the ghosts of all of your favorite tortured and impassioned hedonists from the ’80s into his own brand of expertly crafted, bright and shiny new wave. His voice is rich and velvet smooth and if his songs sound strangely familiar, that’s only because they’re so true to their sources of inspiration that you’ll swear you must have jumped around and lip synched to them blasting out of your older brother’s boom-box as a a kid.
Twin Shadow photo by Jim Bennett
A close second in the wearing-your-influences-not-so-subtly-on-your-sleeve competition for the weekend goes to Cloud Nothings, whose Block Party performances were awesome in the true sense of the word, and who seemed to somehow embody a different legendary purveyor of noisy alt-guitar rock on each song they played. If you are a fan of the melodic noise-punk of bands like the Wipers, Trail of Dead or Chavez and you don’t mind an extra dash of pop song craft thrown in for measure, chances are you just might find yourself a new favorite band in Cloud Nothings. And did I mention that they absolutely killed it live? Their nicely polished record sounds downright flimsy in comparison to the unbridled power of their live onslaught. Drummer Jason Gerycz was an unrelenting workhorse behind the kit, pounding along with furious precision for the full extended twelve minute version of post-teenage angst anthem “Strange Days”. The mostly young, male crowd screamed along with the rousing refrain of “I thought I would be more than this!” as it repeated over and over throughout the song’s climax. Dylan Baldi’s voice is perfectly suited to this style of music, ranging from a hush to a howl in true Kurt Cobain/Black Francis fashion, and the band’s extended feedback laden freak-outs owe a considerable debt to the eardrum shattering abstractions of Sonic Youth. Given the incongruity between Attack on Memory and the Baldi’s earlier work, it seems fair to say that Cloud Nothings could go anywhere from here, but after seeing them live, I hope they stay right where they’re at.
Cloud Nothings photo by Joe Lambert
Cloud Nothings photo by by Joe Lambert
Although I was only able to catch a few songs of their Main Stage set, Phantogram’s blissed-out electro pop was mired in the early days of ’90s trip-hop when bands like Massive Attack, Portishead and Morcheeba constructed dark and hypnotic dance music from equal parts sultry electronica and gloomy guitars. The vocals soared, the guitars melted over the crowd in waves of warm distortion and the beats shook the concrete and rattled storefront windows up and down the block.
BANDS THAT SOUND LIKE NOTHING YOU’VE EVER HEARD BEFORE:
On the other end of the spectrum there were several bands at the Block Party whose unique combination of sounds resulted in some truly emergent musical moments for me.
Although Brooklyn’s Ava Luna are garnering early comparisons to art damaged indie bands like TVOTR and the Dirty Projectors, I am gathering that this is more due to a shared sense of adventurousness and nonconformist aesthetics than to any real sonic affinity. I had never heard them before catching their late set at the Barboza stage on Saturday night, sandwiched in between Main Stage performances by Aesop Rock and Major Lazer. At first, they seemed to be playing around with the same reference points as many of their indie contemporaries with driving krautrock rhythms held aloft by noisy and angular guitars. But then the beat dropped out and Carlos Hernandez came in with his wandering, soul-inspired vocals that nodded to such smooth singing legends as D’angelo, Prince and Curtis Mayfield. Soon he was joined by Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass whose equally enchanting voices added lush and textured layers interspersed with riotous bursts of drums and bass and blasts of shrieking guitar noise.
In a similar vein of taking very of-the-moment sounds and transforming them into something more vital and interesting than many of their peers was Portland’s Onuinu. This is another band that I was barely familiar with going into their set, and left wanting to rush home and check out everything they’ve ever done. After a rough sound check due to some finicky mic cables that took a considerable chunk out of their allotted set time, Onuinu launched into a stunning set of brightly burning dance-tinged noise pop. Their music is saturated with Dorian Duvall’s ravenous guitars that devour everything from torrential shoe-gaze noise to unhinged blues based soloing. Keyboard tones swelled and swayed and blended with the guitars, engulfing the whole room and everybody in it. Slicing through these churning squalls of sound was a perpetual procession of loops, beats and live electronic percussion elements that kept the whole thing locked into a tight and thumping disco groove. Duvall has a confident and charismatic presence on vocals, guitar and boards that infuses Onuinu’s music with its truly unique character. I heard elements of other bands for sure, but there was everything from My Bloody Valentine to Michael Jackson to Neon Indian style glo-fi ricocheting around in their engaging and highly danceable soundscapes.
Onuinu photo by Joe Lambert
The band Pollens is made up of six Seattle art school students who are really into Congolese and Moroccan trance music. They weave multiple vocal lines, angular indie rock guitars, and clattering percussion work into songs that blend pop accessibility with rigorous technical prowess. The fact that I have absolutely zero knowledge of their African source material made their sound truly revelatory to me, and even though there is so much going on in their songs that they could easily have collapsed beneath their own weight, Pollens somehow manage to keep it all very infectious, sexy and fun.
Pollens photo by Joe Lambert
It takes a certain kind of person to fully embrace the role of fronting a band. Charm, charisma and sex appeal can go a a long way toward cementing that ineffable connection that exists between audience and performer, but not all band leaders possess or aspire to these qualities. And sometimes that can be a good thing, as evidenced by some of the following performances that I took in over the weekend.
Cloud Nothings are a band that prefers to let their music speak for itself. Dylan Baldi barely said a word to the crowd during their blistering main stage performance on Sunday, and earlier in the day during their live performance on KEXP, his only interaction with the audience was a request that we write our congress people and ask them to change Washington’s law against allowing minors into venues that serve liquor.
Crystal Stilts frontman Brad Hargett has a real Ian Curtis vibe about him, swaying back and forth, hands behind his back with a look of mild confusion on his face as he half sings, half mumbles along to the band’s jangling, minimalist indie rock. There’s a strange tension between Hargett’s languid delivery and the summery air of the band’s music that never quite resolves, and that juxtaposition is ultimately what makes them so engaging to observe.
Crystal Stilts photo by Jim Bennett
And then there was John Maus who was an absolute revelation. No show at the Block Party delivered the purely distilled catharsis of Maus, and this is really saying something considering that his live set up consists of a microphone, an effect pedal and a sampler pad to trigger prerecorded versions of his meticulously constructed lo-fi electro darkwave. Maus pours the entirety of his being into his performance, lurching and convulsing across the stage like a man possessed, chanting out haunted melodies that sound something like Peter Gabriel on klonopin singing through a bull horn underwater. His show encompasses the entire range of human emotion as he pummels his chest, rips at his hair, and screams with primal angst, fists raised high above his head in a paradoxical marriage of torture and triumph. Songs like “Maniac” and the “The Believer” will have you jumping up and down along with Maus as he transcends from agony into rapture. You will feel feel fear, laughter, sorrow and joy. And you will also feel a strange and powerful connection with this man and the others around you sharing in the uncanny spectacle that he provides. After Maus’s Saturday night set, I wandered back over to the Main Stage where Major Lazer had transformed the entire span of several city blocks into a bouncing, undulating dance party. They closed out their set with a pumped up version of “Get Free” with actual neon blue and green lasers emanating from the stage — the sound was huge and polished to a sheen as it resonated through the summer night, but this Lazer couldn’t hold a candle to what I had just experienced from Maus.
John Maus photo by Joe Lambert
And then there are those who fully embrace their role as the charismatic conductors of the live music experience. The Block Party had its fair share of these larger than life descendants of Bowie, Madonna and Prince.
Twin Shadow is the kind of artist who plasters a picture of himself looking bad-boy suave in a sweet leather jacket on the cover of his album. His persona is a smooth mixture of the 80s dreamboats that his music pays homage to — oozing sex, danger and all manner of hedonism. It’s impossible to say how much of this is an act and how much is real, and that blurring of the lines between life and performance is one of the defining characteristics of the quintessential rock star mold.
Twin Shadow photo by Joe Lambert
Whereas Twin Shadow was rocking the ’80s model of rockstar excess, Father John Misty brought it all the back to the source with an energy and presence that was evocative of Mick Jagger in his crackling, bluesy croon, his scruffy and wild-eyed good looks and his prancing, lascivious dance moves. It’s a shame that the Block Party scheduled this former Seattle native and ex-Fleet Fox so early in the day on Friday, because his beguiling and indulgent, whisky soaked ballads were one of the stand out performances of the weekend. Songs like “Nancy From Now On” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” sounded gorgeous and full wafting through the grey and cloudy Seattle summer afternoon. The band was rock solid and J. Tillman’s presence was worthy of the rock star greatness to which he so clearly aspires.
Father John Misty photo by Joe Lambert
And then there are those who don’t even have to try and the crowd will gush and glow and shout ‘I love you’s from the moment that they appear on stage. It seems weird to call her a rockstar because, although her tripped out electro-pop does many things it most certainly does not rock, Grimes takes the prize for inspiring wholesale freakout love-fest reactions from the crowd who went crazy for her from the moment she came out in an oversized baseball cap, huge sunglasses and a baggy black anarchy t-shirt to set up her stage equipment. Claire Boucher seemed truly flattered and graciously thankful throughout her set, feeding off of all that positive energy to deliver what was perhaps the most impressive all round performance of the weekend.
Grimes photo by Joe Lambert
COWBOY KITSCH AND GRATUITOUS NUDITY:
I didn’t really know what to expect when I walked in to watch Brent Amaker and the Rodeo play an afternoon set at Neumos on Saturday, but here is what I got: five strapping young stallions in white button ups, cowboy hats and Lone Ranger masks who played a stoned out hybrid of country and surf that sounded something like the soundtrack to a long lost Quentin Tarantino western flick and Brent Amaker himself all in white with a bright red cape escorted out on stage by a “classy” looking broad in fake fur and gaudy dangling jewelry who would later shed the coat and twirl around the stage in all her semi-nude glory, pasties twirling like pinwheels to the rhythm of the band’s twisted twang. Amaker spins world weary yarns of women, whiskey and general debauchery that are thick with wandering guitars and off kilter, otherworldly xylophone and gong chimes. You should check these guys out if you ever have the chance. You will not regret it.
Brent Amaker and the Rodeo photo by Suzi Pratt
FURIOUS AND DEAFENING GUITARS:
The Block Party weekend was riddled with melt-your-face-off guitar driven pyrotechnics beginning with Thee Oh Sees excellent Friday evening set. These San Francisco based veteran rockers played a torrential blend of krautrock, punk, garage and blues that merged into a brilliant and seamless whole. They pounded beers, leapt around like maniacs and knocked out 45 minutes of snarling, rabid guitars, barreling bass lines and crashing, cacophonous drums. It was one of the finest shows of the weekend without a doubt.
Thee Oh Sees photo by Joe Lambert
King Tuff mined similar territory, but infused it with his own wastoid rock god persona. The King was rocking an ’80s baseball cap and aviators with his long, stringy hair blowing in the wind and his band looked like extras from an early Patrick Swayze action flick, complete with sweet stashes and faded pastel muscle tees. On the guitar, King Tuff is an absolute animal, slashing through his bluesy garage pop with the skill of a man who has spent the best part of his life getting stoned and blasting out amps in basements and garages across the country.
King Tuff photo by Jim Bennett
The Absolute Monarchs are a Seattle band that sounds like a “Seattle band”. They are definitely dealing with some serious nostalgia for the bygone days of grunge, but they’re also digging on some of the heavier stuff that’s come out of these parts over the years like the Melvins, Karp and Unwound. This is another band whose performance was hindered by being placed in an early afternoon slot on the Main Stage and their grey toned sludge rock felt a bit out of place as the sun finally broke through the Seattle clouds.
Both Cloud Nothings and Onuinu found ways to meld deafening ballasts of guitar noise and feedback with music that remained immediate and accessible. Cloud Nothing’s Dylan Baldi is an excellent melodic guitar player, whose complex, apreggiated leads lift his music from their basic pop-punk origins to a level of high complexity and artfulness.
Trash Talk, who played Neumos on Sunday night told the crowd that they would be like nothing they’d seen at Block Party and they meant it. Their set was half an hour of the loudest, most aggressive music of the weekend. Singer Lee Spielman poured everything he had into the performance which included non-stop stage diving, a pit that enveloped most of Neumos floor, and Spielman taking advantage of a 100 foot mic cable to scale the walls of the venue and scream unintelligible offerings from the balcony while the band churned out song after song of crushing and relentless California hardcore.
Trash Talk photo by Suzi Pratt
The wide ranging Seattle hip-hop scene was fairly well represented at the Block Party with performances from Fresh Espresso, Spac3man and Blue Sky Black Death with Nacho Picasso (listed in ascending order of weirdness) scattered throughout the day and night on Friday.
The rest of the hip-hop programming that I caught over the weekend was decidedly left-of-center, beginning with Seattle native and Based God producer Keyboard Kid 206 whose instrumental set on Friday night was laced with skittering electro beats, deep and heavy bass drones and hallucinatory cloud-rap textures. His cerebral and stormy production work epitomizes the way Seattle artists can absorb the eternal grey skies and ever-present rains that haunt our region and flip all this darkness into something strangely beautiful.
Earlier that afternoon, multi-cultural Minneapolis rap crew Doomtree played an urgent and energetic set with five MCs and two DJs filling the Block Party Main Stage. The DJs punched out live beats on their samplers while rappers P.O.S., Sims and Dessa traded deft and animated rhymes for a small but enthusiastic crowd on Friday afternoon. The crew’s diversity contributes a real depth to their punk-rap aesthetic, and they are clearly united in their dedication to creating state of the art hip-hop that is skillful, thoughtful and a whole lot of fun.
Doomtree photo by Joe Lambert
Other hip-hop weirdos included the maybe a bit too weird Spoek Mathambo whose set was full of energy but ultimately felt forced and overbearing in its incorporation of rock instrumentation with Mathambo’s spastic rhyme work. And Spaceghostpurrp had the unenviable position of playing a late set at Neumos on Sunday night, after most of the tired and drunken masses had dispersed for the weekend and the rest of us were still reeling from Trash Talk’s violent assault upon our minds, bodies and eardrums. He still rocked it pretty hard though, with tracks like “The Black God” and “Mystikal Maze” drenched in dense, ethereal production and accentuated with Purrp’s stoned and swaggering rhyme cadence.
Elder statesman of weirdo hip-hop Aesop Rock played a Main Stage performance that felt unfortunately underwhelming, especially following Grimes’s blissfully transcendent trance pop dance party. And while it was great to hear some of this excellent new material live, the sound was muddled and the words were unrecognizable from where I stood, diminishing the pleasure of navigating through Aesop’s sardonic and labyrinthine lyrical imagery. They did pull some poor kid out of the crowd and give him a really funny looking Big Daddy Kane style haircut onstage during their set though.
Aesop Rock photo by Joe Lambert
ELECTRONICALLY INCLINED SONGWRITERS:
There seems to be a rising confluence in the indie world between electronic music stylings and experimentally minded songwriters and this trend was well represented at the Block Party.
Lo-fi bedroom pop translated surprisingly well to an open air venue as Youth Lagoon played to a small, but enthusiastic Main Stage crowd that swelled in numbers and adulation throughout his set. Trevor Powers’s songs built from simple beginnings of keyboards and voice to enfold retro drum machines, deep and driving bass loops and intricate and melodic guitars. On songs like “July”, Powers sings with a guttural intensity that is sad and beautiful and disarmingly honest. He comes across as a really nice guy battling some serious demons who finds a strange sense of comfort in bearing his soul for the world.
Youth Lagoon photo by Joe Lambert
Working in a similar vernacular is Porcelain Raft whose backstory includes range of musical travels from scoring films in his native Italy to traveling with the Berlin Circus playing gypsy Klezmer music. Mauro Remiddi’s work as Porcelain Raft fuses classic pop based song craft with electronic beats, samples and his own dynamic and well worn singing voice. I had a chance to talk with Remiddi before his set on Sunday, and I asked him about the relationship between live and electronic elements in his songwriting process. “Melodies are the first thing that come to my head,” he said, “but because of that, I don’t like to start with melodies. I’m thinking about how can this be more interesting and for me that is to start with drum machines, with electronics. So I begin with some rhythm, and maybe some bass lines, and once I’ve created this landscape, I can say, okay, now let’s start a melody.” When he performs live, Remiddi brings this all together with a combination of sampled loops and guitar effects to build a surprisingly full and complex sound that turned out to be a perfect fit for his Sunday night set which came directly after Neko Case’s Main Stage headlining performance. Neumos quickly filled to capacity with people pouring over from the main stage, and Porcelain Raft’s sweetly narcotic blend of catchy melodies and pulsing euro-dance elements really seemed to connect with the crowd.
Porcelain Raft photo by Joe Lambert
Porcelain Raft photo by Jim Bennett
Taking this mixture of electronic elements and pop-based songwriting to an entirely different place was Grimes whose packed Main Stage performance was in many ways the greatest of the weekend. Her music blends the most outre elements of house and techno with a range of top-40 reference points, and it’s all held together by her hyper and hovering presence on the mic. In a live setting, I was struck by how gorgeous and powerful Claire Boucher’s voice really is, as it’s often drowning under waves of digital effects on record. And her energy was infectious as she leapt around the stage, dancing and growling into the microphone from behind her boards. Tracks like “Oblivion” and “Genesis” from her recent album Visions were the perfect soundtrack to a hazy afternoon dance party.
Grimes photo by Suzi Pratt
Grimes was joined on stage by her friend and collaborator Blood Diamonds whose considerable physical presence was augmented by a long black robe, gold chains and shades and the disheveled, cascading golden curls atop his head. I had a chance to catch up with Blood Diamonds after their set and I asked him about the combination between pop songwriting and experimental electronic elements in their music. “For both of us, pop music is obviously a huge influence,” he said. “But the electronics are something that are very native to us. Keyboards and computers — both of us grew up around that and around the internet music culture. So finding things like Aphex Twin on the internet, would just hit a lot closer to home than things that happened to be on the radio at the time. So there’s both this really strong influence of pop music songwriting and electronics, and to combine those things is something that just feels very natural.”
Blood Diamonds photo by Joe Lambert
Grimes and Blood Diamonds closed out their performance with a rendition of “Phone Sex”, a brand new joint track off of Blood Diamonds 4AD released 12” of the same name. It was a perfect ending to the set, all breezy melodies and brightly pulsating techno builds. And it’s a song that Blood Diamonds describes as a natural culmination of his friendship with Grimes: “I met Claire almost two years ago now and we hit it off almost immediately. It was my first show, and it was one of her first shows in Vancouver. There was less than 100 people there. So we started talking, and we both loved pop music and we both loved electronic and we kept close over the following year. Eventually when she came back to Vancouver we started hanging out in person a lot and one night we just wanted to do a pop song and we recorded it in my apartment in Vancouver in a night.”
One of the great things about the Capitol Hill Block Party is that it provides emerging local artists with a chance to share stages with more established acts. I caught a few shows by local bands that I was previously unfamiliar with, including Stephanie and NudePop on the Vera Stage early in the day Saturday. Stephanie wove together gothic new wave textures that were reminiscent of Joy Division and the Fall and Nude layered intricate guitar work over an electronic drum kit and soulful Ben Gibbard-esque vocals. I caught a few songs of both of Seattle dream pop duo Lemolo’s Block Party performances and was taken by singer Meagan Grandall’s lilting and rapturous melodies. They sounded at times like a heavier version of Cat Power, or a stripped down Denali, and judging from the packed house for their live KEXP performance, I’d say they’re on an upward trend that should just keep on moving.
On the more well known end of the local spectrum, Grant Olsen from Arthur & Yu played a couple of subtly expansive sets with his band Gold Leaves. Father John Misty’s set saw J. Tillman triumphantly returning to Seattle with a gift of one of the weekend’s best performances. Hometown hero and proud owner of the most angelic and punishing voice in all of music-dom Neko Case, who grew up nearby in Tacoma, closed out the Main Stage on Sunday with a performance that was marked by an awkwardly acknowledged incongruity between her laid back country folk and a Block Party atmosphere that is more suited to high energy main stage performances. Oh, and a full on, irrepressible laugh attack caused by a person in the audience wearing an eagle costume to whom Case promised a feathery rendezvous after the show.
Neko Case photo by Suzi Pratt
Capitol Hill Block Party photo by Joe Lambert