Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival 2013
Seattle Center – Seattle, Wa
August 31st – Sept 2nd 2013
What is Bumbershoot?
For me, it used to be a festival that was free for kids, where I could run through the center fountain in a tie-dye shirt, and then, still soaking wet, watch The Presidents of The United States of America play in front of tens of thousands. As I grew older and kept attending, I saw some unforgettable hip-hop acts; Nas played his best set out of the three times that I’ve seen him and Public Enemy put on an impressive show of their own that same night. One of the best parts was the eclectic mélange of concertgoers, who all came to see different acts, from an array of genres, but all ended up in the same place. The beautiful thing about Bumbershoot is that I can walk through a huge room of concert posters introduced by their designers, look at computerized art-making machines, and then listen to anything from funk to metal. The context in which something is seen affects its enjoyment, and for me, informing metal with funk, or fashion photography with falafel, can make things unique.
This year, the crowd was noticeably more homogeneous, which I think is due to the much larger ticket prices–now sixty dollars. The face of the crowd has changed; ten years ago at one-third of the price, one could wander the Seattle center the whole day, and even if they did not have a specific band in mind to see, the money would still be well spent, simply for the experience of witnessing so many different types of music and people in one place. Now, with the higher fees and slightly “bigger” name acts, the festival is one where people need to have the drive to see these acts in order to justify the ticket price. I really am not a fan of Kendrick Lamar or MGMT, but I do know that, for those who do want to see one of these groups rock the Key Arena, it could cost nearly as much as the sixty-dollar one-day Bumbershoot pass, for them alone. “Fuck it, let’s go see Kendrick and… some other stuff.” That set up and the mentality it generates results in Bumbershoot yielding a more mainstream crowd.
The EDM stage was hilarious. I am under thirty and felt like the oldest person in the room both nights that I was in attendance. Talk of molly buzzed from all corners of the room and into my ears, as eighteen and under girls walked in wearing bikinis, whilst boys with multicolored ray-bans and backward hats boasted about how fucked-up they were. My friend asked, “Is she just wearing underwear?” as a girl in light pink lacey lingerie waltzed by. I replied, “my girlfriend wouldn’t even wear that to bed!” It was a god-awful crowd that reminded me of my wasted youth, and recalled the images that Charles Bradley had imprinted in my head on the first day of the festival; one of a decaying America that has lost its love and values.
While I was not not participating in promotional giveaways, or not shopping for laser engraved boxes, I was listening to some pretty good music. So, in order seen, I will provide a brief review of each of the groups that I saw perform over the weekend, complete with photos.
Robert Glasper Experiment
The set by the acclaimed jazz pianist/producer was almost unlike anything that I have ever heard before. The vocoder and soprano sax player, Casey Benjamin is the most atypical part of the group. I think that the vocoder allows people to connect with abstract jazz music when they would not otherwise “get” what to appreciate. He also serves the role of front man, due to his more eye-catching appearance/dress and the fact he totes a keytar. Listen to their Grammy Award-winning album, Black Radio.
Wow, this band did nothing for me. They had an uninteresting horn section that added nothing to the music and unfunky “funk” guitar. The music lacked depth and seemed like any other indie/electronic mixture, by an act striving to make dance music, yet rhythmically, does very little that is either challenging or memorable. Thus, the response is many people simply jumping up and down slowly and without ever moving their hips.
Robert Glasper Experiment [KEXP Music Lounge]
Local independent radio station, KEXP, host a series of intimate shows in an exclusive venue, throughout the weekend, for those with a specific membership, vip tickets, and the media. When I saw RBE in the Music Lounge, they played the best cover that I have heard in many years: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. The chords that Glasper plays are such an fascinating take on the original, and the vocoder is done, at times, to function as lead vocals and, at others, as instrumental synthy ambiance with delay. It is comparable to Cobain’s original delivery, where half of the lyrics are nearly impossible to understand and are felt more closely to instrumental emotional expression. I was impressed throughout the show at the level of skill that all of the musicians displayed. The addition of claps and sticks on electronic drum pads and a rippin’ soprano sax solo from Benjamin supplemented a good set with great variation.
Patton Oswalt & Friends
I still do not quite understand the way to get into these shows during the festival. It seemed difficult and hardly worth it, considering how much time it takes to wait in line for a sub-ticket, wait in the real line, and then wait for the comics to come on. After seeing this showcase, however, I’ve changed my opinion. This was of top quality and worth nearly the whole day’s time. Natasha Leggero, who was recently featured on Comedy Central’s James Franco roast, performed a wonderful set, playing the character of a “rich bitch” with beautiful offensiveness. Marc Maron was another stand out, with my favorite joke of his being abour how many people have an inner child, but he has an inner “old Jew” that his girlfriend really brings out in him. Patton Oswalt himself did a lot of self deprecating fat and eating jokes, but was entertaining.
Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires
Charles Bradley is a phenomenal performer, who feels his music as much as anyone that I’ve ever seen. The 2012 documentary, Soul of America details the amazing story of Bradley, a soul singer who did not find success until age sixty-two, and who was living in the projects, but staying at his mom’s house when the “projects got too crazy.” His first album, No Time For Dreaming (released on Daptone Records in 2011), sounds like a classic from the Sixties, with lyrics that are eerily timely. On the song “Hurricane,” Bradley belts out, “Stop killing your world!” and warns of a coming hurricane in the southern states, bringing up images of Katrina that also serve as allegory. When he speaks of pain, or love, you know that he has felt it, just by the way that he sings. His band is tight and captures a great nostalgic tone. While performing live, Charles shouts, “I love you!” to the crowd repeatedly, and has a face that looks on the verge of tears. He replies, “I love you too,” whenever the crowd erupts in applause–which is often. Heartfelt and powerful, with a full gospel choir backing him at the finish, this show was entertaining the whole way through.
Maceo has played on some of my favorite funk albums including James Brown‘s The Payback and Bootsy Collins‘ Ahh…The Name’s Bootsy, Baby, as well as Mothership Connection, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstien, and Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome, by Parliament. This was my third time seeing him live and I think it has always been a bit of a let down. Parker tends to play it safe, at times, approaching smooth jazz. There is only a glimmer of the eccentric originality of the aforementioned albums and the solos are usually pretty “in.” The highlight of this show for me was Rodney “Skeet” Curtis on bass and his perfect slap technique.
Terrible, terrible, terrible formulaic buildups to anticlimactic uni-rhythmic drops. It’s possible that I simply might not understand it, but I’m pretty sure that it’s just not that good. This Dutch DJ is from the same town as Tiesto and has been compared to him. On his Soundcloud page, his songs are labeled as “progressive house,” however, I find that the tracks could be much more layered. When the beat dropped, it was either the same tune played with only a slight difference, or a complete change in song. Nothing really developed in an elegant way and there were no “Oh shit!” moments.
Coming on stage, Cookie Monsta played a short intro and then gave the crowd the middle finger, before a nasty dubstep drop blared from the EMP Sky Church speakers. This stage was my favorite for sound and visuals at the festival. Hailing from the UK, Cookie Monsta plays only hitters and is relentless live; the energy he demands from the crowd is enormous. If you start to wear out, you will need to leave. If you are still sliding and jerking your body in every direction and feel like fucking shit up while smiling, you will enjoy this music that is actually pretty upbeat in its aggressiveness. The first Cookie Monsta track that I ever heard was “Ginger Pubes,” which encapsulates his aforesaid style of driven, relentless energizers.
Beats Antique [KEXP Music Lounge]
I have heard so many electronic acts infused with world music, but Beats Antique really pulls it off uniquely. David Satori, the frontman on viola and Turkish banjo, shows that he harbors a deep knowledge of world music–he has even played The New Shine in Lagos, Nigeria! The live drums and strings match well with the looped bass and dubstep womps. Rhythmically interesting and entirely danceable, this set was well enjoyed by the intimate crowd. Zoe Jakes, the group’s belly dancer and sort of hype-woman, was necessary to facilitating this interest. They finished the set wearing animal masks and blowing up an inflatable giant squid that attacked them all; everyone played dead on the stage floor as the music stopped.
Bod Mould is the former front man of pioneering hardcore punk-turned-alternative rock SST band, Hüsker Dü and, later, the 90s outfit, Sugar. Mould fronted a trio that played a highly anticipated set of his poppy punk music from his famed former bands, as well as material from his solo releases. The frontman bounced around on stage, smiling for the duration of the set, possessing a special energy that the crowd responded to. I was listening to musicians play the music that they loved and wanted to share, as those who were eager to hear it surrounded me. The atmosphere was great; I admired and bobbed my head to music isthat generally not my first choice, genre-wise, but I highly recommend seeing him live.
I have heard the word “encapsulate” used to describe music quite often; as in, “their sophomore album truly encapsulates the Motown era.” Well, The Zombies truly did encapsulate British Invasion melody-driven 60s pop for me this night. After the first song, I was having one of the most clichéd 60s visions, possible–in a good way–smiling and feeling like the songs were still so fresh.
Just prior to the show, I witnessed an SNL skit-worthy dialogue between the lighting technician and singer/composer/keyboardist Rod Argent. In a thick English accent, Argent stated, “But, my keyboard is not in the light, I don’t know who put my keyboard here.” Then, motioning two feet on either side of the keyboard, added, “If it were here, or here, I would be in the light. See?” He stood where the light was on his face and waved his hand, as bassist Chris White silently nodding in agreement with him, thoughtfully did the same. The three men paced stage-right over-explaining, complaining, and pondering how in the world, someone could have done such a terrible thing. The start of the show was delayed, but from the photo pit, I saw some funny rockstar shit happening.
I hand it to The Zombies for unbottling that bygone era and and showing me a more innocent and caring time in the world. Every second was pleasure.
The set that I had seen on the KEXP Live stage was better suited for the larger Fountain Lawn Stage of their late night set. This is because the dancing aspect, and the giant inflatable squid apocalypse provided much more room for them to go all out. Being in a large crowd dancing was also needed for what is most definitely party music. The band informed the crowd that their laptop had been stolen hours before, and that they had to wing the whole set, because of it; urging anyone who saw a black backpack with a laptop to please report it. The blueprint for their fairly unique take on electronic world fusion became a bit over familiar three-quarters of the way through the set, but their stage performance and grand squid finale saved the show. Awesome to see them live!
This was a great punk-pop set with a legendary feel. The thing about seeing seasoned, but not geriatric groups, is that they know how to perform. Bassist, Steven McDonald accentuates his rhythm lines with flying hair and a “this is so damn nasty” look. The songs of Redd Kross are likable and catchy, yet maintain unique quality whether by atypical breakdown, or a guitar solo with a different tone than those used during the rest of the show.
The Owl and The Pussycat – Theatrical Production
To round out my Bumbershoot experience I went to see a small production of a play based off of the poem of the same title by Edward Lear. There were wonderfully innuend-ous lines and plenty of adventure for the family audience. I imagined the entertainment value of this play for the very stoned patron, who could stumble into such a different scene from their last. It was a great realization for me that one’s festival experience could be an impossible link of ideas and art: Redd Kross’ poppy punk mixed with children’s fantasy, followed by cerebral metal. I would highly recommend stepping into a room that you would never otherwise step into at Bumbershoot–or in life, in general!
My favorite set at Bumbershoot? Yes, it was Baroness! This guitar-fueled quartet is heavy, yet truly melodic at times, and never gravitates toward one specific recipe to create their tracks. Lead guitarist, Peter Adams’ stage presence was incredible (see my photo section above) and in complete rock star form, with bare tattooed torso and Viking-esque headbanging hair. Sometimes with heavy metal bands, their musical technicality is the focus, and though many times impressive, they lose flavor and originality in turn. This quartet takes their musicianship as a fact and goes from there, sometimes playing quick exotic riffs of awe; sometimes concentrating on tone, or melody. Lead singer, John Dyer Baizley also contributed to the high energy of the performance. When comparing Baroness’ live performance to their studio albums, only one thing was missing, which was Baizley’s amazing original artwork. Check out his art blog, A Perfect Monster, to witness his Goth-Gnostic, Secessionist inspired, covers and prints.
Yet another local phenomenon that I wish that I could buy into, but just can’t. A good falsetto cannot entertain me for more than one verse/chorus. Allen Stone also falls into a category of new soul and funk music that I get annoyed with: reiterations. A lot of times,the medium of funk/soul receives an automatic freshness from being itself, when, in reality, the music is uninventive and nothing new. A lackluster cover of Is “This Love” by Bob Marley confirmed my fears that Stone, like many other young soul singers, is not reaching forward. Allen Stone is only interesting for his circumstances; he is from a very rural, isolated town north of Spokane, Washington which–according to the 2010 census–has a population that is ninety-three percent white, yet sings “soulfully.” But how soulful is he really?
At one moment, I heard Television; at another, Boris, and then, The Flaming Lips. Without struggling to do so, Deerhunter captured many musical styles, yet always remained Deerhunter. Upon taking the stage, Bradford Cox moaned with periodic rasp against a backdrop of noise; an unreachable front man, hiding behind a black wig and Marfan syndrome-affected, long and slender alien body. Then, followed an incredible set of catchy modern rock mixed with more experimental pieces. Unlike many indie outfits today, Deerhunter has something that is uniquely theirs, a lot of it born from Cox’s strange demeanor and breathy remorseful tone.
In three days, I had experienced a number of acts that I had never seen before. I had wandered a bit without direction and found my way to some unforgettable shows that I would not have otherwise seen, such as Patton Oswalt‘s comedy hour and The Zombies. I also caught some bands that I had wanted to see for a long time, and it was all condensed into a short period of time and space.
At festivals, each group’s individuality can be lost within the struggle to see other sets. Bumbershoot is sparsely populated enough to maneuver and manage without being overwhelmed. It also provides great spaces to decompress between shows, sit down, and get out of the heat. These spaces range from the Flatstock poster show and the art machines at the Fisher Pavillion to the comedy shows and theatrical productions. The overall experience is not overwhelming, the unique nature of each set, not too confused by the last.
The main issue that I have with Bumbershoot is that I believe that there could be a little more forward thinking in the music and side booths. Many acts were disappointingly bland and, besides the music and art, the grounds were filled with crafts and promotional giveaways that offered very little new or refreshing. One suggestion for the organizers would be to do something as inventive as they did with the “first electronic music instrument jam session” at Bumbershoot 1971. Another more innovative approach would be to have everyone downloads an app for their smart phones that would control a laser emitting square monolith on the main stage to produce synth sounds and trigger samples from other stages at the festival? Or how about doing something like hiring poets to create improvisational pieces within the crowd, rather than having actual staff zombies perpetuate a vacuous hipster fad?
Who knows what next year might hold? One thing that never changes with Bumbershoot, is that it has been consistently changing year by year since it’s inception, over 4 decades ago, and that there’s enough to choose from for each individual to create their own individual experience.