DAY 1 : Bumbershoot 2012 [Skerik, King Khan, Oberhofer, Janes Addiction]

Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival
Seattle Center
Seattle, Wa

For me, the first day of this year’s Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival began with a performance by Skerik’s Bandalabra on the Starbucks stage.  Referred to as the Mural Amphitheater throughout the rest of the year, the outdoor stage sits at one end of a grass lawn sandwiched in between the Space Needle and the Pacific Science center.  Led by Skerik, Seattle’s own punk-jazz pioneer, the 4-piece jazz-rock ensemble jammed through a variety of tunes, switching seamlessly from rhythmic psych grooves to monster metal riffs to, at one point, a Coltrane cover.  For a few songs, Skerik put down his saxophone and rapped into a microphone, distortion scrambling his words over heavy beats.  Playing a mischievous class warrior provocateur, he implored the crowd to rise up against their “oppressors”–their oppressors being the baby boomers and young families casually sipping iced lattes in the Starbucks premium lounge in the rear of the venue.  The crowd roared approvingly, then returned to grooving out to Skerik’s sonic intrigue.

Next up were King Khan and the Shrines at the Tune-In Stage, a larger structure set up in the middle of the festival layout.  For someone who’s known to perform wearing nothing but bikini briefs, King Khan played it conservative, donning a shimmery shirt and headdress.  The 9-piece Shrines backed him up in their signature matching black and gold uniforms with donkey-teeth necklaces.  The show was intense, frenetic, but one got the sense that it was the tightly-controlled product of the relationship between a master showman and his band.  Their third –and in my opinion, best– song, “Welfare Bread” came off especially well, with the horn section blaring away and the bassist and guitarist sharing backing vocal duties in a single microphone.  “Mmm hmm, lemme have y’all eat up my welfare bread,” King Khan intoned during an interlude.  The group played along, jumping and whirling along with the music.  At almost every point in the show, at least one of the members was surfing in the crowd or hamming it up in the photo pit.  Later, the band performed several new songs, including  a tribute to Jay Reatard.  At the conclusion of the show, it was hard not to feel like I had witnessed the post-everything reincarnation of James Brown on stage.

After King Khan, I wandered the grounds for a couple of hours.  Later, I regrouped by the central fountain and ate the pizza that I had packed for lunch.  British neo-soul band, The Heavy was playing back over at the Tune-In stage, and I overheard the end of their set while watching families play in the fountain.

photo by Morgan Keuler

Meanwhile, on fountain lawn at the Sub Pop stage, Oberhofer was setting up.  I wasn’t familiar with them before Bumbershoot, but the write-up in the pamphlet was intriguing.  Also their press agent emailed me and asked me if I would be interested in interviewing the band.  I declined, but if I had known what I was in for, I definitely would have taken them up on the offer, just to see what kind of over-the-top, ultra-enthusiastic-and-upbeat things these guys would say.  Basically, Oberhofer is a fledgling power pop band led by Brad Oberhofer, a dorky kid from New York by way of Tacoma.  He and his friends, “the Oberhelpers” (not really), like to play fun songs for teenage girls and their parents, who filled the crowd in approximately equal proportion.  Singing and addressing the crowd with the same spondaic yelp,  Oberhofer delivered a consistent message to the audience:  Songs are fun, Brad is fun, and Oberhofer the band is Ober fun.   About two-thirds of the way through the show, “Happy Birthday” was sung to the group’s touring technician, with Brad shrilly showing off his vocal range.

Overheard pre-show exchange:  “I don’t think I know him!” said one girl, poutily.  “Yeah you do,” assured her friend.  “His song is on that telephone commercial.”  Not having seen said telephone commercial, I was left out of the Oberdose party.

Shaking the cobwebs out after Oberhofer, I casually checked out the Promenade stage, where Portland-basedsinger-songwriter Alela Diane was finishing up her set.  I only stayed for one song, “The Crimson Rose,” but it was quite beautiful.  I left wishing that I had seen her whole performance.  Unfortunately, I had a date with destiny over at Key Arena.

Jane’s Addiction was headlining the first night, and the stadium was full.  The L.A. porn-rockers were reunited yet again, apparently, to promote their new album, The Great Escape Artist.  By all accounts, it isn’t very good, but to be fair, I haven’t even heard it.  In any case, I was there– like most of the packed Key Arena crowd, I’d imagine– to see if the classic band could still put on a good show.

Before Perry & co. took the stage, a recording of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” played through the arena, complete with a corresponding light show.  I briefly wondered If I had accidentally stepped into one of the adjacent, Pacific Science Center’s  “Laser Floyd” shows.  In retrospect, I also wonder why the band chose a far more legendary group’s jam to warm up the crowd.

After “Laser Floyd” had ended, Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, and Stephen Perkins took the stage, along with replacement bassist, Chris Chaney.  Original bassist, Eric Avery, was not present, having joined the band for merely one of its several reunions in recent years.  Duff McKagen of G’n’R fame, who co-wrote several of the songs on the new album, was also absent, having quit the band, supposedly due to Farrell’s newfound interest in “electronics.”  Those electronics were on full display in Key Arena, when the opening song of the evening, “Underground” kicked in.  A new track, the song showcased Dave Navarro’s signature hard rock riffs while adding in punishing machine gun beats, synchronized with pulsating strobes.  The result seemed like a full-on aural assault.

Not having listened to Jane’s Addiction in about a decade, it was easy for me to forget how integral the theatrical aspect is to their performances.  This tour featured a trio of performers who twirled in flowing dresses, hung suspended from ladders, and writhed around in bondage gear, which I assume was to remind the audience that people used to have sex to this music twenty years ago.  Still, there were aspects of the visual show that seemed quite innovative.  During the song “Splash A Little Water On It,” a performer quite literally washed his face in front of a mirror, incidentally affixing a large, grotesque mask to his head in the process.  Later, a short video, filmed in the style of a documentary, showed children playing with a doll that was designed to be abused.  I found this less tasteless than beguiling, and in any case, an attempt at incorporating performance art into pop music, however ham-fisted, is always a welcome change in my book.

Seeing Jane’s Addiction on this tour was a case of somewhat low expectations that were ultimately fulfilled.  Throughout the night, songs like “Jane Says” and “Been Caught Stealing” came off flawlessly, as was to be expected.  The sound quality of Key Arena was less than optimal, as was also to be expected.  And Perry Farrell’s wail, now that of a 53-year-old hard-living, hard-drinking rockstar, had lost some edge.  This too was no surprise.  The question is, how does a band that peddled youthful, transgressive hedonism stay relevant in middle age?  Farrell, always the creative force behind the project, is by all accounts a wealthy man, thanks to his entrepreneurship regarding Lollapalooza and various side projects.  He can still wail, but what does he have to say anymore?  It begs the question, “did he ever have anything to say?

By the end of the set, all parties involved seemed exhausted.  The audience had thinned a bit from the stadium, with the largest exodus occurring after “Been Caught Stealing.”  After the band had finished, it was assumed that there would be no encore, and the house lights went up, much to the relief of the tired, sobering-up crowd.  All in all, Jane’s Addiction seemed like a good fit to cap off the first night of the festival.