Although they’ve released new albums in 2011 and 2014 respectively, it’s difficult to deny that Blondie could be accurately considered a nostalgia act. If you were to take a look at their wikipedia page, you’ll find it’s own section for former members, and most people were likely at the show to hear the classics, not the newer cuts that I, admittedly, wasn’t even aware of until just recently. But if members of The Grateful Dead can turn out the types of crowds that they have recently, 20 years after their lead singer/guitarist and primarily songwriter passed away, these New Wave/Punk legends should be looking all right in their current formation, which retains the imitable Debbie Harry on vocals; co-founder/guitarist and Harry‘s love interest throughout the band’s original run, Chris Stein; and original drummer, Clem Burke.
The double-edged sword of possessing Debbie Harry‘s iconic status is that she earned it as an energetic youth, and an undeniable sex symbol, so to walk back out on the stage over 40 years after first forming the group, judgements about the age of the band members and their physical appearances are unavoidable. With their more recent work being less visible in the current overloaded digital landscape, most concert goers who are seeing them for the past accomplishments that they achieved decades ago, want them to be frozen in time, to a certain extent. But, of course, Stein‘s hair is a stark white and Harry isn’t the same slight, young, and edgy, former Playboy bunny, who can still penetrate and paralyze you with her eyes, even through old photographs on the internet. What I immediately noticed, however, and which I find to be far more important, is that both Harry and Stein looked really healthy. This is of special note seeing that Stein‘s complications with a rare autoimmune disease was a major factor in the groups original disbanding in 1982. They reformed again in 1997 and released the album, No Exit, 2 years later, scoring a hit with the song “Maria” which was penned by original keyboardist, Jimmy Destri, who left in 2004 to treat his drug addiction. They may not have had the energy that they did when they were regulars playing CBGB in the 70s, but they looked good and, for better or worse, this wasn’t a sweaty dive, either; it was the mainstage of an outdoor music festival.
From the moment that they kicked into their lead off track, stalker anthem, “One Way Or Another,” it was a reminder of what was really important about the group, all along: the music. And the music has definitely endured. Not only that, but so has Debbie Harry‘s voice. They followed it up with the new track, “Rave” from last year’s Ghosts Of Download, which takes on a different tone live than the more electronic approach on the album. Even that early on, a new cut didn’t disrupt the set at all and, if you check out youtube comments for “Rave,” you’ll find plenty of praise for their latest efforts, with a surprising number of longtime fans even claiming that it is their favorite Blondie song ever. Next, the band went into “Hanging On The Telephone,” before breaking out another new track titled, “Mile High” and then into “Call Me.” The set actually mixed in a healthy number of songs from their last album, including “A Rose By Any Name,” which features Beth Ditto from The Gossip on the studio version. The sound of these new tunes fit admirably enough into the bands catalog and setlist, while sounding remarkably current and bringing plenty of variety.
And that’s another thing to remember about the group; they always had a very broad sound, sampling from various genres, even helping to bring some of those sounds further into the mainstream consciousness. “The Tide Is High,” which they performed at this show, and is another example of a cover that the band brought to international recognition with their version, was a song originally recorded by rocksteady group, The Paragons, and retained it’s Jamaican leanings. “Heart Of Glass,” which they closed out the set with, was actually one of the first Blondie songs ever written, but went through several variations in style, from being more of a ballad to even a reggae tune, before evolving into the major disco/pop hit that it became. And then there’s “Rapture,” credited as the first “rap” video ever played on MTV and the first track to hit number 1 in the US featuring rap. The video featured hip hop icon, Fab 5 Freddy, who it also name checks, as well as graffiti artists like Lee Quinones and artist Jean Michel Basquiat, who, if my Pop-Up Video memory is correct, filled in behind the tables in the video for Grandmaster Flash, who was unavailable during the shooting. Giving additional props to hip hop history, the band mixed in a cover of the Beastie Boys‘ hit, “Fight For Your Right To Party.” At another point, they also worked in another unexpectedly weird cover of the Deee Lite song, “Groove Is In The Heart.”
Blondie were pioneers and, if you’re a fan of the band, I believe that you’ll enjoy their current live show. As long as she’s been doing this, it’s easy for Debbie Harry to come out, own the stage, and deliver, but I imagine that they are well aware of their history and the expectations placed on them. The frontwoman was wearing sunglasses with studded lenses and a hot pink lycra outfit over black, full-body fishnet, although it was somewhat baggy and a great deal more modest than the outfits that she would rock in the band’s heyday. And there’s a strange duality to the idea of an artistic project that is so closely tied to a particular time period and a movement associated with youth, rebellion, and sexuality. But while the cynics are understandable, when discussing such nostalgia acts, I believe that it’s important to consider the reality of Blondie and why such elements are part of their identity. Many people may not realize this, but Harry was already around 33-years-old, with a completely formed sense of self and identity, when the band first really broke through, although her physical appearance may have suggested someone much younger. She may have been sexualized, but she owned it and a major portion of her draw as a sex symbol was her power as an individual — she wasn’t weak or passive, by any stretch of the imagination; everything about the way that she carried herself, exuded strength and formidability. Even the name Blondie, itself, was an example of her taking ownership of the catcalls. This is why I believe in the importance of recognizing the expectations drawn on a group of this nature, as well as the iconic status of the artist, both in the past, as well as in present day. Blondie has aged, but they are still making creative strives forward; something that I find respectable, whether or not you feel that the newer work is as strong as what they’ve created previously. The same exact way that Debbie Harry owned her identity and power in her youth, she continues to do that now as a 70 year old woman. Even if they weren’t my favorite act of the day, I still find that difficult not to get behind.
To make sure that we got across town in time to catch the late night show that we were attending, we left the Zidell Yards before the Blondie set was officially over. A byproduct of throwing the festival in July, the sun was still out when we headed out, but it was nice and dark when we arrived at The Crystal Ballroom to see a fairly hefty line outside of the sold-out venue. We moved past everyone to the window, picked up our fancy wristbands and headed upstairs. As the name suggests, The Crystal is an old ballroom with springs under the floorboards that provide some slight give and bounce when the crowd is dancing around on it. The ballroom/mainstage venue area is on the top of 3 floors with McMennamin‘s Ringler’s Pub on the bottom floor and a smaller bar/venue referred to as Lola’s Room sandwiched between them. It’s a beautiful venue, one that I have a history with, and one of my favorites in the North West.
We missed whoever the opening act was, but got up toward the stage only a few minutes into Del The Funky Homosapien‘s set. When you’re at a hip hop show and Del isn’t even the headliner, then you know it has to be a solid lineup. The emcee was only 18 years old when he released his debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, back in 1991. The album featured the classic, “Mistadobalina,” and put him on the map early, but the Oakland rapper wasn’t content and made a shift with 1993‘s No Need For Alarm, that would go on to define both his career and an entirely new style of rap, unique to himself and his bay area cohorts. A lot of people either don’t know, or have completely forgoten, that his cousin is none other than Ice Cube — Del even wrote for the Cube-affiliated outfit, Da Lench Mob, prior to releasing his own work. Cube co-produced the first album, helping him get his foot in the door, but Del needed to establish his own voice and went on to produce the sophomore effort with the assistance of his Hieroglyphics collective, comprised of the members of Souls Of Mischief (A Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai. ); producer, Domino; rapper, Casual; and shortly thereafter, the emcee, Pep Love. Both separately and together, the members of Hiero have crafted a sound that has become synonymous with the bay, consisting of laid-back grooves, jazz and funk samples, and lyricism that is often much more consciously minded than the aggressive, gangster-oriented material that was coming out of LA at the time.
I hadn’t been to a Del solo show in at least a decade, so it was good to see. Most recently, I caught him with the reunited Deltron 3030, his futuristic space rap collaboration with producer, Dan The Automator, and turntablist, Kid Koala. It was a great show, complete with a full band, backing vocalists, string and horn sections… the whole nine, but with so much to focus on, the rapper isn’t as out front in that sort of setting. I’ve also caught him performing with the full Hiero collective a couple of times in the past; however, aware that he’s, arguably, the most well-known figure in the camp, the emcee typically drifts deep into the background, even sitting down on the stage, to insure that his fellow crew members get shine of their own. For this Project Pabst performance, he was accompanied by Domino on the tables behind him and A-Plus manning a second mic, but this time, it was all about Del.
Standing center stage, he spoke to the audience in a manner that I haven’t seen from him in the past, and he put on an incredibly animated display as he tore through choice cuts from his expansive catalog. With so many notable tracks generated from projects like Hiero, Deltron, and the Gorillaz, I found myself surprised by hearing some of the quality solo material that I had forgotten about. Notable moments from the setlist included the Deltron 3030 jam, “Virus,” and his ode to hygiene, “If You Must,” which I assume that a good amount of kids first became acquainted with when it appeared in the videogame Tony Hawk Underground. When A-Plus stepped up to perform a Souls Of Mischief tune, it was a welcomed feature adding dimension to the set; however, there was a different, very specific cameo that I was hoping for, but never arrived. In 2008, Del delivered Eleventh Hour, his fifth studio album and first and only release on El-P‘s Definitive Jux label. This was the followup to Both Sides Of The Brain, which came out a full 8 years earlier, and included the highly slept-on, “Offspring,” boasting production and alternating verses by EL. Although, I received encouragement via instagram likes and retweets from Del, when I suggested that the cameo take place, leading up to the festival, it’s clear to me now that Run The Jewels must have been long gone, by that point, in route to Chicago for their Pitchfork Festival appearance the following day. Of course, in the end, Del killed it and his show didn’t really need any further assistance. He closed out his set with the Domino-produced, “At The Helm,” from Hieroglyphics‘s critically acclaimed 1998 debut, 3rd Eye Vision, before grabbing his skateboard on his way back to the greenroom.
Although I had seen him perform previously with the rest of the Wu Tang Clan, I was really looking forward to finally catching Ghostface Killah do a full set of his own material. This was especially true since I missed him the last time that he came through Seattle with a full band in promotion of his Adrian Younge-produced Italian mob/thriller-themed, 12 Reasons To Die, album. Or, to be more accurate, my son was sick, so I gave my passes to a prospective writer for the site who didn’t come through, then acted like a disrespectful prick to me about it, resulting in my girlfriend successfully urging me not to go over to his home a few blocks away, knocking him in the skull, and getting arrested. At any rate, I’d driven out of state to catch this show this time, and was planning for it to be my opportunity.
Ghostface (born Dennis Coles) is not only the most consistent member of the Wu Tang, as far as quality is concerned, but he’s also proven to be one of the most prolific; especially in recent years. After dropping the album 36 Seasons at the tail end of last year, Ghost has already released the follow up to 12 Reasons to Die in 2015, with a sequel to his classic 2000 release, Supreme Clientele, slated for later this year. Also on the docket for 2015 is the highly anticipated full-length Doomstarks team up with MF Doom, adding to the other collaboration that he put out with the young Canadian jazz trio, BadBadNotGood in February. I hadn’t had the opportunity to check out that last release, but for this show, BBNG was supposed to be backing the Staten Island rapper. I wondered if they would be going through material that spanned his entire career, or simply restricting it to their recorded collaborative effort, but most of all, I just hoped that he was going to actually show up this time.
To be completely honest, I had a bad feeling about things from the beginning, as Ghostface has a history of bailing on shows, as do other select Wu Tang members. And, when you’re already skeptical about something like that, the fact that they were playing Exmilitary by Death Grips (a group notorious for bailing on shows and canceling tours) as the transition music, wasn’t the greatest omen. As the instruments for BBNG were brought out and the members of the trio even made an appearance on stage, momentarily, to set them up and adjust them, I had to believe that I should take that as a positive sign and shake off as much of my apprehension as possible, but it was difficult; this shit was taking way too fucking long to get going.
Eventually, the the members of BadBadNotGood returned and apologized, explaining that they didn’t have any idea where their WU Tang collaborator was at and that, although they’d tried to call him repeatedly, they had been unable to “get a hold of Ghost.” The trio explained that they were just going to play their own set of originals, as the only alternative available, and then proceeded to go all out, giving it everything that they had with their frenetic free jazz offerings. Still, it just wasn’t going to be enough; people were pissed. I’m actually a huge fan of this type of music, but… like I said, people were pissed. It was disappointing, to say the least and bringing their pal out with the saxophone as a special guest wasn’t going to make up for the absence of one of the greatest emcees of all time. BBNG original gained attention and helped build their subsequent fanbase, in large part, because of their instrumental jazz renditions of hip hop tracks, and there’s no question that they do know Ghostface, because they made a fucking album with him, but it was still sad watching 3 young, white Canadian guys, who look like they could still be in high school — one of which was wearing eyeglasses, shorts, a tank top, white athletic socks, and slip on vans — explaining that an iconic gangster rapper wouldn’t answer their calls, like the girlfriend that they actually have, but you just haven’t met her, because she lives in…. well… Canada. They put on a solid show for what it was, but, unfortunately, the faster that they played — the more that they attacked the keys, broke out thundering drumrolls, and conjured up those blistering basslines — the more that it felt as if they were shoveling water from a sinking canoe, which, by all accounts, is exactly what they were doing.
During their initial apology, BBNG also mentioned that Ghostface was “on tour,” which is true — he was touring with Raekwon — and the jazz group had independent festival dates of their own, but you’d assume that this stop in Portland was still supposed to be one that he made on that tour. How it felt to the me, and must have felt to plenty of others in attendance, is that Coles was touring with his old chum Rae and just didn’t see the point of following through with showing up for some “hipster festival” in Portland to perform with these young kids, so he put them in a rough position facing down a potentially frustrated mob. To make matters worse, the members of BadBadNotGood intermittently thanked everyone for sticking around and offered false hope that Ghostface might contact them and/or arrive at anytime, even though it became increasingly obvious that the cast of Ghosthunters have a better chance of actually capturing a real apparition on video than that ever happening. I actually saw Raekwon perform once where he showed up incredibly late, but delivered a tremendous set once he did, so it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that a similar situation could occur. Then again, I also went to an Inspectah Deck show where he never showed and Ghostface has failed to arrive more than once in Seattle before, as well.
Of course, this wound up with the worst case scenario and we eventually left to get some pizza down the street at Sizzle Pie. It was unfortunate, but it was still a noble booking attempt and the organizers can’t be knocked for it. In fact, for the inaugural festival, they successfully booked GZA, the most lyrical member of the WU, to perform one of my all time favorite albums, Liquid Swords, in it’s entirety, while backed by a full live band. That set was incredible, the main reason that I stayed throughout the entire weekend last year, and a big factor in me returning for this one. This year, I bounced after the first day, because, although I would have liked to have caught The Buzzcocks or seen what Wampire had to offer, it wasn’t worth it to me to stick around for 2015 Weezer and I really fucking hate Passion Pit… with a passion (perhaps, you’ve even read the review where I equate them to “bunk acid”). I opted to drive up to Olympia on Sunday to visit some friends, and wound up seeing Dan Higgs of Lungfish performing a surprise concert in a random yard, before checking out a really great hardcore band named, Health Problems, in a hot, sweaty garage across town.
Overall, I’m really pleased with the development of Project Pabst and look forward to whatever they put together next year. The second day’s lineup may not have been my particular cup of tea, but that’s just personal taste and, as an out-of-towner with a 3-year-old and a family, it was convenient to have all of the acts that I really wanted to check out consolidated on Saturday. If I lived in the Portland area or was able to carve out a bigger chunk of my week to be around, as I hope to next year, then I definitely would have hit up the Friday night concerts, seen the Brian Posehn comedy show on Thursday, and stuck around to catch the late night Sunday appearance by reunited San Mateo DIY garage punk outfit, The Mummies, at Dantes. Perhaps, my favorite aspect of Project Pabst is being able to watch it develop and grow. Although it is being thrown with the assistance of Superfly Entertainment, the co-creators behind Bonnaroo and Outside lands, the festival maintains its own unique vibe apart from those high priced, high profile operations, with an unpretentious environment that is incredibly relaxed and feels like a work in progress, created by organizers that are genuinely dedicated to monitoring and implementing new ideas from one year to the next. As a product, PBR may be getting lumped in with the idea of elitist hipsters, but it’s also a drink for gutter punks, and anyone and everyone else, for that matter — it’s not a pretentious beverage. Project Pabst doesn’t feel like some exclusive event for rich suburban kids that model themselves exclusively on recommendations from Pitchfork, Vice magazine, and/or Urban Outfitters; it’s just gravel, beer, music, and, most of all, refreshing.
So what were the major downsides, or suggestions? Well, the truth is that I don’t have a ton of complaints for the organizers themselves, considering that my biggest disappointments aren’t really created by anything major that they did. I’m sure that they didn’t book Ghostface expecting him to bail the way that he did. As for the second day lineup, I know that a ton of people were very pleased with the results; I appreciate the general approach and variety that they’re putting together and I’m still excited to see who they bring in next year. And the major reason that I don’t really have too many complaints is because of that feeling that the festival actually cares about making adjustments and improving upon their current model each year, which makes a huge difference to me. So, since I believe that they’re out there listening, what would I like to see happen? I don’t know… maybe, pursue that comedy element further by throwing together a larger late night showcase. The media tent has a fairly budget setup, but that probably doesn’t affect you and even that involved improvements from last year, with the water cooler being replenished much more regularly. Oh! And that’s another positive, free water filling station. But that also brings me to my biggest suggestion/disappointment; the shift to scheduling it in July.
It might sound misguided, but I’d actually like to see them move the festival back to late September. For one, it was just way too fucking hot this year. Another reason that I liked the previous, early fall scheduling is because I believe that one of the major strengths of Project Pabst is that it doesn’t feel like they’re really trying to compete with those other major festivals, but rather carving out their own unique space, and that late-September post-summer festival window allows it some space to breathe. But, in the end, the way that I believe that the new July format is wounded most of all is by the fact that, since the Zidell Yards festival grounds close down somewhat early — I’m assuming that this is both due to an imposed curfew and to allow attendees to make it to the late night performances outside of the premises — it’s still sunny out, when the headliners hit the stage. Last year, when a band like Tears For Fears or Modest Mouse closed out the day, the stage lights took over and the LED horn on the unicorn statue lit up. There’s a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but you know if if you’ve ever walked through a carnival at night. It’s the reason that the glow stick/bracelet industry remains so sound and the magic that draws families and packs of teenagers toward illuminated ferris wheels and cotton candy/churro stands at night like mindless clusters of zombie moths. In late September, dusk hit during the band closing out on the 2nd stage, and as the headliners poured out, you knew that the finale was there; after drinking beer in the sun all day, the crowd was treated to the payoff. This time around, Blondie was performing when the sun was still out, which both divided the attention of the crowd and didn’t provide quite the same satisfaction or closure. I knew that my night wasn’t over and that I’d be heading to the late night gig, but that wasn’t the case for everyone and, I feel like, as they continue to move certain aspects forward, this is one element that they may want to move backward on. In my opinion, it really would complement the rest of the progress, which I am absolutely convinced could only continue.