Bumbershoot is a functional festival, from the line-up to the location. There’s no really big, must-see names; no Jay-Z, U2, or Arcade Fire. There’s also no remote setting; no stunning vistas of the Gorge or the seclusion of Doe Bay. And neither is it one of those urban festivals where performance spaces take over unnatural music environments like multi-storey parking lots and art galleries and bicycle shops.
Instead, you get the bus to Seattle Center and every stage, food option, stall, and restroom is but a seven minute concrete walk in any direction. Then you go home. It’s very well-planned out and the toilets are relatively clean and indoors, and the reverse is often the first lament of any large-scale festival. No quibbles there, but it also means Bumbershoot has a certain type of controlled magic to it. The unexpected is conspicuous by its absence. You won’t get any secret gigs or wander into a spontaneous drum circle, but then again you won’t get lost in a forest or wander into a spontaneous drum circle. It’s familiar and it’s ours, and simply being a very functional kind of festival certainly doesn’t preclude Bumbershoot from being fun. It is a relatively straight-forward meritocratic experience in a purpose-built environment, and if you want to find new music and art to enjoy, the festival will reward you.
The sun—oh the sun!—was out and the sky was a cloudless blue and Saturday felt like the height of summer rather than the end of it. For this reason everyone, everyone was happy. Today the sun was everything.
“Get pickpocketing-close, motherfuckers, and let’s do this!” shouted Thomas Grey of riotous Seattle hip-hop outfit Champagne Champagne into the mic at 2:17pm, bringing a dose of subversive ruckus to the otherwise orderly proceedings. Almost immediately, speaker stacks were climbed, heads were banged, and the trio found themselves fanned to the beat by every right hand of every member of the audience moving as one. Champagne Champagne were juvenile but never sloppy, and none of their kaleidoscopic rap songs sounded the same. There were high ratios of both tie-dye and angry Sonics t-shirts to both non-tie-dye and non-angry Sonics t-shirts.
“There are a lot of people out here! This is cool!” Minnesota’s Andrew Bothwell aka Astronautalis dorked into the mic at 3:16pm as he walked on stage. His fresh-from-the-mall plaid shirt tucked into his chinos and his hair waxed into a nice firm side-parting, Bothwell looked like a cross between Kiefer Sutherland and Neil Patrick Harris who’s about to meet your parents. All that changed however as his drummer and a pair of bearded laptop technicians started the show and he began a werewolf-like transformation into an angst-ridden, twitchy, red-faced lurching loon with a garden hose for a jugular vein as he strenuously growled in a timbre not unlike Napalm Death’s vocals and the music took over his soul. His piercing Scandinavian blue eyes surveyed the crowd like he might just kill us all. His affected slapping of his head and clawing at his eyeballs as he rumbled and rap-metaled his way through tracks made it seem like it was ’97 all over again.
“I’m now going to give myself a break so I don’t have an aneurysm” he said to laughs. “I rap about the Age of Enlightenment and old dead physicists,” he explained, after an unexpected song about Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the Periodic Table. “In 2012 it’s not about ‘Black & Yellow,’ it’s about boron and sodium.” The turning point of his set however was when he asked the crowd for subjects for him to incorporate into a freestyle. This would go on to be one of the musical highlights of today. The list that was yelled out: tarot cards, bunnies, the Large Hadron Collider, Sea Anenomes, Bob Seger, and famine in Africa (to which he shot back, “You really know how to turn the party out, don’t ya?”). As Astronautalis turned in an astounding and extremely humorous freestyle covering all of the above subjects, he literally never missed a beat. It was very impressive.
The sun was glorious.
Four guys in black, two of which rock cowboy hats, make up Tijuana’s Nortec Collective. Producers Bostich and Fussible played the entire set live from their iPads (yes, iPads) next to their trumpet and tuba player and accordionist. Relentless and brainless uptempo beats pulsed from the stage as the brass and squeezebox parped along from 4:03 pm, but the sight of two men bobbing about holding their iPads like clipboards while sliding their fingers across them as if they were Steve Jobs presenting a keynote isn’t the most pleasing visual aesthetic for live dance music. But then again neither is watching someone DJ while hunched over a laptop.
At Bumbershoot you can buy beads, warm hats, airbrushed pictures of the Space Needle, and borderline offensive caricatures.
What can be said about Shabazz Palaces that hasn’t been said already? I’ll tell you this though, after an album so rich in sonic exploration and creativity, Shabazz’s live show needs a serious rethink. Frontman Ish coralled behind a folding trestle at 5:43pm with a tribal-patterned tablecloth on it like it was a Free Tibet booth and rapping as if he was a particularly animated bingo-caller does not do their sound justice. Music as adventurous and outlandish as this deserves a similarly adventurous and outlandish live show. Costume changes. Masks. Dancers. UFOs. The music demands these things. At the same time, these beats were the best the festival heard all day. Like the beginning loop of “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” that sounds like the voice of four-year-old trying to get your attention from the year 1392 through a time-traveling electric toaster. And the part when similarly local psychedelic-space-rap duo TheeSatisfaction came out to sing and dance on “Swerve…” as Ish played air drums with his maracas was also pretty fantastic.
Sticking my head inside the Visual Art area where the theme was Magic, I saw a spinning and levitating tire accompanied by washing machine noises, which was cool. I also saw framed portraits of Craigslist print-outs of 1940s magicians’ equipment for sale, which was not cool.
A seven minute concrete walk later, I was in the air-conditioned and cavernous EMP Sky Church to hear the last two songs of Beat Connection at 6:52 pm, the first of which was their “hit” “In the Water,” awash with Balearic synths, pop hooks and harmonies, and happy steel drums. The Seattle trio was dressed in shirts and has sensible haircuts and looks very, very young. A giant screen backdrop dwarfed the band and spewed a torrent of mind-bending visual clips in the darkness. Shabazz Palaces should have played here instead. The band finished its set with a cover of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” featuring local gospel singer Ray Dalton (also very young) whose deep, powerful voice effortlessly overrode the rest of the group combined. Both these artists are ones to watch.
Garnier Fructis generously gave away thousands of tiny sample packets of shampoo as part of a promotional campaign. People giving away these tiny sample packets of shampoo were numerous at Bumbershoot and their offers frequent.
No-one could take their eyes off Yukimi Nagano, lead singer of Little Dragon, who didn’t stop spinning, swaying, and sashaying for the duration of their show. At 7:31 pm she was dressed in neon blue running shoes, gold leggings, a miniskirt made of fabric squares, a near-but-not-quite zebra-print top and a huge silk shawl which she wore over her head for the entire gig. The band’s music was 21st century crossover pop-electronica done right, clean and tight. Current single “Ritual Union” came early in the set, complete with the unique “bwarrrunnng” sound that’s triggered at the end of every verse that sounds like a buzzer on a ’70s game show. Warm bass tones and benevolent beeps formed the backbone of their songs. Surprisingly, tonight the band veered away from an expected catalogue of radio edits to more of a free-form, improvised show comprised of expertly-executed ten-minute-plus hypnotic house music jams which the audience actively enjoyed. Nagano poised herself sideways to the crowd and did huge Pete Townshend arm windmills with her tambourine as Shabazz Palaces and Thee Satisfaction danced wildly offstage.
There is something for everyone at Bumbershoot, and with that brings all the strengths and weaknesses of any and every event that has something for everyone.
Ethiopian-born, San Francisco-based Meklit Hadero began her show without a word of introduction at 9:07pm. Instead she softly sang with passionate restraint as she gave her acoustic guitar the occasional strum. Wearing an olive green dress and sandals and flanked by her trumpet player, drummer and double bassist who would all later get their turns in the soloist spotlight, Hadero slinked her body to her music, drawing on free jazz, soul, and traditional East African sounds while her vocals recalled Joni Mitchell and Joss Stone. She sounded breathy and careful. In between songs, when someone from the audience shouted “Golden voice!” she giggled impishly.
Seattle’s Pezzner played very loud house and techno music in the Sky Church on a superb soundsystem to a sparsely-filled but devoted dancefloor. Water from the giant outdoor park fountain hung in the evening air and made the air smell like water from a giant outdoor park fountain as Portland’s STRFKR played an excellent rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Backed by three singers, a guitarist, bassist, and a drummer all dressed in smart white shirts and sharp black suits, gospel legend Mavis Staples took us all to church at 9:39 pm with her joyful and unabashed songs of praise. After clapping and stomping through a song about Pharaoh, the Red Sea, and Moses, she exclaimed “Thank you!” before giving a throaty chuckle and a rockstar’s “Yeaaahhh!” “We’re here tonight to bring you joy and happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations!” Staples continued, with a measured dose of James Brown’s exuberance and a large portion of Louis Armstrong’s worn, leathery brogue. She possesses a voice so masterful and potent and beautiful that hearing it is like hearing a Maserati top 100mph. Staples sang her latest single “You Are Not Alone,” from her album of the same name written and produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy which won her a Grammy. We heard her sing the heavenly line, “Every tear on every face tastes the same” as the celestial glow of the Space Needle towered over us all like a giant angel.