Seattle, WA – Labor Day Weekend 2013 – This was the 3rd time I’d attended the annual music, comedy and arts festival that has taken over Seattle Center for years. It’s a good time when the band line-up is strong and this years had its share of standouts, more on those as you read on. But, I realized the major drawback of the format this year – call it the disadvantages of “quick service concerting”.
To squeeze as much into the 3-day lineup as they do, bands have sets that aren’t any longer than an hour. Most bands have sets that are 45 minutes. It’s great exposure, there are always plenty of people on hand to see a set, even if they are waiting for the next band. As a concert go’er there to see a few of your favorites, it can be hit or miss. If your there for the experience all up, it is a great festival, and I’ll always love it for that. Tons of food options, more entertainment than you know what to do with, all in the great retro-future, former World’s Fair location, Seattle Center. If the weather cooperates, as it had that weekend, it’s a great place to be. Throw in a beach visit and a BBQ and you can put together a great Labor Day weekend. If the lineup is right, I’d always be happy to make a day of it and head down.
But, I think I’d temper my excitement to see a set from the bands I most want to see. In the two days we went, the first day I turned over to my daughter basically. She’s four and is a big fan of the latest Fun record. Me, not so much. Even so, happy to head into the event and bring her to her first “official” concert. She’d seen Casper Baby Pants before, but this was her first time at a real “adult” concert. We followed the throngs into the Key Arena – a shitty venue on the best day – and made our way up to the top section for the show. Fun was Fun. Did their thing, played the songs to sound almost exactly as you hear them on the album. Isabel sang along and had a good time. Mission accomplished. We walked around a bit afterwards, but didn’t really see any other bands, just took in the events and activities.
On Labor Day, I made my way back by myself with my collection of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books for the down times and a plan to see Alt-J, Deerhunter & the Joy Formidable. In between sets got to see the always fun Superchunk and Red Kross. On the first day for the Fun show when we ended up in the nose bleed seats at Key Arena, I was worried that the floor was set only for VIPs. My faith in Bumbershoot’s strategy for their first time use of Key Arena was restored on the 2nd day when I waited in a long line to get on the floor for the @Alt_J show.
My faith was further restored in the music fan yoots of our day. I was very likely the oldest guy on the floor in a sea of kids excited to see Alt-J. I think many of them were there for @whoisMGMT which were taking the stage right after, but it was clear during the Alt-J set that they were also big fans of the band. And why not? They were great. There were echoes of Massive Attack and the trip hop bands of the 90s. There was a seriousness to the show and their approach to the music. A seriousness with a healthy dash of melody and fun to make the people go crazy. Great musicians with a finger on the pulse of what is fresh and exciting while still being accessible.
They lined themselves up evenly across the front of the stage, rather than with the drummer set in the back. I love that set up. Seeing a lot more bands doing that when they have the space on the stage. The democracy and the anti-ego of the cool kids shining through. Their sound – as many people who have enjoyed An Awesome Wave know – is this effortless mix of psychedelic hip hop and rock. All with a lyricism that might have you going to Wikipedia to understand the references. It all transfers on stage, no light show needed, just high quality sound and material propelled by a band not slowing down any time soon.
After the Alt-J show, I made my way outside and over to the Fountain Lawn stage where I plopped down and pulled out my book. I was holed up for the Deerhunter show in about 3 hours which I was VERY much looking forward to. Here’s a plus side of Bumbershoot, grab some food – pretty much anything you ‘d want – grab a seat, do some people watching and wait, some music will come along in no time. While I hung out and waited Red Kross and @Superchunk graced the stage. Superchunk the stand out for me. 2nd time I’ve seen them and they are great fun. Pure pop punk goodness. A band that I sort of got into the first time around (Slack Motherfucker anyone?), but never really became a die hard fan. But now, finally, having seen them a few times I can confidently say that they are trustworthy good time.
Finally, Deerhunter was up next. Ever since my good friend Travis E from FL introduced me to them, they’ve made my top 5 bands of all time. They are so good. A perfect blend of psychedelic rock and punk, their albums make me want to play them over and over again. I came in at their last record – Halcyon Digest – and went back to their first two records. I saw how big a departure and homecoming that HD was. It was their most accessible record to date. Then, Monomania came out this year and challenged me. Not as accessible as HD, but still an amazing record. I expected to like it on the first listed. There were a few standouts, but it was a bit of a head-scratcher. Then, after a few more listens, it opened up to me. Much more punk than HD. Maybe they got a few influences from their label mates The Black Lips. Maybe this is what happens when you record the album overnight, sometimes into the early morning hours. The band sites references from the Ramones to Bo Diddley.
Since I was introduced to Deerhunter years ago, I couldn’t wait to see them. And it was not a let down, but it was a show that ended just as it was picking up steam. The band had an hour or so and was billed as the “headliner” for that stage at the end of the day. For someone as impulsive as Bradford Cox, Deerhunter’s lead singer, these kinds of restraints must drive him nuts. The time they did spend on stage was great. They sounded amazing, they diverted into strange soundscapes led by Bradford’s amazing guitar work from time to time, they played a great selection of songs from their catalog with a focus on Monomania tracks.
Bradford also made things interesting with his occasional diversions from the music. He wore a wig for most of the show, he mocked the crowd for being too rowdy when we were anything but, he took a short break to smoke a cigarette behind an amp. I think it’s the sign of a band having strong artistic leadership when their fronted by a charismatic and unpredictable artist. The music world needs more characters. A role that Bradford is happy take for himself as he explains in a Rolling Stone article from a few years back. I admit I was a bit annoyed during the show that he was letting outside forces distract him, but it added to the experience instead of detracting from it. I’d rather have a band and a front man that has high expectations, that creates a spectacle rather than one that goes through the motions.
After their time was up and the band reminded Bradford of the impending curfew, they ended the set with a ripping rendition of Monomania from the latest record of the same name. It featured tons of feedback rips, crazy solos and sonic explorations. The band left their instruments cranked and feeding back a ton of noise and they left the stage. It was up to the concert crew to shut the instruments off. The band was angry at the situation, Bradford was angry at us, but I was still grateful for what we’d seen. Even a brief exposure to brilliance is better than none at all.
But, there is the difficulty with Bumbershoot, they try to put too much into it. I’d rather there was one less band on the Fountain Lawn stage and a longer set list for Deerhunter than how they managed it. I’d still go see Deerhunter in any circumstance vs. not having them come to town at all, but I’d have my expectations appropriately set for the future.
After the Deerhunter set, I made my way over to another stage for the overlapping Joy Formidable set that had started as Deerhunter was finishing up. They too had a short set at the end of the day. They also had a stage set up that had the drum kit right up front w/ the other band members, of which there are only two. They too had struggles with their set, but theirs was with their equipment rather than their personalities. Of their time, they probably had to spend 15 – 20 minutes of it trying to solve their drum kit problems. The time they did spend playing music was good, a solid set. But next to Deerhunter, it felt a little formulaic. But, anything would. Again, with Bumbershoot the way it is, I didn’t leave satisfied by a Joy Formidable set, like I was said by a full Arcade Fire set at Coachella from their first appearance there. If you’ll do an outdoor festival, less is more.
The Joy Formidable are a great band, harkening back to the great grunge sounds of the 90s and aping a bit of Smashing Pumpkins. They get more sound out of their 3 piece than some bands get with many more players. Tons of energy, tons of appreciation from the band, a big loud sound. I definitely need to see them again to really enjoy them, can’t really judge them as a live band based on what they did there, but what I did see was fun. Two solid albums and a promising short set, I look forward to hearing what they do next, even if it won’t be as surprising or challenging as say the next turn Deerhunter will make. It’ll be good clean fun.
All in all – Deerhunter and Alt-J ruled the weekend for me. I’d definitely go back to Bumbershoot again, but only for a band I couldn’t miss otherwise. If I had my druthers, their format would be more Coachella-like with bands playing full sets. Keep the weekend packed w/ all the comedy and theater and such, but just pull back on the # of bands you try to squeeze in, let those are booked realize a full set. Let them surprise us.