Bygone at Bumbershoot

Bumbershoot is Seattle’s largest outdoor music festival. Nick Martens, Jordan Barber, and Caitlin Boersma collectively attended all three days of this year’s festival, and all came away with varying degrees of satisfaction.

Most of the Bureau staffers have returned to Tacoma from summer vacation, and the first thing we did was get the hell out of town. Bumbershoot, Seattle’s Music and Arts festival, has taken place every Labor Day weekend for the past 37 years. The venue remains the majestic Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, and the Bureau was in attendance for all three days. Here’s what we thought of this year’s offering.

Nick Martens: Saturday

Music festivals love to play the trick of showing big acts early in the day to get people out of bed and into the grasps of lucrative beer booths. In fact, although stages were denoted only by a circled number on the official Bumbershoot map, maddeningly forcing readers to reference a key, the word “BEER” was neatly printed all over the illustrated festival grounds.

Bumbershoot clearly does not fuck around with its money-grubbing schemes. So, while the Pitchfork festival might book Deerhunter or Tapes n’ Tapes for its early-day hook, Bumbershoot uses the fucking Shins. Yes, one of the biggest acts for any Northwest music-lover played at 2:30 pm on the first day of the festival. Whatever it takes to get ‘em drinking early, I guess.

As if the scheduling wasn’t shameless enough, Bumbershoot also did not allow water bottles into the stadium that housed the main stage. I’m not kidding. See here for more details. I joked that a good lawyer could mount a pretty solid class action against the festival organizers for such blatant greed in the face of human suffering, but it honestly seemed wrong. Am I the only one who thinks there should be a law stating that any event must, at the very least, allow sealed bottled water into a venue? Avarice aside, there are real health risks associated with banning all outside water, especially during an outdoor event in the summer with huge lines everywhere.

Needless to say, the Shins would have to be pretty good to win me over after such vulgar corporatism from Bumbershoot. And, being the Shins, of course they did. While they split up the amazing opening barrage they’ve been using on their current tour–the first four songs from Wincing the Night Away, back-to-back–they did kick off with their excellent, extended version of “Sleeping Lessons,” followed by “Australia.”

There’s something effortlessly impressive about a Shins concert. The songs, for the most part, sound just like the album versions, but there’s a subtle vitality that runs through their performance. It could just be that they write amazing pop songs, and that hearing them so loud is a novel experience, but I think it’s more than that. Especially with songs like “Turn on Me” and “Gone for Good,” you can feel the band’s joy and exuberance, elements that simply don’t translate onto records. While Viva Voce’s Anita Robison, who usually provides fantastic backing vocals, was inexplicably absent, the Shins were as good as they’ve been throughout the Wincing tour, and it’s been a very good tour.

Due to Bumbershoot’s inept scheduling, the next band I watched was Menomena, several hours after the Shins. The hot new Portland band put on an energetic and instantly enjoyable concert, although they cut themselves short by fifteen minutes for some reason. For Bumbershoot, they wrangled a hodge-podge choir of probably 20 people, each sporting a brown monk’s robe emblazoned with a spiffy “M” logo. I’d heard Menomena compared to Broken Social Scene before, and never really understood the connection other than their furious drumming and occasional use of horns.

With choir in place, however, the parallels finally made sense. Both bands manage big sound well. While the clearly amateur choir was merely background for some songs, once or twice they surged into the forefront and greatly bolstered Menomena’s performance. More than anything, the show excited me for Menomena’s next album, which, given their success, should allow them to exploit the big sound to a greater extent, a sound that’s sadly underused in indie rock.

Finally, I saw Rodrigo y Gabriela. I don’t know what I can possibly write about them. I doubt the experience can ever be accurately represented, be it by words, audio, or video. All I’m going to say is that, to the best of my memory, Gabriela’s solo was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen a human do. The mind cannot truly comprehend the action taking place around her right hand. I doubt she even understands it fully. It probably just cascades out of her in huge, flickering torrents, leaving her as confused as anyone as to how such a thing is possible.

Jordan Barber: Sunday

It’s well known that Bumbershoot began in the late 1970s as a mass hippy hangout for the miscreant and grimy youth lurking around the Seattle area. At the festival, one could freely participate in a host of wildly filthy activities, including any variety of drugs as well as group copulation in the nearby shrubbery. This is all relevant again because on Sunday I watched Art Brut perform and they reminded me that, in some ways, Bumbershoot never changes .

Art Brut’s performance surely must have been LSD-induced; I cannot recall ever seeing a guitarist (Jasper Future) so clearly warped out of his own mind. His face was expressed only through extremes, his typical look being a cross of “omfg I’m suffocating” and “omfg I just had the best orgasm ever.” Eddie Argos, the lead singer, was a maelstrom of sweaty drunkenness who slovenly galloped across the stage while belching out the songs. Snobbier people might consider that a crude performance, but at Bumbershoot expectations are not so lofty—in fact, slovenly crassness is anticipated and desired. The whole audience was equally vulgar, but should it be any other way? That whole day I smelled like alcohol and weed, but then again so did the 10-year old wannabe hipster and the 70-year old punkster next to me. Bumbershoot is all about people coming together for an entertaining, sloppy musicfest; I hope it remains that way for years to come.

Caitlin Boersma: Monday

I attended all three days of Bumbershoot this year. Saturday was the highlight, as it featured the Shins, who I had never seen, and Rodrigo y Gabriela, who successfully blew my mind a second time.

Monday also stood out, if only for its finale. I traveled to Seattle solely for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Still, I showed up in the early afternoon and wandered to various acts that caught my interest.

The first show I saw was Siberian. I recalled hearing their album Hey Celestial! and finding it reasonably agreeable. Live, they weren’t so hot. They played tracks from an upcoming album that were terribly bland. The band also seemed awkward on stage. The bassist kept making inane comments to the crowd, like, “You’re all really attractive people.” Silence.

Since there were no other music acts I was dying to see until Ted Leo, I got in line for “Michael Ian Black and Guests.” It had been a full show on Saturday and Sunday, and the line formed early for the third performance. I had nothing better to do, so I waited in line for an hour and a half.

The show was awful. The two performers that opened for Black seemed like they had not prepared an act. They just kept talking about how “famous” they were. The first comedian had apparently been on Last Comic Standing, and the second had been on an episode of Flight of the Conchords.

The second man was rather hostile towards the audience, which doesn’t really work if you’re not funny. The crowd laughed more than they should have. I think the audience had waited so long to have a good time that they were going to laugh regardless of what anyone said.

I thought Michael Ian Black would at least be funny. He’s pretty good on those VH1 shows. He was certainly more entertaining than his openers, but he wasn’t worth the wait.

Ted Leo redeemed the trip. He and his band are amazingly energetic, and their brand of rock n’ roll is unique and consistently solid. The crowd was full of enthusiastic fans, and everyone danced and sang along.

The beginning of their set ran together as they played about four songs without pausing. Once the crowd got going, Ted Leo took a couple of breaks to banter or spat an appreciative “anks!”

It was the perfect performance to end the weekend. It was fun enough to perk up the drive home, and satisfying enough to feel like a proper conclusion.