by Chris Estey
Rock festivals can be an awesome, appalling joussaince -- an embarrassment of riches in which most of its value is suffering. The 2009 Capitol Hill Block Party was a perfectly organic construct of balancing personal pleasures and community celebration within the city, without too much pain. In other words, it was a ton of fun -- and it was cheap enough you didn’t feel too guilty, diverse and culturally ambitious so that it inspired joyful, music-inspired engagement, and you probably didn’t have to travel too far to get there. If you got too hot or moist there was hydration and libations everywhere to be found, and in the back of Caffe Vita, behind a massive pizza oven within walls of bags full of coffee beans, KEXP presented a sampling of just about everything presented throughout the multi-band, stacked tight with music fandom fest.
Friday July 24, 2009:
The line-up for the weekend was an expected indie rock buffet, with some glitch-streaked percussive punk edges and a healthy dose of exciting hip-hop poking into the spread. I could write an essay about how cool it was to often stand in the middle of it, and hear something operatic from the Main Stage bleeding into some chunka metal riffs at Neumos as you walked to hear noise-pop garble ahead at the Vera. (And that was actually a description of one of my actual moments there.)
The big names dominated the feedback I heard and the action I saw/heard such as The Jesus Lizard reviving the subculture of crowd surfing at the Main Stage’s first night apex with its leader David Yow inspiring droves to follow him upon a sea of upraised hands over and over again. His performance seemed often like an act of self-destruction, as if he knew why people loved the dangerous overplus of excitement at Block Party, while his bass player looked like a settled down married guy rattling away in a secret world, and the drummer kept up with his harassing lead singer.
They Live had the whole festival buzzing with love after their 10:45 PM set at Neumos (and the next day when they appeared for a anthem with Truckasaurus, who also street terrorized the Vita peeps with binary-fried busking just before in the afternoon as well), and since I’ve done PR for Gatsby and blesone, I’ll keep this tight: Read Charles Mudede’s excellent assessment of current Seattle-area hip-hop in a recent Stranger, and know that TL’s transmutation of rock damage and rap art will probably be the next retro-futurist aesthetic. That’s why I helped them out for awhile and will always support them.
Beloved hard edged pop art bands like Deerhunter at the MS and the Flexions at the Vera Stage didn’t disappoint, blending muscle with weird charm, and speaking of the awesome line-up of the Vera artists this year, special note must be made of how ferocious Past Lives got Friday night, according to several people I spoke with -- keeping it strange, but still very strong. Wish I’d seen Wild Orchid Children; I’d heard great things about them (and some pissed off sound guys on Fullerton-based punk pop Audacity’s friends, one of whom puked in the hallway near their schmancy new gear set up for Vera -- at 4:30 PM in the afternoon!).
The festival opened with The Duchess & The Duke on the Main Stage, and reports of their sweet rag-tag approach to simple song playing with touchstones in skewed memory genres like skiffle or doo-wop floated in mix. It was a gentle way to begin a day that ended with The Jesus Lizard trying to bring the world to an end.
photos from Friday by Katy McCourt-Basham:
Saturday, July 25, 2009:
Sonic Youth probably wisely mostly focused on recent material; this pinnacle of the evening was one no one should have missed, and yet I found myself pining for a big jam from their SST days (they went out with “Death Valley” and it felt like when the Sex Pistols did “Anarchy in the UK” as the last song at Bumbershoot back in the 90s -- would have been nice before I was cab searching). I know, I’ll STFU and check out their new album, The Eternal.
Main Stage memories for life: I thought nothing would ever beat my first witnessing of The Gossip a few years back at the CHBP, on a steaming hot afternoon when some of us even started dancing a little (completely verboten back then). They may not have conquered that sexy, commanding performance last night with the more soulful pop elements brought up, but I’d be lying if I say they didn’t maintain my adoration either. I wish they had more songs to qualify this statement, but live for sure The Gossip take the wind out of me like The Clash once did.
Earlier in the afternoon, I wasn’t that much into The Thermals; they too played a lot of new songs, and maybe I needed that new album too to have more affinity. There’s a certain rage that’s been replaced by improved playing, it seemed -- it was rock and roll all right though.
So I left before they finished for a taste of the Sportin’ Life Showcase at the comfy Vita backroom club, and heard three outstanding performances from their three should-be stars D. Black (can’t wait to hear the new album), Fatal Luciano, and Spaceman. Sportin’ Life then went a little up the hill and took over Chop Suey and I damn sure wish I could have been there.
I think the freshest set for me was The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which was like about a thousand albums in my UK pop collection blended smoothly but with a very nice kick. “We Will Never Die” ended their set very powerfully; it’s not a cover of the Flesheaters’ song, but there’s something kind of hardcore about the band’s affection for wicked Scottish pop bliss. Their fine songcraft seemed a little stretched by the heat and noise of the crowd itself; not their fault, just make sure to seem that live at a less eventful-in-itself milieu.
This day’s line-up opened with an expanded version of Hey Marseilles, a band I think really benefit from its extension to nine players (including Thomas from Champagne Champagne and Kyle Bradford). Occasionally ostentatious with the boo-ba, that was actually in good fun, because those winding strings and melodic vocals bring you hack to the heart. Would love to hear this group variation recorded for posterity.
Near dinnertime in the open Vera area, The Lonely Forest played a beautiful sonic rainbow of sound and emotion; it was nice how the rain kicked in while they played, their colorful notes bending around us with the wet heat. Kids and older folks alike enjoyed this nook of just-hard-enough slightly psychedelic pop.
The crowd went nuts for both the Maldives and the Moondoggies, roots bands with slick, stick-to-your-ribs songs and slobbering followings.
Thanks to David Meinert, the amazing security staff, and especially the bands for an inner-city festival that often just felt like a country fair with a lot of fuzzy grooves going on all around you -- till Truckaurus blew something up, someone very occasionally threw up, and The Gossip proved we can all still slam it out and still grow up. Bravo!
photos from Saturday by Jim Bennett: