Capitol Hill Block Party in review

Jim Bennett

Jim Bennett

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:

Check out more photos from Katy McCourt-Basham and Jim Bennett

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  1. Posted July 27, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    great pictures katy!

    the gossip was great! the crowd got downright awful for sonic youth. it was the worst combination of whiny 16 year old girls and adolescent boys who have never been to a “punk rock show” before and were much too eager to “go crowd surfing, braww!”


    and security was terrible! i lost a shoe in the sonic youth mosh pit and tried to sneak out the back but the security guard just laughed at me and gave me the finger. i called over his manager and she did the same.

    is block party getting too big for its own good? or am i just getting old and intolerant of youth? =(

  2. wolfgang schultz
    Posted July 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t agree more with your comments on the crowd for Sonic Youth and the security. I ended up having to bail before they even finished. When it became too uncomfortable to be in the crowd any longer my girlfriend and myself attempted to politely ask the security thug if we could just sneak out the side and leave. His response was a nasty thump in the chest and told there was no way i was fucking getting past him. We had to squirm our way to the back before finding a way out. Bit of a shitty end to an otherwise pretty good weekend. Too many people in general in the space they had for this thing on Saturday . They need to lower the amount of tickets or find a bigger space. Friday was far better with less people and a stellar line-up. The highlight for me was with out a doubt Jesus Lizard. Outstanding set…. David Yow is still as mad as ever…

  3. Posted July 27, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I attended Saturday, primarily to see Sonic Youth, and then left during their second song. I’ve been going to Music and Street Festivals for 10 years, and have come to expect a certain level of discomfort. But nothing like this.

    Putting the Main Stage on a crowded street is bad enough – further partitioning it into 21+ / all ages sections is disastrous. There were pedestrian traffic jams everywhere. I think the ‘show’ that the Security Guards were putting on probably attracted more attention than the headliners (which most of us couldn’t see).

    This is not about being too old or young for a show. It’s just a simple matter of space. I hope they can find a park or somewhere bigger for next year. Otherwise, just keep it small and don’t invite bands like Sonic Youth or Built to Spill.

  4. Posted July 27, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    David Yow may not have invented crowd surfing, but I believe he raised it to an art form- primarily because he truly appreciates the similarity between the crowd and a liquid medium.

  5. k8
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    So what did the Built to Spill setlist end up being?

  6. Melina
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    I have been to plenty of shows and never have I experienced being crushed by the crowd. It was terrible. I too, ended up leaving during the second song. There were way too many people in too small of a space being disrespectful of the other concert goers. Too bad, the lineup was great.

  7. Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    serious? where is the review on Pela??? they brought the energy to the mainstage, excellent performance!

  8. Posted July 30, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Yeah, no Pela review, huh? They were awesome performers!

    In addition to the craptacular security issues, I would like to add that this festival should take a few hints from other festivals like Pitchfork:

    1.) Make sure there is plenty of access to free water. A fountain, a hose, whatever. I left before Sonic Youth not only because I was shoved to the back of the long tunnel of the shitty venue engineering, but because I was dehydrated and didn’t want to buy a $4 coke.

    2.) Make any water to purchase verrry cheap. How do you do this? Get water/soda companies to sponsor you and only charge a buck a bottle. Make sure the bottles are larger than 5 oz, too. Remember, hipsters are cheap.

    3.) Green spaces, chill-out spaces. People need somewhere to sit at least for 10 minutes during the 8 hours of standing required during the day.

    I think if I could have found a reasonable place to rest my feet and drink plenty of water, I would been more tolerant of the problems with the layout of space, the rude security and the disorganization at the ticket booths. (don’t get me started on having to wait 20 minutes to get in because they gave our tickets away)

    I wish the best for the festival in the years to come and hope it learns from these mistakes. In the meantime, call me when they’re ready and I’ll come back.

  9. Posted July 30, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Hey, we’re not knocking Pela! KEXP has been one of their strongest supporters! There was just a lot going on this weekend. If any of you want to write something about Pela, please feel free to do so here! Hell, if it’s good enough I’ll make it a blog post!

  10. Megan
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I would like to know WHY the stage was moved from the four corner intersection in front of the Comet. Although not ideal, this former location at least allowed for sight access from several different angles. After we bought our tickets online, we later saw the stage map in the Stranger and dreaded even going down to the show. But, when you pay $23 plus $5 in service charges, it’s hard to just throw your ticket away. Whomever the moron is that decided that the end of Pike Street at Broadway was a clever location for the main stage should be fired for incompetence. If I wanted to see the back of hundreds of people’s heads, I could do it for free somewhere else. I spoke to 6 foot tall men who couldn’t even see the stage. I shouldn’t have to risk a broken nose in the mosh pit to see a band I paid $28 bucks for. I have been going to Block Party since 2003 – it used to be fun – now I don’t know if I will ever come back. :(

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