By Chris Estey
There were some telling observations my friends made about the annual Seattle Center-based festival this year -- the best one was, “Franz Ferdinand are playing? Really? When?”
FF are a fine band, but Bumbershoot 2009 is noteworthy in that even a working rock group with a quality significant fan-base and memorable hits from not that long ago could have been lost in the shuffle of What The Hell To See. This is a good thing -- and the answer was, Monday, September 7th at 7:45 pm.
Another joke, similar in tone, is that we spent half the festival time consulting the guidebook itself -- again, not a strike against the informative brochure, but the piles on piles of great bands, artists, comedians, literary types, and other cool stuff we were all trying to sort into A Singular Labor Day Experience.
The best testament to this high level of entertainment may be that when I took a cab down to the Center in the rain on Sunday, I expected a very sparse crowd -- but it was only a little less dense than the sunny years when bodies seemed to popping out of every entrance and exit surrounding the grounds. Yes, attendance may have been down -- but not all that much, due to people cramming into sheltered shows as the bad weather came and quickly went halfway through the weekend.
The events I’m reviewing below tend to be smaller in attendance, of more obscure acts, or not focusing as much on the musical aspects of Bumbershoot 2009 -- I figured the best bands would mostly be reported on by the KEXP Music Lounge attendants for this Blog, and they have done a great job on all that the past few days.
I did walk past Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Minus 5, and many others, which were predictably fantastic -- but that’s all I can say about the performances. I have no other significant impression to share -- save for the ambivalence that Katy Perry creates, which is exactly up from the sheer loathing of her from most people during the previous year. (Yes, her “guilty pleasure” status is making her notable -- a dangerous move, those who choose to comment on her, if indeed you don’t like her.) Also, I caught the Bumberflu at the very end, which is the only reason I missed the what-I-heard-to-be-magical Truckasaurus and Head Like A Kite outro at the EMP/SFM Sky Church!
So here it is, the highpoints I experienced at Bumbershoot 2009:
Saturday, September 5
F is for Food - 12:00pm
Seattle culinary experts Kathleen Flinn (author of The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry) and Tom Douglas (top food author and chef, restaurateur) had a marvelous discussion early on at the Literary Arts Stage as Bumbershoot started. Flinn read heart-poking stories from people regarding their relationships to food, from a kid who didn’t want escargot packed in his lunch (“Who is packing escargot in their kids’ lunch?!” Douglas asked), for obviously slimy reasons -- to a poetic salmon fisherman dreaming of all the ways the fish he’s catching can be prepared for a meal (cooking, curing, in pasta, etc.). Flinn revealed the struggles and hard won successes she had at the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which inspired her novel, while Douglas talked about guests on his radio show discussing the prep work it takes when you want to eat animals from the urban wild, such as squirrel and duck. Speaking of duck, roast duck in the International District is what keeps Douglas from going vegetarian. For Flinn, it’s crispy duck as well, but also bacon. She talked about living on roast chicken while in Paris, which apparently is more delicious than what Americans make of “roast chicken.” The delicious joy of “that stuff in potstickers,” Pho on 12th and Jackson in Seattle, and much more was lovingly discussed, before we all ran to lunch.
Story Pirates AfterDark Present FOUND! -2:45pm
Davy Rothbart of FOUND! Magazine, a scrappy periodical made up of just that, scraps from other people’s lives found by the publisher and readers, introduced live musical numbers and comedy skits via video based on these bizarre discards. This is an unusual event for the Story Pirates AfterDark ensemble, as usually they go for straight improvisation, but the bold minimalism of tunes like the mopey yet hopeful “Dear John” and the hilarious complaint of a pledge who found his hazing a little too homoerotic confirmed the format for the theme. While the meaning behind the ribald sexual letters written by perhaps developmentally disabled people, and a discovered shopping list which includes several hundred dollars “budgeted” for crack and booze, may seem like normals laughing at the more unfortunate, it brings to mind all the strange stuff most of us do but don’t chronicle for strangers to randomly find. Though there is a comforting whiff of “glad I’m not that messed up” about it as well.
McSweeney’s New Fiction 5:15 pm
Starlee Kline from This American Life sure can memorize questions! Which as a host she shot at first-time novelists from McSweeney’s, Bill Cotter (Fever Chart), Jessica Anthony (The Convalescent), and James Hannaham (God Says No) on a panel that was awesomely revealing about what it takes to write (“I hate it!” says Hannaham), be edited, and getting published. All three of the authors read just the right amount of examples from their books. Cotter’s smooth prose polished from freelancing at Spin and many other magazines evident in his story about an overweight gay man who tries very hard to resist the idea that he’s homosexual. Anthony’s tale about a meat-selling dwarf tried more chances, its best part being interactions between the protagonist and people who weird out on him. My favorite reader was Hannaham though, whose own story of being in mental hospitals and receiving brutal therapy treatments could be considered saturated in the literary market, but the keen humor and marginalized insight of the fiction based on that world really snagged me. The relationships each had with their McSweeney’s editor Eli Horowitz were each hilarious, with Hannaham being scared to death of him and following his suggested corrections til exhaustion, while Anthony went through the same ordeal and then resubmitted the first draft, which was approved with joy (something Horowitz is probably hearing just now, after her confession this weekend).
The Whore Moans Present: The Black Atom! - 6:30 pm
Since 2005 The Whore Moans have been putting out their own brand of speedy bass-driven roaring punk-metal, with well thought out lyrics about America, religion, and failure. In the past, the band seemed almost too focused, its hardcore energy blowing every song to bits, and Jonny, Nikki O, Ryan, and Jason having apocalyptic amounts of fun every time I saw them play. The balls-clenching riffs and stage fits were still there in the Sky Church early Saturday evening, but two maraca-shaking backing vox gals from The Cute Lepers and two guys on keys and sax from The Hands helped out. There was some evangelism-style shouting about the economy and the love for their fans, with the newer material definitely showing more soul and straight rock influences. The promised spectacle wasn’t as unbelievable as the hype that had been given it, but unlike people I watched them with, I liked the strange juxtaposition of the screamy stuff with quietly stormy rhythms this time out. No, it didn’t gel, it was all over the place even as the band was dressed more dapper than they’d ever been, but this exact combination of old and new influences is unique and worth waiting for on their next record. It was a plane crash, but the flames went high, and as Buffy the Vampire Slayer says, “Fire is pretty.”
Os Mutantes -7:30 pm
The Bapitista brothers brought it back to Seattle for the first night of the Bumbershoot festival with a sound that was sort of like all the festival’s different aesthetics playing out all at once. In a way, Os Mutantes are THE Bumbershoot band -- plenty of psyched-out lead solos, avalanches of acoustic guitar, surges of sonorous bass, enough percussion you could hang a thousand bandanas on, with comedy, and lots of love to boot. A child dances on the stage to revolutionary music created in a time and place you could be exiled for making it, Brazil in the 60s. Now it’s celebrated by a diversity-adoring American audience mostly not aware of the terrible trials of the band not so long ago. There was plenty of songs from their best period (first three records) and Os Mutantes sounded a bit more slick than they had when they first came to Seattle in 2006, but no less inspired.
Sunday, September 6
Stuff White People Like - 12 pm
I arrived at this event based on a book based on Christian Lander’s popular blog maybe thirty seconds in and by that time the Leo K. Theatre (AKA Literary Arts Stage) was 400 people thick, over fire limit capacity, putting me in the lobby to try to hear what was being said on the little television outside the exit doors. They may have a little TV up there, but it isn’t very loud, and people in the lobby were busy talking about not being able to get in, and the guy telling people they couldn’t come in had a deep low voice obscuring any sort of punch line I tried in vain to hear. That said, looked pretty funny. 300,000 daily hits for SWPL, the source for his Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions and so I guess I should have arrived early.
The Enablers Have Spoken And You’re Fine With Spencer Moody - 1:45 pm
Moody was/occasionally is the lead singer of the recurrent Murder City Devils, has a band called Triumph of Lethargy Skinned Alive to Death, and owns the venue/art milieu The Anny Bonny. His poetry ranged from acceptable to very clever, as were much of the works by his friends Anthony Anzalone, Clyde Peterson, Patrick deWitt, Gavin Tull-Esterbrook, and Pete Quirk (of the Cave Singers). Andrea Zollo from Triumph of Lethargy (and before that Pretty Girls Make Graves) performed two Magnetic Fields songs from 69 Love Songs, “Abigail Belle” and “Kiss Me Like You Mean It,” with the lovely joy of an especially gifted Salvation Army gospel singer. She was backed by guitar player Derek Fudesko. In the blur of people reading their works, a friend of Spencer’s named Max came up from the audience to read a love ode to a Nazi war criminal (yes, it was probably satire) and something else that was pretty provocative too. Moody should arrange these things all the time; his friends can really write (especially whoever did the multi-page hangover tribute), and hearing the vulnerability of songwriters when they only have words on paper to share with an audience can be revealing. I just wish they would have stuck around to talk about writing with the audience; taking off immediately after the encircled group hug seemed oddly narcissistic and the opposite of everything else that just happened.
Parenthetical Girls - 3:30 pm
This band often arouses unique reactions in crowds; of course, lead singer-songwriter Zac Pennington seems to thrive on ambivalence (and this day even seemed to be courting it). When they play the Vera Project everyone seems pretty much in on the fact that this is a very precise, deliberate minority voice in a sea of noisy, formless bands with conformist intentions. At the Sky Church, there was dynamic tension between underground pop fans and musical and real tourists. When Pennington said they formed in Everett, someone near me spat out, “That figures.” (I have no idea what that figures, but it’s going to include me too I guess, being Everett-born.) There were joyful shouts at from the true fans, but it seemed as if everyone was too astonished at the group’s ability to shuffle guitar noise and fantastic drumming to mind some lyrics they probably fear their children thinking about. If anything, the elegance and persistence of the music dared the crowd into acquiring an appreciation for a band they may never have heard the likes of before. At the end of the set, though, it was announced that the keyboard player Matt Carlson would be leaving the group -- this was the last show as we know of the Parenthetical Girls. Later on, Pennington said it would most likely continue in some form, though Carlson’s knowledge of the band’s songs will definitely be missed. A sad note after a stunning live achievement.
Matt Braunger, Reggie Watts, Todd Barry - 5:30 pm
Comedy Stage North was kept full and echoing with laughter all through the Bumbershoot festival, as comedian after comedian delivered consistently great sets, no matter what their particular approach to getting the funny.
Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre member Matt Braunger started off a trio of performers at 5:30 on Sunday in the most traditional stand-up fashion, with jokes about losing weight and his body type (“I’m shaped like a long baby”), and finding a balance between acceptable coarseness and friendly razzing.
It was an excellent way to warm people up for musician-magician Reggie Watts’ more surreal and physical humor, which combined audience expectations from his visual appearance (a floppy, Muppet-like hobo-poet persona) with a lot of great improvisational music anchored by mumbled, scatted vocals. Using a mixer and a keyboard, with rapping and mock-rock ballad singing, Watts was simply the personification of slapstick, every inch of his body used to entertain and freak out those who watched him. Even at his silliest, he approached subversion, and though from the cheers it seemed like he had everyone on his side, there was still a sense of danger in his playfulness. I could have watched all of his other sets this weekend and probably caught more each time. And perhaps understood even less than I had when I started.
Stand-up star and actor (“The Wrestler”) Todd Barry could have possibly been a disastrous choice coming up directly after Watts, whose styles couldn’t be more dissimilar. The one thing they had in common though was they’re both very smart, and expect the audience to be as well. So going from Watts’ visual anarchy to Barry’s focused insouciance was not too bumpy, at least after the first few minutes when the audience adjusted to the quieter approach. Barry’s persona is that of a cerebral, urban loner, who just wants to be left the fuck alone and when he dies will find the cockroach in heaven. He didn’t tear into any murmuring hecklers this time, though, which is the best part of seeing him live.
Wyatt Cenac, Marla Bramford - 7:15 pm
Comedy Stage North went from one great set of comedians to another, finishing out Sunday with The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac and Marla Bramford. The former has been added to the line-up of Comedy Central’s flagship program long after I gave up cable, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, having never seen him before either on television or in person. He seems like a sweet guy who is doing his best to withstand the absurdities of life’s caustic personalities, such as weathering people who call the miscegenated “Oreos” and “coconuts” (“Which just sound so darned yummy!”). I caught him twice during Bumbershoot, and his riffs on growing up in Texas were classic but not overstated. His inability to signify (“snap!”) as a teenager delighted the audience, who could identify with a comedian not so quick on the insults. Cenac’s gentle humor and gracious approach to his targets seemed to both charm and inspire praise comedy audiences used to more volatile personalities and material.
Bramford was a firecracker of mental health issues, pop culture debris, self-depreciative analysis, mocking Petco managers who tried to train her in the art of owning pugs (“They will just sit out in the sun till their brains burst!”), and her sternly wisecracking sister belittling her into being psychologically “mindful of emotions.” Like Watts, you have to watch and listen to Bramford very carefully or you may not only miss the point of her humor, you will rarely hear anything you can identify as a topic. She doesn’t seem to care if you accept her forthright weirdness, she’s going to take you down the strangest tunnels of her mind and assume you can keep up with every non-sequitur she spits out of the side of her pursed lips. Like the very best comedy, she speaks for the minority voice, and if crazy is the new queer as some activists claim, she might be the next generation’s major marginalist voice.
Monday, September 7
Eugene Mirman - 2 pm
The love for “The Mir-man,” as the Russian-born comedian occasionally calls himself, is evident among the rock crowds he opens for when on tour with The Shins and Modest Mouse. Star of stage, screen (TV, that is, as a shady landlord on the similarly adored HBO series Flight of the Conchords), and author (The Will to Whatevs) Mirman gave an inspired hour of sympathetic sarcasm on Monday afternoon. Only some of which is on his next album God Is a Twelve Year Old Boy With Asperger’s.
Through the reading of Tweets designed to hustle non-existent products (inspired by recently being asked to endorse something via Tweet by a company), bringing a giggly young woman up to respond to skewed seduction lines (she did so adorably), and showing a “Welcome to NYC” video on an overhead screen, Mirman made us all want to hug the shit out of him by the end. The bit about a twelve year old with asperger’s confronting him in Seattle (which is also the inspiration for the title track of his upcoming Sub Pop CD) displayed his perfect balance of agnostic struggle, deep empathy, and warm curiosity about the world.
The Lonely Forest - 3:15 pm
We Sing The Body Electric is the Lonely Forest’s new, second, and probably major-breakthrough full-length on Burning Building Recordings,and vivified-progressive rock tracks from it such as “Golden Apples of the Sun, Pt.1,” “Black Heart,” and “Two Pink Pills” seemed like a perfect fit for the cavernous, vermillion interior of the EMP/SFM Sky Church. Stuffed with people of all ages bouncing to the explosive new rock, the venue’s patrons were as joyful as the band was serious, blending post-emo expressions across a future-is-now canvas. Singer-songwriter John Van Deusenblends Coldplay-level bold statements with lo-fi indie rock aesthetic intimacy, and both their long-time grass roots fan-base seemed as pleased as those who have jumped on the bandwagon from their recent red hot buzz in press and on radio. The Lonely Forest seems idyllic for teenagers who want a band they can share that doesn’t insult their intelligence or judge them for needing the transcendent, and older fans remembering Pink Floyd and U2 can taste the familiar drama.
Champagne Champagne - 4:45 pm
Champagne Champagne followed The Lonely Forest immediately at the Sky Church, which isn’t as odd as it might seem, but helped bring things a bit more down to the real; Thomas Gray (the wild man) and Pearl Dragon (the jester) are funny, smart emcees capable of making bold statements and personal details too between satirical choruses and song references (a smidgen of Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky”). DJ Gajamagic likes his beats simple, his bass deep, and his textures unfussy, and there’s no reason fat monster joints like “Molly Ringwald” and “Hollywood Shampoo” shouldn’t be blasting out of both condos and trailer parks, parties and head shops before the end of this decade. Album! Album! The crowd was almost crushing and chanted back the words as they threw their hands you-know-where.
Wallpaper - 6:15 pm
Wallpaper is one of my very favorite bands in “Seattle”; although they are from Auburn, WA ,they sound like a new Sonics, or Wailers, or more traditional Sub Pop sleaze-pop punk. Apparently, the sticks have given them plenty of space to practice, as the trio sound even better live than on On The Chewing Gum Ground, with handclap-born drums crackling beneath quick licks as well as superb song-length riffs. From opener “Nod Off” on, the casual observer this afternoon might have dismissed them as a retro act, not hearing the black humor beneath the fuzz and stomp, with tales of junkies and the loveless as well written as anything by the Heartbreakers or the Only Ones. Already spawning excellent side projects like Basemint, I’m hoping this emotionally detached, but intellectually provocative group continues in spite of the trend these days of initial greatness exploding into other new bands.
This was a fantastic year at Bumbershoot; both bands and comedians seemed to rise to the swollen crowds -- and the more-than-usual rain and economy may have affected statistics, but not the dynamic energies of artists and audiences engaging in an annual dialogue I’m sure is unique to our region. See you next year!