Sunday at the 2011 Capitol Hill Block Party was all about one band for me: Battles. Battles! They’d done a fantastic show at the Crocodile back in May, and I was thrilled beyond belief when I heard that they’d be back in Seattle so soon for the Block Party. Indeed, I was so focused on them that I had hardly thought about seeing anyone else, which made the rest of my day impromptu.
Arriving shortly before 4 pm, I went to see whomever was playing the Vera stage, which turned out to be Dunes. Their dark moody post-punk was a sharp contrast to the sunny hot day, but sounded really good. (Props to the Vera Project for their programming over the weekend, incidentally: all the bands I heard at their stage were really good, and the scheduling was well done.)
As I made my way toward the main stage, I could hear some very familiar riffs as Battles was setting up—the riffs were recognizably from “Tonto”. Could it be they’d play one or two songs from their first album, Mirrored? I hardly dared hope they would, and certainly didn’t even dream they’d play anything featuring the vocals of departed member Ty Braxton. And so after the first couple songs, when the music cut back to a very simple repeated tick-tick-tick-tick, I said suspiciously, “That sounds like ‘Atlas’…” but still didn’t believe it until the other parts came in. And then I lost my mind with joy. They’d reworked it, and used a recording of Braxton’s vocals (but unlike the other songs with lyrics, showed only unmanned instruments on the video screens rather than the singer), but “Atlas” still carried the power and thrill it’s had since I first heard it.
Later in the set, Battles did also play “Tonto” in an even more radically reworked format, not so much as a full song in its own right as a bridge between two of the newer ones. And although I was particularly excited to hear those two old favorites, I felt the new songs held their own against them. I also liked that with both old and new songs, Battles were playing around with different arrangements and inventive segues, showing that they’re never just going to rest on what they’ve done. In a weekend with a lot of good performances by a lot of good bands, Battles was still hands-down the best.
All that said about Battles, I still had room for new discoveries, and as with most of them over the weekend, my final discovery was at the Vera stage, where Lake played a perfect late-afternoon set of breezy pop. Early in their set they joked about opening for Hall & Oates in September, as they’re both playing Bumbershoot, but it was apropos as they had a strong ’70s style to their music, though perhaps closer to mid-period Steely Dan. Most songs featured one or two singers but at least one had all five doing lovely harmonies in the chorus; they also did a lot of instrument-swapping among all the members, which was also impressive. I’ll definitely be looking to see them again at Bumbershoot.
The Block Party had one venue that I pretty much ignored the entire weekend, the Havana stage, and that may have been a mistake. After seeing Lake and getting some pizza for dinner, I stepped in to Havana with some friends to hang out a bit, and discovered it was set up as a nice chillout space (though too warm and stuffy to really be called “chill”). DJs Chad Neiro and Wesley Holmes were spinning groovy electronica at the time, and I really liked it.
It’d be hard to find a more suitably dramatic end to a hot summer Sunday than the epic instrumental rock of Explosions in the Sky, who closed out the main stage performances. However, I found myself ambivalent about it. Their music felt out of place in the packed, noisy, and jostling crowd on a city street; this was music for grand outdoor vistas, overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, for example, or out at the Gorge Amphitheater. Also, although the music was gorgeous, I felt it was lacking in variety, too easily fading into the background rather than demanding engagement like Battles did. Still, there was no questioning the talent of the band, and I did enjoy their performance.
Although the sun set on Explosions in the Sky as the final outdoor performance for this year’s Block Party, the Block Party didn’t actually end at sunset. Rather, the music kept playing past midnight in Neumos and Havana. I was too tired to stick around that late, but I did stay for Pink Mountaintops playing in Neumos. Featuring a couple members of Black Mountain, Pink Mountaintops was a more roots-y version of the former band. They fit in fairly well as a follow-up to Explosions in the Sky, but seemed an odd choice as a lead-in to the hip hop closing out the night. I didn’t let that trouble me, however; I called the party over and headed on home.