Bumbershoot Festival Summary, Seattle, WA, 09.02.12
Less than 24 hours after seeing Jane's Addiction relive the skeezy early 90s of the Hollywood strip on the Key Arena stage, I found myself watching Tony Bennett put on a polar opposite of a set on the same stage. Argue all you will about the inconsistencies of the lineup, but that weird contrast is exactly what makes a festival like Bumbershoot special. Seeing a hushed, respectful audience fall to a dead silence mid-afternoon for a set from an 86 year old legend was reaffirming that a modern day audience can have fun and put their phones down for a second to enjoy classic moments.
Speaking of classic, let's talk about classic terrible behavior. I had a guy in front of me snapping shots of Bennett's set with his iPad. Quick rant: no one looks more ridiculous and foolish than a person at a concert holding up their iPad to take the same crappy photos that their iPhone takes. (Actually, the iPad takes 5mp photos and the iPhone takes 8mp photos, if you've got the newest stuff, which I'm sure you do.) So, c'mon people. Do every single one of us a favor and leave the iPad at home during a concert, please? Next one I see at a show, I'm "accidentally" spilling a drink on it. Knock it off.
Past the iPad infractions, Bennett's set was awesome. I'm not particularly nostalgic for periods I didn't live through, but Bennett's set was a treat to behold. He told a lot of stories (particularly compelling was one about a chance meeting and his re-naming by Bob Hope, as well as making a couple references to making records that went to the "top o' the charts!" and staking his claim that he and Rosemary Clooney "were the first American Idols"), went through an impressive catalog of hits, and let his sidemen hog some of the spotlight. Drummer Harold Jones ("Count Basie's favorite!") and guitarist Gray Sargent were beautifully expressive in their solos, strutting their respective prowess without stealing Bennett's thunder. Bennett's voice still sounded warm and vibrant, and his ability to toss off the reins and let loose to a thundering roar was jaw-dropping. Sure, the guy has old-school showbiz timing running in his blood, but Bennett's blended professionalism with enough warmth and personality to make this particular show seem like a genuine, historic moment in his career.
I really want to love the Young Evils. I do. They're practically bleeding power pop, and every bone in my body is very much in favor of that. (Power pop, not them bleeding.) Their set at the Promenade Stage (sorta the weird "cool parents' basement" area of Bumbershoot) was a solid performance, but they still have the stage presence of a band in its infancy. As a fan of all things power pop, my urgent request for singers Troy Nelson and Mackenzie Mercer is to actually harmonize with each other instead of a constant reliance on singing the same vocal lines in different octaves. There is so much life in these songs, and adding another harmonic layer to these songs can push it past the flat sound that they're currently stuck in. Completely personal vocal preferences aside, Young Evils set at the Promenade (and the Free Your Radio stage, which still didn't manage to sell me a Toyota) were fantastic bits of simple but slick, immediately catchy pop rock, which is something Seattle isn't producing (or at least embracing) enough of.
In terms of ideal bands for a perfect summer day (and this was one of those "why are you even in the house?" Seattle days), it doesn't get much better than the Fruit Bats. They're pretty much the quintessential "it's nice outside and I want to hear nice music that helps me appreciate this nice day" band. They rely on just the right amount of jammy-ness, while still being energetic and keeping contained within loose folk/pop song structures. Fruit Bats have the potential to be one of those noodly bands who exist solely for people who want to twirl around aimlessly, but their dedication to efficient songcraft (and their desire to keep away from the dreaded gospel handclap jamboree) make them something special. Fruit Bats are a band with a lot of classic tendencies who still manage to stay agile, confident, soulful and giddy (enthralling a crowd all the while) without pandering to "Are you feeling alright, SEATTLE!" tactics.
The Promise Ring's reunion (after a decade or so of hiatus) was pretty simple and fantastic in its own right. In the emo heyday, The Promise Ring was just a little too clean and refrigerator magnet cerebral (poetic vs. heart-on-sleeve-ballsiness) for my tastes, but after a decade of palette cleansing, the Milwaukee quintet sounded phenomenally vibrant and a whole lot less serious than their emo contemoporaries. Davey Von Bohlen was as chatty as ever, talking about members of the previous night's audience losing their virginity to Von Bohlen's songs before Von Bohlen had lost his own virginity, goofing on the band's age ("24 is a hard age, you guys! Let's not even think about 30!") and dealing with a grip of really excited Wisconsin ex-pats who were a lot more aggressively excited than a typical mellow Seattle crowd. Von Bohlen is still apparently drinking copious amounts from the fountain of eternal youth (he hasn't aged a day since the Promise Ring's height of popularity) and drummer Dan Didier is still one of the most agile and creative pop drummers around. Reunion tours can give off the "cash grab" vibe at times, but The Promise Ring's set seemed as giddy, goofy, and tightly packaged as they ever were in their prime.
Lee Fields and the Expressions were (for me) one of those don't miss moments of the festival, and Fields' performance didn't disappoint. He's one of those crate diggers delights, a bit of a 70's funk obscurity that disappeared in the 80's and got dredged back up in the revivalist soul/Daptone/Truth & Soul movement (and for fantastic reason). How Fields hasn't become enormous is completely beyond me. Fields' set at the TuneIn stage was a sweaty, raucous mess of all of the things you want from a soul/funk artist, but done in a more-than-textbook perfect fashion. A lot of these sorts of "let's all wear matching suits and have a horn section" revivalist acts are fun to listen to but don't ooze out the authentic experience; Fields sweats out that authenticity (hard times and the joy of making it through those hardships) with every single note. Fields' voice is gritty and bombastic, and if you squinted hard enough, you'd swear some amalgam of Sam Moore (Sam & Dave) and a younger Al Green was up there on stage taking the songs to task. Fields is at the age where a lot of artists phone it in, but he's still coming up, and he damn well knows it. Every mark, every note was full of the hunger of an artist who has made it through lean times and appreciates that spotlight; watching him command a packed lawn of people to jump and seeing nearly every head jumping (especially toward the end of a tiring second day of the festival) showed how much he earned it.
Much like any buffet of good (or not-so-good) things, you have to call it at some point in time. My tipping point of "all right, I can't handle anymore" came after a mind-melting Blitzen Trapper set that reminded me how a once shy-but-weird band can turn into arena rockers. Well, maybe the arenas aren't quite ready for Blitzen Trapper's heady mix of rambling folk and Southern-fried boogie rock, but Blitzen Trapper certainly doesn't seem to notice. I tried doing the "sit way back on the blanket and chill out" thing with my wife and friends, but Blitzen Trappers' energy and absolute locked-in tightness pulled my barkin' dogs off the blanket and up into the fourth row of the Sub Pop stage. A show is always that much more enjoyable up close, and Blitzen Trapper's perfectly mixed set was astounding. Riffs mixed with smart songwriting mixed with the energy of a band much younger than their history added up for what has so far been THE set of 2012's Bumbershoot for me. After a well-structured set of old and new catalog favorites (including a completely bonkers psyched out 10 minute version of "Street Fightin' Sun"), Blitzen Trapper got called back for an encore of a couple covers; one being a ramped-up version of "The Balladeer" (Waylon Jennings' Dukes of Hazard theme song) and the other being Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times", with Blitzen Trapper actually (dare I say) going so far as to outdo the original in terms of vibrance and range and careening energy. Making a Zeppelin cover not seem like a goofy pandering move is tough, but Blitzen Trapper definitively owned the song, hopefully showing more than a few passing strangers that they weren't there to fuck around.