It’s been more than a month since rain has fallen on the Emerald City, a traditional and altogether expected Seattle weather-reprieve that still leaves its residents abnormally giddy and socially obtuse. In Seattle, when it’s sunny for more than a handful of days in a row, people tend to turn their brains off and let their guard down to embrace the more pleasant, happier things in life that the other sun-loving folk of the world take for granted. For over forty years, Seattle has taken advantage of this general city-wide euphoria, and put on a music festival in the very vortex of the bustling metropolis. Every Labor Day weekend since 1971, the downtown park and activity area beneath the Space Needle is transformed into a musical utopia where Seattle’s denizens can slink out of their sun-starved domiciles to enjoy an eclectic variety of music only a mile or two from their beds, bathrooms and bars.
Indeed, the Bumbershoot Music Festival has always taken pride in the fact that it is an event for “the city,” and not just a genre, something that has kept neighbors of the venue in attendance for a consistent period. Diverse acts that span several different stylistic tropes such as indie rock, funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz, and straight-up, bright-red, molten-hot Metal (with a capital ‘M’) all have a place at Bumbershoot.
Yet like any situation where one’s forced to shuffle around like livestock in a crowd of sixty-to-seventy thousand, there’s going to be problems. Whether it’s the newly-christened twenty-one year old frat boy working on a 3 p.m. blackout, or his vodka-soaked, 95 pound girlfriend thrashing around in an alleged “dance” that incorporates an accidental kick to your shins every three minutes, hassles WILL find you. Thus, when Lost in Reviews co-editors Angela and Ryan Davis commissioned yours truly for full, complete, Gonzo coverage, loins were girded.
The day began in the early afternoon, around 1 pm, an hour after the festival’s first acts opened their sets. After spending a bit of time taking stock of this year’s stage layout (the Seattle Center grounds are 74 acres large, and the stages change location nearly every year), I made my way to one of the more secluded areas to check out Unnatural Helpers, a Seattle punk four-piece that sounds like a two-headed baby born out of the chaos of a Sex Pistols and Mudhoney one-night-stand. A musically tight act that kept the sun-baked audience dance-sweaty with crisp, effective, never-more-than-two-and-a-half-minute songs, it was a good way to begin the day for most in attendance at that early hour.
Yet as is always the case with festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella, Sasquatch, and Bumbershoot, hard decisions needed to be made. Events like these rarely make it easy for serious music freaks that must choose between two (or even three) acts playing on different stages at the same time. The first such occasion occurred at the tail-end of the Unnatural Helpers set, when I was pulled away so as not to miss so much as a chord of Black Breath’s opening number.
Yet another local band, Black Breath does metal the old fashioned way. Dressed exclusively in black, and sporting head and facial hair that would make a Viking blush, these guys played like they were going to get fined if their audience didn’t walk away bloody-eared and traumatized. Naturally, these guys were set up in the one indoor stage area on the grounds, something that made the hard-driving thrash-metal set sound as if it was being played inside a goddamned phone booth. Thus, even though these lords of darkness were fantastically metal, and a hell of a good time, my bleeding ears necessitated a change in venue.
Feeling some sick desire to juxtapose the experience against something as diametrically opposed to Black Breath as possible, I made my way over to the Main Stage for Gotye and his set, one of the most highly advertised and anticipated acts of Bumbershoot. Something of a college radio darling these days because of the murderously-repetitive nature of “Somebody I Used to Know,” the show was actually somewhat upbeat and interesting. Gotye was an active performer, and spent most of his time on stage bouncing between percussion stations and the microphone: almost certainly thinking to himself all the while, “how many of these pricks will stay after I play them their shitty song?” A very involved performer who seemed extremely in-tune with his backing band, Gotye was indeed one of the pleasant surprises of the first day, for somebody this popular with the 18-23 radio crowd is rarely this good.
From there, I moved with my photographer to one of the smaller stages, where King Khan and the Shrineswere a couple songs into their set. Something of a throwback act that incorporates a late-60’s,
Rolling Stones-esque soul rock-and-roll fusion sound, the band has an unmistakably punk element to it that’s usually enough to get any given crowd the dance bug. Nearly a dozen members strong, King Khan and the Shrines has a small brass section to compliment a lead singer with equally boisterous sensibilities, the combination of which kept the Bumbershoot audience in a sweaty, full-tilt freak-dance for over an hour.
Following that set, though Heartless Bastards pulled at this author’s heart-strings, that band’s performance conflicted with England’s The Heavy, a neo-soul/R&B/rock-and-roll group that knows a thing or two about putting on a good show. Helmed by their electrifying front-man, Kelvin Swaby, the band gave the Bumbershoot audience in attendance a delightful soundtrack for the hastily-consumed corndog and elephant ear meals fired down during the 6-7 pm set.
Really, though, after The Heavy, it was just a matter of killing time with a few decent bands until the main event kicked off.
Though acts like Oberhofer and City and Colour were entirely competent and pleasing to the ear, and bigger acts like Jane’s Addiction and Awolnation tempted some in the audience to head in their direction, the most exciting act of the day came from Portland, Oregon’s The Helio Sequence.
A unique blend of electronic, almost aquatic rock and roll, The Helio Sequence has been flying just under the radar for over a decade, and thank Christ for that. Playing just before 9 pm on the 4th largest stage of the venue, there was none of the pushing or sharp elbow-dodging that was to be found elsewhere, amongst the bigger-name acts. No, involuntarily cloistered by an indie rock community that doesn’t want to see their precious treasure spoiled by mainstream exposure, the band has managed to stay manageably popular throughout its healthy lifespan, something that contributed to the easy-going atmosphere surrounding the day’s best set.
The Helio Sequenceis the group John Lennon would have formed if he was born thirty years later and had been imbued with electro-rock sensibilities. Composed of just two members, Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel,
the band’s use of crushing lyrics paired with soaring guitar and unique keyboard compositions settles perfectly into the gently positioned percussion cradle, which sets the spiritual water-mark for the band’s music. Anchored by Weikel’s show-stopping drumming displays, The Helio Sequence captivated part of a Bumbershoot crowd that seemed split in half between those familiar with the band, and those that would go home shocked that they’d never heard of the day’s most impressive act.
In all, a solid day: one fitting for a city that prides itself on good music, friendly citizens, and an artistic scene that has always tried to give Seattleites a healthy variety of musical flavors. And while there were a few bothersome inconveniences to suffer through (i.e., drunken youths, expensive vittles, sore feet) the mild weather (yesterday’s high temperature was 72 degrees) and prime location only minutes away from home base made/make it an indispensible Seattle tradition many find too tempting to miss.
[Stay tuned for day 2! Warren will tell you all about Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Tony Bennett, Wanda Jackson & the Dusty 45’s, Mudhoney, Seattle’s Elvis Parade, and more!]
by Warren Cantrell
Photos by Tahna Edwards