It's tough to review a major music festival unless you are a major publication with the resources to send several writers to fan out among all the stages and see every minute of every act. I just spent three days of Labor Day weekend at Bumbershoot and, while I saw so much, it pales to what I couldn't make it to for various reasons.
But here goes.
First of all, one of the things I wrote about back in 2010 holds true: the ability to leave and return. When you live within a short bus ride from the Seattle Center, this is huge. You can eat some meals at home. You can take a break. It's divine. You're not stuck out in a field somewhere. You are in a city, and if you happen to call the city home (or one of the nearby hotels home), Bumbershoot is really generous by not trapping you inside the festival grounds.
As for the music, this is what I caught my three days:
Joey Bada$$ - I had been told to check him out. I must confess I was unfamiliar with his music, but it's hard to argue when one of your friends who knows everything about music says he's a must see. And that was a great tip. Key Arena is not the most intimate of venues, but Joey hit the stage and owned. Aggressive with his lyrics and pacing, it was an ultimate opening act. The only odd moment was when he attempted an "East! Coast!" call-and-repeat and, well, more than a few people yelled "West!" to start. We're proud out here. Anyhow, if the crowd wanted west coast...
Kendrick Lamar - No better way to put this, but he was as good as advertised. Touring with a full backing band, Lamar brought the hits from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City to life while thrilling the Key Arena crowd. Tracks like "Money Trees" got a huge crowd response, but for my taste "Backseat Freestyle" was the standout of the set. Just a perfect matchup of a rapper at the top of his game and a crowd that recognized it. For quite some time, rock music has been missing a competitive aspect. I don't see bands trying to outdo one another, at least not publicly admitting it. Rap has never lost that sense of one-upmanship and, the hype aside, it tends to bring out the best. Guys like Kanye West get that and Kendrick Lamar is doing the same.
I was supposed to see Icona Pop next, but illness apparently struck one of the ladies and they were a scratch. Boo. Anyway, we went home to make dinner and watch the Sounders win (yay!). Hopped back on the bus and caught...
Washed Out - So, you know when you're sitting on a plane and the pilot tells you you're going to be delayed and here's why and then, maybe, he/she updates you a little later? You tend to be less annoyed than if you're just sitting there. Well, Washed Out spend what should have been the first 15 minutes of their set messing with levels. They even started the set a couple times and stopped to fix something. Get it together, kids. Once they did, it was aural pleasure. Adding a bit more of a dance beat to their blissed out tunes, it was a fine end to the day. "Amor Fati" got the biggest response, as might be expected, but highlights for me were new album track "All I Know" and "Eyes Be Closed." If you were a fan of the band, I'm guessing you enjoyed the set once it got going, but like so many festival acts, not sure there was enough to have the casual fan walk away blown away. I would love to see them again when it's their own headlining show. I bet that is nuts.
Tegan & Sara - Is there a more perfect moment to see this band than now? It cannot be ignored that with gay marriage laws being passed by voters and lyrics that do very little to dodge the sisters' shared sexual orientation that this band has a heightened relevance. That said, Heartthrob is easily in the running for album of the year. It's fire in a bottle and they uncapped it. The crowd was jacked up, the set sounded pristine and it was a good mix from their current disc and older favorites. One of the best moments on the album is "Now I'm all Messed Up," featuring the alternating "Go!" and "Please stay!" pleas that anyone who's ever been in one of those moments of a relationship can relate to. Live it was stunning. Just blew the roof off. Kudos to the pair on tight live harmonies, too. This set was one of the weekend's highlights.
fun. - Go for the anthems, say for the... Right, then. I'm not sure fun. has the song catalog to keep me enthralled, so they do their best with showmanship. And they did do a fine job working the crowd, many of whom had filled Key Arena top to bottom to see them. It was hard for them to do wrong for their fans and I'm sure the kids went home happy. Me? I find the band to be a bit of a one-trick pony, trying to emulate Queen. And really, there are worse bands to emulate, but still. It felt a little fabricated. A good time to wave my hands in the air for "We are Young," sure, but as overachieving rock bands go, give me Smash Mouth, which not only puts on a good show, but has toyed around with a few different kinds of sounds.
Mates of State - So, I'm biased, but to me, this is indie rock bliss. I am a total fanboy for this band and not afraid to admit it. Kori and Jason do no wrong, y'hear? This was the third time I got to see them in about 16 months and was a bit different, though. The backing band they toured with last year? Not present. Back to just the two of them on stage, but they still manage to sound like double that. I feel like they leave it all on stage every time and this was no different. As much as "Think Long" sounded great with the full band last year, it was somehow more intense by trimming it down to just the two of them. Like almost every note mattered to them, shouldered with responsibility to hit them all. Also, while many parents were in attendance, kids dancing on shoulders, it should be noted that Mates, married parents of two, do not bring their kids with them on stage. They concentrate on rocking the hell out. By the final bars of their cover of "True Love Will Find You in the End," I was more impressed with their ability than ever.
Bob Mould - When I got into music for real in the early 1990s, Husker Du was a name I heard but knew nothing about. The local modern rock station played Sugar, though, but the significance was lost on my teenybopper brain. I admit I only heard a bit of Bob Mould in my musical life, but after his set at Bumbershoot, I'm a convert. Holy. This probably shouldn't have been my surprise of the show, but it was. He had me at "Helpless," which I've heard plenty of times, and I can still sing every word of "Your Favorite Thing," but the rest of the hour was just as solid. A confident performer who knows how to mix a good set and work a crowd... and I'm living proof. If I can walk in and know two of your songs (like I do with fun.) and walk away blown away (like I was with Bob Mould and not with fun.) you are doing something right. Now to play catch up with his song catalog.
The Breeders - When I got into music for real in the early 1990s, The Pixies was a name I
heard but knew nothing about. The local modern rock station played The Breeders, though, but the significance was lost on my teenybopper brain. Except that I really got into the Breeders. I saw them at Lollapalooza '94 (where their gold foil stage set was one of the day's distinctive sights). Then, I was taking things really seriously. This was important, people. Since I last saw this band, I actually saw the Pixies and Kim Deal left the Pixies. We're all older and wiser. Bumbershoot happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the release of Last Splash and the band played it straight through and I am pleased to say it sounds as good today as it did then, perhaps, now, without any of the pretense. From the first bars of "New Year" to the end of the reprise of "Roi," the band nailed it and seemed to have fun doing so. They closed with a few songs from Pod. Just a great way to end the day.
I had hoped to see another anniversary play-through, as Death Cab for Cutie was headlining and playing through Transatlanticism. Alas, Key Arena was filled to the brim.
Three days, man. How do people do these when they camp out in fields in Tennessee (or worse, Indio, CA)? Slept in. Got the house in some kind of shape. And then headed down...
Alt-J - Only caught the tail end of their set on the Main Stage, but wow. High energy. They closed with "Breezeblocks," which is what everyone seemed to want to hear. That said, I was sitting way up in the high sections of the Key and people were on their feet dancing. Which, I suppose brings me to...
MGMT - ...the band that should have had people way up in the high sections of the Key on their feet and dancing. But alas! So, here's a band that has 1) well known songs and 2) good musicianship. Yet, for whatever reason, they were completely dry on stage. If MGMT had half the stage presence fun. had the day before, this would have been a knockout. They were 30 minutes in before they hit "Time to Pretend." Not to say you have to start playing your hits off the bat, but at a festival, it doesn't hurt. That said, they would have been fine if they had done anything to engage the crowd. I think they thanked the crowd once in the first 45 minutes and said little else. A missed opportunity to put the crowd in the palm of your hand and make them go nuts for you. About an hour in, I headed out to see another act and, while I'm sure thousands stayed in the Key for the entire set, hundreds were definitely on the way out.
Kopecky Family Band - Speaking of crowd engagement, these guys from Nashville hit all the right buttons. From the get-go, band members on the small Plaza Stage were playing their tales off and getting the audience involved. I was familiar with the band through one of their EPs and some other random tracks, but I'm guessing many folks here weren't. And I'm betting many of them left impressed. KFB delivered a rollicking set on one of the festival's side stages and I hope they get written up locally as one of the acts people should be upset they missed.
Deerhunter - Sticking with the south, I closed my stay at Bumbershoot with this Atlanta band. Drawing heavily from this year's Monomania, the band sounded tremendously together and loud. It wasn't the noise assault I thought was coming, but that might have been for the best given the number of people that were probably attending due to a description in the program rather than familiarity. Lead singer Bradford Cox is clearly a character, but his songs are great. "Neon Junkyard" and "THM" were some standouts (the latter being drawn out in the intro but rolling by the end). They closed with their latest album's title track and the sound faded into the night under the Space Needle.
Bumbershoot put together a great lineup this year and there were definitely standouts. I wish I could have seen them all. My wife just took in Bassnectar and says it was amazing.
For me, Tegan & Sara win the weekend. Bob Mould and Kopecky Family Band stand out as exceptional, as well.
That was my festival. The guy next to me at each performance had a different one. Such is the beauty of the event, I suppose. Hope to see you next year, Bumbershoot.