Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Covering Bumbershoot

Just a few thoughts while this thing is fresh in my mind. First of all, bumbershoot means umbrella. This is, after all, Seattle...even if Labor Day is as hot and dry around these parts as the rest of the country. Amazingly, even a lot of Northwesterners don't know this. Plenty of those who do still insist on referring to the local arts festival as "bumpershoot" (as in bumper car). Imagine how confusing it must be for newbies and out of-towners!

For those who are unfamiliar, Bumbershoot probably sounds like a silly name for a festival, regardless as to what it means. They may have a point. Then again, I've got three words for such folks: Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza. Now, who ya callin' silly...?

So here are some facts, figures, and observations. 2006 marked the 36th incarnation of the festival. I moved here in 1988, so that means I've been attending Bumbershoot, on and off, for 18 years. This year, I caught 12 acts/presentations: Blondie, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Flatstock [poster art show], Lady Sovereign, Charles Burns [above left] and Chuck Palahniuk, the New Pornographers, Spoon, Kanye West, Dengue Fever [below right], Thee Emergency, Breakestra, and Bettye Lavette.

If I had more time and energy, I'd have caught the Gossip, Laura Veirs (who I interviewed last month), Mary Lynn Rajskub (the lines were too long--and she was booked all three days), Mates of State (I reviewed their last CD, which is quite good), Vashti Bunyan, Mary Gaitskill, Nouvelle Vague, and Feist (but only because André 3000 think she's the shit). Granted, I listened to the Thermals and Rocky Votolato on KEXP, so it was almost like being there (the former are also featured in Burn to Shine: Portland).

Most of the acts I saw were pretty good. If I wanted to nitpick, I'd say the Blondie set was too "stadium-ready"--guitar solos, drum solos, and the like--but what the hell: They were playing a stadium. Also, Debbie Harry's all-chartreuse outfit was rather gauche. Then again, it made her easy to see on that big stage, yards away from those of us in the stands. (Also, the band was as tight as ever and those solos were pretty short.) Further, neon was big in the 1980s, especially in the fashions of Stephen Sprouse, so maybe it was a tribute of sorts on Harry's part. Naturally, the boys in the band were dressed in ever-fashionable black.

Some of these artists tried out fresh material. I love them dearly, but found the new Spoon songs kind of dull. Then again, maybe a few weren't really new; maybe I just didn't recognize 'em. I now have all their albums, but my favorite is Kill the Moonlight--for my money, it's one of the best damn records. Ever. I like their follow-up, Gimme Fiction, well enough, but it isn't quite the same. In any case, they're a fine live act, although they didn't do any covers. When I last caught 'em in concert, they did a Stooges number, although I can't remember which one. (Whatever it was, it was good, but not as good as the Black Keys' barn-burning "Loose" from a couple of Bumbershoots ago.) Spoon [above left] are also known to cover Wire and the Kinks. I was hoping they'd indulge in a little of that action this time around, but no dice.

Then there's Lady Sovereign [below right]. Other than a few EPs and singles, she hasn't dropped her debut yet. From what I understand, it's been finished for awhile. I thought it was supposed to come out in February, but I guess Def Jam's going for a big fourth quarter push instead. So, most of the material she performed was new, and it was all good, which bodes well for Public Warning, whenever the heck it hits the streets.

Again, if I was gonna nitpick, I'd say Sov was on the immature side. No matter. It wasn't just what I was expecting--it's what I wanted. Lyrically, sartorially, etc., she's what the Brits would call a "lad." (Her oversized yellow t-shirt boasted "Last of a Dying Breed" in Wham!-meets-Frankie Goes to Hollywood-size block letters.) Except, of course, she isn't. A lad, that is. The petite rapper smoked, swore a blue streak, spit water at the crowd (I didn't hear any complaining), and even had 'em chanting "fuck you" at one point. In person, she's cute as a button and chockful of charisma. Which adds to the fun. I could also say that, at around 60 minutes, her set was too short. As Procol Harum once sang, "The crowd called out for more" and refused to disperse, so the S-O-V came out to say, basically, I love y'all, but that's all I got. As for me, I'll take a good short set over a long bad one any day.

As for covers in general, few of the artists I caught were interested, which is too bad. (And I missed the aforementioned Nouvelle Vague, who are all about new wave/post-punk classics, but they're another group I've heard live on the radio.) Granted, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings brought out their brilliant interpretation of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately?", but I was hoping for one of their non-LP rarities, like "This Land is Your Land" or "I Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Condition was In." Otherwise, Jones and the Gang were in typically top form. The former correctional officer did not strap on her five-inch glitter heels for the occasion, but was otherwise resplendent in a sparkling silver pantsuit.

Then Kanye West graced our presence with a nice long set. (Keep in mind, the fashionable fellow once did the "Jesus Christ Pose" for Rolling Stone; "graced" is, indeed, the word.) Well, it was a bit choppy, i.e. the house lights went dim between sections, which was confusing, but that's my only real beef. West and string section--plus two backup singers, two MCs, and DJ--performed the expected hits, a few new jams, and even some covers (finally). The originals were excellent, especially "Gold Digger" and encore "Jesus Walks." Granted, the marching band version in Dave Chappelle's Block Party is even better, but that's a special case.

As for covers, I mean tracks with which West had no involvement along with those he has produced for others. His band, for instance, launched into a lovely version of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Yeah, everybody's doing it these days, but I ain't sick of it yet. The Mem-Stad crowd, consisting of 23,000 punters by West's estimate, sang along, so I guess we were all in agreement. Then again, they also sang along with the "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This" sample and it was, literally, just a sample. That was both weird and cool. The six string players--all women, incidentally--also played "Bittersweet Symphony" and Talib Kweli's West-produced "Get By." Alas, neither was performed in their entirety. It kept the show zipping along, but if I'm getting into something (and I was), I hate to have it taken away from me so soon.

It happened again with Thee Emergency [left]. They were great, by the way; just what I was expecting based on their Jim Diamond-produced debut, Can You Dig It?. Midway through their set, bell-bottomed guitarist Nick Detroit launched into the distinctive, drawn-out intro to Stiff Little Fingers' "Alernative Ulster." I got my hopes up...but it was just a tease. I don't think Jake Burns' Belfast-based crew gets covered much, which is too bad, as that first album (Inflammable Material) is loaded with fiery punk gems with which Thee Emergency's younger fans might not be familiar. And should. Maybe next time...

So, that's my Bumbershoot 2006. I missed much, but still got plenty of bang for my buck, so I count the experience a success. Sorry to say few friends were there to share it with me, with the exception of Bill, who has more energy than most. The rest were either out of town or at home working (those crazy freelancers). How anyone could pass up the opportunity to squeeze a year's worth of live music--plus comedy, literature, etc.--into one weekend is something I'll never understand. It's a time-saver, it's a money-saver, and it makes for the best people-watching around (assuming you like watching other people as much as I do--man, I live for it). And I say that as someone who only experienced 5% of what the festival has to offer. Ah well, their loss.

Note: All images from the official Bumbershoot website and Amazon (Scott Balikian credited for the Dita Vox photo). When I get the chance, I'll switch out the Bumbershoot pics. The incredibly accurate Burns self-portrait looks great, the others are a tad blurry. Also, I took snaps of Sharon Jones and Thee Emergency. If they turn out all right, I'll post 'em here.

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