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On the Scene: Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival

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10469__kanye_lIf you didn’t plan your Labor Day vacation around Seattle’s Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival, well, you’re not alone… but you’re also kind of an idiot.  Especially if you think the summer festival season’s sun rises and sets on the big hipster trio of Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. Just because a fest does not feature the giant-hamster-ball stylings of Wayne Coyne does not make it worthless, people — and frankly, Bumbershoot crammed enough into three days to make me wonder why anyone would fly to anything else.

FRIDAY

The party unofficially got started tonight with a benefit for 826 Seattle, one of Dave Eggers’ franchised child-literacy centers. (Check them out; odds are there’s one in your town.) To raise money for the poor, grammar-deprived wretches, an all-star cast of indie faves turned out to participate in what ended up being a sort of vaudeville hootenanny, including but in no way limited to: Rogue Wave’s Zach Rogue tossing out a beautiful acoustic version of “Bird on a Wire”; Stephin Merritt playing morbid ukelele-and-accordion duets with Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler; The Decemberists’s Colin Meloy debuting tracks off his band’s new CD, The Crane Wife (due in October), then bringing Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard on stage to team up on a Blur cover; and Gibbard, Meloy, and The Incredibles squeaker Sarah Vowell performing a three-act play, written and narrated by Handler. Also: Smoosh.

The whole thing was hosted by former professional literary agent and Daily Show expert John Hodgman (also occasionally better known as a PC), along with his trusty mountain-man sidekick, Jonathan Coulton, who provided pleasant musical diversions throughout. The grand finale was a performance of the self-proclaimed worst song Meloy has ever written, a completely soul-crushing ditty called “Dracula’s Daughter,” repeated ad nauseum by the entire cast. (Don’t go searching YouTube for that one; it’s not particularly worth it.) (Unless you want to get a really annoying song stuck in your head, in which case, by all means, go ahead.)

(Click the jump to read about the rest of Whitney’s weekend in Seattle…)

addCredit(“Kanye West: Courtesy of Bumberfest.org”)

SATURDAY

I missed most of the early afternoon — and the main-stageperformance of Blondie — because I was hosting a reading with theeditors of Bitch magazine,but emerged from the bookish indoors in time to meet up with my friendJosh to start our descent into press-pass-holding madness. We drank upthe Seattle sun as Jamie Lidell’s sonic jams set the speakers on fire(true story, you can look it up), bought some stuff at the roving rockposter show Flatstock, thenplanted ourselves squarely in the midst of the crowd for Rogue Wave’slush full-band set, where they tried out a spotty-but-adorable cover ofThe Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” It was a perfect song for theBumbershoot audience, which is largely made up of underage kids baskingin the chance to finally see bands that tend to play 21-plus shows whenthey come to town, and which is split about half and half between musicgeeks in indie heaven and total posers who wouldn’t know a Who song ifa very popular band covered it right in front of their face (“The kidsaren’t all right!” one teenager behind me shrieked. “They’re f—ed up!Why would you write that song?!?”). 

We hung around backstage with the Rogue Wavers for a bit (becausewe’re cool like that), then found ourselves mesmerized by the costumechanges and funky electronica of the next act, Of Montreal, who encoredwith a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” That sent us dancing over tosee Waylon’s boy Shooter (Jennings, kids, Jennings), where I made avery loud excited noise as the pint-sized honkytonker kicked into “4thof July.”  Finally, we drifted over to hear Badly Drawn Boy cover “Likea Virgin” (based on reports, we’re glad that’s all we heard; apparentlyhe was a bit cantankerous) before heading off to a dive bar where weenjoyed the priceless spectacle of approximately 22 indie bands, 37comedians, one camera crew, everyone who has ever appeared as a talkinghead on VH1, an elderly gentleman in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform,and Horatio Sanz drinking until they kicked us all out.

SUNDAY

Today started early, but I couldn’t have been happier toget sunburned at noon while waiting for the two best main-stage shows ofthe weekend — the New Pornographers (Neko-Case-free but still amazing,especially when playing my personal theme song, “The Slow Descent IntoAlcoholism”) and Spoon (where David Cross emerged to perform a sort ofinterpretive dance that began with him doing fake sign language andended with him mooning the crowd during “The Beast and the DragonAdored”).

Next, to rest our over-danced feet, we decided to mix it up and seea little of the funny-ha-ha, which is where Bumbershoot truly setsitself apart. Sure, any ol’ festival can have funnel cakes and knittingclasses and drum circles, but it’s not many that can trot out a comedyslate as impressive as the one available to us this weekend.  If I saidyou could see live performances of Best Week Ever, a tribute toR. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet,” the Upright Citizens Brigade, andASSSSCAT all in one place, is that something you might be interestedin? And hey, book lovers!  What would you say to readings from GeorgeSaunders, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Gaitskill, and Allison Bechdel, amongmany, many others?  Even for a spoiled New York City resident like me,these are riches beyond my wildest dreams.

So of course, with all that awesomeness to choose from, we ended upwatching what I truly believe was the oddest thing at the entirefestival: Mary-Lynn Rajskub—24’s Chloe—doing standup. Standup rambling,really: Her tangents had tangents. She was a comedian before she gotall famous and on TV, so she allegedly knows what she’s doing, and I’mnot sure what we expected… but it wasn’t that. (Her Emmy dress wasreally pretty, though,so she gets off with a warning.) We bolted from the dark theater justin time to make it over to see the Mates of State go intomarried-couple cuteness overload and tell a story about getting into a“licking fight” on the plane, then play an hour of peppy, perfect popsongs. They, too, covered “Crazy.” Apparently, it was the song of thesummer. Not sure if any of you noticed.

Finally, speaking of lunacy, we made an attempt to see that night’smain-stage headliner, Official 2006 Festival Whore Kanye West. (The NewPornographers joked during their set that, while this was technicallylike the third time they’d opened for him this summer, they had yet toactually see him in person — or be anywhere within a couple thousand feetof him, for that matter.) The place was packed with spazzy 15-year-olds hoisting their girlfriends on their shoulders and blocking theview, and while we enjoyed Kanye’s first three song — “Diamonds fromSierra Leone,” “Heard ‘Em Say,” and “We Don’t Care,” complete withstring section and light show — we got real sick of being trampled (andreal weirded out watching affluent white teenagers belting out the line“drug dealin’ just to get by”) and bolted. Later reports would confirmwe made an okay choice: West apparently spent a bizarrely large amountof time playing 30-second clips of pop singles and performing songshe’d produced for other people.

So with the thumping bass from the big shiny stadium show fading inthe distance, we ended our Saturday at the synth dance party of Zero 7,where Swedish guitar wizard José González was sitting in and strummingalong happily when they covered his “Crosses” — providing just the rightamount of excitement for us old people. “Thanks for seeing us insteadof Kanye,” chirped hyperactive chanteuse Sia Furler. No, thank you forgiving us an excuse to get the hell out of there, Sia.

MONDAY

Got a terribly late start on the final day of the fest,since some of us had work to do, even though it was the nationalholiday known as Labor Day. (You think working at EW is easy,PopWatchers? Come visit me sometime, we’ll talk.) I rolled into SeattleCenter around 6 p.m., tragically missing Nouvelle Vague’s set of new-wavecovers but in plenty of time to attend the final performance of thecomedy extravaganza Tinkle, where hosts Todd Barry, Jon Benjamin, andthe ubiquitous David Cross welcomed special guests Zach Galafinakis,Slovin & Allen, and Bumbershoot MVP Ben Gibbard (who played Monkeessongs this time). For no good reason, the show finished up with most ofthe Bumbershoot comics on stage singing “Seasons of Love” from Rent.Mr. Cross chose this time to sing directly to my friend Josh, who isnot, let us say, a fan of the musical theater, which made that partextra-awesome for me; I’d also like to give Dave props for wearing aTourgasm T-shirt, a subtle touch no doubt lost on the half of the crowdcarrying MySpace tote bags.

Slightly exhausted — and very much afraid after the previous night’spersonal-space-challenged crowd — we opted to skip the Monday nightmain-stage set from A Tribe Called Quest and instead aim for a two-ferof Canadian Females Who Occasionally Perform With Broken Social Scene:Feist and Metric. We started with Leslie, who, with her red guitar andred hair set against her all-white outfit, gave off aPatti-Smith-photo-negative vibe, a look reinforced by her powerfulsound, so captivating in person. If you’ve not seen her live, might Isuggest you do so at your earliest convenience, if for no other reasonthan to hear the way she uses a repeater pedal to turn her breathtakingvoice into a choir? “Why is she so good?” raved my friend Kate…

…but there was no time to wonder, as it was off to see our finalset, the thrash-pop of Metric. We stood on top of the backstage safetybarriers to get a bird’s eye view of the point where the line betweenaudience and band evaporated under the soft glow of the Space Needle,awestruck fans and awestruck musicians reveling in each other and thelast moments of the night. Emily Haines spent a lot of time lying downon the lip of the stage and letting the kids pet her hair, tipped herkeyboard over and played it while sitting on the floor, and dedicated“Rock Me Now” to “anyone who’s never bought a record, and has only everdownloaded songs off the Internet.” The sparse but enthusiasticunderage crowd roared their appreciation in return, and stayed longafter the encore, unwilling to let things end.

Josh — whose reports and pictures of just about everything in thispost can be found over at the Seattle Metroblogging site and on Flickr — and I are nowfestival-fatigued but very satisfied… and I’m not sure we even sawhalf of what Bumbershoot had to offer. We missed the ballet, theperformance art, the film festival, most of the crafts, and neverreally did stop to figure out what was going on with that thing in themiddle of the grounds that spat fire. But we packed a lot into threesplendid days. Good heavens, I haven’t even brought up Seattle’ship-hop explosion — showcased brilliantly via the literate rhymes ofCommon Market — or our short but intensely focused attempt to understandthe rules of roller derby at the inaugural Bumberbout Flat TrackInvitational. (To quote the genius response of Seattlest:“What the hell is a Lead Jammer and what gives her the right to call itoff?”)

In the final, bizarre moment of a long, amazing weekend, some kidtalked his way backstage at Metric by telling the bouncer he knewme — not by name, not by job, just, “Hey I need to talk to that girl inthe black hooded sweatshirt, okay?” — then asked if I could get the bandto sign his shoe.  His name was Jed, and he was wearing a knit buckethat and a sad, lovesick look in his sleepy eyes.  Sorry I couldn’t helpyou out, buddy.  But look at it this way: You just saw three days ofeclectic, artsy nirvana. And next year, you’ll be able to do it allover again, because I didn’t turn you in to security even though you sototally lied to them and tried to use me just to get some cult Canadianband to sign your freakin’ Vans. Sigh. The kids may or may not beall right.

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