Download Festival with Modest Mouse, Incubus, Presidents of the USA, Nada Surf, The Thermals, The Heavenly States, Arthur & Yu and Back Door Slam

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Download Festival: Or How I Didn't Learn to Stop Hating Incubus But Still Love the Thermals

From food to fest and a little bit in between.

Download Festival with Modest Mouse, Incubus, Presidents of the USA, Nada Surf, The Thermals, The Heavenly States, Arthur & Yu and Back Door Slam

Gorge Amphitheatre, George, WA

Saturday, Aug. 25

Better Than:
A DMB three-night stand (I would know).

Not Better Than:
Some other, Incubus-free Download festival line-ups. (Snoop Dogg!  Band of Horses! The Shins! Anyone but Incubus!)

Personal Bias:
Anything involving Modest Mouse, the Thermals and Philly cheese steak can't be all bad.

Overheard (too many times) in the Crowd: "Incubus is a burn-out band from the '90s. They don't fit the bill at all."

Destination Download: A UK-born sponsor driven interactive festival that's made it's way to the states this summer with shows in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and our own George, Washington.

En Route

 
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Triple X Drive-In's Cameo 55 

There's not a much better way to begin a trek to see Modest Mouse east of the mountains than at the Triple X Drive-In, just off of the Front Street exit in Isaac Brock's former Issaquah stomping grounds. It's something I was first introduced to via the band's song "All Night Diner" (The sign said Triple X/But they were talkin' about rootbeer) and has been a routine stop ever since. The drive-in on a hot summer Friday night was crackin'- parking spots packed with classic cars and kids running around like crazy, half dressed in various sports uniforms. It might as well have been 1954. Watching the size of the burgers and sandwiches coming out of the kitchen, we opted to share the Cameo 55, a Philly cheese steak sando piled with peppers, onions, pineapple chunks (!) and special sauce served atop a heap of fries and a banana chocolate milkshake to split. And a diet coke. Yin, yang. It was a ridiculous amount of food, even for two people- but the perfect base of fuel needed to keep us satiated until Ellensburg, the stopping point for the night.

Pulling into the Best Western  parking lot, we passed an ominous looking armored vehicle conspicuously labeled SWAT with fatigue wearing soldiers hovering around it. Next to it, members of Nada Surf piled out of a white mini-van, looking like the giant truck's antithesis. DLSwat.jpg

SWAT Team at the Best Western. 

The hotel recommended we hit The Tav (guess what it's short for) as a nightlife option so we headed on to the college town's (it’s home to Central Washington University) main drag to find it. Our reward came in the form of beer only- but that was fine, because everyone else in the place seemed to have had no problem reaching an elevated level of intoxication without the hard stuff. Nearly every square inch of the wooden tables and benches was carved with initials and expletives and the lighting was last-call bright, even at midnight. The beer was cold and cheap, a cowboy kind of nightcap (if no whiskey can be found) in a cowboy kind of town (if you really want to see how they do it, the Ellensburg Rodeo is this weekend).

On the Scene

A few short hours of sleep and a handful of miles later, cut to Gorge arrival. I've never seen fewer cars leading the way off of the amphitheatre exit. But, it was still early. If you were to asses who the fans were there to see based on the music blaring from cars in the parking lot, it would seem evenly split between the warring sounds of Incubus and Modest Mouse (though not one note from any record prior to Good New for People Who Love Bad News was heard). The ratio of guys to girls was Montana style, which doesn't get it's nickname, Mantana, for nothing.

Inside the gates was a mob scene of sponsor booths- but instead of the usual cheap giveaways and obnoxious music, most of them provided something for concert goers to do. Interactivity is the overarching theme of the Download Festival, and in this case it seemed to be working. Volkswagon hosted a clubhouse/garage looking thing complete with instruments and a chance for mere mortals to sign up and play, much to the amusement or chagrin of everyone else depending on who took the stage- I got a kick out of a serious looking high-school age motely crew of bluesy Gig Harbor boys who's lead singer could wail like a pro.

People could design their own t-shirt (by selecting an arty, but thinly veiled VW logo of your choice and having it screen printed (Our own Chris Kornelis opted for the rabbit design). A selection of bands playing the fest stopped by for Q and A sessions hosted by The End's DJ No Name. During a session thwarted by technical difficulties with The Thermals, the small crowd that gathered heard bass player Kathy Foster impart that the best part of being in a band with frontman Hutch Harris is, "He's my best friend, and he's really funny." We also learned that she grew up driving a VW bus and now drives a Vanagon, much to the sponsors delight I'm sure. Near the Plaza stage, the smaller of the two, Zune set up shop with demos and giveaways of their second string mp3 players next to Gibson who had a wrack of guitars for people to play. At another booth, Guitar Hero was the main draw and nearby, Wrigley's gum had set up a giant structure with hanging space age-y looking orb chairs for people to sit in to help promote their new cinnamon flavor.

Download Festival doesn't just afford the chance for corporate giants to push their products in creative ways however. The interactivity umbrella included artist meet and greets/autograph signing sessions. To the left of the Plaza stage, under the shade of a small tent, bands like Nada Surf and Back Door Slam (a young blues band from the UK) graciously put in time sitting in metal folding chairs while fans lined up to shake hands, get their free festival posters signed and take pictures.

To the right of the stage, on a small platform, there were moderated Q&A's between fans and bands, much like at the VW tent. Here we learned, among other gems, that Andrew McKeag from the Presidents of the United States of America would opt to have lunch with Jimi Hendrix if he had his choice of any celebrity dining partner, and that he'd eat a favorite Hendrix dish, rice mixed with hamburger meat and vegetables. 

The Bands

So, what about the music? With only eight bands on the bill, it was a far cry from a festival like Sasquatch, but with much more going on than a Nickelback one night stand. The afore mentioned three man outfit, Back Door Slam, kicked off the day at 2 p.m. on the Plaza stage, their lead singer belting out blues that channeled greats like Stevie Ray while wailing on the guitar. And while the blues are a tough genre to execute without seeming heavy on the cheese, these youngsters were good, good enough to make it happen without any cringe-factor. Talking with them after I learned that they hail from a mystical sounding place called the Isle of Man and that they were discovered when the frontman, Davy K was spotted playing solo by their now-manager opening for a member of Squeeze. They've already scored opening slots for the likes of R.E.O. Speedwagon (casino tour!) and the Who. They play Seattle September 5th at the Croc, which coincides with the drummer's 21st birthday- not so much a big deal for him at home, where the drinking age is 18, but should help touring the states with legal whiskey consumption at least.

Seattle's own Arthur and Yu took the stage next, opening the set by spinning whirlygigs around their heads to create an ethereal ringing sound before heading right into a tightly executed "Afterglow". The whole set (derived primarily from the group's debut full-length, In Camera) was confident and clean, evidence that they've had some time on the road under their belts. Guitarist Dove Amber had just returned from playing bass with Love as Laughter dates with Modest Mouse and Band of Horses and they've added a new keyboardist to the lineup as well.

Next up, Oakland's The Heavenly States threw down their brand of what an onlooker classified as "post-punk sounding Springsteen". They were engaging enough that I missed Nada Surf the first act to take the main stage. I did learn from NS's manager that the band is in the process of making their new record out at Robert Lang's studio in Shoreline with John Goodmanson (The Blood Brothers, Death Cab) that can be expected in early 2008.

I couldn't budge from my safe haven (far from the fast-multiplying throngs of Incubus fans) in front of the Plaza stage. The Thermals went on next and simply slayed it, inciting the most action that stage had seen all day. I've never seen the Portland trio put on a bad show and this time they delivered a quality packed, high energy set- but I'm not sure they know how to do anything but. From opener "No Culture Icons", to the cover of Built to Spill's "Big Dipper", the transitions were seamless, the songs crazily catchy, pogo inducing, pop punk gems.

It was the kind of performance that leaves you sweaty, satisfied and hungry. So while it meant I had to skip seeing the crowd (which had filled out a bit by then) go ape shit over the Presidents, outfitted in white button up's and ties, I had to wait in an incredibly long line for sustenance which came in the form of a cheese-steak sandwich, my second of the trip. It was so worth the wait, especially with the Sriracha stolen from the yakisoba booth. 

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Incubus was the only band left on the lineup before Modest Mouse. The two, long, excruciating, painful, ear-assaulting, agonizing hours that they played were made better by only two things: An elephant ear and a $10 tall boy of PBR. And there aren't many things can be made better with the aid of a TEN DOLLAR can of PBR. DLelephantear.jpg

Finally though, the main attraction (at least for some) arrived. Isaac Brock, looking a little like his character in the fisherman themed "Dashboard" video, with a beard, glasses and an engineer's-looking cap started off seeming a bit out of sorts. Perhaps due to back pain: later in the set he asked if anyone in the audience was a chiropractor. After seeing a band like Modest Mouse play raw, energetic shows in places like Portland's Crystal Ballroom, where Brock's sweat and saliva flies into the crowd and the floor bounces like the building's about to come crashing down while he screams into his guitar, it's tough to feel fulfilled in a place as wide open as the Gorge where the energy can't be contained or reverberate off of the walls. The material was mostly of the major label era, though a mumble-y "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" harkened back to a time when their audience was of a less dude-ish variety. Looking out at the crowd, KEXP DJ Cheryl Waters noted that there was barely a female face to be found. It's too bad, because they likely would have appreciated the moment, about four songs in when tag team drummers Joe Plummer and Jeremiah Green stripped down to nautical, red and navy striped tank tops. To me, that band is like pizza. Just hearing them play is enough, and despite the fact that there were no insane antics or thrashing around, it still filled the void.

We left tired and happy with empty pockets thanks to too many cans of ten dollar "cheap" beer.

 
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