If Bumbershoot is the matron of Seattle music festivals, Capitol Hill Block Party is its face-paint-wearing lush of a little sister. There's an undeniable meat market vibe at Capitol Hill Block Party, one that's amplified by the sudden baring of so much flesh after ten months of seeing girls in hoodies and jeans. This is the inherent problem with music festivals: for some folks, the music is just an ancillary boon to the central objective of getting pickled. And that's not a judgment. How else are you supposed to cope with the heinous crowding and constant armpit/face proximity? How else are you supposed to cope with the creepy dude who's brandishing a portable Breathalyzer at you like it's an extension of his penis and you should suck on it to make sure you're sober enough to drive/know not to suck on random strangers' phallic Breathalyzers in public? No, thanks. I get quite enough of that at Sasquatch.
But the main reason I skipped out on Block Party last year is because, when I went in 2008, I had the unpleasant experience of almost getting crushed when the Hold Steady played because the old stage configuration did not allow enough room for everyone who wanted to see the band. Things got shove-y. Big bands with too many drunk fans crammed into a space that would comfortably hold about half of those drunk fans made for a VERY FUCKING SCARY SITUATION. And as !!! pointed out two nights ago, stuff like this does happen. This year, though, it was much better. There were sound issues, sure, but there are always sound issues at things like this. Capitol Hill Block Party, I can tell that you're making some changes, and I want you to know that they're not going unnoticed. After the jump, a recap of my escapades.
I showed up on Friday with the simple goal of sticking to the main stage for Shabazz Palaces, Holy Fuck and MGMT (in spite of the latter's historically disappointing live shows). It's worth listening closely to Shabazz Palaces, whose distinct take on hip hop offers plenty to gnaw on, production- and lyrics-wise. When you see it live, though, it's seductively easy to lose yourself in the hypnotic bounce of the music, and that's what happened to me even though it didn't sound as good and was not as loud as it could have been.
On the advice of several friends who insisted that I give Yeasayer, a band whose records I am not even slightly into, another chance, I stuck around and promptly realized that I was almost completely alone in my dislike for what was happening on stage. Yes, the music itself is actually quite polished, even catchy, but when Chris Keating brays like a heartsick donkey it spoils the whole bushel of apples. Sadly, his voice is not any better in person. Still, it was worth being close enough to witness Jay Inslee's uninformed, hapless attempt to get in touch with his youthful constituents go horribly awry when he misnamed Yeasayer "the Yeasayers" and deemed them the best band from New York. An offensive comment on all counts.
Eventually, I decided I couldn't take the yowling anymore and gave up on moving frontward. I came back to the mainstage for Holy Fuck, but lost my spot and got stuck so far in the back that I couldn't see anything (a theme of the festival as a whole). The whole experience definitely made me thankful that I saw Holy Fuck's pre-CHBP show at the Crocodile on Thursday night. Holy Fuck drops pulsing, latticed synth bombs that splatter your eardrums like Jackson Pollock and if I had to choose between the rest of Block Party and two more nights of Holy Fuck shows, I wouldn't have hesitated. They are that good.
Therefore, I imagine it must have sucked for MGMT, whose live performances are so notoriously iffy, to follow up a band like that. I didn't think it was as bad as some of my friends seemed to think (this could possibly be because I have a massive girl-boner for that band), but the energy was just not there, and the band's newest material doesn't translate as well live as pop songs like "Electric Feel" and "Kids" do. And you know what? I still enjoyed those songs. Because MGMT makes me feel electric. In my pants.
After internally kicking myself for missing Chris Estey get down with Nic of !!!, I go check out Air 2 A Bird, Gabriel Teodros' and Amos Miller's soulful new collaboration. It's decent live, but I'm glad I already checked out the record because it's the kind of music that's easier to like live once you've let it grow on you a little. Of course, there were guests, including my sweet friend/occasional fellow blogger Hollis Wong-Wear, who's also working with Amos Miller on an R&B-sorta thing called the Heartfelts. I know this is conflict of interest, but fuck it: girl knows how to sing.
Then I went to see the Blood Red Dancers. I love this band. If Bukowski had been a musician and not a poet, his shit probably would have sounded like the Blood Red Dancers', who have hit upon a magical combination of organ freakouts, sinister bass lines and Aaron Poppick's savage growl. Unfortunately, their show took place in the Cha Cha, and going down there felt like descending the stairs to hell. Between the temperature spike and inhaling vapor that I am pretty sure was 2/3 BO and 1/3 halitosis breath, I realized all over again, as I do every year, that the Cha Cha is not a place I should be frequenting in the summer months. Good as the show was, three-quarters of one set was all I could take. That was the last I saw of
hell the Cha Cha for the rest of the weekend. The next band I checked out was, fittingly, Black Breath, a Southern Lord band whose righteous metal shredding competed with the fluid motion of a thatch of thick ginger hair thrashing in time with the music for my attention.
I followed that up with Blitzen Trapper, one of my favorite Sub Pop bands of the moment. Their music is like comfort food: warm, nourishing and good for improving sour moods. !!!, however, put on the best show of the day. !!!'s throbbing hallucinatory synth pop is kissing cousins with Holy Fuck, and like Holy Fuck, !!! is a band whose music is better live and practically made for festivals. Ass shaking is compulsory. Even the little chat about the people who were trampled at a music festival in Germany did not dampen the mood. Much.
two three nights of this, it is a goddamn miracle that I make it to Capitol Hill by 2 pm for Harlem, one of the bands I was most excited to see. I fumbled my way through throngs of fellow hangover victims to the main stage for Harlem's sloppy, high-energy boogie punk. Enthusiastic teenagers in sweatbands and braces stood up front, bobbing to the music but not getting as wild as they might've were we someplace like the Sunset or Vera. In the space between songs, someone tells the guitarist he looks like Waldo in his red-and-white striped Elmer Fudd shirt. He was not amused. The Maldives follow this up with a walloping four-song set of mostly new material, which is not quite as unfortunate as it sounds, since most of their songs are about ten years long.
Since there was nothing else I particularly wanted to see, I stuck around for Mad Rad. Sunday or no, they got the crowd worked into as much of a frenzy as ever with their brash, brassy party beats, even though it was stifling out from the heat and the collective egos of the 'Rad ballooning into the atmosphere. But what can I say -- the band's gleeful, unwavering nihilism makes for great party music. Yes, it's completely lacking in the way of substance, but these things have a place in the world. I mean, it's kind of inconvenient when you're trying to get laid at a party and the song in the background is about genocide. I guess what I am saying is that, yes, I like Mad Rad, and I liked the finale when they invited a bunch of friends up on stage for "I Love My Friends." Still, it was good that the Blue Scholars were there later on to put on a characteristically solid performance and provide some balance. Every time I see them, they get better.
I'd been avoiding sleepy music all weekend -- keeping your energy level up is key to survival at these things -- but I made an exception for the Dutchess and the Duke, who were charming and, happily, played quite a few songs from their debut record with the help of Faustine Hudson on percussion. Then I went to see the Dead Weather close out the outdoor stage and seduce the masses with Alison Mosshart's throaty, seductive howl. Afterward, a surprisingly sizable passel of diehards soldiered on and filed into Neumos for Truckasaurus, Victor Shade and Fresh Espresso. This turned out to be one of the best shows of the evening, and for the first time all weekend, it was a relief to be able to hang out and not feel restless because I could be somewhere else. Victor Shade did a new track, Fresh Espresso proved once again that they're an improvement on Mad Rad's "hipster hop" formula and Truckasaurus earned some new converts.
Still, the vibe was strange -- the crowd felt more like a mass of people who just didn't want the party to be over than actual fans of the music -- and I'm honestly a little relieved that the next show I go to will be populated by people whose main objective isn't getting shithoused with bands playing in the background. But I'll be back next year. Of course I will. How can I resist?