Capitol Hill Block Party Friday: The Good, the Bad, and Nothing Ugly

Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Block Party started off right with a set from Portland's Unknown Mortal Orchestra at Neumos. Singer Ruban Nielsen's New Zealand accent hinted at the origins of their spastic down-under sound (they've always had a healthy dose of weirdness/unbridled creativity in NZ), along with hat-tips to Pavement, '60s psychedelia, and even, dare I say, Sublime. Hidden behind trucker hat and sunglasses, Nielsen sang through a weird, copper-and-neon mike that made his vocals sound as if they were coming by shortwave radio from Africa. But the surging kick drum (played by a drummer who looked about 12) and frolicking bass promised danceability that never quite materialized in the constantly changing rhythm.

Up next on the Main Stage was Philly rocker Kurt Vile, whose long, flowing locks, perfectly fitting jeans, and 12-string acoustic guitar make him the embodiment of the modern-day folk-rock hero (and many an indie girl's dream). The Violators, his backing band, are close to this correspondent's sonic ideal, eschewing bass for wave upon wave of layered guitars and pounding drums. Despite sound hiccups, the normally laconic Vile seemed in good spirits, bonding with an audience member over his Springsteen tee. Hits from his latest album, the majestic Smoke Ring for My Halo, sounded especially dreamy, particularly "Jesus Fever," which held just enough variation in Vile's Jagger-esque twang to invigorate even the most tired listener. (Seriously, I've worn out that track.)

Back to Neumos for Woods, whose set started out sounding like a cross between Band of Horses and the Shins before devolving into a long, Zeppelin-inspired jam session. Keyboardist (or as Wikipedia would call him, "tape-effects technician") G. Lucas Crane sang into what appeared to be a pair of headphones, creating an eerie background howl on otherwise straightforward tracks. But man, it's hard to look cool with a pair of headphones clamped over your mouth. Think how gross and sweaty those must get.

Elsewhere, fun but uneventful sets from Craft Spells and Yuck proved the '80s and '90s are alive and well in rock, while Cults packed Neumos to the gills, indicating that their buzz has reached a tipping point. As the laser light show of Ghostland Observatory dappled the trees, the first day of Block Party wound to a close. One down, two to go!

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