Writing about City Arts Fest's inaugural edition last year, I complained that for all it did well, it didn't feel like much of a festival. It brought some great acts to town--Belle & Sebastian, Big Boi--and arranged some great events with local artists, but to my casual eye it felt too spread-out, too amorphous in terms of crowd or identity, just a string of cool shows with the City Arts brand all slapped on them rather than a festival with a coherent sense of itself. (This was perhaps a rash or provocative pronouncement, especially considering I only made it to, like, three festival events.) This year, two nights and only two events into it, City Arts already feels like much more of a festival.
photo by Marikko Kaiulani Fanning, via Facebook Union Station.
A big part of that was this year's opening VIP party. Last year, they kicked the fest off with a drink-and-mingle at Chase Jarvis' studio. This year, they did it at Sound Transit's Union Station on the border of downtown and the International District. Now, Jarvis' studio is lovely--anyone would be lucky to own such a nice space--but it felt like a typically small Seattle party. Union Station, on the other hand, with its high tiled ceilings (lit up in warm purples) and stately arches, felt grand and ambitious, the party sprawling and full and promising. Sure, the acoustics of the space were such that the bands for the evening (though not the DJing) were reduced to near-psychedelic miasmas of reverb, but frankly that's exactly the sort of impossible room I wanna hear Head Like a Kite/Daydream Vacation in. It was a fun, auspicious start.
And then there was Robyn.
Read Erin Thompson's full review here. I went into the Paramount last night as decidedly NOT a Robyn fan--not that I wished her any ill will, just that every time I'd had a chance to get into her, I just didn't "get it." So, she's like the Scando electro singer for people who can't decide between Annie's chewing-gum pop and the Knife's spooky symphonies, right? Or she's like the Blue Eyed Peas?
But last night, seeing her perform live to an adoring crowd dancing and chanting and pumping their fists, I started to get it. For one thing, while she does touch on all the above reference points, she and her band--two drummers and two guys behind massive banks of synthesizers--also put on a live show as electro-rocking as anything this side of Soulwax. Her tracks are seamlessly constructed pop, with producers ranging from go-to "gully" dude Diplo on up to Top 40 phenom Max Martin, and with that magic effect of feeling familiar even if you're not sure you've ever heard them before. (In fact, some of this was familiar, and not just "Show Me Love" and "Konichiwa Bitches," but also the opening verse of "Hang With Me" as interpolated by Swedish duo jj on their outstanding Kills mixtape, "Cobrastyle" via the Teddybears STHLM, that riff on ABBA's "Dancing Queen" in the encore of course, and I'd swear I heard a bit of Simian Mobile Disco's "It's the Beat" being played deep in the filter house mix of Robyn's "We Dance to the Beat.") Plus, the self-made pop singer's songs are (as Erin points out) full of swagger, self-reliance, and triumph over adversity--set to a dance workout beat and that sort of torch singing that codes pretty easily as gay (and/or feminist) anthem--shades of P!nk here, maybe--a reading that was supported by what looked like an ebulliently queer-positive crowd. So, yeah, I danced, I stayed through the second encore, and while I didn't leave last night's concert a rabid convert, I at least get it now. It's pop(ulist) music for the underdogs, and for those who root for them.
Opening act YACHT on the other hand, I've gone from loving to death circa their excellent album See Mystery Lights to feeling kinda meh about with their new one Shangri-La. The one-two of "Utopia" and "Dystopia (The Earth Is on Fire)" is nice, but largely the album leaves me cold, feeling like an inferior retread of Mystery Lights steeped in even more white-robed new ageism. And while their live band is totally tight (with YACHT main man Jona Bechtolt rotating from bass to synths to drums), and maybe necessary for venues the size of Bumbershoot or the Paramount, I kind of miss the pure performance-art goofiness of seeing just the two of them singing and miming along to beat tracks off of a laptop. The aforementioned two songs were a highlight, as was of course the set-closing "Psychic City (Voodoo City)"--two unexpected highlights: an ace cover of the B52's critically underrated "Mesopotamia" and the pair of dancers who flanked the band, a girl in a white-and-black Sharpie'd shirt reading "boy" and a rather big dude in a matching shirt reading "girl." They sorta reminded me of that indelible dancer in Nirvana's "Lithium" video, and they were a cute touch.