Bumbershoot, a Report

Whoosh. Whooof. Long day. I can't believe there are folks who go all four days -- just one was pretty overwhelming. Reviews and random thoughts, in roughly chronological order.

Took the bus down the hill, then realized that we were being basically passed left and right by people on foot, so I bailed and walked the rest of the way to the Seattle Center. Going home, I didn't even bother with the bus, and just walked the whole way. Quite a doable walk, which is a nice thing to know, and along the way picked up some new insight into Seattle topography. The line to get in was long, but moved pretty quickly. For entertainment purposes, the three girls behind me were trying to figure out how to get in free. They were considering trying to pass as 12 or under, which seemed something of a long shot, but they ultimately settled on trying to get someone to give them money to buy tickets to get in. Thankfully, they didn't ask me; I find that level of giggling to be bad for my blood pressure. Youth today. Really.

Most of the first few bands were inoffensive but also sort of uninteresting. I wandered around a lot, and can report that the Jude Bowerman band is pretty basic blues-rock, that Iris DeMent might be good, but she has a countrified voice and sings country songs so I didn't stick around to hear, that the Mighty Clouds of Joy are pretty talented but decided to join in the ranks of the masses in making their gospel number "Amazing Grace" (the Pachalbel canon of hymns), and that I could hear why Big Star was influential (as in, I could hear that other, more recent bands sound kind of like them). Well, actually, come to think of it, I may have heard only that Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer were playing in the group, and all the "influence" might just have been that these guys get around and that I've heard them doing session work for better-known bands and sitting in at other concerts. More famously, I got to watch George Clinton let Parliament do most of that concert's heavy lifting. Others, closer to the front than I, reported that everyone's favorite 70-year old was stoned off his gourd, which certainly made sense. They deserve the reputation they've got, though: their instrumental jam was pretty blistering. And when Clinton joined them to do the "US Customs Dope Dog" song, with its legendary invocation to "let your mind go . . . and your ass will follow" (take that, Steve Martin) it was reasonably memorable. I also kind of liked his line that "if I went to medical school, I'd be a doctor of booty!"

Then it was a long wait in line for the Magnetic Fields concert, which was absolutely sublime. This was apparently their biggest gig ever by a factor of three, and I hope the trend continues. They deserve to be heard. The thing to keep in mind is that when you go to see the Magnetic Fields, you're really seeing a Magnetic Fields cover band. Since their studio efforts are basically all Stephin Merritt's songwriting, together with him and the usual gang of idiots playing a couple hundred different instruments, synths, and drum machines, it's an experience that pretty fundamentally can't be recreated live. They had a grand piano for Claudia this time, along with their usual smaller set of standard instruments (guitar and ukelele for Merritt, cello (electric) for Sam, and guitar and banjo for John), from which they managed to get a pretty wide range of sounds. It's hard to rock with no drums, and yet they rocked hard. The arrangements were sparkling -- clear and minimal, and yet somehow also rich and full -- and they played some of the really great songs off of 69 Love songs. Some, like "Book of Love" (the most romantic song of all time) and "Come Back From San Francisco" have been favorites of mine for a while, but they also made me hear some of the others, like "Love is Like a Bottle of Gin," and "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," in a new light. I think all bands should be required to do Mag Fields covers on a regular basis, because Merritt is one of the most amazing songwriters alive, right up there with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. That said, there's no subsitute for the genuine article, and some of the songs they played were really affectingly well done. A great concert by a great group.

Wound up eating festival food for dinner, and it was, wonder of wonders, quite good, even if the line sucked. Too bad the restaurant is in Vancouver. Then it was back to the quickies again. Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics were fine, if you like their early-rock rock-a-billy kind of stuff (I don't, particularly, and found Deke's stage presence a little grating). There was a guy I walked past who had a "follow the carrot" sign; apparently a guy I know at work knows about this dude, who's some kind of crazed accordionist. Further investigation will be performed. I decided that I kind of liked Vic Chesnutt, only it turned out that he wasn't Vic Chesnutt at all, but rather Grant Lee Phillips. Points off for performing yet another song about the same urban legend, but still, pretty good.

By only going to the Elliott Smith show after it was supposed to start (but before it actually did), we managed to avoid the line completely. He's a reasonably talented guitarist, but I don't see why he's such a critical darling. Most of his songs sound the same, or rather, sound like the same basic materials gussied up with a couple fancier chord changes during the intro. He also cannot write catchy choruses -- which might, I guess, be why the indie critics like him. As for me, it was fun to be there, but pretty forgettable (the only song I left able to remember was the one I went in already knowing), and I feel no need to further support Mr. Smith.

Capped off the evening by taking in the last 45 mintues or so of Tracy Chapman's mainstage show. I was very pleasantly surprised. She's really good live, and has a pretty solid backing band. She played some reggae numbers -- a strand I wasn't familiar with in her music -- which were quite good, along with some of the bluesy stuff she's better known for. She's got a great voice, and also a wonderful sense for when to set it against melodically rich but generally quite sparse arrangments -- sometimes just bass or guitar -- which leads to a really beautiful sound. She and the band also know when to really turn it loose -- as in their final number, that "Gimme just one reason" song, which "ended" twice, only to be kicked up into successively higher levels of groove overdrive, ending with a full-on full-band jam that was a lot of fun.

But oh, the crowds. I couldn't take another day of this -- it wasn't all that bad at any given point, but that much peopleage just gets to you. I saw a guy who was in front of me at the Built to Spill show, where he was dancing half-naked and hitting his head with his hands in a way that would have seemed autistic if he weren't grinning beatifically. His girlfriend was also dancing strangely -- she was a lunger, randomly lurching out and bumping into people. As one of the guys I saw that show with said, "They were either drunk, stoned, or stupid, quite possibly all three." Well, I saw them again, fully clothed and not ramming into people, and resisted the temptation to run up and somehow give them a hard time. The phrase that kept popping into my head during the day was "blissed-out hippie chick," probably because there were plenty of them there, lurking around the drum circles and blissing out with a vaguely spastic swaying action and/or pseudo-random twirling motion. I remember this story about a guy I knew in college, who went to a TMBG concert and was standing behind one such blissed-out chick, who was also a lunger. After a few too many such lunches, this guy decided enough was enough and decked her. She started to get up, so he kneed her and she went back down. I kept this story in mind during the day, to remind myself that there are, after all, worse things than blissing out, and that no, violence may be an answer, but it's not the answer for me.