Report + Photos: Bumbershoot, Seattle

 

Taking place last
week, Sept. 4, 5 and 6 at the Seattle Center grounds, the 40th anniversary
bash featured everyone from Dylan, Weezer and Mary J. Blige to Wheedle’s Groove,
the Constellations and – sort of – Courtney Love.

 

By Gillian G. Gaar

 

Seattle’s Bumbershoot
festival celebrated its 40th anniversary with headlining spots from
Bob Dylan, Weezer, and Mary J. Blige – not to mention the hundreds of other musical
acts, theatre and comedy events, films, and art shows that took over the
grounds of the Seattle
Center over Labor Day
weekend.

 

The weather mostly cooperated too, given Seattle’s notoriously unpredictable weather,
especially this year (mostly spent under a pall of grey – “The winter that
never ended and the summer that never began,” as one local wag put it). Though
there was only a smattering of sunshine, no rain fell until Monday, which even
then didn’t damped the spirits of Blige’s set.

 

 

 

There are two ticket prices for Bumbershoot; the cheaper
option gets you into most of the fest; the pricier ticket also gets you into
the outdoor Memorial Stadium (where the headliners played). Bob Dylan’s
Saturday night set drew the most packed house, and a familiar scent wafted
through the air as he kicked off with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” There
were plenty of old favorites (“Just Like A Woman,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and
closing with “Like A Rolling Stone”), the backing band conjuring up an
amalgamation of country, blues, and rock, with longtime fans forgiving over the
fact that well, Dylan’s voice is decidedly showing its age (the adjective most
commonly used to describe it being “gravelly”).

 

 

 

On Sunday, Weezer gave every indication of having a ball
throughout their energetic set, with lead singer/guitarist Rivers Cuomo
bouncing around like there was no tomorrow. But even that wasn’t enough for
him. He also climbed on the stage’s scaffolding and at one point seemingly
disappeared entirely, only to be revealed bopping away in the crowd (how did he
do that?), as the band bopped into a
cover of MGMT’s “Kids.” But Cuomo wasn’t done yet; when he finally made it back
to the stage he resurfaced in a blonde wig and pulled off a rousing cover of
Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Yowsa!

 

 

 

Mary J. Blige was the Stadium headliner on Monday, and
unfortunately had to bear the brunt of the rainfall. But Blige proved to be a
trouper, turning up the heat on such numbers as “No More Drama,” “Family
Affair,” and “Real Love,” prancing in front of her backing band (with its host
of backing singers), as an impressive light show unfurled around her. For an
event not known for spotlighting hip-hop, Blige showed us just what we’d been
missing.

 

Most of the drama at this year’s fest surrounded the
anticipated performance of former local resident Courtney Love, back fronting
her band Hole. The local media had spent much time debating on what state she’d
be in; the Seattle Times even
suggested missing the show (“They’re terrible in concert and Love is
embarrassing in an unfunny way”).

 

The most Courtney-esque moment was not on stage, but at a
special pre-show performance taped for KEXP, that Blurt wasn’t hip enough to hear about.
Love performed four songs (accompanied by guitarist Micko Larkin), and chatted
at great length on various subjects (her chat lasted longer than the song
performances), including the upcoming Kurt Cobain bio-pic, pulling in Heavier Than Heaven author Charles R.
Cross, sitting in the audience, to participate in the discussion. She also
dedicated her cover of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” to Cross.

 

 

 

At the show a few hours later, Love emerged on stage to the
sounds of Ravel’s “Bolero,” then launched into a medley of “Pretty On The
Inside”/”Sympathy For The Devil”/”Skinny Little Bitch.” Her voice wasn’t
actually much better than Bob Dylan’s, but Love does have an undeniable stage
presence that makes her compelling to watch. All the Live Through This material rocked hard; when Love is matched with a
good song, she’s at her best. She performed “Jeremy” again, stating she’d
“bury” the song in Seattle
as “We suck at it.” After the performance, someone down front obviously said
something along the same lines, prompting a jocular “Oh, fuck you, you loved
it!” from Love. The show began and ended on time, disappointing those hoping
for a meltdown, and Love obligingly jumped in the photo pit at the set’s
conclusion to shake hands with well-wishers, though she declined to sign a copy
of that week’s Seattle Weekly, which
featured an unflattering portrait of Love shooting botox in her lips with a
Space Needle-styled syringe; she elsewhere referred to the cover as
“irresponsible” (she evidently didn’t read the fawning article inside).

 

 

 

Other musical highlights included a terrifically funky set
from Wheedle’s Groove, an all-star supergroup of singers and musicians from
Seattle’s soul scene of the 1970s, recently the subject of the documentary Wheedle’s Groove. Seattle Mayor Mike
McGinn was on hand to announce the city’s dedication of “Wheedle’s Groove Day,”
in acknowledgment of this “overlooked jewel in the crown of soul music.” They
soon had the crowd jumping with hits from back in the day and unexpected covers
like “Hey Jude.” (For Seattle
residents, another show is planned for 10/1 at Neumo’s).

 

 

 

Other acts Blurt caught over the weekend included a rhythmic set by Atlanta’s Constellations,
whose singer Elijah Jones pounded his drums so hard he bellowed “These bongos
aren’t gonna last!” at one point The Maldives were mellow and dreamy (at least
when Blurt walked by), and Chris
Ballew (of Presidents of the United States of America), in his alter-ego of
kids performer “Casper Babypants,” entertained the kiddies with a cover of
Nirvana’s “Sliver.” The Decemberists were in a chatty mood during their set,
with lead singer/guitarist Colin Meloy praising the crowd for their vocals
during the singalongs: “Beautiful singing! Must be the Puget
Sound marinated the vocal chords of each and every one of you!”
Billy Bragg’s between songs commentary was as entertaining as the songs
themselves, such as his constant berating of Starbucks, and making the pointed
observation, “If any of you are going around thinking
Obama is as bad as Bush, you have very short memories.” And a
reconstituted English Beat guaranteed that the fest would end with an audience
sent on their way in an upbeat mood.

 

 

The musical acts get most of the attention, but there’s
plenty of other activity taking place at Bumbershoot, and the visual arts
offerings are among the most interesting. “Counterculture Comix: A 30 Year
Survey of Seattle Alternative Cartoonists,”
curated by Fantagraphics’ events coordinator Larry Reid, showed how much of the
look of the alternative pop culture scenes of the 1980s-on began with artists
in the Pacific Northwest. The early work of
Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Charles Burns (all students at Olympia’s
Evergreen State College), Bruce Pavitt’s early fanzine version of Sub Pop, and issues of Seattle music
paper The Rocket all lay the
groundwork for Fantagraphics’ eventual move to Seattle. Peter Bagge’s “Buddy
Bradley” comics told the story of Seattle’s music scene as well as any
biography, and the tenor of the “grunge” era was nicely satirized in a Pat
Moriarity comic on display, entitled “Mr. Statistic Moves To Seattle,” in which
the protagonist moaned “Dropped from Sub Pop Records, fired from Expressorama
and banned from the Blue Moon [tavern], all in one day!”

 

Other art exhibits included Hugo Solis “Metaphors for Dead
Pianos”; two pianos with their tops off, wired with sensors that picked up
movements as people walked by, creating the kind of eerie sounds you might hear
in a horror film. Erika Simmons’ “Ghosts in the Machine” portraits used
unspooled cassette tape to fashion portraits of Debbie Harry and Lauryn Hill.
And an entire venue was given over to “Flatstock,” which both exhibited and
sold poster art; you could even watch posters being newly silkscreened.

 

 

 

There was also a preview of excerpts from the upcoming
documentary I Am Secretly An Important
Man
, about the late Seattle
poet Jesse Bernstein (whose album Prison was posthumously released on Sub Pop; the album’s “No No Song” was used in Natural Born Killers). The footage in
the film was evocative and haunting, director Peter Sillen casting Seattle as an industrial
wasteland that’s somehow still beautiful; musician/producer Steve Fisk and
cellist Lori Goldston provided atmospheric sounds during the silent portion of
the screening. The film’s Seattle
premiere will be 10/6 at the Moore Theatre (where Bernstein once opened for William
S. Burroughs) with a week-long run beginning 10/22 at the Northwest Film Forum.

 

 Photo Credits:

 

-Bob Dylan, Mary J. Blige, Courtney Love, Billy Bragg by
Christopher Nelson/courtesy Bumbershoot

-Weezer by Morgan Keuler/courtesy Bumbershoot

-Constellations, Wheedle’s Groove, posters, living statue by
Gillian G. Gaar

 

 

Leave a Reply