The block party on my pathetic block in Chicago is pretty much a glorified bake sale with a shitty bouncy castle which I’m not even allowed to bounce in. So the leap from my wholly depressing, completely sober, and awkward neighborhood reunion to the Capitol Hill Block Party is a paradigm shift to be sure. And to boot, its less of a block party and more of a bona fide music festival that just happens to take place on Pike Street between 9th and 11th. But the focus on the Seattle/Capitol Hill district community is what makes this a hybrid of the two, and blurs the line between something insular for the locals and something welcoming for the foreigners.
This was my first time ever in the Pacific Northwest, much less Seattle, and based on my experience, I can safely say that everyone in Seattle lies about the rain because it was 75 degrees and sunny all weekend long. Dont believe them when they tell you it always rains theyre dirty fibbers fibbing the fibbiest of fibs.
Weather: perfect. Mix of local acts and national acts: just right. Seattle hot dogs: intimidating at first, delicious after several beers. I snapped some pictures and jotted some notes at various points during the day concerning bands, people, and experiences. I was welcomed into Seattles hood like an old friend, and it felt like I was a part of something special in Capitol Hill, and not just a tourist taking in the scenery and local fare. Thanks for the hug, Seattle.
Friday, July 22nd
1:14 p.m. I walked around Capitol Hill, and a homeless guy pointed toward the barricade where the fest is being set up and asked, Are you going to the parade? I didnt correct him because hes probably more right than wrong about festivals being parades.
2:45 p.m. Zions Gate Records is a great little dive of a vinyl store. There are tons of rare 7s on the wall and really good hip-hop 10s, as well. Got a Los Crudos 7. Chicago represent.
4:05 p.m. The first official act of the fest kicks off with Fresh Espresso, a Seattle party-rap crew who inaugurated things nicely. Before going into another get yr hands up jam, they rhetorically asked, Whats the best thing about Michigan? Girls and fast cars. I didnt correct them because he was probably more right than wrong, again.
4:35 p.m. Capitol Hill Block Party has four stages: A main outdoor stage, a smaller outdoor stage (Vera stage), and two indoor venues, Cha Chas and Neumos. The Neumos lineup on Friday was stacked, so I spent most of my time in and out of there. Unknown Mortal Orchestra started the bill at Neumos, and, for the second time in a row that Ive seen them, they asked for there to be no lights on the stage. Im still not quite sure of the reason for that (other than opening themselves up for really easy jokes about their name), but its frustrating.
Being shrouded in dull darkness notwithstanding, UMO bleed talent, and with only one album under their belt, they play those songs to the bone. Singer/guitarist Ruban Neilson is a guitar virtuoso. Its not often you get to say that about a young indie band, but Neilson shreds. He pulls at the strings without a pick, and his solos call back classic garage rock stuff from the 60’s, like if Eddie Van Halen were drunk. I mean, there was an older guy with a Sleep hoodie playing air guitar in the back of the house. UMO arent afraid to improvise and jam like on the highlight of the set, Boy Witch. During the middle of a solo, Neilson went back to his Fender amp and just cranked up the volume and continued shredding. I cant verify this, but Im pretty sure it went to 11.
5:10 p.m. I stood outside long enough to catch some of Kurt Viles set/hair. Jesus Fever may be one of my favorite songs of late, and I got miffed that the crowd wasn’t screaming those lyrics. Back inside Neumos, The Fresh & Onlys kicked off their set with that hale and hearty psych-garage stuff that I trip and fall in love with all over the place. Maybe its that the mean age of The Fresh & Onlys is far older than most bands here, or maybe its their confidence onstage, but I trust that every song they play is one of the best songs ever written. It sure seems like it at their show. If nothing else, boat hats should really make a comeback.
5:45 p.m. Fucked Up played in a coffee shop. Thats a real thing that happened.
6:47 p.m. What makes Woods so enjoyable to listen to? Why do I sit around and listen to their entire set? They’re a band that has a great arc to their performancesequenced meticulously and yet it feels elastic and free. The brevity of their warm, short songs (Be All Be Easy) is interpolated with focused improvisation that rolls steadily like a water just before it boils. In lieu of noodling solos and self-absorbed jams, Woods work with tension, letting minutes of psych play out with tape effects and folksy textures. They captured a big outdoor festival crowd at Pitchfork, and most of Neumos were wrapped in their arms. Any jam-heads (or anyone for that matter) who hasnt heard Woods live should really check them out, but if thats not an option, NYCTaper has a recent set from their June show at Northside Festival. Cop that.
8:35 p.m. I read somewhere that Cults front lady Madeline Follin sounds terrible, like The Shaggs terrible. Thats a fierce aspersion to cast, and it stuck with me up until the first note Follin sang. Nah, Cults are on the real. There was an older couple next to me just knockin’ boots during You Know What I Mean, and Follin received an unexpected ovation mid-song for her climactic turn on the chorus. Extended to a five-piece, Cults retro ditties were filled in with vibrant indie rock colors. Go Outside didnt just sound like a jangly summer anthem, but a punchy head-nodder, as well.
8:45 p.m. Ra Ra Riot were just finishing their set, the crowds hands were in the air, and everyone seemed to really be picking up what they were putting down.
9:50 p.m. Another riotous Fucked Up show in the books. I overheard someone say Seattle was notorious for not moving at shows, but leave it to Damien Abraham to transform Nuemos into a stage-diving, crowd-surfing clusterfuck. Every dude that made their way onstage fumbled into a mic stand or slipped into a band member. It was hardcore chaos. Two firsts for this show: Madeline Follin from Cults singing Veronicas part on Queen of Hearts (with lyric sheet in hand) and bassist Sandy Miranda diving into the crowd. Neumos was razed.
Also, Ben Cook is probably the only dude in a hardcore band that can pull off shorts.
10:40 p.m. Over on the Vera stage, I laxed to local hip-hop group Brothers From Another/Kung Foo Grip. The Seattle hip-hop scene seems notoriously insular and self-affirming; is that a bad thing? Im still trying to get a beat on what Seattle hip-hop stands for or sounds like, but kickin it in the 206 seems to be these guys’ M.O.
11:15 p.m. After seeing them perform as guests in Shabazz Palaces set at SXSW, I was anxious to see how Seattles female hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction would fare as a pas de deux. They take cues from femmes of the past, giving nods to KP & Envyi and Rhianna in a matter of songs, and they give it that confidence that Ive come to expect from 206 hip-hop. The two ladies would trade verses and work with each other across songs that had them alternating from the fronts to the backs of their heels. The bass and the lyrics made my heart pump. It was a welcome sign that empowerment is both wide-reaching and catchy. One song about how fellas are trying to knock down their doors sent a hard message to the male-heavy crowd. No dickie, dickie/Im a lezzie, they hooked.
11:40 p.m. Back at Ghostland Observatory, and look at all those lasers. Theres one for every color of the rainbow! And, oh shit, that strobe light is syncing up with that egregiously long build before the cheap drop hits! All this ado is a fine distraction from whatever nonsense is happening onstage. The duo brings an energetic show, they have a great time, and the crowd loves it, but its truly nonsense music bereft of form, substance, influence, and it’s just a visual and sonic rotten carrot dangling in front of false synesthetes and entry-level electroheads andwhoa. That last laser array was dope!
Saturday, July 23rd
2:15 p.m. I ask people where to take a good picture of The Space Needle, and they tell me, and I realize that I dont want a picture of The Space Needle because everyone, including myself, couldn’t care less about The Space Needle. Theyre just The Watts towers or the towers in Flushing Meadows for The Worlds Fair, and unless its a secret alien spaceship, don’t care.
2:32 p.m. Another dose of Seattle hip hop with Champagne Champagne has me warming up to some of these local crews, but I still dont know what they stand for. Champagne^2 have a Das Racist vibe with several portions of levity removed from their flow, or a Jurassic 5 vibe with no trace of jazz in the production. Weed, girls, Seattle: all delivered under semi-swirling beats made less avant by the propensity for getting the party started. The two MCs worked well as a duo bolstering each other and trading spotlights when necessary and had enough energy to shotgun the first set of the day.
3:17 p.m. The spectral songs of Austra drew me in to the coffee shop to witness some of their KEXP set. Her voice is a ghost, aided by her two other ghosts/female back up singers. Austra benefits from playing cloaked in the darkness of a club, as opposed to surrounded by burlap sacks of coffee beans, so their brooding ethos was kind of tampered by the venue. None of this affected Katie Stelmanis power as a vocalist, especially during Lose It a quivering and painful song, the Arabica beans notwithstanding. Maybe its not as Poe as all that, but the blank expressions on Austras faces dont exactly make me think Leslie Gore or anything.
3:47 p.m. Fences: Ive seen this Seattle band a few times now, and each time inked-out Chris Mansfield becomes more confident, and less trembling. His trials seem cemented and reflective as opposed to maudlin heart-on-sleeve bellyaching. Guitarist Jonathan Warman could really take the band to another tier with some of the volume swells and elastic jams he includes live, and would separate them from the rest of the saturated pop-folk scene. Carry the emotion of the lyrics into the music and find a connection there so that each everyone matches Mansfields mood. Promise?
4:10 p.m. Getting from stage to stage can be a bit of a maneuver here, as Nuemos is a 21+ joint so you have to walk through a checkpoint to get there. If you want to leave Nuemos and go back to the Mainstage, you cant exit where you entered, you have to walk up a block and come back around. Im sure theres a good infrastructural reason, but the contained spirit of each stage/venue wasnt optimal for the old “wander around and see what grabs me” trick.
4:35 p.m. — Eleanor Friedberger stood on a bare stage. The whole setup looked very intimidating, and she appeared nervous performing her prolix-folk set to a restless crowd, much like I would expect a young Patti Smith/Joni Mitchell would have done pre-fame. Friedberger’s songs werent met with the attention they deserved, which is too bad because that particular style of distaff beat folk was in oddly short supply over the weekend. Even though her set was marred by some tech issues, Friedberger pleased this fan, who thinks she has a lengthy solo career and prefers the earnestness of her voice and an acoustic guitar as unencumbered by the often thoughtless instrumentation of The Fiery Furnaces.
5:10 p.m. Im full up on less-than-Superchunk power pop, Telekinesis. You sound great, but I have no desire to learn your songs so I can sing along to them in my car, which seems like the only boon to repackaging college power pop these days and the thing is I dont even own a car because I live in Chicago and take the train.
6:10p.m. — Whatever misgivings I had about Handsome Furs‘ latest synth-driven album were washed clean by their set. I miss Wolf Parade, Im coping, but Dan Boeckner looks so much happier playing up there with his wife Alexei Perry rocketing through his own material. Or, I guess as happy as a veritable shadow of a dude who asked the crowd right-out for shrooms can be. Boeckners synths hit harder than his guitar, the four-to-the-floor beats got the crowd bouncing, and was a great precursor to TV on the Radios forthcoming set. All We Want, Baby, Is Everything raised my fist and voice in hedonistic delight, something Im sure Boeckner and Perry champion as a lifestyle and not to be macabre or portentous or anything but really they look like Sid and Nancy up there. Or at least their unleashed stage presence makes me think that.
6:50 p.m. So usually when a band has the technical prowess thing going on, theres a lot of stasis on stage. Stationary crowd watches stationary band watches their fingers dancing on fret-boards. Not so with Ravenna Woods, who sounded like Kaki King meets The Dodos with everything — including the lead singers dance moves — having a percussive quality. Like UMO, Ravenna Woods birth these rare sounds from their guitars with exuberance and celebrate with high-test energy. The burst picking and tapping at times sounded like a synth loop it was so clean and on time. I look forward to seeing these guys again in any capacity.
7:45 p.m. I honestly thought Seattle would be the last place youd see Nirvana t-shirts, but theyre everywhere at CHBP. I had drinks at a bar where Kurt Cobain was last seen alive, and even a bar felt reverent to me, but it seems like people have either moved on to indifference or pride in Nirvanas legacy. And yes, Ill watch Hype as soon as I can.
8:15 p.m. Im up in the clouds at Teen Dazes set. Dudes wearing a cardigan, dropping some 4/4 grooves with chillwave synths and Im feeling it all around. Its sad that the Vera Stage feels auxiliary and disconnected from the rest of the fest, and Teen Dazes music needs to spread out as opposed to filter down a small street. I only stay for a few songs, long enough to overhear a guy in the crowd say, Man that bass is really killer. I never want him to hear a dub step track ever and hell die, for several reasons, a happy man.
8:47 p.m. Im waiting in Neumos for Cold Cave to go on, which I know I wont stay for the whole thing because Les Savy Fav is playing opposite and I should get pictures of Les Savy Fav cause Tim Harrington does wacky shit and they make for good pictures.
8:50 p.m. But Cold Cave are superlative live, and if I can just see a couple minutes of Dominick Fernow’s dance moves and hear some high Hz noise mush for like a couple more minutes Ill be satiated. Plus they make for great pictures, too. Everythings coming up Jeremy! Get ready for this sick coverage, conflicts be damned.
9:45 p.m. Goddammit.
9:47 p.m. So, Cold Cave lit their show with predictably minimal light for their first song — the extricating Icons Of Summer — none of which was on Fernow and his fly-ass dance moves so strike one. I wanted desperately to stay for the rest of their set, but I knew I could run out and get into the pit for Les Savy Fav and watch the rest of their set and just deal. For reasons I wont go into here, I was not allowed in the pit for Les Savy Fav. So instead of capturing with photos, Ill ashamedly recapture the events with the pitiful 1:1000 ratio of words. Harrington: left the stage and ran into an adjacent apartment building, dipped his head out of the window, ran back downstairs, grabbed a potted plant from the foyer of the building, brought the plant on stage, hurled it into the audience effectively destroying it. Then, Harrington put on a blond wig and aviators, stripped down and put on corduroy cutoffs, posed like an ingenue actress, grabbed a camera from the in-house film crew and filmed the crowd, threw a tarp in the crowd and stage dove on it, danced with a man in a bald eagle costume, put on the head of the bald eagle costume, pushed the man eagle into the crowd perhaps injuring the man hes not sure, eased tension by singing the higher than an eagle line from Wind Beneath My Wings, grinded on the stage, posed like an ingenue actress again, threw confetti all over himself, put on a crudely fashioned head dress cape thing with streamers, jumped off stage, ran through crowd with microphone in hand, pushed through to the back, jumped the security fence, threw a bucket of water on the crowd, and disappeared into the night. Incidentally, they played some peppy post-punk songs, too.
10:15 p.m. Akimbo saved the whole day for me. Entering the Cha Cha venue is like stepping into a basement jam, and for all intents and purposes, this was a legit basement jam. Akimbo were set up on the floor, no stage, and just ripped into the sweaty walls of the place with sludge punk of the highest pedigree. Beer sprayed everywhere, two big dudes were preventing the mosh pit from overtaking the three piece and the 100 or so people in the venue clawed were fully into Akimbos ballsy shitshow, ending with what Im pretty sure was Black Flags Thirsty and Miserable, inciting a punk scrum just the way it should be.
10:50 p.m. — In the long corridor of Pike St., sound is can ricochet off the walls of the apartment buildings and storefronts causing for some sound difficulties. I had trouble hearing some of TV On The Radios vocals but other than that, they delivered a similar performance as we reported on last week, only this time welcoming DLZ to the setlist. Check out the video of deftly wrangling Fugazis Waiting Room (and please try not to cringe when the lady sings during the rest at the beginning).
Sunday, July 24th
Sidebar concerning that Pacific NW Folk-pop sound (The Head and the Heart, The Lumineers, Campfire OK, Loch Lomond, The Cave Singers)
These bands dont obfuscate their aesthetic at all, which is almost punk in and of itself these days. Its the importance of being earnest, right? I dont think thats a shallow choice, but I think its an easy one to make, and not one that offers many rewards in the long-run. Ive heard and read harsh words regarding the easy-listening jimmy-jangling sentimental strains of bands of this particular ilk, and I agree to a point.
Its unfair of me to lump these talented bands into one group because they are truly unique from one another, but someone whos more aligned with their ethos would be able to describe their emotional effect better. I just dont jive with they theyre throwing out there. Blame it on me being an outsider, or blame it on the bands nationalistic pastoral tendencies, I just cant connect. However, each band had a few kernels that made me tune in.
The Cave Singers at least know theres more rain than sunshine in Seattle, and when they incorporated a more southern-blues tinge to their sound and allowed for vocalist Pete Quirk to detach from his folk yolk, I listened. The Head and the Heart pleased a huge crowd on the Mainstage, but at the cost of mawkish mugging and if theyd simply show me their hearts and not tell me ad nauseum about their hearts, Id be listening. Ritchie Youngs voice of Loch Lomond was hidden behind sleepy instrumentation, and when I could hear the timbre and versatility of his sound, I listened. Campfire OK brought like five people on stage to dance around and play tambourine to their songs which seemed like an insular celebration of themselves and when they briefly forewent the antics of a hempy hootenanny, I listened. The Lumineers actually were a stately, confident young band from Denver, but never really grabbed me with any of their songs, which may bode well for some deeper listening to their studio recordings. Ill be listening to them.
3:55 p.m. Do you have to be 15 years removed from your prime to rock on stage? The Posies could give fellow aging 90s act Guided By Voices a run for their money in terms of old hat rock moves. I expected a polite trip down power-pop lane, but the Seattle natives ripped into their seven-album career like they were playing them for the first time. As previously stated, Im doing just fine with my power-pop reserves, but it wasnt really about the songs but how much fun they had playing them. It was hard to look away or stop listening, especially when they nailed their singles of yore Dream All Day and the finale with Solar Sister. Tingly feelings from 1993 another good use for power pop other than car-jamming.
4:22 p.m. I eat a Seattle hot dog with cream cheese, grilled onions, hickory BBQ sauce, sriacha sauce, on a toasted bun and its five stars, 100%, and most assuredly BNHD.
5:15 p.m. You want math rock? Cacophonous noise noodling + taught instrumental prog + watching Ian Williams and Dave Knopoka subtly conduct each other like classical musicians + John Staniers crash rigged 1,000 ft in the air + projections of delicious Ice Cream during Ice Cream + faithful tension wrought from two tweaky synths played simultaneously by Williams + including Atlas on the setlist + a flawless, seamless, nonstop show = Battles and Battles are tantamount to none.
5:42 p.m. The wall of low-drive guitars that Papercuts pushed out didnt really mesh with the crowd at Neumos. Jason Quevers hushed, reverb-caked songs have a Galaxie 500 by way of The Shins vibe which may be a tough sell to a crowd after a long weekend. But they strode through their set, playing ambling, lush indie pop. Do What You Will sounded particularly pristine as Quever just nailed that chorus.
6:30 p.m. Some final thoughts about Capitol Hill Block Party: Sucks that I didnt see Federation X, a touted band by many locals. All the security crew on the grounds were local bouncers and were the most genial, helpful people Ive ever encountered at a festival. The fact that you can see shows at a club and outdoors is the festivals greatest boon. For all the Fauxlk running rampant in Seattle, it was pleasing to hear a defined sound reach so many people, and if thats Seattles current identity its something to take pride in. On the other side of the coin, a lot of Seattle hip-hop in its current iteration came across as amateurish and near-sighted party bangers, and perhaps afraid to follow the path of Shabazz Palaces has forged. I spoke with several Seattleites about their take on the towns identity with regards to music, but I was only there for three days and would love more insight. I would wager the fest was ballpark 75% local, 25% visiting, and it did a fantastic job of catering to that percentage, especially with the selection of headliners. Finally, logistically speaking, the fest ran with nary a hitch. Save for some odd 21+ ordinances and no real place to sit down in the grounds, its a model for any large-scale block party, you know, if you can get Best Coast and TV on the Radio to show up like they did.
8:35 p.m. The sun was setting behind the stage with the perfect light hitting everyones faces. With a weather anomaly of clear skies and 80 degree heat, I couldnt imagine the harsh noise of Mogwai of the brooding intensity of Godspeed You! Black Emperor capturing the mood of this weekend of quite like Explosions in the Sky did. Even though every song is unabashedly hyperbolic, Explosions arent just < >. Their use of space and silence, notable in the opener The Only Moment We Were Alone, shows that their keen ear for compositions dont simply adhere to the primal human need for simple build ups and come downs.
The purified, triple reverse osmosis guitar tones paid dues to The Edge by extending major mode riffs to the end of the block and skipping off to infinity. You could close your eyes and feel transported to the end credits of the weekend (or whatever time-frame you choose, really) and reflect and transcend. Or, you could nod your head and sync up with the bands exuberance rollicked through their songs matching their intense stage presence. Or, you could hop off the epic wave of sound at any moment, grab a beer, and hop right back in. Music is rarely this inviting for all ears. The grand finale, Let Me Back In, swelled to such an ultimate emotional intensity that the fest had no other choice but to come to a close or it surely would have skipped off the space-time continuum. It ended on a good note, stacked upon thousands of other good notes.
The Culture of Capitol Hill Block Party