Review: Bumbershoot 2014 – Day One

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There are certain events, happenings, locations, etc. that almost single-handedly give a certain city its reputation, whether it’s Beale Street and Sam Philips’ musical findings, the popularisation of hardcore punk music, or just being bat-shit insane. When it comes to Seattle, events like the recently-occurring Bumbershoot help solidify Seattle’s reputation as a musical city. The two days I happened to attend Bumbershoot were absolutely rampant with a strong air of togetherness and community in spite of the noticeable fact that most of the attendees came from entirely different backgrounds of musical taste.

I arrived at the Seattle Center at around 2:00, and about ten minutes after the set was supposed to begin, my day began rather pleasingly with Solana Rowe, aka SZA on the Fountain Lawn Stage. Top Dawg Entertainment signee SZA (sih-zzuh) is a worthwhile artist in the emerging style of “PBR&B”. Her approach to R&B and soul music is rather lush and ambitious compared to more “mainstream” R&B artists of our generation, going so far as working with the acclaimed future beats producer XXYYXX on her latest EP Z.

SZA had a full band on stage with her – a drummer, electric bassist, keyboardist and producer shared the stage with her. While not the most breathtakingly essential concert set I’ve ever seen in my life, it was a nice way to start out my day. I like SZA’s voice, and it sounded just as nice in person. The instrumentation provided by her backing band was well-executed, with a lot of rich bass and clear treble. In between songs, Solana spoke at length with the crowd, talking about how exciting it was to be there, how awesome Seattle is, how awesome it is that pot is legal here; the usual stuff. It was a cool little warm-up for the day at large.

I stuck around her set for about 20 minutes or so, and then left to get a good spot on the standing room floor for the first Mainstage band of the day, Panic! at the Disco. Not that it mattered, really; as soon as the band came out, Brendan Urie started making motions for the audience to come as close to the stage as they possibly could, and everyone charged for the stage, and I was squished right in the middle of the frenzy, barely being able to even see the band at this point.

On studio recordings, I don’t really have any feelings towards Panic! at the Disco’s music one way or the other, but I feel confident in saying that sound-wise they were the worst artist I saw all day, and really it all comes down to the vocals. On tape, I find Brendon Urie to pretty much sound exactly like Patrick Stump if half of Stump’s vocal chords weren’t surgically replaced with squeaking rubber ducks, and I find his vocals palatable on songs like “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” and “Nine in the Afternoon”. This was my first time ever seeing them live, so I’m not sure if Urie was just having an off day, or if he’s the worst live vocalist who ever lived, but either way, his voice sounded weak, straining and borderline subpar. I stayed for their opener “Vegas Lights” and a song and a half after that, but escaped the crowd and left after that.

Afterwards, I needed something to do until 4:30, so I did a bit of wandering around the premises. Along the way, from a distance I caught a couple minutes of Big Freedia on the Fisher Green Stage. I don’t know anything about this artist, but I found their set one of the most jarringly standout sets of either days I went. From what I saw, his set was comprised entirely of hip-hop beats on a fatal amount of angel dust whilst he danced and jumped around the stage, occasionally interjecting with a “Yeah!” or “What!” or some other ad-lib straight out of Lil Jon’s vocab book, all the while a handful of women were on the edges of the stage twerking like their lives depended on it. It was definitely interesting, but I got overwhelmed just watching two minutes of it from hundreds of feet away; still, something that absolutely insane and ridiculous gets an endorsement from me.

I did a bit more exploring, and wound up at the Lonely Forest’s performance on the Fountain Lawn Stage, which the band was quick to remind the crowd was their last ever performance together. The Lonely Forest was a somewhat traditional indie rock band from Anacortes, whom was once signed to Trans, Chris Walla’s record label. The crowd seemed absolutely thrilled to be able to be a part of the band’s final ever performance, which only made it even weirder for me that I’d never heard of the band before being in the audience that day.

Seeing the Lonely Forest was a pleasant surprise for me. Watching the band perform live, it was pretty obvious they had a lot of passion for what they did, and they seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to rock a crowd as large and enthused as the one they attracted. On top of that, the group’s sound was very solid, with great guitar playing and some good emotive vocals courtesy of frontman John Van Deusen. I only stayed at their set for about a half hour, but I really enjoyed the time I spent with the band. It made me interested to check out their music, which I think is the best thing a band can accomplish with a live show.

I made my way towards the Fisher Green Stage at around 4:00 to wait a stupidly long time in the crowd to see my most anticipated performer of day 1, Detroit rapper Danny Brown, whom, alongside Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips and Childish Gambino, is my favourite contemporary hip-hop artist. I’m a huge fan of Danny’s (split) personality, his stunningly-unique voice, his lyrics, and the very abrasive experimental beats he brings to the table on every release of his. I was hotly looking forward to his performance, as I was all but certain it would translate like magic into a live show.

That said, Danny Brown’s set didn’t really click for me, and I think it had to do with time and placement. All of the energy, funny vocal delivery and overall erraticism was there, but it felt a tad out of place to me. Danny is the type of performer whose concerts are best suited for a small, indoor venue, as the size of the stage and the stage barriers made the overall experience far more unimpactful and impersonal than it would’ve been otherwise.

For what it’s worth, though, the sound and musical performance was there. Danny’s producer SKYWLKR got a great amount of time in the limelight to warm the audience up with great trunk-knocking beats and bass to get the audience appropriately “turnt up”, as all the kids are saying these days. Once Danny Brown took to the stage, he brought a good mix of songs off of both XXX and Old, including tracks such as “Lie4”, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’”, “I Will”, etc.

One thing that was a little awkward about Danny Brown’s set was the audience itself. They definitely had the whole efficacy and “Safety is for pussies!” mentality that one would expect from a crowd of this kind, but constantly throughout his set, Danny would start a line and then cut out, prompting the audience to finish the line for him. However, it seemed like only a small percentage of the crowd knew enough lyrics to be able to finish them, which led to a lot of awkward moments of silence throughout his hour-long set. They were able to finish some lines, like the unforgettable and hilarious “Stank pussy smelling like Cool Ranch Doritos…” line from the song “Monopoly”, but these moments were few and far between. Overall, I’d love to see Danny Brown live in concert again, albeit at a different, indoor venue.

I left Danny’s set early to get to catch slacker rocker Mac DeMarco’s set on the Fountain Lawn Stage, another artist I was really excited to see. I only consider myself a mild fan of DeMarco’s music, but I’d heard a lot of incredibly positive things about his live performances, and how fun they are to be a part of, so I had to see what he had to offer at Bumbershoot. In terms of performance and overall interaction with the crowd, Mac DeMarco was easily the most enjoyable performer I saw all day.

For a lot of Mac’s set, his and his backing band’s stage presence and charisma was very chill and playful to match the music they were playing. The group’s interactions with one another were pretty funny, and it seemed like they were very happy to be on a stage entertaining so many people. Equally fun was his music, which was equal parts joyous, light and upbeat. Mac DeMarco’s very vibrant, innocent and laid-back jangle pop was surprisingly lifelike and rocking live. The crowd was definitely in the zone, being very lively, but also very restrained and collected at the same time.

That is, until about two thirds of the way through his set. After a while, Mac called out for a member of the audience, asking them, “So, who’s brave enough to come up here?” He picked one (forgive me, I forget his name), and then he came up on stage for a little freestyle jam sesh. He and his band performed some simple instrumentation whilst Mac and the audience member ad-libbed silly lyrics about jamming, being at Bumbershoot, and how incredible it was being in that very moment. Afterwards, the audience member stage-dove, and managed to stay up all throughout Mac’s next song “Rock and Roll Night Club”. After this song, he let the backing band play by themselves while he himself dove into the audience, doing nothing other than smoking a cigarette. After riding through the entire crowd, he was sent back to the stage and they performed their closer. I already want to see Mac DeMarco in concert again, and I encourage anyone reading this to do the same at the nearest opportunity.

Since I didn’t have anything I wanted to do for the next 45 minutes, I stuck around the Fountain Lawn Stage for that 45-minute time window so I could be front row for Poliça. Poliça is a very interesting pop-rock band with a very unique blend of alternative rock, synthpop, trip-hop, with the occasional dabbling into minimalist techno and indie pop. Poliça doesn’t use any guitars to make their music, instead opting for just a bassist, vocalist, two drummers, and electronic get-ups that all members except for the bassist toy with. The culmination of their sound is very dreamy and trippy, but also very in-your-face, and at times, rocks rather hard considering how sweet and abstract they can be at other times. In this respect, the group reminds me of Death from Above 1979 in a good way. It’s always interesting to hear a rock band make awesome music using pretty much anything except for a guitar.

I’ll be frank here: sound-wise, Poliça was without a doubt the greatest band I saw on day one. When it comes to indie pop, I definitely prefer my lead vocalists female, and frontwoman Channy Leaneagh definitely has some pipes on her. Her voice ranged from being understated and cute to really loud and empowered when the instrumentation upped its tempo to match. To boot, the dual drummers’ dynamic was on point and rather fun to watch, the bassist held up his end, with a very loud and frenetic performance, and the group’s live sound was mixed in a great way, with no piece of the equation dominating another. My personal favourite song that they performed was “Dark Star” off of their 2012 debut Give You the Ghost. Poliça’s set was all around just a great time, and I’d love to see the band in concert again.

After Poliça blew me away, I did great amounts of nothing until 9:00, when my dad and I saw Walk the Moon out of an impulse. Walk the Moon is an indie dance-rock band that I know nothing about, other than that they’re a pretty entertaining live band to see. Their sound isn’t too far off base from the likes of Matt and Kim and Young the Giant; very dancy instrumentation, radio-friendly to the umpteenth degree, with a great feeling of youthfulness in the tone of the music. They got the crowd on their feet jumping all around with their fists in the air, clapping along to the music, and the whole crowd seemed absolutely smitten with the band. We left about 15 minutes in to head to the Mainstage to, as they say, bring the motherfucking ruckus at Wu-Tang Clan’s set.

Sadly, though, we stayed for about half of the opener, and then left severely underwhelmed. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) being one of my favourite hip-hop albums of all time, I was beyond excited to see what they had to offer. What I and m’colleagues ended up getting, though, was a very stilted stage performance, unenthused vocal delivery, and sound quality that made the ShoWare Center sound like the Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room. The acoustics at the Mainstage were awful enough at Panic! at the Disco’s set, but Wu-Tang’s sounded like they were performing in a bathroom. As I expected, “Bring Da Ruckus” was their opener. It was definitely the best possible opening song, but it’s hard to take comfort in that when the sound and overall performance was just sloppy overall.

Not wishing to end the night on a sour note, we headed to the Pavilion Stage to see what was going on. At the time, Australian house producer Hook N Sling was performing a live set, so we stayed for about 15 minutes before taking off. The sound that he brought to the table was fairly straightforward and somewhat standard electro house, with a heavy emphasis on remixing and sampling. Throughout the small portion of his set I caught, I heard a remix of Disclosure’s “Latch”, as well as a vocal sample of that “There’s no going back!” line from Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse”, among others. It was a nice little thing to experience in the small dance floor-like Pavilion Stage. There were cool little visual projections behind him, and there were pretty cool strobe lights and other visual accompaniments about. While not the most complicated and challenging electronic music I’ve ever heard, I thought it was fun, and it sounded great on the Pavilion’s sound system. It was a pretty uplifting way to end the night.

All in all, Bumbershoot day one was fun as fuck. I saw some great performances, some awful ones, some MOR ones, but overall I’m really glad I went on the first day. Of the bands I saw Saturday, my favourites were Poliça and Mac DeMarco. Of the ones I’m sad I missed, Cumulus and Grayskul are my most heart-wrenching omissions.

However, things only got way better from here in every possible way. Join me next time when I tell you all about my experiences with one of the best concert days I’ve had all year, Bumbershoot day two.

Your friend,
Jess Casebeer.

(Below is a handful of pictures taken during day one. Photo credit goes to Glen Casebeer.)

About Jess Casebeer

The only music critic in the Pacific Northwest, Jess Casebeer is the youngest member of the NorthWest Music Scene crew at age 16. Open to most genres out there, he greatly values reviews that are informative, critical and entertaining. He's kind of like an innerspring mattress: firm, yet comfortable in its own right. Follow him on Twitter @JessCasebeer.