One of the things I love most about Bumbershoot is the variety of programming it offers. Year in and year out I’m amazed at the diversity and the caliber of talent One Reel lands for Seattle’s annual music and arts festival. I took full advantage of that diversity during the festival’s final two days with a Sunday schedule started like this: M. Ward –> Sharon Jones –> Mudhoney –> Tony Bennett –> Yelawolf. Meanwhile, my Sunday ended like this: Star Anna –> The Vaselines –> Skrillex –> Rebirth Brass Band. I don’t think there’s a music festival in the nation that offers up such a broad palate of musical talent.
Of course with all of that talent not everything is going to be to the liking of everyone. I did manage to catch a few sets I really didn’t enjoy. I found out that I’m not a fan of Niki and the Dove, M. Ward bores me and Passion Pit just doesn’t do much for me when they play acoustic. But I’m still riding a little bit of a Bumbershoot buzz so I don’t really feel like dwelling on what I didn’t like, so here’s a rundown of some of the highlights I experienced during Bumbershoot’s final two days:
If arena rave was a genre – and who knows, it may soon well become one – Skrillex would definitely be its king. The dubstep DJ du jour came packing a stadium-ready lighting rig that would make U2 jealous. His stage show included pyro, bass, lasers, bass, fireworks, bass, fog canons, bass and lots and lots of bass. Did I mention there was bass? Well, there was. How much bass? Let’s just say Skrillex’s booming bass filled the room with more vibrations than a chapter of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” His set was sensory overload in the best possible way.
The crowd, which was mostly a sweaty throng of teens and twenty-somethings, loved every minute of Skrillex’s non-stop dance party. Some in the sweaty throng of EDM fans were dressed in furry boots, gloves and hats that made them look like woodland creatures, while others waved glowsticks and wore neon facepaint. As for the music, it was like listening to Skrillex really, really loud except better because of the people watching. For his part Skrillex didn’t talk much. He stood at his DJ booth and uttered no more than 50 words during his set, only occasionally saying “make some noise” or “let me see your hands” just to let the crowd know that there was indeed a human pushing buttons atop the DJ tower. Really, words don’t do Skrillex’s impressive live show justice. It’s something that must be experienced firsthand, but bring earplugs and be ready dance.
On the other end of the musical spectrum were two legends, Wanda Jackson and Tony Bennett, whose respective sets were the highlights of Bumbershoot’s second day. Between the two of them they are nearly as old as four Bumbershoots combined but their voices and candor showed no signs of age.
Backed by locals The Dusty 45s, Jackson sounded nearly as good as she did 50 years ago while delivering a set that dug deep into her songbook — which dates back to 1958 — and included some new material which she recorded with Jack White, whom she described as “a velvet-covered brick.” While the music was great and the Dustys were impressive as always, the real highlights came when Jackson talked to the crowd. She shared plenty of stories, including one about touring with Adele, who told her that “Funnel of Love” inspired “Rolling in the Deep.”
The Queen of Rockabilly also told the crowd that she opened up for Elvis Presley for her first tour and that she dated The King long ago.
“I remember Elvis gave me his ring and asked me to be his girl,” she said. “Of course I said yes. I didn’t even know how many other girls he had. I didn’t ask.”
She said she always does a tribute to Elvis at every one of her shows because he was the one who encouraged her to try singing rock ‘n’ roll instead of country music, and then she proceed to sing an excellent “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Bennett shared stories about his hits and career as well. He said Bob Hope gave him his name after he told the late showman his real name was Anthony Dominick Benedetto (“He said we need to economize that.”). And he recalled fondly being on a television show where he was outperformed by Rosemary Clooney (“We were the original American idols.”). His set included classics such as Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart,” “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Maybe This Time.” And like Jackson, after all these years his voice has aged extremely well. Backed by a band that included Count Basie’s drummer, Bennett’s golden pipes were on fine display. He flashed a wide, warm smile and extended his arms out to thank the crowd after every song, acting like the true class act, and lovable grandfather of pop music, that he is.
The last time Yelawolf performed in Seattle prior to Bumbershoot he was nearly booed off the stage. He made it a point to let his fans know this and called his return to Seattle “poetic justice” because he drew one of the largest crowds of the afternoon. He impressed me with his command over a massive crowd but I could have done without the obligatory five minutes of let-my-DJ-show-off (even if his DJ is a DMC winner) and the tribute to his white musical heritage, which consisted of spinning Beastie Boys, Eminen and Lynyrd Skynyrd tracks, seemed pointless (why not play some of your own original material?). The set ended with a track from his upcoming record with Travis Barker, leaving the crowd with something to look forward to since the album is expected to drop in October. Yela performed on the same day as Mac Miller and Big Sean – which was a smart programming move by the One Reel brass – and while I didn’t attend those sets, I assume they drew sizable crowds as well.
Of course it wouldn’t have been Bumbershoot without a solid smattering of local bands spread across Seattle Center’s 74-acre grounds and this year’s festival featured several outstanding sets from Seattle artists. One-third of the 30 acts I watched over the festival’s three days were locals and just about every local musician I watched knocked it out of the park.
Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs continue to break out of their alt-country mold while morphing into a damn solid rock band. Justin Davis is a beast on guitar and his chops paired with Star Anna’s vocal power really make Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs more than your typical run of the mill alt-country band. Every time I see them live I walk away wondering why they aren’t a bigger band and I was left wondering the same thing after their set at the Promenade stage.
Reignwolf is an artist who is having a breakout year and anyone who caught his Monday performance likely walked away thinking they just watched Seattle’s next big thing. He flat-out dominated during his set. His mixture of blues and rock went down smoothly on a sunny Labor Day afternoon. He’s played Bumbershoot, Sasquatch!, Capitol Hill Block Party and will be a part of this year’s City Arts Fest. Not to shabby for a guy who has released no recorded material that I am aware of. His entire set was an incendiary blast of rock n’ roll bliss but his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on electric mandolin was by far one of the coolest things I witnessed all weekend.
While Reignwolf was terrific and showed Seattle’s rock scene is ready for its resurgence, Mudhoney delivered the best set by a local band I saw all weekend. The band’s KEXP session featured nine songs, five of which were new and none of which were “Touch Me I’m Sick,” and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s been nearly five years since the band released an album and they played as tight as I’ve ever seen them. One new song, “I Don’t Remember You,” featured Steve Turner riffing off a “Crosstown Traffic” sound-alike lick and Mark Arm pausing in the middle of a the song to spit the lyric “Excuse me while I fill this grocery cart.” Jimi Hendrix would be proud.