Bumbershoot’s yearly arrival is a sign that Seattle’s summer is over, one last hurrah before kids head back to school and dreary weather sets in. With 43 years under its belt, its arrival is as predictable as the seasons. For the most part, the venerable festival has aged well, even if longtime Seattleites might not recognize it as the same free event that started in 1971. Between comedy, visual arts, the Flatstock poster exhibition, panel discussions and many other happenings over the course of the long weekend, there’s almost too much for one person to take in. This year’s festival stuck to the model of “something for everyone,” with a mix of acts designed to draw people of all ages to “Seattle’s festival.” The only thing missing: The original aging hippies who used to make up the festival’s backbone. With tickets at $60 a day, it seems they have been priced out. In their place, confused-looking suburban families wandered the grounds of the Seattle Center alongside roving groups of teens— boys in graphic-print tees and acne, girls baring it all in training-bra tops and cutoff shorts.
It was the younger festival-goers who flocked to Kendrick Lamar, the weekend’s first big act on Key Arena’s indoor main stage. The flash of lighters in the crowd and the haze that filled the arena showed that the crowd took Lamar’s green-friendly edicts to heart. Sounding energetic despite the room’s tendency to swathe everything in booming bass, Lamar riled up the crowd, taking the temperature of the room by asking each section to cheer in turn. Fans rapped along to hits from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City like “Money Trees,” “Poetic Justice,” and, of course, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).” Live, Lamar sounded anything but laid-back, the sped-up versions of his normally relaxed songs showing a hint of the aggression heard ‘round the world in his “Control” verse. With a backing band of drums, bass and guitar, Lamar’s set sounded surprisingly rock-oriented. Songs like “The Recipe,” with its chorus of “women, weed and weather” resonated with the crowd and the clear blue skies outside. But the booming drums and bass and the absence of said blue sky made for an oppressive atmosphere.
Outside on the Plaza Stage, the multicolored waves of the Experience Music Project making a scenic backdrop, Gus Scout are Gus Wenner, the son of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, and Scout Willis, the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. These children of millionaires, both 22, have admittedly been at it for a while, starting the band as a school project while they attended Brown University. Willis has a formidable set of pipes— talk in the audience seemed to be mainly “This girl can really sing!”— and their stripped-down country-blues tunes were a relief in their simplicity. Besides, they aren’t the first rich kids to slap on a fake accent and dive into the alt-country niche—here’s looking at you, Gram Parsons.
After catching a riotously funny performance from Patton Oswalt and friends, it was a shock to step outside into the jarring tones of Watsky, who was winding up a set of what sounded like rap-rock-meets-Sublime on the Fountain Lawn stage. Judging from the ecstatic crowd chanting his name, however, this unholy mixture agreed with the audience. Up next, as the sun set, a revival of a different sort took place on the Starbucks Stage. Soul master Charles Bradley would no doubt be the first to agree that seeing him and his band the Extraordinaires play is like going to church. Bradley is one-of-a-kind, and it’s always a joy to see his old-school showmanship backed up by his incredibly tight band. A festival is a great setting in which to see him, as some around you discover this modern classic and others slow dance to tear-jerkingly emotional songs like “Lovin’ You, Baby.” His set mixed songs from 2010’s No Time For Dreaming and this year’s great Victim of Love, applying a 1960s lens to the problems of today. Ending with the tale of modern American struggle “Why Is It So Hard,” he preached love and nonviolence from the stage, and even brought up a choir to sing the title’s refrain.
FIDLAR kicked things off on the TuneIn Stage, packing what felt like 30 songs into their hour-long set. Every few years brings a new wave of party bands who sing about the joys of PBR, blow jobs and coke, and FIDLAR (which stands for “Fuck it dog, life’s a risk”) is no different than the Black Lips or Harlems of yore. Although many bands may have made the same cocaine-brain connection, they’re all pretty fun, and FIDLAR is no exception. It was hilarious to watch parents cover their children’s ears and leave once they realized the lyrical content to the otherwise upbeat party anthems (save for one mom who rocked out through the entirety of “Whore”). “Raise your hand if you’re in a band!” commanded singer Zac Carper. “If you’re in a band, stay in one, because this shit is fucking fun.” Good advice, good attitude.
Strangely, The Breeders, a hotly-anticipated act, sounded wimpy and wan on the same stage where Bob Mould had just rocked as precisely and loudly as ever. The levels were off— Kim Deal’s vocals too soft to hear clearly from back in the crowd, and the band sounding timid and uncoordinated in general. They had celebrated the 20th anniversary of their classic album Last Splash the day before, and played it in its entirety. With The Zombies playing at the same time, it was hard to decide which half of each set to catch. But with The Breeders underwhelming, it seemed best to see what Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent and co. were up to. Starting off a bit daddishly with a cheesy version of “I Love You,” they soon launched into a block of songs from Odessey and Oracle, though not before a strange tangent from Blunstone about how much Dave Grohl loved the album. “A Rose for Emily,” “Care of Cell 44,” “This Will Be Our Year,” and others from that classic sounded fresh and vibrant as ever, and Blunstone sprinted around the stage with great energy for a 68-year-old. The unique songwriting perspective of Rod Argent (and former bassist Chris White, who is not currently in the band) shone through in these 45-year-old songs, eclipsing any bad feelings a jammy Alan Parsons Project cover might incite.
The Breeders weren’t the only band celebrating a landmark— closing out Sunday’s show was Death Cab for Cutie’s full-album performance of Transatlanticism, which turns ten in October. As excited as the festival crowd was for this anniversary, maxing out the Key Arena’s capacity hours in advance, it seems nostalgia has gone into overdrive. Evidently enough people bonded with Transatlanticism and Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service project that they want to hear these new “classic albums” played in order. But this format only works if you have a significant emotional attachment to the record in question. Otherwise, it’s a serviceable arena-rock performance, but without the little unknowns that give a set a feeling of discovery and anticipation. You know what’s coming, and in this case, Gibbard even announced that he wouldn’t be talking between songs, as that’s not what happens on an album. If you’re not a big fan, you miss out on the esprit de corps the whole experience is designed to foster.
Monday was the least crowded and most subdued day of the festival. By the time Superchunk played, frontman Mac McCaughan (who apparently doesn’t age) had to work extra hard to get the crowd moving. Still, diehard fans shouted along to songs from throughout the band’s 23-year-career, including several from their latest, I Hate Music. Their set was electrifying and poppy, reminding why they’re the band that launched a thousand college indie rockers and continue to do so. Crowd highlight: A group of young teens pretending “Digging for Something” is an ode to nose-picking.
Justin Townes Earle’s songs about loneliness, drinking and other blues woes sounded surprisingly easy on the ears for such fraught material. Caught in a mid-tempo shuffle, nothing stood out, but it sounded like nice music to play in your store or to have brunch to. With the festival’s booking aimed toward broad appeal, Bumbershoot can at times feel caught in an identity crisis. Many acts ride the middle-of-the-road that may not offend, but also fails to catch your attention.
Bumbershoot is a celebration of new and old, trendy and timeless, the music of the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the country and world. If at times it seems lost in the shuffle, with so much going on, there’s something for you around the next corner. You just have to decide if the experience is worth the price of admission.