It’s late July in Seattle, and that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite festival to complain about: Capitol Hill Block Party. Adored by bros and high schoolers, despised by 80% of the people who actually live in the area, the “Block Party” now feels like an elaborate maze of beer gardens and VIP lounges à la Coachella, crammed into a six-block space. What once appealed to locals as an accessible, single stage program has expanded to a five stage setup (two outdoor, three inside existing venues) with over 20,000 in estimated attendance. An early bird 3-day pass will run you $135, and to move between outdoor and indoor venues, you have to wait in long lines to show your ID. But for all of its annoyances, the festival nails it in the place where it counts. The curators always do an amazing job balancing a sprinkling of national acts amidst heavy hitting local talent. Any less would be a shame for an event branding itself as a block party.
Friday kicked off at 4pm and featured energetic headlining sets from Crystal Castles, Washed Out, Head Wound City, and MØ. Despite rain in the morning, the skies had calmed to a comfortable overcast by the time the gates opened.
See photos from day 1 in the gallery and read about the day’s highlights below.
HEAVY PETTING & MERSO = ROMEO & JULIET
In days of yore, before modern distractions like Tinder and Pokémon Go, young people binge-read romance novels to wile away the time, dreaming of the objects of their affection. A similarly epic love tale is that of Seattle bands Heavy Petting and Merso. As bassist Evan Easthope concluded Heavy Petting’s set, he told the crowd that Merso are his favorite band of all time. It’s pretty funny when you consider the similarities between their music; it’s even funnier when you remember they share a member (guitarist Evan Anderson). Heavy Petting just put out a new album called Don’t Call Me Babe, and Merso will be putting out their first full length with Good to Die Records this year. It was a joy seeing each post-rock band one after another, as the former’s euphoric instrumental swells gave way to the latter’s skyward exaltation. Both groups were mathematic and poised, but still knew when to appeal to brute satisfaction. Fist pumping isn’t always a douchey gesture.
DONORMAAL GETS HOT AND HEADY IN NEUMOS
Seattle-based poet-turned-rapper Christianne Karefa-Johnson, stage name DoNormaal, brewed Neumos to a fever pitch Friday night with tracks like “Tense,” “Chocolate Delight,” and “LessEyeWanoo.” Her delivery danced back and forth between cool dejection and playful musicality, highlighting words and drawing them out, playing over beats both whimsical and dark. She swayed and gesticulated to her words, parsing them out in front of her. The festival made a wise choice billing her in a medium spot despite her relatively recent notoriety, and the crowd showed up to fill the space. Karefa-Johnson made the Neumos stage feel intimate, like a basement show or her bedroom, even climbing into the crowd for “Jump or Die.”
Her last song ramped up the energy level, unleashing a torrent of strobes as Karefa-Johnson dropped to her knees rapping. At one point she got so overheated she unzipped her jacket and said, “I had to do it!” She didn’t have a shirt on underneath, so she rocked the rest of the song in a bra and open jacket. After the song she said, “I had a shirt! A little strappy pink one. Does anyone see it on the ground anywhere?” She turned around and sure enough, tiny pink strings dangled from inside the back of her jacket. “I guess I had a little Janet Jackson moment!” The crowd cheered triumphantly. Despite the snafu, she rolled with it and still slayed the track. Considering the cover of her 2015 album Jump or Die is a topless photo of her in the shower, her name as a censor bar, this MC isn’t apologizing for her body anytime soon—and that’s exactly how it should be.
HEAD WOUND CITY HONOR THEIR TINIEST (BIGGEST) FAN
Hardcore punk supergroup Head Wound City entertained a small but dedicated crop of fans eschewing the Crystal Castles mayhem. The band features Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jordan Billie and Cody Votolato of The Blood Brothers, and Justin Pearson of The Locust. Mark Gajadhar (also of The Blood Brothers) was filling in Friday night for usual drummer Gabe Serbian (also of The Locust). They released their first album since 2005 on May 13th of this year, dubbed A New Wave of Violence. Allegedly, their first album took only seven days to write, record, and produce (and that’s not just a joke about their songs’ brevity). The setlist was addled with short, fiery outbursts of noise, delivered with bravado and layered over with Billie’s screeching wails.
During a particularly intense freak out, Pearson came out into the pit, reached down for something out of sight over the barrier, and picked up a tiny girl. He placed her carefully on top of the speaker at center stage, and she jumped up and down wildly while the band finished their maniacal breakdown. The crowd cheered and he placed her back down. She beamed at her companion, as if to say, “Look ma, I just got on stage!” For a seemingly harsh band to stop and recognize an unlikely fan is what makes going to live shows so rewarding.
ZOOLAB & KINGSNAKE BRING THE PARTY
After seeing Thee Oh Sees live for the first time two weeks ago, I’m all about dual drummers. It’s downright addicting to watch two people playing different rhythms suddenly lock eyes and drop into a new, powerful beat together, radiating like they’re leveling up in a video game. Bringing the live beats were King Snake, the drummer duo of Andy King and Trent Moorman. Their rhythms lent a foundation to Zoolab’s dreamy, euphoric ephemera, and the combination ensured a packed house. Producer Terence Ankeny’s tracks would be at home on a Majestic Casual SoundCloud playlist, full of glistening waves and pitch bent pop and R&B samples. Vocal powerhouse Maiah Manser, whose solo work has been produced in part by Ankeny, joined the bandmates for their final song. Moorman and Ankeny were playing their second set of the day (after Pillar Point), and the threesome was the epitome of local (all members have worked for companies within the six-block rectangle of the festival). It’s a brilliant live collaboration not to be missed.