Bumbershoot, Day One: Comedy, British Soul, and Singer-Songwriter Couples Fight Off the Rain

CrowdwithSpace%20Needle-Christopher_Nelson.jpgI’ve been a pretty unabashed fan of the Seattle music and arts festival Bumbershoot, which has occurred every Labor Day weekend since 1971 since I first heard of it, with the caveat that I first heard of it under rather good circumstances. An old roommate had told me about it in 1994, but I’d forgotten all about it until the August 1996 road trip I wrote about here, I defected, via Greyhound, to Seattle from the group’s intended San Francisco, and I wound up at the Green Tortoise, a rooming house near Seattle Center, where Bumbershoot was underway. I went to the gate, paid my fee, and caught good sets by Ani DiFranco, Los Lobos, and the Sex Pistols without realizing I could see any of them before arriving at the hostel. (I also saw a superb Elvis Costello show–a separate ticket–that weekend, his final-ever with the Attractions.) If I have an unusually rosy view of Seattle, it was installed that day.

I feel less thrilled about Bumbershoot this year–less than I ever have. I’m hardly alone: this is the weakest lineup the festival has put up in quite some time. Some of it is clearly due to the exorbitant number of competing festivals that occur earlier in the summer, both locally (Seattle has festivals like it has grey days) and nationally, to thin the available touring pool. But seriously, Stone Temple Pilots as your big-name headliner? Them? Are the ’00s really so bad that we’re actually nostalgic for this shit? I dunno, man.

In any event, so little about the lineup excites me this year that I figure I’m in decent shape just wandering about and seeing what happens. Saturday, the first day, worked out fairly well, though by the end of the day I’d already circled shows I wanted to catch the next two. Still, the “unmapped” aspect seems to apply, if only because what I saw on Saturday (early warning: not much) was consistently stuff I’d never have seen outside of this festival.

For example, I never go to see comedy, yet I try to see at least one comedy show every Bumbershoot. This isn’t easy, because the comedy lines are typically bigger than any but those for the main stage, and for good reason: the festival has a great reputation among comedians and the booking is subsequently top notch.

I got into the Intiman in time for the beginning of Jessi Klein’s routine: very raunchy, but only intermittently funny. T.J. Miller was sillier and more entertaining, doing good physical stuff (hand motions rather than full-body), and comfortably riffing on the audience. Then local comic Nick Thune emerged in a white ’70s wedding-rental suit and acoustic guitar, which he strummed as he mock-deadpanned lines like, “Dear Britney: I won. Love, Christina Aguilera,” and “LiveSavers only work if you’re a diabetic.” The comedy-show crowd seemed slightly younger than last year, or maybe I’m just slightly older.

I’d thought to see Lucinda Williams before going to the comedy stage instead, and in the middle of Miller’s set I got a text from my friend Robert: “Lucinda covered AC/DC!” When we met at the Center House (the grounds’ indoor food court) to rest up before Estelle, it turns out Williams had played “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” along with a couple other covers when her show fell ten minutes short and her band had run out of new songs. Robert, his wife Jacki, and I compared notes: to their eye, Bumbershoot was becoming younger overall. “There are fewer hippies every year,” Jacki said–no hacky-sack, less hula-hooping, less tie-dye.

We were way in back for Estelle, rendering the British R&B singer even tinier than she is already. “Enthusiastic” is a word I too often fall back on when writing about live music, that’s meant to indicate that the performer was energetic and that I appreciated it. So, Estelle was enthusiastic. The usual faults of first-time touring singer-with-backup were evident: too much hype man, too much banter, a drummer playing the same hackneyed fills I hear at almost every R&B/hip-hop show with a live drummer playing alongside programmed material. But the sound got a lot better when I relocated to the lawn directly behind the stage, and at one point, while standing in line for corn on the cob, I actually heard a 14-year-old girl (at most) use the word “grody” for the first time since I attended Richfield Intermediate School.

Estelle is the kind of artist I might not go out of my way to see live, but it was really good to see her at Bumbershoot. The same is true of Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, the recently married singer-songwriters. I believe their show at Ballard’s roots-music shrine, the Tractor Tavern, was good (and I certainly like the venue), but even if I hadn’t planned to see them here, this is exactly the kind of show I like seeing at Bumberhoot: amped-up front-porch feel with what happens to be a big handful of great songs.

The couple each switched effectively from acoustic to electric to bass to keyboards, from lead to rhythm, from frontperson to accompanist. The songs got laughs, like Rigby’s “It’s Not Safe to Go Outside” (inspired by Marathon Man, featuring lines like, “Now I’m on the run from Dustin Hoffman”) and “Men in Sandals” (during which everyone started staring at each other’s footwear). Their banter got laughs, particularly Eric’s rant about “fanny-ass cunts who walk out saying, ‘It’s not music.’ Well, we never said it was!” And everyone sang along with Eric’s “Whole Wide World” (and a few afterward to the real finale, “Take the K.A.S.H.”). Earlier he sang a 1986 song, “Someone Must Have Nailed Us Together.” Good job, Someone.

[Photo via Bumbershoot]

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