For every moment of zen at this weekend's Capitol Hill Block Party, there was an equivalent pang of ennui. For every resounding, fist-pumping "yes!" there was a perplexed, head-scratching "huh?" The result was an uneven festival. Props to a superb lineup, well balanced between genre and local and national talent. The overall execution, however, needs improvement.
First the good stuff, of which there was much: Woods and Lumerians, at Neumos Friday and Sunday, respectively, were musical highlights. Fifteen years ago, both would've been tagged "jam bands," thanks to their exploratory, improvisational approaches. Today the term is "psych," or something hyphenated. No matter. Woods toyed with jangle and strum as they unspooled into far-flung, hard-noise grooves; one guy with a set of headphones strapped to his face sat on the stage and manipulated a suitcase full of tape machines. Five-piece Lumerians' wiry, propulsive krautrock meditations exploded into deep power-boogie jams. Long songs were the norm from both bands. Hope to see them back in Seattle soon.
Headliner-wise, TV on the Radio won the festival. The polish and practice required to execute as professionally and thrillingly as TVOTR comes from experience and raw talent combined with a singular sound. I wish I could've been closer to the stage, but by Saturday night I'd settled for seeing more shows and dancing a block away than camping out up front for a front-row spot.
On Sunday, Explosions in the Sky played a cathartic sunset set, the only one of the weekend complementary to atmospheric conditions. Their instrumental music was powerfully anonymous and impressionistic, soundtracking whatever narrative you chose to run through your mind at the time (in my case, looking out over the crowd from the Lobby Bar balcony window, thinking about the epic ups and downs of the weekend).
Battles and Handsome Furs took top honors as non-headlining main stage acts. The music needed no visual accompaniment, which was key. Any time before 7 p.m., the skull-piercing sun made looking at the stage impossible. Thankfully, sophisticated in composition as they both are, these are dance bands. Both bring intense stage presence, but neither demands viewing to appreciate.
Despite my overall support and love for the band, I was disappointed by the Head and the Heart. A lot of it has to do with setting: The main stage at Block Party is a long way from the front porch of the Doe Bay Resort. THATH's humble folk-pop benefits from closeness, intimacy, the band huddled together in a tight circle, stomping and clapping and singing in raw harmony. Spread out across Block Party's main stage, the band seemed disconnected from each other, their sound diluted by the space. The set lacked the emotional power of previous performances and their new material felt flat. The band has spent the last five months on the road. They're probably drained. Their return to Doe Bay next month will be a long-due recharge.
"The Rolling Stones"'s swan-song show at Cha Cha Friday night was stupid fun. The band, backdropped by the Cha Cha's bottle wall and backed by a horn section, simply killed. Condensed sweat dripped from the ceiling. This was debauched fun worthy of its setting. It's probably a good thing they called it quits—that Seattle's number-one-fun band is a Rolling Stones tribute casts the rest of the music scene in a dubious light.
For the record, Saturday's Dingus and the Butt Fucks set at Vermillion—actually a Truckasauras show unaffiliated with Block Party that had Tyler Swan of "The Rolling Stones" on drums—kicked ass, as did Sunday's secret Lumerians set at the Comet. These unofficial Block Party parts robustify the festival. Let's see more of them. (Why no events at that new Woods venue or Healthy Times? Thousands of people pour out of the gates at the end of the night. Give 'em somewhere to go.)
Also noteworthy at Neumos were locals Ravenna Woods, whose eerie stomp-folk felt right in Saturday's indoor humidity, and Federation X, a brainiac hardcore/post-rock band from Bellingham that played to almost nobody on Sunday afternoon.
Thanks to unbearably shitty sound most of the weekend, the Vera Stage yielded only a couple solid sets: Friday's masterful performances from Craft Spells (sweaty, groovy goth-rock) and TheeSatisfaction (minimalist outerspace soul) gave way to Saturday's atrocious sound quality; Witch Gardens and Beat Connection sounded like their music was trickling from a boombox blocks away. The sound was so disappointing that people left in both instances. Said the Vera Stage soundperson, "Nothing I can do."
And so the pendulum swung and the negatives stood out: Copious chain-link fence that divided the main-stage crowd. A corridor to the main stage too narrow to accommodate the throng. Echoey sound at the main stage. A mainstage set directly in front of the blinding sun. More chain-link fence. Shitty sound at Vera. Venues like the Cha Cha and the Vita Bean Room that shut out as many people as they accommodated. The possibility that, for many reasons, Block Party is not the right festival for its namesake neighborhood.
These problems demote Block Party from national-caliber festival to sheepishly loved local stepchild. The crowd is made up of overeager 20-somethings—most of whom live nowhere near Capitol Hill—because adults with more festival-going experience have determined the frustrations of Block Party outweigh its high points. When those adults are present, they're drinking free beer in the VIP area, Block Party's only shady, comfortable place to relax.
These facts are known and accepted by anyone who's attended Block Party more than once (and they lead to the question: Is Block Party even meant for me?). This is Seattle; we deal with shitty conditions. We embrace them. The weather, back to crap after a gorgeous weekend, we have no say over. Public transit, archaic drinking laws and Block Party we do. If Block Party's principals can successfully lobby to extend late-night drinking hours (certainly with public good in mind as much as personal profit), they can get the festival right.