Features | Festivals

Capitol Hill Block Party 2011

By Andrew Hall | 13 September 2011

While the rest of the world roasted, Seattle experienced some of the coldest, grayest, rainiest seasons on record, with just about enough sunny days to be counted on two hands spread across the first seven months of the year. Newspaper headlines, when I caught them, called months “cruel” and complained in writing about the fact that by mid-April the thermometer had yet to surpass 70 degrees once. By the time of the Capitol Hill Block Party, the third weekend of July, I was thoroughly sick of both the weather and the endless weather-related discussion that never actually consisted of anything beyond the sentiment “it’s cold out” and occasionally an extended dialogue concerning that sentiment’s validity, and I thus had pretty low expectations for a partially outdoor three-day festival that no one I know not working for it has any kind words for.

Talk to anyone who lives on Capitol Hill, or on the stretch of East Pike Street that’s closed off for the festival for three days, and you’ll hear an endless train of complaints about obnoxious teenagers, bros (not to be confused, I guess, with the bros who are here every other day of the year, or self-identified chill bros), parking nightmares, and fits of crowd-induced claustrophobia. Business owners, depending on their direct involvement in the festival and how much they can take in from selling beer, hot dogs, $15 packs of cigarettes, either seem okay with or very much against the festival, with notable opposition coming from businesses like the nearby Ferrari dealership, incidentally one of two businesses whose windows were smashed in (along with those of a nearby American Apparel and the screen of a Bank of America ATM) when the city’s Pride weekend culminated in someone spraypainting “ALL MY TRANS WOMEN UNITE: KILL COPS AND BURN PRISONS” near an ice cream shop and small-scale riots.

Unlike most shows on Capitol Hill, where I see the same faces with some regularity, I knew less than three people who actually paid to attend the festival this year. Everyone I recognized over the course of my fairly active three days was either a volunteer or someone whose band was playing either at the Cha Cha Lounge or on the Vera Project’s stage, both of which played host to a number of local and lesser-known touring bands over the course of the weekend. Capitol Hill’s go-to large-ish venue and event sponsor Neumos also featured a pretty strong lineup consistently primarily of decent touring bands with less draw than the 8000-capacity main stage, but to be underage at the festival certainly would complicate matters. Thanks to Washington state liquor laws, approximately half the festival is made completely inaccessible to those who aren’t 21, and for them, this means spending just as much on a ticket but missing tons of bands who otherwise might have played all ages shows elsewhere in the city who instead count this as their tour stop for the summer season.

Yet this year’s Block Party was basically a good time, even for a skeptic like me who’s also seen quite a few of the local bands performing across the city’s smaller venues and DIY spaces over the course of the last year or so. Though the festival has a tendency, much like the Gorge’s Sasquatch Festival, to repeat acts every few years (among others, Les Savy Fav and the Cave Singers both performed in 2008, while Thurston Moore appeared here with Sonic Youth in 2009) and an aggressive youth outreach vibe—which likely hit its absurd apex either when mayor Mike McGinn introduced Best Coast, whose songs have absolutely nothing to do with any form of “progressivism” beyond perhaps the legalization of marijuana (which came up repeatedly in the five minutes before they went onstage), or when I heard two sixteen-year-olds shout “Fuck Reagan!” with an intensity largely disproportionate to their direct involvement with our 40th president, given their having been born in the mid-‘90s—there was a pretty good selection of things to see and a fairly excited audience there to see them.

Across its three days, the festival seemed to have a minimal curatorial focus, with schedule conflicts understandable (the audience that might be into catching Yuck probably doesn’t feel too bad about not watching Ghostland Observatory do whatever Ghostland Observatory does, even if their laser show is pretty distinct) and somewhat frustrating (guitar dudes probably felt some degree of conflict choosing between Kurt Vile against Fresh and Onlys, then Woods against Thurston Moore), though it seemed almost impossible to find empty shows anywhere. Even Eleanor Friedberger’s solo set, which was repetitious in sound given all the elements missing from Last Summer‘s full-band arrangements, marred by amplifier problems, and ended with her explaining that she’d be back later in the fall with a full band and that it’d be better, kept a fairly dedicated crowd throughout, and by seven each night things hit capacity and hit capacity hard. Cults, despite being terrible, filled Neumos to what had to be well over capacity, and much of the same crowd stuck around for Fucked Up, who tore through some of David Comes to Life and through their back catalog with remarkable efficiency while surrounded by repeat crowdsurfers.

However, all real complaints concerning capacity revolve around the festival’s mainstage. I’ve seen fourteen-year-olds have total panic attacks during an undanceable, bloblike Girl Talk set back in 2008 and I left the festival early each night that year to avoid getting crushed to the sounds of either Vampire Weekend or DeVotchKa. Since then, the stage has been moved so as to allow it to crowd to be much further back, substantially bringing up capacity at the expense of sightlines, especially for those who choose not to stand in the all-ages section. And this very much proved to be necessary, as by the end of each night’s last big set the crowd was enormous, filing up the area almost completely, but never once did I have the feeling of “I am probably going to be crushed by something or someone” as I did in 2008 despite personally having gotten no larger. That’s an improvement, really.

A handful of bands made entering into the chaos worth it. Best Coast played through virtually her entire back catalog and made a pretty decent hour out of it, mocking the crowds of teenagers moshing along the way. Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav, during his stage time, threw his microphone over the fence of the grounds, then sang from the balcony of an onlooking stranger’s apartment after being let in as festival security chased him, returned with a houseplant, and threw both it and a man in an eagle costume into the crowd. TV on the Radio’s closing slot saw them tear straight through a hits set with the intensity and confidence of a band that’s learned how to play to festival crowds, largely ignoring this year’s Nine Types of Light in favor of material their audience now knows every word to, vastly improved from the last time I’d seen them.

Sunday was a mixed bag, with Explosions in the Sky, Battles, and a handful of Seattle bands playing the biggest sets of the day, and a handful of other good bands scattered elsewhere. LAKE’s take on soft-rock has never sounded better to me than it did watching them on the Vera stage in the late afternoon, as they somewhat-appropriately advertised that they would be appearing with Hall and Oates later this year (as they did at this year’s Bumbershoot), and Battles’ reconfigured three-piece plus video screens setup worked fine for what it was, but was clearly a world removed from the version of the band I missed out on by not seeing them before Tyondai Braxton’s exit last year; only a rearranged version of “Atlas” survived their abbreviated set, with the rest of their time focusing on Gloss Drop, which felt fragmented in a live setting. At some point Explosions did what one would expect Explosions to: sounded massive, prompted response to certain guitar lines without saying anything, and came to a sudden, dramatic end in the early evening, prompting additional applause.

As far as events like this one go, this one worked out pretty okay. People seemed thoroughly not into the dudes with water guns who sprayed the crowd down both when it was 78 degrees and when it was 60 degrees (perhaps it was too soon to be reminded of the fact that it rained pretty much every single fucking day for seven months), but beyond that, nothing larger than a failed crowdsurfer collapsed on anyone and a hot dog was only $5, as much as they cost any other night of the week. And that’s, as far as I can tell, enough.