SEATTLE, Wash. -- It didn't rain. In fact, the sun shined for four days straight.
And so did this city, thanks at least in part to a surprise reunion among the suriving members of local mega-grungers Nirvana.
Even before it started, local Seattleites, music fans and journalists alike were calling this year's Bumbershoot line-up the best ever. The predicted rain squalls never amounted to anything and, instead, more than 200,000 people filled the festival over four bright days this Labor Day weekend. Little did they know what was really in store.
Carried on the solid shoulders of such mega stars as Beck, the Foo Fighters and a surprise reunion of Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, this city, best known for its rainfall and Nirvana-led grunge sound found itself back at the center of the rock world's attention again during the 27th annual Bumbershoot Festival.
Seattle's famed festival broke all previous attendance records this year, say its organizers at Reel One Promotions. Headlining artists Beck, David Byrne, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, Blues Traveler and close to 300 other main- and second-stage performers made the four-day Bumbershoot one to remember and brought a new found global attention to this once, "best kept secret in the West."
"The eclectic mix of artists is what makes this festival famous," said festival organizer Terry Hiroshima. Because Reel One Promotions, who host the event each year, is a non-profit organization, they tend to go after artists with substance rather than, say those with simply the drawing power, like, say, the Spice Girls. Famous for its mixing and matching of artists and opening slots, three years ago crooner Mel Torme opened up for punk pioneers the Ramones. For this alone, Bumbershoot has come to be known as the premier music festival in the Pacific Northwest.
Early Friday, as concertgoers sampled the 14 stages of music and downed their share of Redhook beer and pesto salmon sandwiches, Dick Dale, the legendary king of surf guitar, got things rolling with his left-handed jabs and licks on the ol' Fender Stratocaster. A few hundred yards away, the tantalizing rhythms of Los Lobos had hundreds of people squashed into a small sea of arms and legs. Sound and equipment difficulties plagued the band throughout their set. Still, they managed to pound out memorable versions of "I Got Loaded" and a roaring feedback enhanced "Bertha."
The evening ended on a high note, literally, when the Foo Fighters took to the mainstage with a crunch and a screech. Guitarist Smear was noticably flat, yet frontman Grohl and Taylor Hawkins made up for it by beating the hell out of their respective instruments. The band opened with their first big hit, "This Is A Call" and immediately announced to the crowd that they were now, "officially associated with stadium rock!"
After a hard-hitting set that featured choice cuts from their second album, The Colour and The Shape the band returned to the stage for an encore that would reunite all living members of grunge pioneers Nirvana (you'll remember Smear played guitar toward the band's reign of the grunge world). With Grohl and Smear onstage alone playing guitars, the Foo Fighters frontman suddenly leaped behind the drums and watched as Novoselic (now a member of Sweet 75) appeared from stage right brandishing his bass to the crowd's wild cheers.
There was to be no Nirvana rememberances, however. Instead, the band played a loose cover of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince's pop pleaser "Purple Rain" before concurring for Led Zeppelin's balls-to-the-wall rocker "Communication Breakdown."
But if Friday was the warm up, then Saturday brought the fire. Close to 75,000 people filled the festival at just $9 a piece. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck's new band Tuatara started off the day and segued right into his good friend Robyn Hitchcock. Then came Built to Spill, Sonic Youth, Galactic, Reel Big Fish and Super Sonic Soul Pimps, all the way to the evening's closers Critters Buggin, Cake, Medeski, Martin and Wood and, finally, the headliner Beck.
And through it all the sun was shining. While that may seem a trite point to some, consider this: It always rains at Bumbershoot. For as long as I can remember it has, at least. In fact, it's come to be expected. Amazingly, this year's predictions of storms for the four-day festival never came to be.
Sunday's acts took the focus off the main stage as Jeff Tweedy and Wilco got things going by playing damn near every song off of their latest album, Being There. Sheryl Crow followed them with her brash voice and soulful harmonies. Fans flowed in and out of the stadium, and in the afternoon managed to catch their breath to the tunes of Goodness followed by Soul Coughing. Both bands impressed local audiences, and filled the stadium fast, leaving some to wander around without a seat.
Come Monday, the last day of the festival, you would think audiences would be tired from the relentless rock assault. However, by noon Spearhead had taken the main stage and with them propelled some 10,000 fans into another level of groove. Fans poured into the festival, shaking their booties to the funky rhythms of their new album Chocolate Supa Highway. When Spearhead left, Joan Osborne took over in a risque performance that had her flirting with half the guys in the front row. At one point, someone threw her a note which she read onstage as an invitiation for her to, "Come for dinner and stay for breakfast." It was signed by four guys. Osborne, after reading the note said to the crowd, "I don't know. Two maybe. Four? I don't think so."
Afternoon performances by Spiritualized and Seattle's own Sky Cries Mary electrified a packed arena as fans trip-hopped all the way home. Around 5:30 p.m., it was back to the main stage for Byrne, the ex-Talking Heads' singer and songwriter.
As he has on his current tour, Byrne came out in full pink fur regalia, a head microphone and supported by a DJ, drummer, guitarist and a back-up singer. From the onset, Byrne's voice was edgy, rough and out of tune. His opening version of the Talking Heads' classic "Once In A Lifetime" was missing its usual bravado and Byrne sounded... well, not good. Fortunately, it got better and by the third song "Road to Nowhere" (another Talking Heads tune), Byrne had shed his fur suit for some army greens. I've never seen someone change clothes so often -- one minute it's fur, the next, a Scottish kilt and an orange silk shirt.
Closing out the four-day festival was Blues Traveler, or as the Bumbershoot security like to say, "please follow to the right to see the Blues Travelers." John Popper and gang had the ceremonious duty of ushering out another Bumbershoot and they did so with their usual fanfare. Their set moved quickly and had Popper pulling harmonicas out of his shoulder holsters like Pancho Villa preparing for war. "The Hook" and "Runaround" were the obvious crowd favorites, but the band did take the time to slow down for the occasional sip of a beer. It was a sight to behold.
All this, a Nirvana reunion and no rain. Seattle never felt so good.
[Thurs., Sept. 4, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]