Even for those sick and tired of the summer music festival circuit, this year's 29th Annual Bumbershoot Seattle Arts Festival was a horse of a different color.Or you could say cow, if you happened to hang out by the bobbing bovine sculpture that promised to "Improve your karma" if you dared feed it. It's not too far-fetched a metaphor for Seattle's indisputably eccentric, edgy, crunchy-granola suite of 2,000 musicians, artists, writers, actors, filmmakers, dancers, and craftspeople who gather each year on the roomy grounds and many indoor and outdoor stages of the Seattle Center complex every Labor Day weekend. Every venue on the grounds, from the cavernous Key Arena to the plush Pacific Opera House, was in use for this eclectic, well-organized (albeit at times overcrowded), festival celebrating artistic diversity. Balloon-carrying toddlers, tongue-pierced fifteen-year-old skateboard kids, U-Dub coquettes with mendhi-decorated ankles, thirty-five year old backpack-toting REI-obsessed
hiking freaks, and bosomy sixtysomething grandmothers with kitty t-shirts can stand side by side and get off on the ripe beats and rhythms of Brazilian percussion group Olodum at the open-air Teatro Circo stage... or the punk-pop manuevers of Imperial Teen... or even the earnest, estrogen-clogged strumming of Mainstage act the Indigo Girls on Friday night (a show in competition with the gloriously neurotic, countrified trip-hop of Joe Henry at the Bumbrella Stage).Despite its umbrella-friendly moniker, nary a raindrop fell on the first three days of Bumbershoot, which kicked off in atypical early fashion on a cool, clear Thursday night with a special concert by half-hometown boys R.E.M. at Memorial Stadium. Though the show required forking over an additional fee, the cozy, local feel of the gig (guitarist Peter Buck and multi-instrumentalist sidemen Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow call the City of Clouds home) made the evening especially relaxed, and even -- in words not often
associated with R.E.M. -- strangely silly and giddy.A trio of the local bands opened the evening, which in the spirit of nepotism included fluorescent-flame-haired Stringfellow's own power-pop contingent Saltine and the at-long-last reunion of Scott McCaughey's snaggle-toothed punk pop icons Young Fresh Fellows, who opened with a veeerrry loose version of "Born To Be Wild" and whose hollered, set-ending mantra "When will it end?!" became the unofficial goofy theme of the evening. The Picketts, who preceded all of the insiders' hilarity with a quickie set of jangle-pop meets country rock also made a cheery, nudie-suited impression. R.E.M. turned in a joyous and passionate set, nicely cranking up the heat on many of the tunes that appeared on last year's gorgeous and contemplative "Up"; elevating that album's dusky mood to an aggressive, energized performance level by tweaking the testosterone on songs like "Suspicion," "Daysleeper" and "Why Not Smile." Emotional, charismatic drumming
from R.E.M. kindred spirit Joey Waronker augmented the aggravated beauty of older crowd-pleasers like "Everybody Hurts," "Finest Worksong," and "Losing My Religion."After eighteen years, singer Michael Stipe has assertively come into his own as an astute, witty, crowd-friendly frontman, willing to cheer up Seattle fans of the local rag "The Seattle Weekly" by bitching about the band's trip on Delta "They Suck" Airlines, waxing rhapsodically about the movie "The Sixth Sense," and with his bandmates, enjoying the cuddly "honey-I'm-home" feel of the gig -- all the while attacking each song with a rejuvenated, raw vigor. Friday's early evening set by country-rockers Son Volt at the Northwest Airlines Blues Stage drew a large, mellow crowd of blunt-smoking rasta kids, Microsoft-types in wrinkled chinos, gnarled mountain men, and young parents with babies in tow who began camping patiently on the grass near the Seattle Space Needle midway through The Gourds' preceding set of cajun-rock
blues. As Son Volt vocalist Jay Farrar drifted into the line "I remember faded summer," the crowd rose to its feet; as twilight settled during the song "Tear-Stained Eye," a brisk, autumnal breeze brought out wool sweaters, fleece vests and a viable, end-of-summer sentimentality.Back on the PCC Northwest Court Stage, English fast-folksters The Hank Dogs (singer/guitarist Piano, singer/drummer Lily and guitarist/bassist Andy) who turned in a quiet, gracefully romantic set of Fairport Convention-meets-The Story style folk pop that caused a virtual post-set stampede to the nearby booth by new Hank Dogs converts eager to pick up the band's recent album "Bareback." The always-fabulous Joe Henry, dressed to the nines in a black pinstripe suit and white cravat ("I know I overdressed," Henry told the crowd, "but I did it for you"), performed a moody, mercurial set of songs including "Like She Was A Hammer," "Trampoline," and "Want Too Much" that inspired one girl in a Mad Hatter-style
chapeau and a lime green halter to perform an interpretive, twirling dance routine. The end of the night wrapped for a fairly sizeable Indigo Girls-fearing crowd at the Northwest Court stage to watch rarely-seen black-and-white Looney Tunes animated films shot during World War II and carrying a ribald -- and politically incorrect -- pro-Allies slant.Friday's mellow mood was neatly smothered by the time (partly) sunny Saturday afternoon rolled around -- Seattle natives get far too giddy with three consecutive days of rays. Before you could even squeeze into the gates and find a spot of lawn by one of the stages, enormous sun-worshipping crowds twisted ticket lines around the exterior of the Seattle Center. Meanwhile, the Bumbrella Stage was welcoming the French-Algerian septet Lo'Jo, which drew an overwhelming number of fans appreciative of its experimental forays into seductive Arabic melodies, evocative and exotic instrumentation, and North African rhythms. In the dark indoor
venue The Bumberclub, gifted up-and-coming Seattle rockers Juno played to the biggest crowd of their career and delivered a textured, muscular set that showed off the group's knack for gorgeous washes of dense guitarwork and tortured, post-punk vocals; songs like the let's-slam-Seattle critique "All Your Friends Are Comedians" and the Sub Pop single "Venus on Ninth" resurrected the rough-hewn sound of bands like My Bloody Valentine, Hum, and Seam with a defiant, geek-god twist.While Juno played on, a labyrinth of barricades (as well as other hapless hopefuls) kept fans far from their fave Black-Eyed Peas, and despite a few animated shoutouts about Seattle woven into Taboo, Apl De Ap, and Will's raps, all seemed lost in the arena's rafters. The crowds were really becoming a headache, which cleared up only slightly that evening at the Opera House, where a massive tumble of jazz fans awaited a concert by the Pharoah Sanders Quartet. Tenor sax player Sanders, who once performed and
recorded with John Coltrane, has created a legendary, mystical jazz presence of his own -- something certainly reflected in the enthusiastic and reverent mass of fans who crowded every corner of the house. The turquoise-clad Sanders had barely walked on stage when he drew a wild standing ovatoin; his subsequent freestyle solos (one of which had the man talking down the bell of his sax) and that of his drummer and brash-playing bass player were embraced lovingly, but a bit too esoterically, by the very-vocal room of jazz aficionados.Eschewing Pavement at the overpacked Key Arena for the bright and brilliant jazz 'n' hip-hop vibes of Trilon at the outdoor Bumbrella stage proved a wise move, as the local Northwest band turned in a most impressive performance; the roiling, soulful and smart-ass big beat percussion and sexy brass of the Seattle "super" group (which included Maktub's Reggie Watts, Skerik and Brad Hauser from Critters Buggin', and former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve)
were downright joyous, dirty and alive, and more spiritually uplifting on this gorgeous day than the dark reverence inside the Pavement and Pharoah Sanders venues. Trilon is truly a group to watch, gathering the best quirky qualities of both Maktub and Critters Buggin', and hopefully not just a one-off event for Bumbershoot.The Africa Fete gathered Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal, the music of Mali under the careful eye of blues maestro Taj Mahal, kora (21-string harp-lute) maestro Toumani Diabate and Kulanjan, and Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi. By the time Mtukudzi was halfway through his set, crowds were so packed into the relatively small outdoor lawn by the stage that you couldn't find a square inch of grass to sit down to see Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate. The show was a bit like watching a love affair unfold as Mahal spoke passionately of the life-altering influence the music of Mali had made on his artistic choices ("It's what made me want to play strings in the first place,"
he said softly in French and English) -- a romance truly realized in the recent album recorded by Taj and Toumani Diabate. Back behind the stage, Mtukudzi's bandmates, hidden by a thicket of trees and the darkness of just-past twilight, danced together to life-affirming melodies driven by Kulanjan, Mahal, and Diabate.The announcement at the end of the set that Baaba Maal had cancelled was disappointing, but not devastating, as was a premature departure from Seattle before Sunday or Monday's acts -- including The Roots, Alejandro Escovedo, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, Cibo Matto, Robyn Hitchcock, Imperial Teen, Macy Gray, Jules Shear, Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, and Kevn Kinney -- even hit the stage. While waiting for crowd-fearing, pub-crawling friends by the PCC Northwest Court Stage and peacefully watching the 1930s short "St. Louis Blues" starring Bessie Smith alongside dozens of others, the realization came that a little bit of Bumbershoot, devoid of the evil depths of
blatantly cold commercialism, is worth a thousand Woodstocks any day.
-- Kara Manning