SEATTLE — More than 200,000 music fans braved rainy patches and crowded performance areas to pour into the multivenue Seattle Center grounds Friday through Monday for the 31st annual Bumbershoot festival. The $16-per-day ticket price — for such acts as David Lee Roth, Cake, Guided by Voices and Mos Def, along with scores of smaller-caliber bands and a plethora of artists in nearly every creative medium — proved a bargain.
The weekend kicked off with a Memorial Stadium hip-hop showcase featuring Mos Def, Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples. Dilated kicked out the jams with a high-energy set of favorites and a sneak preview of their upcoming album, Expansion Team. Seeming loath to release the stage to the next act, they led the massive crowd in a bouncing call-and-response session of hip-hop aerobics.
The energy came down a notch when J5 hit the stage. Although they delivered an easygoing vibe, the Los Angeles collective demonstrated less SoCal chill and more urban grit in person than they do on record. Turntablists DJ Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist pumped addictive beats and the audience responded appropriately.
Perhaps the night’s biggest surprise was headliner Mos Def, who Mos Definitely ran half an hour late. The reason became apparent when he hit the stage. The artist sometimes considered hip-hop’s conscience has begun playing more rockcentric shows, and this one required a full backing band. Once the beats-happy crowd got used to the idea, wah-wah guitar and all (the less enthusiastic headed for the exits), hundreds jumped for classic tracks off last year’s Black on Both Sides filtered through a Hendrix/Chili Peppers/Rage Against the Machine kaleidoscope. Mos’ band contained members of black rock groups Funkadelic, Living Colour and Bad Brains.
A different sort of rock emerged from the same stage Saturday, when the bluesy, whisky-soaked Black Crowes played to an equally packed stadium. Frontman Chris Robinson is an anomaly in the current climate of shoegazers and Fred Durst-y nü-metallers: a reborn, Southern-fried Jagger, all sexy prancing and dirty lyricism. Barefoot and clad in a voluminous red scarf, unbuttoned-to-the-navel shirt and second-skin bell-bottoms, Robinson (and band) delivered a hard-charging selection of tracks from the Crowes’ recent Lions before pleasing the crowd with older favorites such as “Remedy” and “Hard to Handle.”
Lines snaked around the Key Arena for joke-rockers Ween, who indulged their astonishingly enthusiastic fans with such inspiring ditties as “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down),” “Waving My Di– in the Wind” and the always-endearing, country-tinged “Piss Up a Rope.”
Many shows saw as many as 500 ticket holders left grumbling in line as venues reached their capacity, a problem the festival tried to alleviate by requiring free, limited-number wristbands (available at kiosks) for the more popular shows.
On the other end of the Center, quietly elegiac rockers Low and the aching, otherworldly cult figure Cat Power played to a rapt audience in the Opera House. Even the notoriously skittish Power was buoyant, running through gorgeously stripped-down covers of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Free Bird.” Power posed the rhetorical question “What would Keith Richards do?” as she exited the stage with Richards-esque hip swivels.
David Lee Roth whiplashed a full arena straight back to 1984 as the festival hurtled forward Sunday, proving himself just as loud, lewd and double-jointed as ever. Rock’s long-reigning showman doused the audience in Jack Daniels and belted out Van Halen classics while showcasing his genital area and undiminished mid-air toe-touching abilities.
On Monday, a far more subdued Cake followed G Love and Special Sauce with a solid set of new and old. After enlisting a large portion of the high-energy crowd as backing singers, the group introduced “mountaineer dancers” Project Bandaloop, whose acrobatic Spider-Man antics above the band provided the set with its finale.
High-wire acrobatics like these — not to mention underground heroics, top-40 hall-of-famers and surprise guests, including former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who joined Los Angeles rockers Bluebird for three songs on Friday in the Liquid Lounge — are what keep Bumbershoot fans coming back for more after three decades.