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Music Festival Review: Capitol Hill Block Party, 7/22/11, Seattle

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With almost the entire country sweltering in the heat, Seattle’s about the only place where an outdoor music festival sounds appealing this time of year–if it doesn’t rain that is. Fortunately, this rainier-than-usual Seattle summer dispensed with the gray skies for the opening day of the Capitol Hill Block Party on July 22, 2011. Sunny and 75, it was perfect festival weather, allowing for active enjoyment rather than grueling endurance.

Of all the buzz bands on Friday’s schedule of 30 bands on five stages (stretched along Pike Street) — from local folkies The Head and the Heart to New York pop duo Cults — it was Toronto’s hardcore punk band Fucked Up that stood head and shoulders above everybody else. I write this is as a music fan who is disinterested at best in hardcore music, and one who was only nominally aware of the band, despite their Polaris Award-winning buzzworthiness.

All that changed when I stepped in for Fucked Up’s short on-the-air radio session hosted by Seattle’s fantastic KEXP, and immediately thereafter rearranged my schedule so I could see them again later at their main set, where the sardine-packed fans inside club Neumos went nuts.

Fucked Up. Photo by Nate Watters.Just looking at the band, it’s a little difficult to ascertain the kind of music they play. There’s a mash-up of polos, Ray-Bans and country club haircuts in the backing band with the massive, shirtless stage presence of frontman Damian Abraham (or Pink Eyes). The music is similarly dichotomous, with dream-pop backing vocals and shimmering guitars lorded over by Abraham’s snarling hardcore singing.

It all comes together in a crazily entertaining way, and even if you don’t connect with the music, it’d be hard not to enjoy everything else about it. Besides the obvious reasons, hardcore music can be off-putting because its practitioners seem to take themselves so seriously, but there’s no worrying about that with Fucked Up.

Also performing a KEXP set Friday were The Head and the Heart. Taking place in the bean storage room of coffee shop Caffe Vita, these KEXP sets have the potential to be an unofficial festival highlight, with the rustic wooden beams and multi-colored skylights of the bean room providing fantastic atmosphere.

The Head and the Heart’s Caffe Vita set, featuring only half the band and a single acoustic guitar, made it clear why these guys are so easy to love, over-earnestness be damned. The foot-stomping set stripped the songs down to their essentials — simple acoustic chords and soaring harmonies from Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Thielen. It also removed the most cloying element from the band’s approach — its poppy piano backing — and ended up being more satisfying than the section of the band’s main stage set I saw later that night.

Also on the main stage Friday was Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, performing some lovely, enigmatic songs with his distinct voice rising over a bed of harp, violin and guitar. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch any of Kurt Vile’s or Ra Ra Riot’s main stage sets, even though I planned to arrive at the tail end of both.

Much of my time Friday was spent inside the stuffy, acoustically questionable Neumos, where Cults performed its gossamer noise pop tunes. Slight but totally fun, the project of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin was at its best when Follin’s sugary vocals recalled a bygone era as in the dreamy, synthy “You Know What I Mean.” While the band’s danceable beats sounded a little muddled, the packed crowd hardly cared.

Also at Neumos was London’s noise rockers Yuck, whose fuzzed out ’90s-style guitar tunes were a perfect way to fade into the night. Overlapping with Yuck was Friday headliner Ghostland Observatory, but I wasn’t prepared to muscle my way through a wall of bodies to watch a laser show.

Most difficult scheduling decision:
I had to choose between Cults and Ra Ra Riot, who haven’t been on my radar in a while and ultimately lost out to the younger, hotter Cults. Cults was fun, but I’m still not sure if it was the right call.

Most dedicated display of fandom:
It’s a pretty chill vibe at Capitol Hill Block Party. Not so for one guy in a tie-dye shirt at The Head and the Heart’s KEXP set (I have no doubt he was at their main stage performance too).  Wearing TOMS with Head and the Heart lyrics sharpied on them, cooling himself with a personal fan and singing his little heart out, this guy was throwing up the rock fist at an acoustic performance of a poppy folk song. Isn’t that precious?

Most endearing band:
Portland-by-way-of-New-Zealand psych-garage rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra exhibited a nearly catatonic stage presence in the midst of their rough, but melodic songs. Eventually, frontman Ruban Neilson admitted his nervousness that following act The Fresh & Onlys were probably watching the group. Also, I’m thinking there’s no way baby-faced drummer Julien Ehrich was old enough to be in the 21+ restricted venue.

Most disappointing missed act:
Sure, I was sorry to miss Kurt Vile and Ra Ra Riot, but I really wish I had gotten to Seattle cover band The Rolling Stones.

Upcoming on Saturday:
Hotter temperatures, TV on the Radio, Best Coast, Ravenna Woods, Les Savy Fav.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.