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The 4-day music and art extravaganza City Arts Music Festival shows that Seattle offers more than grunge these days. After a long, hot, Indian Summer, October in Seattle felt particularly crisp. The beginning of the month saw a continuance of the warm, sunny weather, which then moved into an autumnal chill usually reserved for the East Coast. It’s important to set this mood of the death of summer to the fresh fall air to accurately describe the good spirits going into the third annual City Arts Festival presented by Heineken.
Just a week before Halloween’s mad dash for candy, the city opened its doors to the musical intrigues of David Byrne and St. Vincent, Mos Def, and local heroes such as Jonathan Russell of The Head and the Heart. Venues were scattered throughout the city accessible both by a clean public transit system or a hop in a cab. Interlaced with the musical festivities were art walks and literary pub crawls. In a lot of respects, City Arts Fest, now in its 3rd year, is like a mini SXSW. This is particularly true in parts of town like Capitol Hill, which hosts a vibrant nightlife scene with bars and venues all stretching up the Pike/Pine Triangle. Given the enthusiasm and top notch musical and artistic talent brought in, City Arts Fest has the potential to be a festival stop for out-of-towners as well as the locals. But no doubt that the locals wouldn’t mind keeping this vibrant festival to themselves.
On Wednesday, October 17, crowds lined the streets to see the sold out David Byrne and St. Vincent show, where they showed off their new album, Love This Giant. In Capitol Hill, the air was chill and the skies were splotched with clouds that hadn’t yet started the rain season (which is basically the entire year). It felt as though it were Halloween for adults – walk down to the local pub, have some drinks and some food, catch an amazing band and then stumble on to the next place. I ended up at Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room, which is in a building complex that also houses Moe Bar and Barboza – all three places hosting bands. Pike Street Fish Fry – battered, delectable goodness – is also part of the building and helpfully supplied the drunken masses their greasy bar food. Inside, there wasn’t a corner to squeeze into as every available space was filled. After barely entering the large room, horns sounded and the lights dimmed as Brother Ali came exploding onto the stage spewing some seriously fast rhymes (I literally have no idea how this man breathes) and the crowd went absolutely insane. The first half of his set was dedicated to new songs from his album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which can only be described as sort of a ghetto Americana with Brother Ali himself looking like some sort of Amish biker. It was political and absolutely brilliant – both his lyrical abilities and his command of the crowd. Some of the songs such as “Stop the Press,” he mentioned casually to the crowd that he wrote on Capitol Hill itself and peppered his stage presence with calls to the 206 area code. His best song of the evening, “Work Everyday,” was poignant for the crowd of largely 20somethings in that it dealt with the upcoming election, an inability to pay bills, and the soul crushing weight of student loan debt. The talented rap artist was perfectly suited to the venue.
The next evening was marked by the first rain of the season and was appropriately more mellow with performances by A Fine Frenzy, Joshua Radin, and an Elliott Smith tribute show. The crowds were a lot lighter, not many wanted to brave the rain. The performances I attended Thursday were standard fare indie rock with whimsical vocals and swaying crowds. Friday was much more exciting. I started the evening in the basement of the Neumos complex at a speakeasy style bar called Barboza. I was in attendance to catch local Seattle band Howlin’ Rain. However, the times were off and I caught the last thirty minutes of the Fox and the Law set, another Seattle band and had no idea I wasn’t listening to the band I had come for. Fox and the Law weren’t bad but it was hard to enjoy their set as the instruments drowned out their vocals, making the sound incohesive. When Howlin’ Rain did finally show up, I was treated to a soulful set that had bits of ’80s wailing going on. Howlin’ Rain rocks like The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes met up in 1983 and had a metal jam session. This is definitely a band to look out for and I hope to see them more on the festival circuit this year.
I culminated the evening across town at the Showbox Sodo, a massive factory-esque building attached to a bar and grill. The main event was Ghostland Observatory, a band that you can never see without having an amazing time. The fog machine was on full power making it kind of hard to breathe as the recycled air was musty. Ominous red strobe lights lazered out into the crowd and drummer/synth player Thomas Turner came out in his Elvis/Dracula cape as the crowd went crazy. Singer Aaron Behrens exploded onto the stage in a cowboy hat and southwestern hipster attire (minus his usual long braided ponytail) and started things off with a bouncy rendition of “Glitter,” off their album Codename: Rondo. Even in the spacious concrete and brick building the bass vibrated into your throat as the crowd absolutely lost it. Behrens is one of the most exciting performers in indie/electro. He has intense energy – he can run around, dance, kick and punch the air and then start spinning for extended periods all while maintaining a certain Freddie Mercury wail to his voice. Their set continued almost two hours and they played all their big hits including “Sad Sad City,” “Heavy Heart,” and “Robotique Majestique.” They definitely won the festival for most energetic, getting listeners on the dance floor.
Saturday, was the fourth and final day of City Arts Festival. It was raining again but more people seemed to be out. I hedged my bets on getting into The Moore Theater Downtown so that I could see Devotchka playing with Seattle Rock Orchestra. Out of all the venues I’d been to over the past four days, this was the only one that was seated – in fact, I felt like I was out on Broadway for a night at the theater. The stage was small and every inch was covered by seats, music stands and carrying cases. There were at least 50 people on this small theater stage and that was before Devotchka even came out. As a recent transplant to Seattle, I had heard of Seattle Rock Orchestra but had not yet been to one of their performances. The most striking thing about these musicians (although this might be obvious due to their name) is how young they are. You usually don’t see younger adults as the majority in an orchestra. That alone was inspiring. The lights dimmed and Devotchka came out – separated from the orchestra by a thin plastic partition. As all of the musicians onstage collectively began playing their instruments it was like immediately being transported to a film scoring session. The beauty of a full body of musicians playing as one is almost ethereal and otherworldly. Having only heard Devotchka records and film work it was amazing to see them live in that each member played several instruments – Jeanie Schroder I must mention because the girl was clicking her high heels to the beat while carrying around a giant sousaphone (tuba on steroids). Unlike a night out listening to classical music, Devotchka’s body of work spans everything from gypsy, folk, indie rock to mariachi and cabaret. As one of the closing bands of the festival, they were hands down my favorite performance because of their sheer artisanship as musicians. Seattle Rock Orchestra definitely has my patronage now as well.
Seattle’s City Arts Festival is not only a fun celebration of music and art in a city immersed in both, but it is a serious contender to become a premier destination on the festival circuit. There are so many fun events and the cost… $55 dollars gets you a wristband into all the music shows. An art band is separate. If Coachella is getting old and making you broke, why not check out Seattle? See you all there next year!