Bumbershoot 2003 (3): Wilco, trying to break my heart

After the New Pornographers show, I made my way around to the stadium where I had seen Sonic Youth at the 2002 Bumbershoot festival. This time the line was loose and moving at a brisk trot, so it wasn’t more than five minutes before I was inside and finding my way to the front. The security was pretty hard core at this show, much more than for any festival I’ve been to so far. Several times in the hour before the show they came around and made everyone in the front sit down, and removed everyone who had pressed to the front without a seat so that the stage front would stay clear.

A few minutes after I got in, about 6:10, Jeff Tweedy was on stage tuning some of his guitars. After that brief glimpse, we had to wait until 7 (and an intro from the roundly booed corp-rock station sponsoring the act) for Jeff and his bandmates to return to the stage. Wearing a green checked jacket and jeans, Jeff was pretty uncommunicative—at least, between songs—only stopping every now and then to say things like “This is an old one.” He started with a number from A.M. (confession: I’m still not all that familiar with that album, so I can’t give track title), then moved directly into “A Shot in the Arm” from Summer Teeth. The song was driving, the repeated chords building in a crescendo into the chorus, which was if possible even more spine tingling than on the album. That was the only song in the set from Summer Teeth, but if the show had ended there I wouldn’t have felt cheated.

After blowing everyone’s mind, Jeff moved into further uncharted territory with a set from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, starting with “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” moving on into an epic version of “Poor Places,” which Jeff performed as the poem it is (albeit set to acoustic guitar, lots of feedback and industrial noise, and the familiar “yankee, hotel, foxtrot” spoken loop), continuing directly into an achingly delicate reading of “Reservations,” and wrapping the mini-set with the junkyard singsong of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” All the while, Jeff was articulating clearly into the mike, staring wide eyed at the audience, and grinning this wild shit-eating grin—clearly having the time of his life, and just as clearly delighting in confounding all the R.E.M. fans who were there. I don’t think he saw the two young girls ahead of me, just about five feet back from the crowd barrier, who were pogoing and singing along enthusiastically to the whole set.

After that he moved into some stuff largely drawn from Being There: “Say You Miss Me,” “Far, Far Away,” “Misunderstood” (which he introduced by saying, “This next one sounds much better if you sing it. So go ahead. You have my permission; you don’t need it”), a brief YHF interjection with “War on War,” “Kingpin,” “California Stars” (from the Billy Bragg collaboration of unrecorded Woody Guthrie Lyrics, Mermaid Avenue), and wrapping up with “Outta Site (Outta Mind).” The guy behind me who had been sarcastic about Wilco before the show started was yelling for more and we were all yelling “encore,” but the show had to go on and Jeff left, blown and satisfied minds in his wake.

Bumbershoot 2003 (2): The New Pornographers, from blown speakers

I got back at 3:45, enough time to get in another enormous line for the New Pornographers. It was a difficult choice between this Vancouver indie supergroup, Daniel Lanois (who was playing the venue next door), or the Long Winters (who started a half hour later). But one thing made my decision easier: none of the other acts had Neko Case (in addition to her stellar voice, Neko was voted indie rock star Playboy readers would most like to see naked) sharing lead vocal duties.

I got into the hall and experienced my first misgiving: a big underground exhibition hall with no windows, cinderblock walls, and pillars obstructing the view throughout. I made my way to the front and found a spot near a pillar, cursing myself for forgetting my earplugs. Twenty minutes later the band came on, and the sound problems started.

Possibly because of my proximity to the left speaker stack, or maybe the cinderblocks, the sound was muddy and the vocals were buried. It didn’t seem like the vocalists could hear each other either—individually they sounded fine (especially Neko, who even when she’s a “robot” in someone else’s band does amazing vocals), but together it added up to cacophony (and not a pleasant one, either). The only songs that really came together for me were the ones with Neko on lead—“The Laws Have Changed,” “All For Swinging You Around”—and “Testament to Youth in Verse,” whose “the bells ring ‘no no no’” chorus is one of the most audacious pop moments of the ’00s so far. But all in all I’m not 100% sure that I was better off missing Daniel Lanois.

Bumbershoot 2003 (1): the socialist experience in America

I arrived at Bumbershoot yesterday about twenty minutes before the gates opened. The line for the gate stretched over a city block. I picked up my ticket (quietly ruing the purchase of a four day pass, since I was only able to attend the last day of the festival) and joined the back of the line. It was brisk and I was feeling underdressed (and too old) in my shorts and t-shirt, watching the “Impeach Bush” booth across the street. I was also feeling rushed. I had to pick up my wristband for the evening’s headliner act, turn around, and head back home to run some errands with Lisa before I returned in the afternoon. (She flew this morning to New Jersey for a few days work.) Once I got inside, I waited in two longer, slower lines (shades of Soviet food shortages? reflections of the tragedy of the commons? or just poor organization?) before I got my wristband. At one point I changed lines only to find myself worse off than when I started. People were queuing up without knowing what was at the other end: potatoes? Toilet paper? Maybe a wristband for the evening’s show? All things considered it wasn’t too bad: 45 minutes start to finish. But I hated turning around and leaving, even if I was coming back in four hours.