Pineapple vape wafts through the air from the braces-brandishing teens in front of me while I watch halved pineapples twirl on the massive screen on the stage. Ascending house DJ Yaeji leads the crowd in a synchronized jump to the tune of her dynamite single “raingurl.” It’s the early hours of the first day of the 2018 Capitol Hill Block Party and things are already started to come into view for me. I watch the vape clouds arrive in a puff and disperse, again and again. It’s such a continuous motion that it’s almost like they never really go away, giving a permanent, sweet haze to Pike Street. I look at these clouds and make a silent promise to myself; or maybe not a promise, a mission: to step outside of myself and see who this fest is really meant for.
I’m a 28-year-old music journalist, which means I’m now roughly 87-years-old in festival years. There’s a narrative to CHBP that it’s “for bros” and “about the party, not the music, maaaaaaaan,” one that’s perpetuated by elderly festival goers like myself (can someone help me setup my DVD player later? You kids are so good at these technology things). And it might be an idea that’s not totally unfounded. This is a party and it attracts people who, well, want to party. You can push against it and rail against the idea that the music is taking the side seat, or you can just let it be. My idols Bill & Ted would be remorsed to hear that partying isn’t really my thing (insert “sad Steve Vai air guitar riff” here), but once you’ve made peace with your environment there’s plenty to appreciate. But it would also be unfair to not speak to the dichotomy that often existed between artist and audience and setting and timing that lingered over the festival. So I become an apparition, floating and wading between the vape clouds to seek out the heart of CHBP 2018.
It doesn’t always work out that the first band of the day can set the tone for the festival, but Dude York’s early Friday afternoon performance did just that. The trio are known for calling themselves “America’s Band,” which is a truth I hold in my heart, but they are also very much “Seattle’s Band.” Seeing them live is almost a right of passage at this point in the city, so it makes sense that the Hardly Art pop-rock powerhouse would be the veritable “gatekeepers” of the festival.
“Thanks for being here! Clearly none of you have jobs!” guitarist Peter Richards cheerfully shouts to the crowd. When they aren’t barrelling through their stacked catalog of monster hooks and lyrics that wonderfully skirt between playful and honest confession (look no further than “The Way I Feel” which features the exchange “As I Google ‘Group Health’/Get directories pulled up/To friend my therapist/I message "hey, what's up?") the band is blowing raspberries and the stage cameras and flexing some righteous arena rock moves. The bands balance of empathy and fun that helped set the tone for the weekend but it’s also when the band had to step outside of their typical, fun-loving attitude that really acknowledged the dark cloud hanging above the summer fun.
“We want to tell the women in the audience that we believe,” Richards says, reading from a note on his phone. You can feel that he and the band are making sure they get the wording right here. Bassist Claire England adds that they want “to make our shows a safe space.”
Presumably, the band’s statement was in response to a recent report from KUOW detailing claims of sexual assault by five women against Dave Meinert – a fixture in Seattle’s nightlife and restaurant scene who formerly produces CHBP, manages artists, and served as part-owner of Capitol Hill bars, some of which reside within the confines of the Block Party campus. This was not the only time during the weekend an artist would indirectly call out Meinert and address the notion of a safe space and protecting one another from assault. With touring acts might not have been privy to the news, local artists took the mantle to address the issue – I’d hear similar sentiments shared during sets from Great Grandpa and SSDD over the next couple days. Even off stage, shirts and signs sporting the phrase “Fuck Dave Meinert” were easily spotted and a vigilant Twitter presence from locals encouraged attendees to boycott Meinert’s establishments.
It’s hard to have moments of serious contemplation at CHBP, even when the issues being presented to you are so crucial and important. A few minutes later Dude York would be howling through their trademark closer, “Paralyzed,” looping furious riffs while Richards ran off the stage and into a nearby building to toss Otter Pops into the crowd from the third story window. It was a joyous moment to set the stage for a weekend of good times, marked just prior with an indication that darkness lurks among us and to stay on guard. The best you can hope for is that people were paying serious attention to these messages, even when all anyone really wants to do at CHBP is enjoy themselves.
Vile misogyny risked overshadowing the experience, but it was held at bay with stellar performances, particularly highlights from women and femme-identifying performers. As Dude York handed off the main stage to Yaeji and I pondered those vape clouds that I won’t shut up about, the Brooklyn DJ tore up the crowd with her exciting blend of house and dance music. I’d seen Yaeji perform last year at Kremwerk, delivering a truly transcendent DJ set made perfect for a musty, sweaty basement. But this time was great for different reasons. Yaeji commanded the audience, stepping out from behind the boards to work the crowd. She’d jump, glide across the stage, and rap along to her own beats. She’d open and close her set with “raingurl,” which is just such an amazing and confident move that I’m not sure how you couldn’t just bow down and claim your allegiance right then. It was a similar confidence that I’d feel at Kelly Lee Owens’ set at the Vera Stage, watching as she’d pummel drum pads and orchestrate swirling synthesizer jams. Her music was fit for night time, but she didn’t need to wait for the sun to come down to make that point come across.
Meanwhile, Alvvays boldly brought their power-pop inclinations to the main stage. I spend more than a few minutes thinking of a good zinger about teens, Riverdale, and “Archie, Marry Me,” before realizing I’m missing the beauty of the moment. More than any day throughout the weekend, Friday felt most like a Mad Max film with mounds of people clamoring over each other and trash spilling all over the ground. So that Alvvays could find a space in the mayhem to ring out their gorgeous anthems and bring a sense of peace before shit would inevitably go down later is pretty remarkable. Of all the sets I saw all weekend, Alvvays was the one where I most felt a sense of love emanating from the crowd. Couples holding each other, making out, swaying, and getting lost in the perfect pairing of effervescent melody and the fading heat of a summer night.
On day two, I’d walk in to hear Jamila Woods in the midst of an astounding mix of covers. She’d jump from Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” to Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” putting her fingerprints in the soulful arrangements of each. She’d slip on each song as if it were own. A notable collaborator with Chance The Rapper, she’d even bring one hits like “Sunday Candy” to work the crowd. As people danced and grooved under the beaming sun, I wondered if the party ever stopped from yesterday. Logically, I’m sure it must have. But Woods’ performance felt like she’d taken the reins from the previous nights dance party and kept it party on track. How you could not be enamored by her sensational presence and voice is beyond me.
The second day had a palpable buzz leading up to local favorite Parisalexa’s set. After dropping both the Bloom and Flexa EPs earlier this year and appearing on the cover of Spotify’s massively subscribed “Fresh Finds” playlist, the young musician has more than just hype on her side. Backed by the band Gypsy Temple, Paris commanded the crowd with the maturity of musicians two or three times her senior. Her presence was fit for the main stage, even if she was playing the relatively smaller Vera Stage. She completely seized the moment, belting out the immense ballads like “Gardens” and the self-assured hip-hop rhythms of “LV.” The latter she would dedicate to her mother and her Louis Vuitton purse, proclaiming “My mom is a boss.” You could see her parents beaming up front, dancing, singing along, and live streaming video on their phones. Yeah, it was insanely adorable and heartwarming. Paris had so much command over the stage that when she told the crowd to “get low” during “Like Mariah,” the masses did so without question. Her platform is only getting bigger. It’s going to be wild to see what she does when she inevitably takes her place as a breakout star.
It was a spectrum of emotions on early Sunday as I attempted to split my time between Bully and Whitney Ballen. I started with Bully, watching as lead vocalist Alicia Bognanno walked onto the stage in a black ‘Death to the Pixies’ tee and a matching black line across her eyes, reminiscent of Michael Stipe. Bully would be the loudest rock band to take the main stage all weekend, and it’s a title they totally owned.
“We’re happy to be here with you fellow little ragers,” Bognanno calmly says into the mic between songs. A few seconds later she’d be letting out her iconic scream, shredding her voice while she shreds riffs. And man, Bognanno can write a riff. CHBP continually has moved from its heavy rock and punk focus of years past, but even Bully’s riffs can break through to a crowd that wants to dance. The screeches of guitars flew into the crowd, sending out an expulsion of angst that just felt right for the moment.
Looking at the time, I realized I better jet down to Barboza so I won’t miss Whitney Ballen’s set. I arrive while Ballen is simmering in the feverish “Moon,” from her upcoming album You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship. Ballen has been playing in Seattle for years, but she’s found a new stride with her backing band executing her heavy-hearted vision. Her voice feels like a phantom, sometimes murmuring like a whisper through the verses before emerging as a piercing howl on the choruses. In a festival that was mostly centered on an idea of “fun,” Ballen’s music reveled in the basement and embracing the darkness so many sought to avoid. The powerful stomps and distortion of “Black Cloud” pushed through the PAs and into the audience, a mixture of noise and emotional transparency. I hardly ever drink outside of a social setting (and Ballen mentioned in her set that she doesn’t drink at all), but I went back to the bar to get a beer just to have something cold and bitter on my tongue while Ballen navigated us through the darker sides of the soul.
I walk back up the stairs and Bully’s still playing. The black paint around Bognanno’s eyes is dripping with sweat and sliding down her face. She’s screaming over and over again, “I used to be a shark!” Ballen and Bognanno both approach the darkness and shout back in their own ways. You can meditate or you can fight, and both ideas feel appropriate.
As Bully wraps up, and I find a third approach as I watch Seattle DJ chong the nomad remixing Drake’s “In My Feelings” into Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” chong herself working the crowd into a frenzy. “In My Feelings” would also be a good way to say how I was feeling during Bully and Ballen, but chong the nomad showed that sometimes you can just dance it out and take selfies with the crowd and that’s a viable, worthwhile approach as well. I feel that spirit of positivity flowing from local pop artist PSA’s set as well, as she joyously blends an original song about oral sex into a remix of Ginuwine’s “Pony.” I feel it again in TR/ST’s goth mullet dance party. It’s taken me three days, I’m starting to see the beauty in embracing the “party,” but not withholding from myself the extensions of empathy that music also provides.
The Block Party inches toward its close with Father John Misty. A fan myself, I still approach the set with some caution. After three days of dance parties and sweaty bodies and vape clouds, I’m not sure how much a logical conclusion this will be. The Sunday crowd is already beginning to dwindle as the realization hits everyone: “Oh shit, I’ve got to work tomorrow.” But Josh Tillman who has played the festival twice before with Father John Misty and once with Fleet Foxes, is a seasoned pro at this point. On a superficial level, his music is the fun, sing-a-long closer you’d hope for. But I’ve always been of the mind that his music is at a disservice when you avoided really digging in. His nihilistic songwriting is almost antithetical to the festival circuit to which he often plays. But as he swayed his hips and danced across the stage to the tune of “True Affection,” I wonder if maybe he “gets it” more than I do. There’s darkness all around us. We can’t ignore it. We have to face it head on. But we also can’t deny the absurdity of life and embrace the moments that make us feel alive. Tillman starts singing the downtrodden “Pure Comedy,” crooning about the dilemma of being alive alongside a sparse arrangement. Then he suddenly stops.
“I’m not gonna sing this song as if there’s not a giant unicorn right there,” he says, referring to inflatable, rainbow unicorn raft that’s being buoyed by the audience. Appropriately, it gets a big laugh from the crowd. Then he instructs the audience to throw the unicorn on stage. He gets in the raft and finishes the song.
“Comedy,” Tillman sings, drawing out his vowels in a silky voice and caressing the mane of the rainbow unicorn. “Now that's what I call pure comedy.”
This year's Capitol Hill Block Party ended the weekend strong with stellar performances from TR/ST, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and, of course, Father John Misty, just to name a few. Check out shots from photographers Eric Tra and Alley Rutzel.
There's nothing quite like summertime in Seattle and nothing quite like the Capitol Hill Block Party. KEXP took to the Pike-Pine corridor on Friday; check out photos from photographers Eric Tra, Niffer Calderwood, and Alley Rutzel.