The 3rd annual Heineken City Arts festival in Seattle kicked off Wednesday October 17 with a bang. Somewhat peculiarly, the Festival headliners, David Byrne with St. Vincent, played on the opening day, albeit to a sold out house (note to 2013 festival organizers: bigger venue for the headliner so more people *achem* are able to attend, please!). What followed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday was a smorgasbord of some of Seattle’s finest indie rock, hip hop, electronic, and everything in between. Local artists big and small mixed with sets from some more national and international acts including Devotchka, Mos Def, Two Door Cinema Club and more in a wonderfully diverse lineup that should’ve had at least something on tap for any music fan. On top of all this was a daytime schedule that included art installations, group dialogues, artist-led tours, and secret-surprise shows; ranging from small and stationary – including the especially wonderful, GRIZZLY 1971, a re-illustrating of an entire Queen Anne yearbook by Jessixa and Aaron Bagley – to city-wide.
Full disclaimer: I just moved here a month and a half ago so covering a festival like this can prove difficult: 16 venues, four nights, 100+ acts spanning myriad genres, and an arts program that is, as City Arts Fest themselves describe it "A curated collection of programs that treats Seattle’s streets, businesses and buildings as one big venue, canvas and playground." That said, however, it also served as an excellent introduction to the incredible music scene this city has to offer.
Wednesday night took me to Barboza, the excellent little room below Neumo’s on Capitol Hill. While the entire night – and, unfortunately, Thursday night’s lineup here as well – was plagued by a poor sound mix, the bands all seemed able to power through. Openers Western Haunts, who were perhaps most affected by the said mix issues, are skilled at putting together lush indie dream-pop, though perhaps sometimes lean a little too heavily on their Fleet Foxey influences.
The Synthony, lifted by a powerful lead vocal and some delightfully catchy tunes, also seemed to struggle at times; both with the sound and with creating a full band identity. The second half of the night stepped it up with art-school bred Pollens, and the more widely acclaimed Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band. Pollens, especially, lived up to the standards they’ve set for themselves on recordings with an exceptional performance of some of the most original tunes I’d wager the festival had to offer. Intricate percussion, layers and layers and layers of intertwining vocals, and melodies like little ear worms seem to be their signature and what a fine (read: mind-blowing) signature it is. It was clear, watching the audience filter in and out between sets, that they were also the main draw for the evening, despite MSHVB’s headliner slot of amped up and stripped down indie punk.
Thursday brought a Neumo’s/Barboza double header: electronic from Novatron, Michael Manahan, The New Law, and EOTO upstairs at Neumo’s while a more folk/Americana/rockabilly collection including the slightly jazzier Song Sparrow Research, 18 year old Vince Mira (and band), alt-country folk rockers Legendary Oaks, and rockabilly rollers The Dusty 45’s delivered the goods downstairs at Barboza.
While quite a contrast from each other, the two lineups gave the night a dynamic mix, proven by the diverse crowd coming and going through the shared entrance. While Michael Manahan was underwhelming, to me and, visibly, the audience, The New Law pulled everyone back in with live saxophone, trumpet, and drums augmenting and boosting the beats and projections that filled the room. Downstairs, The Dusty 45’s certainly had their crowd of dancers and fans and, while they seem solid musicians that can put on a good show, often times came across as sort of out of place. They might, perhaps, be better suited for something more akin to a country club, a county fair, or, at the very least, a different bill. Vince Mira’s impressive and beyond-his-years country range creates a far larger gravitational pull.
Shifting across town for Friday’s full lineup at the Crocodile proved an excellent decision as The Swearengens, Land of Pines, and Cody Beebe & The Crooks warmed the room up for a hometown return from local stars Ravenna Woods. While, again, the festival offered up a slightly odd lineup pairing, it wasn’t bad enough to bring the night down overall. Instead, Land of Pines’ indie rock twin vocals and tight songwriting propelled and erupted, with howls and guitars reminiscent of other Pacific Northwest favorites, following the almost honky-tonk alt country of the Swearengens. Cody Beebe & the Crooks pulled out all the classic roots-rock one could want, offering a solid, if somewhat predictable performance, and paved the way for Ravenna Woods to take a Seattle stage for the first time since the spring. The latter have been working on (a now eagerly anticipated) upcoming album ,The Jackals, and new songs and old slid together seamlessly. The high-energy, well received set saw the infectious and gracious stage presence of the band radiating off the crowd in a feedback loop. Most certainly another festival highlight.
The historic and beautiful Moore theater offered the perfect backdrop for a festival finish, hosting Colorado natives Devotchka for a standout set, backed by the Seattle Rock Orchestra. Not only did their eclectic mix of influences shine with this extra backing, they fully took over the room and the night; Nick Urata’s voice soaring to the rafters, while the rest of the band swapped instruments and provided the skeleton on which to rest the orchestra’s powerful additions.
Looking back to last year’s lineup, this one seems every bit as impressive, likely more so, even, and it will be exciting to watch the festival continue to grow as it pushes toward a half-decade. As with any event, there were some hiccups but this year, at least, can be marked as a win – for the city, the artists, and the festival.