I don't much like festivals. I don't much like flying either. They are two of my least favourite pastimes. So when word started going around of a 20th Anniversary Sub Pop festival, held naturally in Seattle, my initial thought was damn it... can't they come over and do it in my back garden? Selfish I realise, but suffice to say I wouldn't fly 5,000 miles for ANY other label than Sub Pop, and the chance of catching some of my all time favourite bands in their back yard proves way too much.
With both Mudhoney (in my house the GREATEST band of all time – sorry, but they are) and a reformed Green River playing alongside new bucks such as Fleet Foxes and* No Age* I just can't resist. The line-up showcases something for everyone with a passing interest in arguably the finest independent record label to come out of the USA in the last 20 years.
Arriving in Seattle a few days before the weekend’s shows, life is imitating art as the Sub Pop flag flies proudly from atop the Space Needle, the city’s iconic landmark. The essence of grunge may have disappeared 20 years ago and then truly extinguished itself when Aberdeen’s most famous son took a shotgun to his head, but Seattle is a happening town! Venues aplenty, cool shops, nice eats, bars and cheap jeans! There's a welcoming laid-back feel to the place, too.
My god it is hot. This isn't typical Seattle weather at all! Ninety degrees in the shade and not a cloud in the sky. The Marymoor Country Park in Redmond is a short hop and skip from central Seattle, and is an unbelievably beautiful setting for a festival-cum-party. Surrounded by the high snow-topped Cascade Mountain Range and with Bald Eagles (!) circling around, Reading Festival this isn't. Initially I'm a little overcome – this is a bit dream like. The vibe is lovely! A natural amphitheatre housing two stages, shady stalls, tasty food and a beer tent with no queue that is serving 20 local beers from microbreweries that I've never heard of! Snoqualmie Falls Pale Ale, anyone? Mmmmm lovely, I'll have another thanks! The THAT STAGE seems to be home of the old men and growlers, whilst THIS STAGE promises some of Sub Pop’s contemporary big hitters.
Missing newly-signed openers the Obits, the first band of the day is Constantines on the larger of the two stages. More powerful and spiky live than I'd been expecting they play a set reminiscent of Washington DC veterans Girls Against Boys jamming with Crazy Horse. Bassist Dallas Wehrle is lost in a world of his own, spinning out for entire sections of songs with his instrument raised up and behind his head. The simply rock quite hard! Ex-Eric’s Trip singer Julie Doiron jumps onstage for a quick sing-along to the perky number that’s an alternate-universe indie-disco smash.
A reformed *Seaweed *kick-start events on the second stage, winding back the years to the early 1990s and Sub Pop’s first attempt to break out of the grunge ghetto. Vocalist Aaron Stauffer may have (how can I put this politely?) filled out a bit, but musically speaking the band have seemingly been caught in amber. It's rocking stuff, a little bit bouncy punk, a little bit hardcore, a little bit... can I use the word 'emotional'? But early on, with the sun really beating down, a mixture of old timers and young whippersnappers actually get a good-natured pit going to tracks like ‘Baggage’. I never caught the band back in the day and it's good to see them now, looking like they're having a whale of a time with nothing to prove.
The Helio Sequence leave me a bit cold, as will No Age the following day. I can't get my head around this two-person band shtick. Whilst it would be churlish of me to lump these bands in together just because of the numbers in the group, but there is just something lacking in The Helio Sequences’ flaccid 'dream pop' as there is in No Age’s guitar ‘n’ drums rough and tumble. Maybe it’s the big stage and searing heat, or maybe it's just the lack of a tune to latch onto. My loss I guess, as folks seem to be digging it all.
Pissed Jeans, however, almost bag the best band of the weekend award. Lead howler Matt Korvette inhabits entirely his own deranged world. A world of dysfunctional small-town neurosis and psychotic howling! Live they transcend their 2007 Hope For Men album completely, with Korevtte a man insane, humping amps, flailing around stripped to the waist as drummer Sean McGuiness pounds out a rudimentary primal beat. Guitarist Bradley Fry is a modern-age guitar hero, playing seemingly three songs at once, pushing each track to a screaming conclusion. Korvette stuffs what looks like a Cornetto down the back of his trousers for the duration of_ 'I've Still Got You (Ice Cream)’, then attacks stoic bassist Randy Huth with it as the song lurches to an end! See them at the ATP’s _Release The Bats Halloween show, where minds WILL be blown.
I'm beginning to really warm to* Fleet Foxes*. Outside on a big stage, surrounded by pine trees and mountains, their mellow good-time tunes make total sense. The four-part harmonies are pitch-perfect and fit wonderfully with their total retro 'Band' vibe. ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is a joyous Beach Boys-like paean to the great outdoors, which literally soars over the surrounding peaks.
*The Fluid *were always in the first wave of Sub Pop bands’ shadows, despite pre-dating Tad, Mudhoney and Nirvana and releasing albums and touring before the holy trinity of Grunge got out the traps. But live they show all comers what for with a fast and furious sludge punk set. Lead howler John Robinson, looking dapper in a pink cowboy shirt and waistcoat inevitably ends up crowd surfing as they climax with ‘Cold Outside’.
Mudhoney, as expected, destroy all comers. Mark Arm starts the set sans guitar as they rampage through tracks from their latest album_ The Lucky Ones. With Steve Turner alone spewing out the riffs to _‘I'm Now’ _and ‘Tales Of Terror’, their current live set has an amped-up and sinewy Stooges-like feel to it. Dan Peters and Guy Maddison hold down a tort and syncopated rumbling low end. _‘Touch Me I'm Sick’ (a song so close to my heart it was the track my wife and I chose to dance to first at our wedding) is so closely connected to the Sub Pop story they should lobby for it to be made Washington State’s anthem (if they do such things over there). ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More’ is a crawling malevolent virus of a tune and ‘You Got It’ blasts away mercilessly. These are some of my favourite tunes of all time, being played by a band that has never faltered. Even though, as is their style, they trip over ‘In 'N Out Of Grace’, a song they must have played live a 1,000 times, it can't derail 40 minutes of garage-punk abandon.
The Vaselines *play their first ever festival, but the potty-mouthed Scots win over a crowd with ease. Frances and Eugene, ably backed by a trio of Belle & Sebastian bods, roll out the tunes made famous by that N**a band. ‘Son Of A Gun’ is a country hoedown stomper with the ex-couple sharing both vocals and witty barbed asides. It's easy to see how their legend has grown over the years, and mystifying why they haven't done this earlier.
Iron & Wine play to one of the biggest crowds of the day but appear with Sam Bream alone on stage; standing stock still with just his acoustic, it seems a little flat. What made his debut The Creek Drank the Cradle so great, its intimacy and emotion (and lo-fi, boom box fragility), is lost as it all goes a wee bit Cat Stevens for me. However when ‘Upward Over the Mountain’ is wheeled out early on I can't help suddenly feeling alone and a long_ long _way from home, in a foreign land, and this utterly beautiful song brings a wee tear to the eye.
Flight Of The Conchords wrap things up for Saturday, and it seems that a good 50 per cent of the crowd who have been patiently sat on deck chairs, eating picnics and nursing cold ones, have been waiting for this moment alone. Lord knows what the screaming ten years old and their families holding up 'We Love You Jermaine' signs made of Pissed Jeans or the potty-mouthed Vaselines! Flight Of The Conchords do their thing then and they do it well. New Zealand's third most popular acoustic folk comedy duo wheel out the hits: 'The Robots Are Dead' and that song about David Bowie... But we've a date back at the Showbox in Seattle for a night out with grunge legends Tad, Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli. And that’s another story for another time…
It's still scorching hot... Day two sees another duo from New Zealand, The Ruby Suns, kick off proceedings with a 40-minute set to a handful of twee-pop devotees.* Kinski *are a revelation. I've stupidly half dismissed them before, despite digging a few CDs... my loss! Live the four-piece lock into a hypnotic robot groove on tracks like ‘Semaphore’, from their 2003 album_ Airs Above Your Station_. It's powerful and draws you in… and then punches you upside the head! Bassist Lucy Atkinson looks coolness personified in her Ten Gallon Stetson and shades. Feeling chastised at not paying more attention to Kinski in the past I duly make a note to not miss another of their shows should they deign to come to the UK again. New favourite band alert! Sunday is a more chilled-out affair though: fewer folks around and a laid-back family vibe abounds.
The THAT STAGE sees a re-formed* Les Thugs bash away at their ramma-lamma Gaelic punk back catalogue and Chicago old-schoolers Red Red Meat* spin out their Midwest blues grind.
Foals are the sole English band of the weekend and shamble on mid-afternoon to play to a crowd that's been warmed over with more good-natured mellow country-tinged musings from Grand Archives. It seems frontman Yannis has a wee bee in his bonnet, sarcastically thanking the crowd for leaving church early to come see them play... and ribbing them for enduring all the tedious country rock that’s appeared over the weekend. It all goes tits up though, two songs in, When he totals his guitar and amp and the set crashes to a halt. However, after a swift gear repair, Yannis is back up and running and wise-cracking with the crowd. Foals are an odd beast, though: tight and danceable with a handful of snappy tunes, they're not nearly as clever as they think they are. Some songs suffer from a sub-Cure sixth-form gothic moodiness, and this level of studied artiness doesn't really connect with a US crowd. For all their afro-beats and above-the-twelfth fret guitar pickings Foals are still locked to the region that spawned them. But_ ‘Balloons’ and ‘Cassius’ _get the locals frugging out front, and a victory is snatched from what looked to be a disaster.
I've seen Comets On Fire fail to get off the launch pad on a couple of occasions, and totally slay on others, but this afternoon with MORE rumours going around that this REALLY is their last show they completely and utterly destroy. Ethan Miller and Ben Chasny are connecting to something pure and primal as they duel away. Miller is a man possessed strangling his baby blue Fender Jaguar. The sides of the stage quickly fill up with Seattle luminaries watching the spectacle unfold. A Mudhoney dude here, a Fluid dude there. With Noel Von Harmonson unleashing swathes of oscillating madness from his magic boxes and Utrillo Kushner pounding away on drums, they scale musical heights I've not seen them reach before. Astonishing. There is life in CoF and it would be damn shame if this were truly the end of their magic carpet ride.
For many the highlight of this festival has been the un-expected reformation (for one night only?) of local Seattle legends Green River, and Sunday peaks for me with their extraordinary, astonishing set. With Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament finding the massive crossover success in Pearl Jam that Mark Arm and Steve Turner never truly found with Mudhoney, they have nothing really to prove... aside from the fact that this isn't some lame exercise in nostalgia. But from the off, as one would expect, Arm is an absolute whirling dervish upfront. Is there a better (punk) frontman in rock? Clad tastefully in a Green River Summer Camp t-shirt, he hollers and screams the lyrics to lost classics like ‘This Town’ _and ‘Leech’_. Turner and Gossard play close up, hunched together in a Neil Young / Danny Whitten style huddle.
Years seem to drop away as an up-for-it crowd whoop it up. It's huge grins all round as the band who were the original great white hopes for Sub Pop (and who split before their last hurrah Rehab Doll was released) ride back into town to reclaim their crown. Is this grunge? For many Green River were always the missing link between the US metal and punk scenes. The set culminates in drummer Alex Vincent launching himself into the mass of bodies as vintage Green River 'Ride The Fucking 6 Pack' t-shirts are hurled from the stage.
I sleep walk through Wolf Parade’s (who win biggest tour bus of the weekend award) festival-closing set, but in reality this was less festival, more a celebration and party for a fine, fine label. Well worth the 10,000 mile round trip, and I wouldn't have missed this weekend for the world!