April 19, 2011 at 8:15am
THREE DAYS OF PACKED HOUSE SHOWS >>>
Friday, April 15
"What do you get when you invite 40 bands and more than 800 people into your living room?" asked the sub-head of a Friday, April 15 article in Western Washington University's student newspaper, the Western Front.
The answer-lost, I guess, on the story's author-is "the cops."
Friday's night's kick-off show for the Yellingham Music Festival (ostensibly what the Front article was trying to publicize) was cut short halfway through by police intervention. Apparently the police were waiting up Grant street, just North of illicit DIY venue "Contra House," counting the minutes until 10 p.m., when they could bust up the show for noise pollution, per Washington state's RCW 70.107 law. Regrettably, I wasn't there to see all this hubbub go down-the Contra house show was at capacity by the time I reached Bellingham. When I finally weaseled my way in, I could see bodies crammed all the way up the stairs that descended into what I'm sure was a ripe, steamy basement.
"It's so crowded in there I was about to puke," a Contra evacuee told me at a watering hole across the street. Another attendee mentioned the smell of "cat piss and asbestos" inside Contra.
At the dead-end of Grant Street, a jeep had crashed into a ravine. No one looked hurt. Inebriated passersby were taking photos.
Saturday, April 16
Day two of the weekend-long Yellingham DIY music festival began with a more positive vibe. Outside, it was a crisp 51 degrees on Saturday afternoon, and Bellingham's wide-open streets and student housing looked idyllic in the warm sunlight. On their way to the day's third concert, a gaggle of kids could be heard literally yelling unintelligibly.
True to its name, the "Lavender House" had turquoise and lavender paint on its window and door frames, and a sign out front of the de facto venue read "Hippies use back door," indicating the backyard-an edenic, fenced-in paradise where hippies and hipsters co-mingled. Vibrant pink-red petals littered the lawn. People lounged in the sunshine while two longhaired dudes dressed in black played acoustic guitar and a girl I thought I recognized-also seated and also in black-sang about a tower of grey smoke reaching up into the sky. Ironically, no one was passing joints around behind Lavender House.
There were more than a couple people with pro-grade cameras milling about, and inside there were even more, including some people with camcorders and high-end sound-recording equipment (I would later learn these were enterprising students from Evergreen State College, documenting the three-day music festival for a student project).
A Cozy Kitchen's 4 p.m. set was funny and surprisingly emotional. The three-man band recently called it quits, and former member Cody Madison performed solo in their stead. Early into his set, he joked about finding a new moniker.
"I'm trying to choose between two names," Madison said. "'Breasts' and 'Haters.'"
Madison played along to backing tracks with his black Gretsch hollow-body, singing stompy, Strokes-esque songs into a telephone receiver. His lyrics were profanity-laced and intentionally semi-ridiculous. For the second half of his set, he ditched his Gretsch and built winsome melodic loops using a tiny, nylon-stringed toy guitar, laughing at his every mistake and flub. The mood was endearing, and everything about his homespun performance felt more authentic than put-on or irritating (I had to wonder what the "full band" was like when they performed). During his last song, Madison began to weep involuntarily as he sang and strummed his toy guitar. When the room was done applauding, I turned around to see that there were maybe one hundred people inside the house. Either the Front article had reached more readers than I'd thought, or Yellingham had grown exponentially since its first-annual effort in the Spring of last year by word-of-mouth alone. It seemed like "everyone" was there.
At dusk-time, "the Bunker" was a hub of activity. There were impromptu banjo jams around a backyard fire-pit, a shack that doubled as an indoor skate park, and all the undergraduates whose mugs weren't already decorated with (respectfully non-tribal) markings had lined up on the porch to get their faces painted. A Panasonic portable tape deck wedged in the doorway played warped old country and crooner cassettes.
As I waited for the night's first band, Olympia's Margy Pepper, to take the stage (which was actually a rickety pile of pallets with a carpet on top), I eavesdropped on some of the festival organizers discussing the lineup. Olympia-by-way-of-Issaquah electro-soloist APOC, it was decided, should close out the evening. "I don't know if people know what to expect up here," I overheard one of them saying.
The back room of the Bunker had seriously filled up by the time Margy Pepper were ready to play. In the throng of attendees behind me, a man in a white polyester suit was vociferously self-promoting ("My band has a CD"). I was reminded that Yellingham-apart from being a truly-DIY endeavor with a consistently strong roster of performers-also provides, at least in part, a moment of self-aggrandizement for the cloistered Bellingham music community (cue all those fancy camera shutters snapping shut in unison).
Despite being marred by near-constant feedback issues, Margy Pepper's set was fun and fresh, with ADD song structures that ended 180 degrees or more from where they began. Of the Evergreen-incubated trio's charming, sporty jams, I most enjoyed "Tiger Train Wreck," the Side B closer from their No Boys No Bass cassette (which might just have the most accurately self-descriptive name since Snakes on a Plane).
Ballyhooed Olympian quartet Christmas followed, and their performance was the obvious highlight of the weekend. Every member gave it their all, though it's hard not to single out the soulful, energizing presence of frontwoman Emily Beanblossom. The band's crazy-worldly rock had the entire room moshing, kicking up a bank of hot, sweaty air. From my precarious vantage atop a stool in the corner of the room, I watched the bodies flailing and convulsing to the beat. Every time drummer Jake Jones hit a crash, it sent a glowstick mounted on the cymbal spinning around in circles. The entire set was dizzying.
As it turned out, saving APOC for last was a savvy decision. The audience was absolutely primed for his dance-friendly, Dan Deacon-indebted take on electro-pop (APOC's heavily-saturated synths, undulatory, fill-heavy drum patterns, and super-posi self help vibe all screamed Dan Deacon. His set felt like a microcosmic antecedent to DD's life-affirming SXSW appearance). APOC played sugar-rush music, and the dazed crowd at the Bunker devoured it with the rapacious appetite of an elementary-schooler. APOC's songs touched on a handful of subjects-outer space, shitty jobs, believing in yourself, and Tetris (he had the whole room singing along: "Tetris is the best!"). Unfortunately, my camera died before I could get a photo of Christmas guitarist Pat Scott-Walsh's epic crowd surfing.
After APOC's encore, someone in front of me whispered to their friend: "They've gotta ask him back next year."
Sunday, April 17
Jinx Art Space, from what I understand, is Bellingham's eminent all-ages concert venue. With an upstairs art gallery, subterranean garage, and suitably badass PA, it was well-equipped to substitute for Contra House, who bequeathed their role in Yellingham after Friday's altercation with the police.
The Clefts, who kicked off Jinx's Sunday afternoon programming, is the project of guitarist/vocalist Nic Brodine, one of Yellingham 2011's tireless organizers. The Clefts were also the only Bellingham band I managed to see all weekend. They were ebullient and prosaically upbeat, with marginally surfy rock songs, Flea-esque bass theatrics, and a shirtless drummer. In evidence of their local popularity, the floor around them was crowded by kids dancing with guileless abandon. The remainder of the afternoon's performers-from Seattle and nearby Vancouver, B.C.-would be much darker and heavier.
The crowd seemed shell-shocked by Footwork's terse, double-barreled sonic assault. The Seattle trio tore through a set of thrashy, post-Flexions groove-punk, more locked-in and simpatico than most bands their age. Because of the lighting setup in the Jinx garage and the orientation of drummer Myke Pelly's kit, every time he hit a crash, it sent a golden, halo-like reflection darting around the walls and ceilings, like a beatific analog to the swinging, strobing light in Norman Bates' basement at the climax of Psycho. Footwork's set closer had a breathless, kick-only breakdown that led into their final, relentless surge of gain-muddied noise. It was badass.
"Dude, they were so fucking good," someone in the audience said after the amps had stopped ringing.
Fellow Seattleites MOUNTAINSS followed Monagamy Party, I band that I enjoyed from the parking lot. It was loud enough inside Jinx that you could hear everything clearly from the lot across Flora Street. The afternoon was tranquil and calm and all the business around Jinx were closed, and probably wouldn't have minded the racket anyway. Some of the Footwork dudes, who had never visited Bellingham before, remarked on its quaint, small-town vibe and lack of big-city bullshit.
MOUNTAINSS performances tend to be as wild and wooly as possible, so I knew I had to be up close for their free-wheeling set. It may have proved too much for some of the face-painted Yellingham youth, however. I'm not sure at what point the room dissipated-when a kick drum was perforated halfway through (a replacement was promptly brought downstairs), when the band members spat water into one another's mouths, when a small black box was brought out and knobs were tweaked, causing shrieks of high-wattage noise to vomit out of the speakers-but I loved every minute of it. It's too bad the garage had virtually emptied by the time Shearing Pinx were on; MOUNTAINSS' blaring saxophone, manic drumming, and finger-tapped octave-up bass riffing were awesome, as was the Pinx's cacophonous set-ending epic. MOUNTAINSS drummer Daniel Enders joined the B.C. band on saxophone, and together they jammed on "Marked Man" for what seemed like an eternity of blown-out bliss. Guitars were played with drum sticks crammed violently between their strings, blurts of saxophone intruded like the snorts of wild elephants, and drum patterns changed on a dime. It felt like dissolution, like a window shattering in slow-motion-a weird way to cap off such a competently-run and virtually snafu-free festival (I didn't have time to stick around for the crowded, highly-anticipated Sunday night show with Karl Blau, Your Heart Breaks, and more).
I think it's safe to say that the second-annual Yellingham music festival was a success. They were almost sold-out of official festival t-shirts by ten pm at the Bunker Saturday night, and every show I went to (or tried to go to) was brimming with people and cameras. The bands got paid out well, and-apart from Friday's drama-there were no real hiccups in the programming. Organizers were omnipresent and vigilant about the rules. The crowds, to their credit, were totally respectful. Near midnight on Saturday after APOC's set, the residents of the Bunker house kindly thanked everyone for coming then asked them to get the hell off their lawn. The crowd paused, clapped enthusiastically, and then almost immediately dispersed. It was a level of decorum I wasn't used to associating with house shows. Perhaps there's a whiff of that trademark Canadian politeness drifting South from the border, or perhaps Bellingham's late teens and twenty-somethings are so psyched about the festival that they don't want to rock the boat.
Prior to Friday night, Yellingham organizer Nick Duncan told me he hoped the festival would help put Bellingham "back on the [proverbial] map" of Cascadian music. It's been fourteen years since Death Cab for Cutie formed, and Bellingham's been relatively dormant as a Northwest "music destination" ever since. Yellingham may not have single-handedly resuscitated the city's cold, pyroclastic heart, but the festival deserves its props for turning the mellow, sleepy college town into a meeting spot for some of the region's best underground acts. For the locals, it's a chance to bring the talent and cache of neighboring Cascadian performers to Bellingham and expose visitors to their town's cosseted, communally-adored bands. For out-of-towners like myself, it's an opportunity to escape from the grind of metropolitan life and indulge in three days of excellent, capably-orchestrated concerts.
Off duty rules.
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