Bumbershoot is Seattle's end-of-summer party that spills across Seattle Center's 74 acres in the shadow of the Space Needle. This year, I introduced my 19 year-old son Paul to the music of two of my favorite musicians, Otis Taylor and Richard Thompson. In exchange, he introduced me to some of the hardest rock I've heard in years from Jerry Cantrell, former guitarist with Alice in Chains.
The 32nd Bumbershoot was a true arts phantasmagoria: mainstage headliners included Lou Reed, Jewel, Jonny Lang, Maceo Parker, Everclear, Sonic Youth, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, among others. The Labor Day weekend festival also features a film fest, visual and performing arts, a comedy stage, and opportunities to experience other cultures through food, hands-on art, and music.
Otis Taylor: Redefining the Blues
Otis Taylor's set during his first visit to Seattle on the Northwest Airlines Blues Stage redefined the blues. With bassist/producer Kenny Passarelli and guitarist Eddie Turner, Otis and his band sampled some of my favorite songs from his Northern Blues release from earlier this year, Respect the Dead. Eddie Turner's solos soared on "Hands on Your Stomach," "Live Your Life," and the set's closer, "Black Witch." Otis and his band have been playing together for the past seven years, and together, they crank out some of the finest country blues on record that goes positively psychedelic when plugged-in live.
Otis is no newcomer to the blues, though. He first played with the Butterscotch Fire Department Blues Band in 1964, followed by the Otis Taylor Blues Band. From 1964 to 1997, he played in London, but returned to his home in Colorado with T&O Short Line, a band that included Tommy Bolin. Taylor hung up his performing picks in 1997, but we have Kenny Passarelli to thank for bringing Otis Taylor back to the blues with an independent CD, Blue Eyed Monster. In 1998, he released When Negroes Walked the Earth, followed by 2001's White African and this year's Respect the Dead. I've shouted about Respect the Dead on these screens before, and my faith is well-placed as my crystal blues ball tells me that it just might land on a few "Best of" lists for this year.
[Otis Taylor with CD's Eric Steiner]
Otis' story songs aren't for the squeamish, as they tell American history from the slaves' point of view. Whether that perspective is from the lynching tree or from the Buffalo Soldiers' sights fighting the Indians, Otis writes some of the most emotional blues around. In addition to playing an electric banjo, he played a mean harp on "Hambone," and sang a slow, steady and sinister version of "Hey Joe," with Passarelli providing the bottom from his bass and Turner soaring like Joe, running for Mexico. As he said when he introduced the song, "It's our first time in Seattle, and we didn't think you'd let us come back if we didn't play this song."
Otis, you're welcome back anytime. Sooner rather than later.
Richard Thompson: Bring on Britney!
Richard Thompson and his sing string guitar. You don't need much more than that for an entertaining and provocative afternoon. British folksinger extraordinaire, founder of Fairport Convention, one half of Richard and Linda Thompson, and a solo artist in his own right, Richard Thompson nearly filled the Mercer Arts Arena, sponsored by Black Entertainment Television and KMTT-FM, The Mountain.
In just a few months, Mercer Arena would be home to the Seattle Thunderbirds hockey club, an irony not lost on Thompson.
"Wow," he said as looked across a very crowded room. "This is really special. There's something about a place that offers hockey and opera." Seattle Opera is right next door.
Irony has been Thompson's stock in the musical trade, in addition to fretboard gymnastics that seem unnaturally impossible.
Thompson sings with venom and spite in many songs about failed relationships, and tonight included some of his best, including "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)" from last year's Mock Tudor, and reprised on this year's live CD, Semi-Detached Mock Tudor. Another heart-wrenching love song, "The Ghost of You Walks" originally from You? Me? Us? (1996) is also included on a retrospective of his years on Capitol Records, Action Packed.
In addition to sampling his 30-year career in music, he also told quite a few jokes. The most memorable one for me was his description of heaven and hell.
"Some people think that in heaven, the French cook, the British greet you at the gates, the entire experience is organized by the Germans, and the Italians provide the entertainment. On the other hand, some people think that, in hell, the British cook, the French greet you at the gates, it's organized by the Italians, and the Germans provide the entertainment."
He used these analogies to introduce one of his latest projects at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, 1000 Years of Folk Music in One Hour. No, Thompson wasn't talking like the actor in the Federal Express commercial, a mile-a-minute.
It's a musical journey from pre-medieval times to Britney Spears. In an hour.
Today's snippets featured "I Know a Lucky Fellow" from 1460, sung in Medieval Italian. He jumped ahead a few hundred years to sing the classic American folk song, "Shenandoah," and wrapped up with a serious version of "I Did It Again." Yes, that one by Britney.
After this bit of musical time travel, Thompson returned to more familiar territory for the fans with "Turning of the Tide" and the brooding "Shoot Out the Lights."
I've wanted to introduce my son to Thompson's 6-string playing ever since I heard him play "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" from his 1991 CD, Rumor and Sigh. It's a story about his favorite motorcycle, and features some of the most inventive picking I've ever heard on a six-string guitar.
The encore "Dimming of the Day" was a real surprise. Many other talented singer-songwriters have performed it live since it was released by Island on Pour Down Like Silver (Richard and Linda Thompson, 1975), but I prefer the genuine article in Richard's hands.
Jerry Cantrell: Unchained
It was Paul's turn to turn me on to some of his favorite music from the former lead guitarist of Seattle's Alice in Chains. We headed over to the Seattle Center Stadium stage, sponsored by RealOne.
Jerry Cantrell plays some of the hardest rock I've heard since Black Sabbath first shook my rafters with Paranoid and Master of Reality, longer ago than I'd like to admit. Throw in the likes of UFO, too, with their "Lights Out" disc, and you'll get my metal frames of reference down nicely. Since then, I haven't listened to this style of music all that often. Although I've made my home in the Pacific Northwest for the last 22 years, the home of many bands that have followed in Ozzy's footsteps, including Jerry's former band, Alice in Chains, I'm just getting around to grunge.
Jerry Cantrell plays a brand of metal that mixes influences of rock now and then, but an hour and a half with Cantrell's band is pure, full-frontal assault power. In addition to Jerry's golden Gibson, two other guitarists traded leads and rhythm that echoed off the stadium's walls, and a powerful rhythm section
Jerry's Bumbershoot set featured "Hellbound" from this year's solo CD, Degradation Trip (Roadrunner Records), plus Alice in Chains songs sung by the late Layne Staley. Even as raindrops began to drench the crowd, they all paid their respects to Jerry with their outstretched devil's horns, held higher as Jerry taunted "Come on, let me see them high!" He dedicated "Gone" to Staley and Courtney Clark,
The enthusiastic crowd shouted word-for-word most of "Man in the Box" from their debut 1990 release, Facelift (Sony) and "Down in a Hole," from what many critics consider to be the defining Alice in Chains' CD from 1992, Dirt (Sony).
Jerry closed the set with "No Excuses" from Jar of Flies, and "What the Hell Have I?" a song that showed, once again, that Cantrell could rip the notes right out of his Gibson, just like the metal guitar gods of my youth.
Labor Day usually signals the end of summer in the Pacific Northwest, but Otis Taylor, Richard Thompson, and Jerry Cantrell were all bright spots in my cloudy day.