Comix Counterculture at Bumbershoot 2010
– recap by Shawn Conner/photos by Robyn Hanson
You can forget how wonderful a band is, and then have it all brought home to you in the first song. That’s what happened yesterday, Sept. 6, on Day Three of Bumbershoot 2010 when the Meat Puppets tore into “Touchdown King”.
It was at the very un-rock ‘n’ roll hour of 4 p.m, the sky was overcast and fall’s chill was in the air; but as Curt Kirkwood‘s guitar lines unfurled on this, one of the Arizona band’s finest songs, and brother Cris smacked and thumped his bass, the Meat Puppets‘ uniquely post-punk country-rock sound brought cheer to all the old fans who gathered at the Broad Street Stage for a rare (at least in these parts) live appearance by these Southern survivors. (This is the Meat Puppets’ 30th year in the business of rocking; Cris in particular has not had an easy time of it, having wrestled with a cocaine addiction, taken a couple of gunshots to the stomach in an altercation with a post office security guard, and spent a year in the Arizona state prison).
A cover of Freddy Fender‘s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” was a nice touch; the splendid “Light”, like “Touchdown King” (another track off the 1989 SST album Monsters), was a stunner. The glorious “Up On the Sun” remains one of the ’80s finest alt-rock musical moments, and sounds as wonderfully wasted today as it ever did. Though the hour-long set lagged a little towards the end, watching Cris proved endlessly entertaining – he is the ’80s post-punk Americana version of Keith Richards (or Jim from Taxi. Take your pick.)
The Meat Puppets ended its set the only way it could in Seattle, with the triptych of songs (“Plateau”, “Oh Me”, “Lake of Fire”) covered by Nirvana on Nirvana Unplugged. One could imagine (well, maybe thanks to the pot cookie) Kurt Cobain parting the clouds, looking down and smiling his approval.
Over at the (indoor) Words and Ideas stage Tony Millionaire, the cartoonist behind Maakies and the creator of one of the funniest comic strip characters ever, Drinky Crow, was impersonating the drunk uncle who looks like Albert Finney and tells the best stories. Or maybe it wasn’t an impression.
Prompted by interviewer Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics Books, the artist cherrypicked stories from his life that made him look like a terrible lush with horrible luck when it comes to hitch-hiking. Perhaps part of this is true, as his description of his daily medication sounds like the kind of thing that could have saved Hunter S. Thompson; a Vicodin early in the day, 10 Budweiser, and an Ambien late at night. I’m not sure if he was serious, but if he was, it explains a lot about his comics (though perhaps not about his productivity – Millionaire at least appears to be fairly prolific).
Not far from the Words and Ideas stage were the visual art exhibits. Jonathan Brilliant‘s The Bumbershoot Piece, part of the artist’s series “Have Sticks Will Travel World Tour”, was a floor-to-ceiling structure (through which you could walk) built entirely of coffee stir-sticks held together by the tension between the interlaced sticks. It was sustainable in conception, quite impressive in execution, and temporary – since it’s site specific, it was torn down towards the end of the night (some people managed to snag pieces of it).
Sounds Human gathered together several sonic experiments utilizing sculpture, video, and re-purposed technology. Pieces like the video of finches hanging out and making noise on electric guitars and the hanging piano shell redesigned to make sounds according to movement in the room were neat in a Stanley Kubrick kind of way. But the portrait challenge, where anyone could draw a portrait of a model (a photograph of a different model, i.e. anyone at Bumbershoot willing to pose, on each sheet of paper, followed by six empty boxes waiting to be filled) with the assorted markers and crayons, was much more fun.
Of course, this comics fan couldn’t resist the lure of “Counterculture Comix: A 30-Year Survey of Seattle Alternative Cartoonists”. Presented by Fantagraphics, the exhibit featured original work by Lynda Barry, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and a plethora of others; there’s a fuck of a lot of talented cartoonists in Seattle, or at least there has been since 1980. Oddly, the pre-1980 stuff was rather uninspired, lacking a figurehead (Vancouver had Rand Holmes, whom I’ll be writing more about next week).
The exhibit made a strong case for the Seattle music monthly The Rocket‘s emergence as the inspiration for a lot of prospective talent to sharpen their pencils. Then again, it was a lot of things – Sub Pop, grunge, the music scene, Fantagraphics – that combined to make Seattle the comics Mecca it once was. And, though its heyday as comics capital is over, the city is still producing (or at least hosting) some up-and-coming talent , including D.J. Bryant (showcased in the July edition of comics anthology Mome).
After all that, the best way to end the day would have been to watch, while a light rain fell, a supremely talented Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter perform tunes about water, life and love. Fortunately, Bumbershoot had taken this into consideration – Laura Veirs and band played the Pacific Northwest Stage (next door to the building housing the art) at 8, just after night fell and as a chilly rain returned.
It was actually the perfect setting for Veirs, whose albums Saltbreakers (2007) and July Flame (2010) are among my favourites of the last 10 years. One of the finest songwriters this side of Nick Drake, Veirs isn’t a very dynamic stage performer, but you don’t really need to be with tunes like “Carol Kaye” (which kicked off the set), “Life is Good Blues” and “Make Something Good”. Songs this good do all the work for you.
A cover of Tom T. Hall‘s “That’s How I Got to Memphis”, sung by the (male) bassist, was a special treat. I’d never heard the bittersweet tune before, but it, like the Meat Puppets’ version of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” earlier – and like most of Veirs’ songs – was a reminder of the eternal verities of great songwriting.
And sometime during the set, the rain stopped.