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Grimes gets down (all pics by Stephanie Benson)
Upon first entering Seattle's three-day Capitol Hill Block Party on Friday at 3 p.m. sharp, it seemed rather quiet and chill, the weird calm before the storm, with nary a half-eaten slice of pizza or crumpled Bud Light can in sight. Fast-forward 24 hours and we've got ourselves a different story. The crowd has multiplied, energized and diversified. Saturday is when the official party starts, apparently. I knew this because I saw not one, but two men -- on different stages -- in capes. I felt like that had to mean something. But more on that later. My first stop was the Vera Stage to see Spokane band Nude -- unfortunately, I didn't make it in time to catch Stephanie, a band that better be using that name to good effect. Anyway, Nude announced that they would now be referred to as "Nude Pop," because there are just too many other Nudes out there. I hate it when that happens. While they do have the pop part down, I'm not so sure about the nude. Nonetheless, they sounded great. They have a sort of '90s indie-rock vibe, with a little Built to Spill guitar action alongside a lead singer who reminded me of Billy Corgan without the whine. The drummer also rocks an electronic drum kit. These guys seem promising.
On to the main stage. South African Spoek Mathambo, decked out in a denim vest and a t-shirt with his own name on it, started early. (I don't think I've ever seen that happen at a festival!) His drummer ditched the stool so he could be part of the dance party too, as the Sub Pop signee rapped and rocked and twiddled knobs. His brand of music is wild -- psych-electro-alt-rock filtered through hip-hop and Afropop. It was a great start to a day that would be filled with reasons to boogie. "Make some space for the booty shake!" he howled. Will do, Mr. Spoek.
From there, I wandered into Neumos, where billows of smoke emitted from the ceiling as Brent Amaker and the Rodeo were preparing to make their way onstage. And here he is: The first caped man of the day. Amaker's was of a blood-red shade, a striking contrast to the Rodeo's all-white ensembles (Stetson hats included). It was a motley crew, for sure: a Zorro-masked guitarist, a drummer who looked like he jumped the 21+ barriers, a tatted-up bassist with '80s shades, a gawky xylophonist. I'm pretty sure the only word in the first spaghetti-Western-ish song was "Rodeo!", while another ditty went something like, "Tequila! Cerveza!" I felt like I was watching a Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez film. And it only got more scandalous from there. All we can say is "g-string." And, no, it wasn't Brent wearing it.
I wasn't sure how anyone could top that, so I decided to stick it out by the main stage for some of the top acts of the day: Beat Connection, Twin Shadow and Grimes. Locals Beat Connection were a big hit with the crowd, their horn-laden electro-laced pop as balmy and cloudless as the day's weather, which also meant security felt the need to start hosing down the crowd. (Not sure that was necessary. I'm holding an expensive camera, dudes!)
Twin Shadow approached next, and I was expecting lead man George Lewis, Jr. to be a little stoic and sulky based on his music, but his warm smile proved him to be anything but, and he opened his set with three of my favorites: "Shooting Holes," "Tyrant Destroyer" and "Five Seconds," all from new album Confess. His soulful, Morrison-esque croons rubbing against the rigid synths and sharp Rickenbacker riffs are like soft crushed velvet brushing up against his five o'clock shadow. Though his '80s motif can sometimes venture a little too near Top Gun's cheese-tastic volleyball game, he's a compelling performer nonetheless. His only failure came in trying to get the "multi-cultured crowd," as he put it, to chant along to "We Are the World." "Maybe you don't remember that song?" he asked. The blushing young crowd looked confused.
And now to the second man in a cape: Blood Diamonds, Grimes' best bud, who joined her onstage for what would be the giddiest set of the night. His cape was a dark chocolate suede, complemented by a bulky gold chain affixed with a lion's-head pendant. The dude looked bored as hell standing there, which made it even more humorous, but once the music began, he did prove he was some sort of Count of Laptops.
Okay, no more cape distractions. Back to the main spectacle: Montreal's Claire Boucher (Grimes) is an unassuming, tiny Olsen twin look-alike who can totally get away with having wavy blond locks that are shaved on the sides, a tattered thrift store "anarchy" shirt, bright yellow-green socks worn high and tight, and a ratty stuffed-animal backpack. This year, she released Visions, an album sure to be on plenty of critics' top-of-2012 lists. But you really can't appreciate this girl's charisma and charm until you see her live. She rocks back and forth, fiddling, jiggling, twisting and turning knobs, moving monitors, pouring water on herself, and bouncing around like a little girl on a trampoline who has just eaten a whole bag of Sour Patch Kids. She's also singing like a baby-doll siren as she does all of this, a baby doll with a potty mouth. "Fck yeah! The bass is moving my sht everywhere!" she yells. And almost exactly at this announcement, the battery in my camera died. I took that as a sign that I needed to ditch the notepad, grab a drink, and follow Spoek Mathambo's booty-shaking orders. Grimes was just the girl to get my party started.
Brent Amaker and the Rodeo