Monday, September 2, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 4: Heart (and a Cast of Thousands) at Bumbershoot, Seattle, 8/31/13

Bumbershoot has been around for as long as I have. It's become a Labor Day weekend tradition here in Seattle -- a three-day festival that includes some art and theater but mostly features music. Lots of music. On multiple stages. Most of the musicians are local or regional, but the festival always manages to bring in some big names to serve as the headline acts for each of the three nights. Topping the bill for the first night of Bumbershoot this year was Seattle's own First Ladies of Rock -- Heart.

I got to Seattle Center about four hours before showtime, with the intention of walking the grounds, seeing if any other acts caught my attention, and just enjoying the vibe.

Sometimes I still feel like a tourist, even after three years of living here, because I'll find any reason to come up and spend some time enjoying the Space Needle, the International Fountain, the Pacific Science Center, or any number of other fun things that were built here for the 1962 World's Fair. Seattle Center is, in my opinion, the jewel of our city. The Needle, a fanciful notion of what people half a century ago thought architecture might look like in the 21st century, still makes our skyline unique. You see the Needle; you instantly know what city you're looking at. I think of it as America's Eiffel Tower.

On this night, in the shadow of the Needle, two things filled the air: music, and marijuana smoke. In some ways, I felt out of place. For one thing, I've never smoked weed in my life, but the familiar scent seems to show up at every concert I go to. I'm actually glad to smell an occasional tobacco cigarette just to break the olfactory monotony. And second, a lot of the music I heard was clearly geared toward a younger crowd. Lots of punky energy, raging vocals, and thumping hip-hop beats. I'm fine with that, but it's not a type of music I actively seek out. And sure enough, most of the people I saw walking the grounds looked to be around college age or even younger.

Clearly, Bumbershoot and I have both hit our middle ages.

I felt a little bit more at home when I swung by one of the stages to check out Gary Numan: There looked to be a lot more Gen Xers in the crowd. Remember "Cars" from the '79-'80 period? That was his big U.S. hit. Even as a kid, I remember how that song grabbed my attention when it came on the radio -- and how my mom hated it because she thought it just went on and on and didn't do anything. Not everyone's cup of tea, sure, but Gary was a pioneer of electronic music -- one of those guys who went out and pushed the new musical gadgets of the time to their limit, creating a new template for rock and pop music in the process.

I still dig the electronic music of that era. Having grown up at the dawn of home computing, it fascinated me to hear all these new instruments emerging that not only made their own novel and synthetic noises but also sampled others' works and mixed them up into something brand-new. Would music become automated in the future? Would musicians give way to machines? We didn't know back then. It was an exciting time for music in many ways. To this day I still count The Art of Noise -- who were at the absolute cutting edge of all the Fairlight and Synclavier technology -- among my favorite bands.

I never explored too much of Gary Numan's catalog beyond "Cars," but I knew enough about him to realize that "Cars" was just one small part of his musical makeup. He'll always be associated with that early '80s electronic era, but a lot of his music has a much rawer edge to it. In fact, watching him perform at Bumbershoot, I can confidently say one thing: Before there was Trent Reznor, there was Gary Numan. You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd just walked in on a Nine Inch Nails concert -- right down to Gary's stage mannerisms. I read once that Trent listened to Gary's music every day as he made his way to the studio to work on The Downward Spiral. You can tell. And that is not, in my estimation, a bad thing.

Anyway, after a few songs, I decided to wander over to Key Arena, in hopes of getting there early enough to grab a good seat for the big show. I could have stayed for the entire Gary Numan performance and still made the Heart show, but I decided to see what Heart's opening act was up to. The opener? None other than Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience. I found a seat right behind the sound guys, with the stage directly in front of me on the opposite side of the arena, and I sat down a few minutes before Jason -- looking slightly menacing in a black stocking cap and aviator glasses -- took the stage with his crew.

Jason Bonham is a big man, as befits the legend of the drummer he was paying tribute to. And much like his dad, he plays his drums with all the subtlety of a Mack truck. But that's what you need for Zeppelin music, I suppose. This was the last show of his tour, and he seemed to be having lots of fun up there as he and his band tore through pretty much what you'd hear in a Zeppelin block on a classic-rock station. Funny that his kick drum even bore the famous interlocking three rings that Bonzo used as his "symbol" in the title of Zeppelin's fourth album. Jason is apparently really into honoring his dad. The good news is, he does it in great style. I think his performance would have made John Bonham proud.

He had a great rapport with the audience, too. This being Seattle, he of course had to mention the infamous Red Snapper Incident involving his dad (if you don't know what that is, look it up). I got excited when he said he was going to pull a track out of left field for us from the Presence album. Ooh! "Achilles' Last Stand," pretty please? Well, no, but we did get "Nobody's Fault but Mine," which was the next best thing. I can never help air-drumming along to that song, with all the unison stops and starts, the tricky syncopation, the whole thing. Those long moments of silence that hang in the air before the whole band comes crashing back in -- I love that. The only thing missing was Robert Plant's killer harmonica solo, but the guitarist replicated it fairly well.

While I'm flailing around like Animal on The Muppet Show, I notice that the couple to my right was sliding down the row a few seats. Can't get too close to the long-haired, tie-dyed weirdo, for heaven's sake. Sorry, but if I can't get my air-drummer geek on at a Jason Bonham show, where else am I going to do it?

Well, other than those party-poopers, I have to say I felt much more among my own kind, so to speak, inside Key Arena than I did out walking the grounds. Gen Xers and baby boomers abounded. Scraggly beards, graying ponytails, bandannas hiding bald spots, and middle-age spreads pushing out the tie-dye shirts. To my immediate left, a willowy woman with long brown hair, bless her heart, was standing and gyrating to the music like a flower child from Woodstock. We had a great talk between the Bonham and Heart shows about music in general, about how she used to have a black Gibson Les Paul guitar and idolized Jimmy Page, and how her greatest regret was never going to see Zeppelin perform live before Bonzo died. She asked if I'd ever seen them. I said Bonzo died when I was only 9, so no. She smiled. "Oh, you're just a youngster," said the woman who could have been my ... uh, well, my older sister.

When we stopped chatting, I noticed that the Love mix of the Beatles' "Within You Without You" was playing over the PA -- the one that adds Ringo's drum groove from "Tomorrow Never Knows." So there I am playing my air drums again, and then the lights go down as the song fades out -- but the droning sound of sitars continues to hang in the air. Neat. Heart programmed that as a segue into their own show.

The cheers go up from the crowd as figures bathed in shadow walk on the stage -- then the spotlight cuts to Nancy Wilson as she fires up the galloping riff to "Barracuda." And off we go.

Heart also pretty much stuck to a greatest-hits setlist, mixing some of their harder-edged '70s cuts like "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You" with their biggest '80s hits, including "Alone" and "What About Love." They also slid in a new track, "Dear Old America," from their latest album, Fanatic -- and if that song was any indication, the sisters have definitely ditched the fluffier '80s sound and gone back to their rock-'n'-roll roots. Great stuff. Sadly, it got only a lukewarm response from the crowd, which is the curse all these old bands seem to have to deal with. Nobody wants to hear anything new, no matter how great it may sound. They just want to relive a past moment in time. Me? I love the familiar as much as anyone else, and the memories associated with those songs, but I love to see an artist pushing forward with new ideas. Bring it on!

The backing band was terrific. I didn't catch the names of the musicians, but I noticed their keyboard player looked as if she wasn't old enough to have heard Heart on the radio in their heyday. She nailed the solo on "Magic Man" -- and from what I could see, it appeared that she played it on an honest-to-God genuine Mini-Moog, with all the requisite knob- and dial-twiddling that goes along with it. Hooray for vintage equipment!

We also got a surprise performance during the show, as Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready came out and joined the band for "Crazy on You." It didn't quite reach the heights of Dave Grohl joining Paul McCartney onstage, but then how many things could? And it was still neat to get an unexpected visit from a member of another great Seattle band.

Ann Wilson hasn't lost a thing with age. Her voice soared to the greatest heights it always has, and she belted through the hard-rocking moments like nobody's business. I noticed, though, that she didn't move around a whole lot on stage, nor did she interact much with the crowd. We didn't get a hello until six songs in, and when she did talk to us, it was in awkwardly phrased sentences, as if she was fumbling for the right words. Maybe she's shy, even after all these years of performing in front of people? Well, it didn't matter. Ann let her singing do the talking, and boy, did it ever. One of her biggest vocal highlights was on a slow, acoustic rendition of "Alone" that she did with Nancy and the keys player. The sparse arrangement and slower tempo drew all the more attention to her performance. Ann's emotive wailing reached into the stratosphere on that one, and the crowd totally ate it up. Fantastic.

The encore was an all-Zeppelin affair, with Jason Bonham himself joining on drums. Anyone who knows Heart knows of their immense love for Led Zeppelin. Spread across all of their live albums through the years, they've released their versions of the entirety of side one of the iconic fourth Led Zeppelin album. They opened up the encore set with one of those songs: "The Battle of Evermore," with Nancy playing mandolin and singing Sandy Denny's vocal parts.

The sisters covered "Evermore" a few tours ago and released it on their Alive in Seattle album -- and it was stunning. Their performance at Bumbershoot was no less so. It may be heresy to say it, but I like the Wilsons' version much better than the Zeppelin original. When Ann starts howling "Bring it! Bring it! Bring it!" at the end, it just floors me every time.

After that, the band ventured into the opening of side two of Zeppelin's fourth album, with "Misty Mountain Hop." We also got a goosebump-inducing version of "The Rain Song" (complete with Mellotron sample!), an "Immigrant Song" with a thunderous crunch so mighty that it threatened to tear the roof off Key Arena, and a faithful rendition of "Kashmir" -- not one of my favorite Zep tracks, but that's OK. I suppose I'm belaboring the point, but the best part of the whole encore was hearing Ann channeling Robert Plant, singing those great songs with all the fire and emotion that Robert himself once did.

Closing out the night, naturally, was "Stairway to Heaven" -- complete with a gospel choir. Wow, wow, wow. What can you say about such a legendary song? If you saw Heart's performance of "Stairway" at the Kennedy Center Honors and was as blown away as most fans were, then you have some idea of what it felt like to hear Ann Wilson and company playing that song in person. What a way to end the night.

But before I wrap this up, can we talk for a moment about Nancy Wilson? Yes, let's. She's such an unsung hero in Heart. First, there's her singing. During the show, Nancy introduced her sister as "the one with the voice from above," but Nancy is no slouch, either. Her velvety, honey-sweet voice is the perfect complement to Ann's mighty roar. One of the highlights of the evening, in fact, was to see Nancy standing alone on stage with her acoustic guitar and singing a song in tribute to her hometown of Seattle, Elton John's "I Need You to Turn To." And from there she moved right into "These Dreams," which is one of my favorite Heart songs. I don't know how many fans even realize that Nancy Wilson sings that one -- and that it was Heart's first No. 1 song. (For that matter, I wonder how many people realize that Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics to both Elton's song and "These Dreams"! Heart got talked into recording a lot of songs written by other people in the '80s, and that was one of the best of the bunch.) 

Nancy's guitar playing bears noting, too. On electric, she mostly plays rhythm -- though she did take the second lead on "Barracuda" -- but her acoustic work is really something to watch. Think of that noodly bit she does leading into "Crazy on You." True story: When Nancy first wanted to join big sister Ann's band, she was asked to audition by playing Steve Howe's "Clap," the fast-moving country-boogie piece from The Yes Album. Surely not an easy thing to play, but she obviously got the gig!

But the thing I noticed the most about Nancy Wilson was her incredible stage presence. It's subtle, not at all flashy. The fluidity of her movements makes her almost hypnotic to watch. It's almost like a continuous dance she does with her guitar for the entirety of the show. One moment she'll be laser-focused on the work of playing her instrument, and the next she'll surprise you with a big leg kick, and she'll start gracefully bobbing and swaying, or twirling around, or hopping in place -- and then just as quickly she'll be hunkered back down over her guitar. It's as if she was born to be on stage. She looked both completely relaxed and totally in control. It was a beautiful thing to behold. I could have watched her all night -- and I admit my eyes were riveted to her for most of the show. She is a gorgeous woman to begin with, but the quiet, graceful, confident femininity that radiates from her is sexy as hell. Just goes to show you don't have to degrade yourself like a porn star to get people to notice you. Miley Cyrus? Not even in the same league with the likes of Nancy Wilson. The way Nancy owned that stage -- coupled with her long-sleeve knee-length blue dress, her black stockings, and her wavy blonde locks -- made her an absolute knockout. At 59, she is aging very, very gracefully. 

In all, a fun night at Bumbershoot. Not sure how the organizers could top Heart as a Seattle-roots headliner next year, unless they managed to get Soundgarden to play again ... or maybe summoned the ghost of Jimi Hendrix.


What About Love
Magic Man
Kick It Out
Mistral Wind
Even It Up
Dog and Butterfly
I Need You to Turn To [Nancy solo]
These Dreams
Dear Old America
Crazy on You [with Mike McCready]

Encore [with Jason Bonham on drums]:
The Battle of Evermore
Misty Mountain Hop
Immigrant Song
The Rain Song
Stairway to Heaven

No comments:

Post a Comment