Capitol Hill Block Party 2017: A Comprehensive Review

Photo credit: Matt McDonald

Amidst rainbow flags and Nikkita Oliver signs, Capitol Hill Block Party is a world of its own — for better or for worse. Capitol Hill is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and the festival is likely not helping this development. Oddly enough, the Block Party is also one of the straightest events in Capitol Hill, a historically gay neighborhood (hence the rainbow flags). Regardless, I am not here to write a political piece — I’m here to talk about the music.

The experience of the festival, of course, is tied in with the people who attend it, as the makeup of the audience affects the experience of the music itself. Fashion has always been important to music festivals, so a brief commentary on style will, as always, be a part of my review. (So as not to be an omniscient narrator, I will review my own style as well — for journalistic purpose only, of course). In 2017, like most years, there were a significant amount of electronic acts at the festival, which reflects the general trend of popular music in general. Nonetheless, there was enough variation in musical styles at the Block Party to keep everyone happy. In total I saw 30 different musical acts over the three days, so let us begin with Day 1.

Friday - Day 1

Trending styles: Dirty white sneakers, face glitter.

Most interesting fashion statement: Terrifying Donald Tr*** socks.

My outfit: Dark purple jeans, green Doc Martens, Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt, backwards galaxy snapback.

4:00 PM — After a moderately warm afternoon, the festival begins. The stylish youth of Seattle descend upon Pike street.

4:00 PM — Lucy Dacus / Main Stage. The first slot of the festival is a hard one to fill, but 22-year-old Lucy Dacus and her band do their best. At times, she sounds like a young Courtney Barnett, albeit with less of the sardonic wit that Barnett is known for. Other times, her sound is more similar to Laura Gibson, who graced the Block Party in 2016. Her sound is more distinct when she and her band achieve a more rock ’n’ roll sound, her despondent lyrics overlaying indie rhythms. Though not the most memorable of the day, Dacus’ set is a pleasant start to the weekend.

5:15 PM — Noname / Main Stage. Noname (formerly known as Noname Gypsy) is best known for her work with fellow Chicago MC Chance the Rapper, but her own talent is formidable. The rhythm of her verses are delightfully unique, her style at times sounding more like an intimate conversation than a rap. Her flow is relaxed, and her beats are pleasantly jazzy. Because of her palpable chill, the energy of the crowd was at times low, but she remedied this by encouraging audience participation. Her set was a mixture of serious and fun songs, the clarity of her voice keeping the crowd hanging on every word. From “All my n***** is casket pretty,” to “fuck bitches get money / respect women, get money,” Noname floated her way through a distinctly joyful set. Check out her Tiny Desk Concert.

6:00 PM — Signed up for a Car 2 Go account for some free boba. (Anything for the boba).

6:30 PM — Thundercat / Main Stage. Thundercat is a funk master. Like Noname before him, Thundercat was supremely chill, and the king of bass effortlessly hypnotized the audience into a slow sway. In classic Thundercat “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” fashion, he came out on stage wearing short, bright orange shorts and looking like he just woke up. He came off as a wise stoner, barely talking in between songs. After finishing one song he simply said “….yeah.” Later he leans into the microphone and murmurs “well….that’s the way it is sometimes.” The energy picked up when he played his first hit, “Them Changes” (a truly great song), and we were able to hear his surprisingly nice singing voice. Endless jams from a strange and wonderful guy.

7:45 PM — Mura Masa / Main Stage. I was going to check out local punk band Mommy Long Legs during this set, but I stayed at the Main Stage when I heard a beautiful British woman singing and rapping. His sound was more interesting than I thought from a cursory listen beforehand, but I think much of the interest came from the strength of his singer. I have no idea what her name is, but her voice made his tracks really soar.

8:00 PM — Mommy Long Legs / Cha Cha. Because I got distracted by Mura Masa, I missed most of Mommy Long Legs’ show. By the time I got to Cha Cha, the venue was at capacity, and I only got to go inside to hear their final song. Luckily, their last song is one of their most entertaining — the energetic and witty “Assholes.” (“You can take your money, and put it in your asshole!”). It was a rowdy way to end the set, though I was glad to leave the hot and sweaty basement of Cha Cha.

8:15 PM — Cherry Glazerr / Vera Stage. Cherry Glazerr make loud, clean, fun rock music. Some songs started in a whisper, and ended in a scream. Despite being ill, lead singer Clementine Creevy still screamed her heart out and was her goofy self on stage. “Make rock dumb again!” she yelled. Though “dumb” isn’t the word I would use, their music was very accessible, and their stage presence charming.

9:30 PM — Katie Kate / Neumos. Katie Kate is a local artist with a distinct style. Emerging on stage in sunglasses and a sparkly shawl, it’s clear she has a particular persona in mind. At times, her stage presence is reminiscent of 2012-era Kesha, though the style of her music varies. Her raps are the most unique part of her sound, and she performs them with a low, raspy growl. Her catchiest song is Sadie Hawkins, which legend has it has been played in Old Navy stores. Her set was nothing if not entertaining, although not of all her songs stood out as great pieces of music.

10:45 PM — Run the Jewels / Main Stage. One would hope the final act of the evening would be the best of the day, and in the case, Run the Jewels passed this test with flying colors. Anyone who knows Run the Jewels’ music knows they are hard-hitting, articulate, and passionate about speaking their minds. Knowing this, perhaps it is not so unexpected that Run the Jewels gave the most touching and inspiring performance of the whole day. Despite performing one of their silliest songs, “Love Again,” and El-P’s hilariously dirty “spoken word” poem, they spread a message of love and respect throughout. Killer Mike, the most politically active of the group, counseled all the single men in the audience to keep their distance from women they did not come with, and El-P made sure everyone in the crowd stepped back a few feet so people in the front wouldn’t get smothered. The most touching moment of the show came when Killer Mike spoke about Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington’s suicide, expounding on the need to make the world a safer and easier place for everyone to live in. “If you feel like the world is kicking your ass, just remember that someone out there loves you, and tomorrow will be a better fucking day.” It is a testament to their talent as musicians and performers that Run the Jewels put on a show filled with both rage and love.

12:00 AM — Day 1 ends. The audience slowly disperses, The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” playing overhead. The perfect soundtrack to the end of a captivating evening.

Best of the day — Run the Jewels

Saturday - Day 2

Trending styles — Sonics jerseys (my theory — they are more popular now that the Sonics no longer exist), blue hair.

Most interesting fashion statement — A trio of people wearing sparkly spandex onesies.

My outfit — Pink Doc Martens, jean shorts, Drake-inspired “If You’re Reading This I’m Gay” t-shirt, green plaid around the waist.

2:00 PM — Day 2 begins, on what looks to be the hottest day of the weekend. (Hydration is key!).

2:00 PM — Skating Polly / Vera Stage. Even worse than Friday at 4:00, 2:00 is truly the worst time slot of all. Many people have not even showed up yet. Despite this, the fresh-faced and fun Skating Polly brought a lot of energy to the stage. Their sound is pure youthful against, with simple and powerful rock riffs. In between songs the band was quiet and bashful, but they became loud and wild during each songs. For those in the audience that were still half-asleep, Skating Polly was a wake-up-call.

2:30 PM — Cosmos / Main Stage. Again, having an early performance time is always difficult, but Cosmos did their best to keep the already-overheated audience energized. (In order to avoid the blazing sun, many people were awkwardly standing off the side in the few spots of shade on Pike street). Cosmos is a seven-piece band that combines elements of jazz, R&B, and hip-hop to form a bright and energetic sound. Lead singer/rapper Campana was a lively frontman who carried the group with an earnest and fun attitude. (Side note: while I am generally ambivalent about romphims, he absolutely rocked one on stage). The backing vocalists added to the fullness of their sound, and the sax added some much needed funk to the afternoon.

3:00 PM — Headwaves / Neumos. To be honest, I came into Neumos to find some water, and primarily stayed inside for the air conditioning. However, I was mildly intrigued by the pleasant noises coming from the stage. The lead singer of Headwaves was dressed like a hip real estate agent and had the personality of a cool dad, which somehow made sense. The band performed cohesive, fun, anthemic indie rock that was very agreeable to listen to. Their sound was not incredibly unique, but really easy to get on board with, and thoroughly enjoyable.

3:30 PM — Phantoms / Main Stage. Phantoms, an electronic duo from LA, are what I would called ‘mildly inoffensive party bros.’ They sound like they belong at the beach, surrounded by bubbles. Their most entertaining moment was their remix of Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side,” which the crowd vibed to. Their on-stage dialogue consisted of saying things like “heard you guys in Seattle are craaazy,” which I guess is how electronic bros talk, or whatever. They were fine for what they were, but I began to miss good old rock ’n’ roll.

4:00 PM — The Last Artful Dodgr / Vera Stage. Arriving on stage 15 minutes late, the Last Artful Dodgr had to hustle to make up for lost time. She did her best to put on a quick show, appearing on stage with swaggering confidence and two backup dancers in oversized white t-shirts. Local Seattle rappers SassyBlack and Sol were in attendance, there to support one of their own. Despite major time constraints, The Last Artful Dodgr was charming and funny, and her verses had serious style.

4:45 PM — Charlie & The Rays / Barboza. At this point in the afternoon Charlie & The Rays were my favorite act I had seen that day. They put on a great show in the dark and oddly-shaped dungeon that is Barboza, their folky, down-to-earth vibe a nice departure from of the loud rock and hip-hop that coming from above. Though the crowd was pretty unattentive, they were very charming and grateful performers. They performed a lovely acoustic Peter, Paul & Mary tribute that utilized the three women’s harmonies, followed by a fast-paced cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Keep the Customer Satisfied.” A really fun sound, and great musicianship from the whole band.

6:00 PM — Sainte Claire / Vera Stage. Sainte Claire makes a type of emotional, electro-pop music that seems to be everywhere these days. This is a fine genre, but I didn’t find anything new in Sainte Claire’s music. It came off as a bit too earnest, a bit too overdone at times. Medication is probably his most powerful song, and one that best utilizes his significant vocal range and EDM-inspired production.

7:30 PM — Lizzo / Main Stage. I had heard Lizzo before, but I was wholly unprepared for the outrageous and brilliant brand of self-love that she professes. Lizzo has all the confidence of Beyonce with only a fraction of the popularity — and I mean this as a compliment. Almost all of her songs are about some sort of self-love and empowerment, and amazingly, this theme never gets old. She was truly hilarious on stage, and the crowd was fully in love with her by the end of the set. In between songs, she tells us “I want you all to take out your phones right now and take a picture…of my ASS!” (She at one point had an entire instagram dedicated to her backside, which as far as I can tell has now been deleted). While she was offstage, her backup dancers began twerking on the ground to the sound of air horns. Later on, she invited a fan on stage to “back her off” Drake-and-Rihanna-style. Sure enough, a woman came up on stage and ‘backed-that-ass-up’ against Lizzo, and the crowd went wild. Her confidence was infectious, and being a fan of her music was not a prerequisite to enjoying the show. She ended her set with the joyous “Good as Hell,” and the show felt like a self-love workshop where self-care is practiced by ass-shaking and hair-flipping. Turn up for self respect!

9:00 PM — Jai Wolf / Main Stage. Jai Wolf makes a type of electronic music that is not cerebral (à la Aphex Twin) nor concussion-inducing (à la Skrillex). His sound is happy, relaxing, and feels like summer. He played some fantastic remixes (Odesza’s “Sun Models” and Flume’s “Never Be Like You,”) and even started a track with the Killers’ millennial anthem “Mr. Brightside.” Part of my excitement about this show may have come from the fact that I was slurping on an otter pop during the set (people on the balconies above threw them down at the thirsty crowd), but Jai Wolf did produce some euphoric moments during his hour in the sun. He concluded with his jubilant hit “Indian Summer” while confetti came raining down on the audience, and Pike street felt like a world of its own.

10:30 PM — Lord Huron / Main Stage. Unlike Friday evening, where the day ended on a high note, on Saturday this was not the case. Lord Huron’s music is fine — they sound a bit like the Lumineers if they were really into nature imagery. (The band had a flowing water projected onto the screen behind them, and cricket noises played while they re-tuned their instruments in between songs). Their sound is definitely pleasant, but when they perform live, all of their songs melt into one long indie-rock soliloquy. They had a few enthralled fans in the audience, but a number of people left during their set, and the block was definitely not filled to capacity.

11:30 PM — I leave early to get a shake and fries at Dick’s.

12:00 PM — Day 2 ends.

Best of the day — Lizzo

Sunday - Day 3

Most interesting fashion statement — Boombox head.

Trending styles — Bralettes as shirts, holographic camelbacks.

My outfit — Jean shorts, white t-shirt, navy Topman button-up, yellow converse, guitar socks.

2:00 PM — Day 3 Begins

2:00 PM — Trace / Vera Stage. While I was on my way to the Main Stage to see Julie Byrne, I encountered Trace doing her very best to work the very first time slot of the day. Trace makes the kind of sad electro-pop that is quite popular now with bands like Wet and Maggie Rogers. She seems shy when performing, but constantly makes self-deprecating jokes in between songs and has a really charming personality. What really endeared her to me was her soulful cover of Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” (only one of the best songs of all time) mashed up with Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend.” Later she performed a new track that she described as wanting to sound like “Drake w/ a margarita,” and the more up-tempo style worked with her still-sad voice. A diamond in the rough to start the day. Check out “Honey.

2:30 PM — Julie Byrne / Main Stage. The guy standing next to me described Julie Byrne’s show best when he said “I was like, in a weird trance that whole time.” Julie Byrne makes quiet, acoustic music that puts you to sleep, in the best way. She was very serene for the entire show, at times simply sitting on stage with her eyes closed, appearing to be in a meditative state. She spoke briefly in between songs with with her quiet, lovely voice, telling her audience about her humble origins (she used to work at Dick’s!). Whenever a loud noise would overpower her soft voice, the crowd would look around in annoyance to see who in the world would want to interrupt her angelic music. The audience members themselves was very attentive to her simple and unpretentious music, and it was almost shocking to walk away and encounter throbbing electronic music once her set was over.

3:15 PM — Newaxeyes / Neumos. Yet again, I stumbled into Neumos to get some water. This time, I stayed to figure out where the abrasively loud noises were coming from. Newaxeyes, as it turns out, was the electronic-metal band playing at the time. Though their music was almost painful to the ears, their breakdowns were really unique, and their songs went in unexpected directions. All of the tracks had really deep, grading beats, with only moments of reprieve. While I found them at the very least interesting, I had to leave before their set ended because I was not yet ready to be aurally accosted after the sweet crooning of Julie Byrne.

3:45 PM — Cloud Nothings / Main Stage. Cloud Nothings is the kind of indie band that makes music for themselves rather than their fans. Having not played a show in a month, lead singer Dylan Baldi admitted before one song, “this is the only song we practiced.” The band oscillated between psychedelic rock and a more lo-fi indie sound that made their set interesting, though not terribly accessible to an audience. A fine show, but nothing earth-shattering.

4:00 PM — Knowmads / Vera Stage. The Knowmads come off as pretty typical white dude Seattle rappers. Their music is fine, their raps are pretty good, but there isn’t very much that is unique about them. They seemed to be trying a bit too hard to be cool in between songs (an affliction of white dude rappers everywhere) and they were more enjoyable while rapping. Nothing terrible, but nothing special either.

5:00 PM — Diet Cig / Vera Stage. I stopped by Diet Cig on my way to the Main Stage, and I had no choice but to stay for their entire set. Diet Cig is a two-piece indie/punk bad from New York fronted by an incredibly adorable 22-year-old named Alex Luciano. Luciano has an endless amount of energy and an infectious personality. Wearing snowball-sized pom pom earrings, she seemed physically unable to keep still, jumping around on stage like she is trying out for the NBA. She threw in a few cheerleading kicks during each song for good measure. Their sound, though not dark by any means, is not bubblegum-sweet either, and this makes Luciano’s adorable stage presence even more endearing. She notes this seeming contradiction in the song “Tummy Ache,” where she sings “it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt.” While performing this balancing act may make her stomach hurt, she pulled it off effortlessly on stage, and the band’s performance was one of the best of the festival.

5:15 PM — Danny Brown / Main Stage. Immediately upon hearing Danny Brown’s voice it becomes clear that this man is in a world of his own. His whiny, high-pitched voice, combined with the speed and harshness of his delivery makes his performance an invigorating ride. All of his verses are overlaid on quick, grinding beats, with no room to pause and catch one’s breath. The crowd remained hyped throughout, and those who were dancing had to work hard to keep up with his indomitable flow. A thoroughly exhilarating set.

6:10 PM — Torres / Vera Stage. Torres, also known as Mackenzie Scott, performs like nobody’s watching. Clearly, effort was put into the performance — Torres and her band (of men) all wore matching outfits, including the same grey t-shirts and red lipstick — but Torres remained focused solely on her music. Barely talking at all, Torres’ showmanship consisted mainly of casual hip-shaking and shredding on the guitar. She played many of the songs on her critically acclaimed album Sprinter, the title track being a standout moment. Her vocals, though not overly loud in comparison to the music, were powerful and emotive nonetheless. Torres finished her set with the blistering “Strange Hellos,” ending the performance by quite literally humping her guitar and banging out distorted riffs with her thighs (Jimi would have been proud). Then, as if nothing unusual had happened, she flashed a quick smile and walked off the stage.

7:30 PM — Mykki Blanco / Vera Stage. None of my being (body, mind, or soul) was ready for the powerhouse of a performer that is Mykki Blanco. Blanco (a character created by Michael David Quattlebaum Jr.), waltzed on stage in a blonde wig and a lacy white dress riding dangerously low, performing from the moment she stepped out into the spotlight. Blanco’s most recent album is her most accessible — with danceable hip-hop beats and quotable lyrics. Nonetheless, Blanco remains a powerful one-of-a-kind voice in hip-hop. At the beginning of the show, Blanco came into the center of the crowd, creating a large circle in the audience from which she performed part of her set. (I was lucky enough to be at the very front of this circle, watching Mykki in all of her glory). She interspred her songs with a capella rap/spoken word that elicited cheers and appreciation from the crowd. While keeping the audience dancing, Blanco also touched on social issues — the stigma around HIV, the dangers that trans women and black children face. (“Protect trans women, protect black children!” was a common refrain). A performance artist at heart Blanco also played with the boundaries of gender throughout. Near the end of the show, she took of her wig and dress, later on putting the wig in her mouth and violently shaking her head around. Mykki Blanco was able to put on an engaging and compelling show that was as entertaining as it was thought-provoking.

8:00 PM — Angel Olsen / Main Stage. Angel Olsen’s most recent album My Woman, is a pleasant departure from her previously quiet, somber sound. Unfortunately, her set was not as interesting as the album itself. Her performance felt more like the Angel Olsen Band than a show from the singer herself, with the instrumental solos taking over long portions of songs. Some of the tracks, especially slower ones like “My Woman,” seemed to go on for too long and weren’t able to hold the interest of the audience. To her credit, her voice sounded really strong and crisp, especially when she pushed it to its fullest potential. It wasn’t a wholly invigorating set, but it was enjoyable enough. (I also wasn’t able to catch an otter pop this time — a tragedy).

9:00 PM — Perfume Genius / Vera Stage. Perfume Genius (the stage name of Seattle’s Mike Hadreas) makes music that is evocative, dramatic, and haunting. These sensations carried over into his life performance, where Hadreas slithered and swayed across the stage, singing impossibly high notes while multi-colored lights flashed behind him. His slow songs were a lovely respite from the noise, where he delivered soaring vocals and gut-punchingly high vocals. The instrumental breaks were almost painfully loud — I noticed some members of the audience covering their ears — the effects of the noise able to be felt throughout one’s entire body. Hadreas ended with the rallying cry of “Queen,” howling the brilliant line “No family is safe, when I sashay” with a forceful flick of the wrist. A great act to fill the penultimate hour of the festival.

10:00 PM — Diplo / Main Stage. If I’m being honest, I don’t really care about Diplo or his music. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the man’s talent for keeping a crowd energized. During his set, Pike street was completely packed, with streams of people flowing out past the intersection, packing the street in the formation of a human cross. Diplo’s real talent is balancing the ratio of hit songs and electronic breakdowns. He does this very well, playing dozens of popular samples that excited the audience, while always keeping them guessing as to when the beat would drop or what the next song would be. He played everything from Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch,” to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock “n” Roll,” to “I Will Always Love You,” never playing more than one verse or chorus at a time so as to keep the crowd guessing. I almost lost a tooth after receiving an elbow to the mouth, but the constant danger of injury made the show all that more exciting.

11:00 PM — Diplo’s set ends, and so does the festival. Festivalgoers walk out into the streets of Capitol Hill in a daze, while residents of the neighborhood finally enjoy some peace and quiet.

Best of the day — Mykki Blanco