For the music festival faithful, Labor Day weekend was a long-awaited comeback. A chance to dust off a forlorn closet filled with silver lamé fanny packs, floral print bucket hats, assless black fishnet pants, neon stunner shades, and the newest festival accessory: masks in psychedelic prints.
While Bumbershoot remains in a pandemic-induced slumber and prepares for a long overdue overhaul after freeing itself from the shackles of corporate festival pimp AEG, last weekend the Seattle Center was not all clueless tourists ogling Chihuly glass and reluctant city-dwellers shepherding their out-of-town family up the Space Needle. The folks behind Capitol Hill Block Party thankfully swooped in to the rescue and programmed a Goldilocks-sized two-day festival, Day In Day Out, that provided a fitting coda to our summer marinade of locally-flavored live music.
The lineup may have suffered some last-minute alterations as positive COVID-19 tests derailed Portland rapper Aminé and the full band configuration for electronic producer Big Wild, but rolling with the punches is the name of the game amidst the Delta surge. And for the festival-starved, the name of that game was getting lit — witness the sold-out hard seltzer at the bar while free samples of sparkling soft drinks went untouched in their cases.
The fringe benefit to the schedule shuffle meant a last-minute booking for one-man force of nature Tomo Nakayama playing back-to-back with rising star Chong the Nomad. Wearing a fly t-shirt that read “Feeling Supersonic,” Tomo embraced the unenviable task of opening festival act with never-say-die pluck as he plowed through a 40-minute solo set of singing and dancing reminiscent of Calvin Johnson in his Selector Dub Narcotic guise. (To hear Tomo’s full range, go see him at the Neptune Theatre on September 18.)
Chong, who recently scored a production credit on the soundtrack to the new Marvel superhero flick Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, brought the Big Festival Energy to her mid-afternoon Sunday set. Bass thumps heralded her finely-tuned onstage performance, where she had a gesture at the ready for every vocal pitch change and the confidence that the festival’s sound technicians had her back.
“Throughout quarantine I gained a newfound appreciation for the preparation for live shows,” she told me via Zoom two days before the festival, two months after she rechristened Barboza in early July. “Plus, all of a sudden throughout quarantine for livestreams, I was my own tech person. Going back into live shows, part of me took it for granted.”
She wove together a hybrid DJ/live set on Traktor as she turned up with her fans to TikTok rap hits, and then dove back into her own discography for staples such as “On Fire,” “Make Me,” “Ghosts in the Shower,” and “Go Away.”
Singing live against the recorded track, Chong basically sang a duet with herself. The talented producer tweaks her vocals in the studio until they gain an ethereal quality, which made the unpolished live equivalent sound rough by comparison (and make me long for another festival dropout, pitch-perfect singer Parisalexa).
Nevertheless, as she bounced from midi controller to harmonica to electric ukulele for a moving halfway interlude to perform “Forward,” a song she wrote for season two of Modern Love, Chong’s performance at what she described as the biggest-scale gig yet of her career outshone even Saturday night headliner Kaytranada. The Montréal producer has been an elusive target on my live music hit list for years, and so I settled in on a beautiful late summer night prepared for a transcendent music experience, but ultimately I walked away disappointed. For all his studio genius, Kaytranada’s live set was a drab exercise in button pushing. He shouted out Seattle a few times and left me wondering if he even knew the name of the festival he was headlining.
With a healthy all-ages crowd of 3,000 or so each day, the Fisher Green Pavilion had a cozy feel for this fairly minimalist one-stage affair: a beer garden serving up cold ones from inside the pavilion, a VIP section with a commanding view atop the pavilion, a few food vendors sprinkled around, a merch tent strangely buried way in the back corner. Few bells and whistles focused attention where it should be, on the music.
It has been two years since I’ve seen a true outdoor stage fully rigged with lighting trusses and a sound system. There is an architectural beauty to this assemblage, an aural temple for anyone who craves the physical experience of sound you can feel move through your body. That temple was no act of divine intervention, however, but rather the sweat of live event workers doing what they do best one year to the week after they sounded a code red for the live event industry during a downtown rally.
A music festival closing out summer at Seattle Center, with postcard weather to match, earned gratitude all around. As Chong the Nomad looked up from the stage at the Space Needle soaring above, she couldn’t help herself: “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid.”