Capitol Hill Block Party
Seattle, WA

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Capitol Hill Block Party, it’s that the summer music fest is uncomfortably crowded. Unsurprisingly, cramming thousands of people into a few blocks of Pike Street can get a touch claustrophobic. With that in mind, much of the 2017 edition of CHBP can be dissected by the types of crowds encountered.

The Wild Crowd

When the right act took the CHBP main stage, things got bonkers. While Diplo, Danny Brown, and others brought out the crazed masses, no one owned the 2017 main stage quite like hip-hop acts Run the Jewels and Lizzo.

Run the Jewels has built a rep as one of the best live festival acts for a reason–the rap duo is straight fire every time they hit the stage. It’s also obvious how much Killer Mike and El-P love what they’re doing and that infectious joy seeped into the CHBP audience. As hip-hop veterans, they recognize how improbable RTJ’s rise has been and they treat every show like it might be their last blowout party with a few thousand of their closest friends. To that point, there was a sense of care for the people in the sweaty throng. The pair organized steps back when things were getting too packed and gave warnings before jumping into riotous numbers like “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck.” It also doesn’t hurt that even the “slow” RTJ tracks would be top bangers for pretty much every other act on the planet. As Mike and El-P blazed through songs from Run the Jewels 3 and other favorites while headlining Friday’s main stage, jubilant communal chaos ruled the night.

All that said, what Lizzo accomplished during her Saturday night main stage set might’ve been even more impressive. The Minneapolis MC had the added challenge of winning over unfamiliar festival-goers, and she did so with flying colors. Few can match Lizzo’s ability to own any stage she steps onto via sheer force of confidence. Flanked by her leotard-adorned dance crew, The Big Girls, the body-positive rapper got the crowd united in shaking what they got as she spit rhymes about lost phones and self-love while gyrating across the stage. Seeing a crowd go from curious individuals to exuberant united force, their hands raised in the air, never gets old.

The Wrong Crowd

Good intentions don’t always equal good results. In terms of stature, it made perfect sense for the CHBP organizers to book Angel Olsen to play a late time slot on Sunday’s main stage. As one of the best singer-songwriters on the planet, she deserved a place near the top of the festival bill. But the actual lineup placed her band in a tricky spot that didn’t benefit anyone.

Olsen ended up sandwiched between two EDM acts: Snakehips and the headlining Diplo. As a result, the vast majority of the crowd standing up front during her set appeared to be much more interested in getting a good spot for Diplo than investing in the gorgeous folk-stained rock being played on the stage. While most of these fans of the world-famous DJ were respectful of the out-of-their-wheelhouse music being performed, their relative lack of reaction didn’t help the band’s energy. You simply can’t get that many EDM fans together in a cramped space without encountering more than a few self-absorbed MDMA-holes with zero contextual awareness. It was frustrating to try and soak in the nuances of Olsen’s soft songs while pockets of people had extended group conversations with their backs turned to the stage, and maddening to have a track from My Woman interrupted by a young woman tapping you on the shoulder to ask, “Do you know where we can get some molly?”

Everyone would’ve been better off if Olsen had traded places with rapper Mykki Blanco and played a night slot at the Vera Stage, despite defying their statures. While her lineup placement might have been an opportunity to expose a new audience to Olsen’s music, it ended up being an exercise in frustrating the loyal fans she already has.

The Exploratory Crowd

Wandering around and stumbling upon cool artists that you’ve never heard of remains one of the best aspects of any music festival. A standout discovery for the weekend came Sunday, when Los Angeles singer Trace brought her sad synth-pop to the Vera Stage for the day’s opening set. Backed by unobtrusive minimalist beats, it only took a few seconds to get lost floating in the gorgeous melancholy of her voice.

It was also a joy to watch a growing crowd discover the sugary bliss that is Diet Cig during the rock duo’s Sunday set. As someone that caught the band three times at this year’s South By Southwest, they have my vote as the most fun live act of 2017. It was delightful to see others catch on to the group’s pixie magic as singer/guitarist Alex Luciano hopped, spun, and high-kicked her way around the stage while rattling off infectious ditties from their new record, Swear I’m Good At This. If Diet Cig swings back through Seattle again this year, don’t miss it.

To CHBP’s credit, the bookers did throw a few outliers into their EDM/rock/rap mix for the extremely adventurous. While a chattering festival audience wasn’t the ideal climate for smoky soul-pop, Seattleite Scarlet Parke made the most of her time in the bowels of Barboza on Friday night. The singer-songwriter has a powerful voice and playful saucy demeanor, and her tight backing band made each tune pop. But the most atypical CHBP 2017 act was the two-piece experimental-jazz outfit, Bad Luck. The local saxophone and drums duo may not have drawn the biggest crowd to Neumos on Saturday, but those that did venture in were treated to something truly different than anything else happening during the fest.

The Local Crowd

CHBP always offers an opportunity to check out some fresh on-the-rise Seattle bands and longtime scene favorites, bringing out crowds that are a mix of friends, local regulars, and unknowing festival-goers making a new discovery.

There’s a strong case to be made that Sloucher stands out as the best of the new batch. While there’s nothing particularly dazzling about the indie rock quartet, there is an undeniable sturdiness to Sloucher’s melodic tunes. They’re really well-constructed songs that build on the long lineage of Northwest indie rock without ever straining to ape anything that came before. Everything about the band’s foundation sounded rock solid during its Friday evening Vera Stage performance, so the possibilities of future sonic expansion for Sloucher should get Seattleites very excited.

While hardly a new face, Leeni Ramadan and her band Prom Queen continued to showcase their standout vintage rock style during a Saturday afternoon stint in Neumos. Flanked by two chicly attired cross-dressing backup singers, Ramadan gave the sun-eschewing audience a taste of ’60s pop-rock flair and alluring darkness while swaying through songs from Prom Queen’s upcoming album, Doom-Wop (out September 22).

On the bummer side of the weekend, the Cha Cha Lounge continued to host the most frustrating of CHBP stages. Sure, the ultra-dive bar vibe and edgier local lineup keep out the aforementioned MDMA-holes, but it’s an uncomfortable at best—miserable at worst—experience watching bands play in that space. The ultra-small capacity also means it’s near impossible to get in for any of the night sets unless you go super early or wait in a long line. Capacity issues prevented me from attending Mommy Long Legs’ set, which after the fact turned out to be the fantastic punk band’s last gig before an extended hiatus. It’s a problem when festival-goers straight up cannot see a band play despite showing up more than 20 minutes before said band’s set time.

The Weird Crowd

It’s been a treat to witness the evolution of Seattle’s own Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) firsthand. I remember the first time I saw him perform solo at a 2012 Record Store Day event at the now defunct Silver Platters on Roy Street. It was shortly after the release of the second Perfume Genius album, Put Your Back N 2 It, and Hadreas embodied the spirit of his music: delicate, slightly timid, and emotionally vulnerable. It was beautiful to watch, but it almost seemed too intimate, like the few people gathered were invading his personal space by barging in to watch him play songs in the cocoon his bedroom.

Over the course of his next two albums, Too Bright and No Shape, Hadreas has shed said cocoon and emerged a swaggering queer rock star. That was on full display as Perfume Genius closed out the Vera Stage on Sunday night. Despite battling in-ear monitor issues, he strutted and slithered around the stage with a purpose while belting out each dynamic, emotionally charged syllable. There’s simply no one around who comes close to balancing the polar extremes of musical tenderness and ferocity in the way that Hadreas does with ease.

Considering there’s little simple or easily-digestible in a pop sense about what Perfume Genius does, it was heartening seeing a large audience invested in and captivated by the whole set. Hadreas clearly felt the love, commenting on how he loved seeing all the weirdos out in the front of the crowd. With the way he currently commands any stage he steps onto, the adulation shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s their weirdo queen. Long live the queen.

Review by Seth Sommerfeld
Photos by Christine Mitchell

Capitol Hill Block Party 2017