Since 1971, Seattle has held a music and arts festival called Bumbershoot on the grounds surrounding the iconic Space Needle on Labor Day weekend. A bumbershoot is an umbrella, and woe to the patron who didn’t bring one to Saturday’s proceedings, which included wet sets on the Mural Amphitheater stage from the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton.
Around 2:00 p.m., while the skies were still bright, Phoebe Bridgers took the stage in sunglasses and forgot to plug in her acoustic guitar. “This is my first festival, guys, bear with me,” she mused. Platinum-blonde and outfitted in a bedazzled jacket, Bridgers’ voice is pure, high and fragile. She’s in her early twenties, and just put out a seven-inch produced by Ryan Adams. Despite her confident, cool-chick demeanor, her songs were unflinchingly sulky; midway through, she quipped, “I hope I’m getting you guys pumped.” For her set closer, she covered Evan Dando’s “Hard Drive,” and revealed that a close friend of hers went to high school with Elle King, who was to follow.
Although you’d never suspect it by looking at her or reading her name, King is the daughter of Saturday Night Live and Deuce Bigalow funnyman Rob Schneider. The pedigree is intact, as she’s got a great sense of humor. Dressed in white as she marched onstage after her band, King was a perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up. A curvier Gwen Stefani with a bleach blonde bob and neck tattoos, she could make a handsome living standing in for afternoon coffee pots at offices nationwide. “I’ve only been dumped once but I’m not gonna get dumped again, probably because I wrote this song,” she said before bursting into “It’s Good to Be a Man.”
“I get away with talking crap, and people clap for it,” she said at the conclusion of the song. “People think I hate men, but I don’t. I wrote a whole album about sleeping with them.” She then sang a track, “Good for Nothin’ Woman,” about a pack of gals who talked trash about her. “You know what happens when you make Elle King mad? I write a song about ’em,” she quipped.
Half a mile from the Space Needle sits the Two Bells, a downtown institution that serves juicy burgers smothered with caramelized onions on French rolls. (If you have a beard, be prepared to taste that sandwich until your next shower, and scrub vigorously.) The bar has no televisions, unless you count the time that Dave Matthews, a Seattle resident who plays a rival stand at the Gorge each Labor Day weekend, brought one in to watch election-night proceedings a few years back.
The optical canvas, therefore, is the sky. And shortly before 5:00 p.m., thunder cracked, releasing a merciless rain that reminded Seattleites that they don’t live in southern California, in spite of a drought-stricken summer where temperatures in the eighties have been the norm. It got so wet that the outdoor shows were temporarily postponed, virtually unheard of in a town that plays through its showers. When things let up at the Mural Amphitheater, a large, shaggy ensemble called Elephant Revival tore through a jam-packed set that compelled the resilient remainders to kick off their Birks and baptize toes.
Only in a festival setting would a band like this play prior to Chris Stapleton. Look up “man” in an encyclopedia, and Stapleton’s photo had best be featured. He’s got a beard that could hold a hornets’ nest and long tresses leaking out of his cowboy hat. If they were to recast the southern drug drama Rush, Stapleton would play Gregg Allman’s role. Sprinkling in a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Stapleton’s set drew heavily from his sensational album Traveller, his rawhide voice pairing so exceptionally with his wife’s on “Stars Come Out” that you swiftly realize exactly why they took the plunge.
As the Weeknd warbled in a gigantic football stadium a short walk away, Kacey Musgraves took the stage, her band outfitted in pink cowboy suits with blinking lights. If lightning still threatened, they’d have been in trouble. But the jet-black sky promised no such calamity, and a tipsy, tallboy-fueled crowd swayed appreciatively to such hits as “Follow Your Arrow,” “Merry Go Round” and “Biscuits” — as well as a clever cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs.” For neo-traditionalists, the Stapleton-Musgraves coupling was a way back to go forward — antlers strapped to the roof of a rusty old Ford, with cactus and tumbleweeds in the rearview as Hank’s voice finally comes in clear on the left side of a manual dial.