Bumbershoot, the municipal arts festival that takes over Seattle Center every Labor Day weekend, seems to be as much fun for the artists as the audience. "There is a great Seattle vibe," said Me'shell Ndegeocello. "People are more open, and this is a great meeting place -- maybe because of the natural beauty of the Northwest."
"I'm trying to figure out a way to move to Seattle," said Jimmie Dale Gilmore. "I suppose I could just not go home, but that would cause a lot of problems. But since there are a lot of problems, anyway . . ."
Laura Love doesn't have to leave home to enjoy Seattle. The hometown singer-songwriter began her set with the traditional "Amazing Grace" and finished with Jackie DeShannon's "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." In between she mixed an R&B stew with ersatz sea chanties, hard rock and social satire. Pounding a red personalized bass, Love appeared to be having way too much fun for one human being -- using a rare performer's gift of making each audience member think that she actually cares whether he or she is happy or not.
As presented here, Grateful Dead outsiders will see Bob Weir's Ratdog as a vast improvement over the mothership. The idea of vaguely meandering medleys is intact, but the Bumbershoot format reined the band in to a digestible ninety minutes. Even better, Ratdog works with actual songs. There is none of the Dead's continuous "Holy cow! I found the note!" nor were there percussive distractions which allowed you to step outside of the concert hall and take in a short film (which, at Bumbershoot, was actually possible).
That was until Rob Wasserman dismissed most of the band and picked up a bow to attack his black electric stand-up bass. Several minutes of excruciating noise followed. It may have been some kind of speculative tribute to Jimi Hendrix, but if Hendrix were still here, he would not be seeking out new instruments on which to play "Purple Haze." The band returned to zip through an energized "Samson and Delilah" and "Not Fade Away," but the spell was pretty much broken by then.
David Lee Roth and Black Crowes notwithstanding, the biggest musical name this weekend was Loretta Lynn. Her bright red dress was a courtesy to those in back, so there was no doubt the Queen of Country was onstage. Lynn used every audience-pleasing trick in the book, from the expected -- telling fans, "This is your show, so just yell out what you want to hear" -- to the bizarre: responding to a fan's sign that his mother was listening on the cell phone and would Loretta please send along a personal "howdy." She obliged, and old Gladys will be talking about this for some time.
Ndegeocello's set was gritty and urban, but her empowered-woman message echoed Lynn's. Her set was brisk and to the point, skipping her keynote "Make Me Wanna Holler" in favor of some new selections, including the rap/sung "Dead Nigga Blvd."
The new song is from the upcoming album, Tyrone Cookie Goldberg, which she described as "Master P meets Bitches Brew."
Ndegeocello, a bassist, let a backing musician provide the regular groove and picked up her own instrument just for emphasis. While the idea of two bass guitars could be frightening, on this occasion the bottom only earned more depth. Rob Wasserman, who arrived a day later, certainly missed this lesson.
Every smorgasbord festival allows a no-risk sampling of new tastes, and Willow fit that bill at Bumbershoot. This waif-like singer led her band through a selection of stark downer songs. "Scotch is an old man's drink, and I'll take mine with water," she croons. "Love is a restless thing and I lost mine to time and age." Since it was an indoor show, there was no walk-in traffic -- even if there was a steady flow of people in and out, between songs. Part of this was people being "Seattle polite," but some could be attributed to the somber nature of Willow's songs. If you were to get up in the middle and leave, she might just slash her own wrists.
Or not. She would finish a solemn song and then say something like, "One of my biggest fears about playing onstage is that my fly will be down and my guitar won't be low enough to cover it." Later, she provided the key to the enjoyment of depressive art: "Embrace the dark things in your life, and the light will be so much lighter."
Some people no doubt took that advice home to ponder, while others just walked out of the hall and down the block to hear Laura Love.