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SEATTLE — Sure, there were Nirvana songs on the first day of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary bash at Seattle’s Marymoor Park. They just happened to be by the Vaselines. The shambling Scottish duo, so greatly loved by Kurt Cobain he covered them three times, joined Seattle pioneers/survivors Mudhoney as the symbolic high points of the event.
Already broken up back when their Sub Pop album (1992’s “The Way of the Vaselines”) was compiled, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee have reunited several times over the past two years, and were augmented for their first-ever American shows (including two New York gigs earlier this week) by three members of Belle and Sebastian.
“Son of a Gun,” “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam” and “Molly’s Lips” all were represented; the latter augmented by a sixth “musician” squeezing a Harpo clown horn. Having nearly upstaged headliners Flight of the Conchords with bawdy jokes throughout the set (in lieu of merchandise, McKee offered to dry-hump anyone who gave her 20 bucks), the Vaselines brought their portion of the house down with the electro-indie cover of Divine’s “You Think You’re a Man.” Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, the Fluid’s John Robinson and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner all watched from the wings.
Arm and Turner’s band preceded the Vaselines with a forceful reminder that Mudhoney is the Sub Pop sound (inasmuch as there once was a single sound): pop-metal and Northwestern psych-garage, delivered via Arm’s cat-snarl and Turner’s slash-and-fuzz guitar.
Although the foursome made room for the title track of its new album (“The Lucky Ones”), this was more or less a jukebox set: hit after hit after hit (“In and Out of Grace,” Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” “You Got It”), each played with so much dynamism that it’s like Mudhoney never stopped — which of course, it hasn’t. “Happy 20th to Sub Pop,” Arm signed off. “And Happy 20th to us!”
But while nostalgia got its due at SP20, the main reason Marymoor Park filled to its roughly 6,000-person capacity was not so much the 20-year-old label’s past as 20 year-old fans drawn to more recent-vintage artists. The minute the Vaselines sounded their final note, hundreds of new people streamed out of their chairs and blankets to the standing area to see Iron & Wine — and they didn’t all remain for Flight of the Conchords either.
Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam performed a starkly magnificent solo set, his bearded, white-lit figure nearly swallowed by a backdrop of the only thing that’s never changed for Sub Pop over 20 years: its famous logo.
Beam is responsible for three of the label’s 10 best-selling albums ever; on this night, thanks to his trademark take on “Such Great Heights,” he also served as proxy for the second highest-seller (after Nirvana’s “Bleach”): “Give Up” by the Postal Service. “Thanks, Ben Gibbard, for this song,” Beam said. “It’s been good to me, and I think it’s been good to Sub Pop.”
Among the other newer artists, Helio Sequence’s two-man dream-pop was a hit (though, ironically, it doesn’t play as well under a blazing July sun), while Fleet Foxes sealed its status as one of the country’s best young bands with the most crowded set prior to Iron and Wine. The five-piece Seattle band grew up in public quickly — four months ago they played their first gig outside of the Pacific Northwest at South by Southwest, where it seemed like they could hardly believe so many people loved their music.
Two tours later, Fleet Foxes belong completely on an outdoor stage, at a venue where, 21 year-old singer Robin Pecknold confessed, he once saw “Prairie Home Companion.” Every person watching was completely and cooperatively mute for the band’s pastoral, folky songs, especially when Pecknold went it alone (and sometimes a cappella) for “Oliver James.” And recently added drummer Josh Tillman gives the band’s exquisite four-part harmonies more upper register.
Sub Pop’s earlier years were further represented by the Fluid, which finished up with frontman Robinson crowd-surfing through a raging “Cold Outside,” and Eric’s Trip, whose Rick White gets the prize for looking most like someone in a Sub Pop band — still rail-thin, still with long stringy down-the-middle hair hanging over his eyes. “I think we’re sounding okay for not getting high,” White said a few songs into the set, as if to himself.
Also on the bill was Seaweed. “You look like the cover of a Fastbacks 7-inch from 20 years ago,” vocalist Aaron Stauffer gushed to the pit of fans in front of him. “You haven’t changed a bit.” The same can’t be said of of the slightly stouter Stauffer, but Seaweed’s brash, earplugs-required set made the case that they were not a band that missed its shot at the alt-rock brass ring, but rather, one that should have stuck around to partake of the post-Warped Tour/emo boom.
The Constantines, Canada’s nonpareil nerdy art-rock jam band, set the exact right tone for a day of rock’n’roll buffet at 1 p.m., conscripting Eric’s Trip’s Julie Doiron to sit in on vocals for “Why I Didn’t Like August ’93” — a song by Rick White’s post-ET band Elevator to Hell.
It was followed by a cheat sheet-wielding Tim Rutili (Red Red Meat) for the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Surprisingly, these proved to be the only covers/cameos all day — save for Todd Barry joining “former bandmates” Flight of the Conchords on the bongos for “Business Time.” During that set, a portion of the crowd answered Jemaine Clement’s reference to “their manager” with chants of “Murray! Murray!”… only to be swiftly taken down a peg. “The TV show’s not real,” he said. “Murray couldn’t organize this gig!”
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