Decibel Festival Wrap-up
At the Triple Door during Sunday night’s ambient-focused Optical Showcase—there were 5 (!) this year—a fellow Db long-timer made an insightful comment: “It used to be that people would have a similar Decibel experience, but this time, nobody in this room has had the same experience.” As Decibel has grown in size and scope, it’s not so easy to figure out where you’re supposed to be for dramatic, that-made-my-festival moments—which this year were plentiful, specialized, spontaneous and frequently simultaneous.
I wanted to include a band and a journey to a downtown venue as part of my experience, but I struck out on Friday. From the moment Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti took the Crocodile stage I was disinterested. Pink wore a cape and crazy, spiky blond hair and sang as if doing karaoke alone, an unknowable misfit character from a Todd Solondz or Vincent Gallo film. The crowd was mostly enthralled, while a handful of doubters joined me in funneling towards the back. Perhaps, like me, they felt they had to physically remove themselves so as not to harsh everyone else’s mellow.
For most of Saturday afternoon, DJs from a longtime LA event called the Do-Over!—a sunny jams backyard boogie—played in the oddly shaped “plaza” of Broadway Performance Hall. This series of grassy steps beside Seattle Central is a space where I’d never expect people to actually gather, let alone dance. But they did both—to funk, soul, hip-hop and R&B classics spun by the likes of Seattle’s DJ Mr. Supreme and LA beatmonger Nosaj Thing as the sun set through the trees. Teenagers, families and people who’ve panhandled money from me on Broadway for years mixed with the Decibel faithful, united in a groove.
Inside the Broadway Performance Hall, Saturday night’s Optical Showcase, “Discreet Tones,” was plagued with technical difficulties. Doors opened two and a half hours late, and two acts dropped out so that the opener and headliner could perform. As a fan of Rafael Anton Irisarri’s ambient work as the Sight Below, I was disappointed that ORCAS, his new project with Benoit Pioulard, couldn’t go on. They’ve since promised a surprise for those that hold onto their tickets from Saturday. Thankfully, this was only the second cancellation of the weekend (British techno up-and-comer Actress was the other). Despite an annoying buzz from the monitors (in which the faint sounds of a jazz radio frequency was audible during quieter moments), headliner CFCF (Mike Silver) played a set that was nothing like his excellent 2009 electro pop album Continent. For this year’s Exercises EP, the young Montreal artist combined programming, piano and voice to lovely Sakamoto-and-Glass inspired effect. Live, he’s a promising artist of many stripes.
Afterward, headliner Nils Frahm appeared on stage, apologized for the changes and delays, and set about blowing everyone away. I later learned that the Berlin-based musician and composer is four piano teachers removed from Tchaikovsky. That might explain some things. Frahm told the crowd that he recently broke a finger, and his doctor ordered him not to tour—or to play with mallets instead. So for his first song, he clasped a pair and used them to hit the strings inside the grand piano as well as the wood on the lid and body. That was cool enough, but then he sat down. Throughout the hourlong recital, outbursts and gasps of awe rippled through the audience. When Frahm’s eight-minute piece “More” seemed to be the final song, a standing ovation immediately followed. “If he hadn’t been a genius, that showcase would have been a total disaster,” said a classical and ambient guru I had been standing in line with. The party line spread quickly: “Astonishing.”
The rest of my Decibel adventure included a sublime set of UK funky/dubby tech-house from new Hotflush signee George Fitzgerald; afternoon sets on Captain Blacks’ deck from local wunderkind Kid Simpl and LA’s Shlohmo (who announced he was DJ Shadow); heart-stopping minimalism with composer/arranger Christina Vantzou, Loscil and Windy + Carl, in their last-ever live performance; and Spanish producer(s) John Talabot’s earth-quaking finale at Neumos. Of the latter, the duo not only pushed keys and buttons but sang and clanged cymbals. (The previous act, Bruno Pronsato and Public Lover, featured a live vocalist as well).
In prior editions of Decibel, closing night has occasionally been anticlimactic. Often the only choice would be Neumos—where you’d been almost every night—and it never seemed to be at capacity. This Sunday, although it wasn’t the only place cracking, Neumos was packed. The faces in the crowd was as energized as if it were day 1, seemed to know all the words to an obscure album, and looked like they’d be taking Monday off.
Photo of Q by Eva Blue for Decibel Festival