Rocket Queen: Block Party Bounces Back

2009’s party on the hill was bigger, better, and less hazardous to my physical well-being than it has been in the past.

Like a lot of people, my experience at last year's Capitol Hill Block Party was less than desirable. On the first night, I tried to catch Das Llamas' final show in the bowels of the Cha Cha and found the space so crowded and overwhelmingly filled with ill-tempered drunks that I bounced before their last song. The bottleneck during Girl Talk's set on the Main Stage was so congested, I was terrified someone would get hurt. I adore Les Savy Fav, but I didn't feel safe enough even to stick around for their set afterwards.This year's CHBP couldn't have been more dramatically different or enjoyable. The CHBP is a long-running neighborhood event started in the late '90s by Thirsty Girl promoter Jen Gapay, whose initial conception of a charmingly small, arts- and booze-fueled festival with a DIY ethos quickly grew in scale and popularity. Gapay eventually left to pursue promotions work in New York City; in 2000, then-Neumos owner Marcus Charles, Fuzed Music maven David Meinert, and Caffé Vita proprietor Mike McConnell took over the CHBP and laid the groundwork to take it to the next level. They hired Neumo's co-owner and Sealed With a Kiss promoter Jason Lajeunesse to book bands for the Main Stage and Neumos; Vera Project booker Tristan Pelton takes care of the all-ages Vera Stage. This year they also took the wise step of contracting with Bumbershoot producers One Reel to handle production, and completely revamped the festival layout: two choices that made crowd flow and general navigation much easier.I arrived early enough on Friday to catch the Dutchess and the Duke's Main Stage–opening set. Bandleaders Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison are an easy and engaging team onstage, and the new material from their forthcoming sophomore album Sunrise/Sunset (Hardly Art) set the pace for a day that would eventually accelerate toward The Jesus Lizard's much-anticipated reunion performance. In the intervening hours, I split my time socializing in Kerri Harrop's graciously hosted VIP tent (where you could still hear and see the Main Stage acts while ingesting free beer and Mexican food) and watching my KEXP colleagues Scott Holopainen and Justin Wilmore film secret sessions at the Bean Room at Caffé Vita. The Moondoggies, Grynch, and the Maldives were a part of that, but a hilarious, open bar–driven "interview" between Recording Academy director Ben London and some very tipsy members of Thee Sgt. Major III might have been the most entertaining part of the afternoon.Watching from side stage as The Jesus Lizard's manically ribald leader David Yow stalked the perimeter with his trademark chaotic posturing was a delight, as was watching everyone flip out with nostalgic relief that the band could still deliver the goods. If you missed it, don't fret: The Jesus Lizard will be back to play Neumos on October 23.On Saturday, I arrived inside the sweltering sauna of Neumos just in time to catch the set by smart-mouthed Welsh punks Future of the Left. The band is clearly no longer living in the shadow of their former incarnation, Mclusky; their audience was entirely enraptured and seemed familiar with all their new material. As they always seem to, the band had plenty to complain about from the stage, from the amount of money they were paid to the rapidly increasing temperature ("I feel like an elephant ejaculated on me," said bassist Kelson Louis Mathias at one point), but all that grousing did nothing to distract from what was arguably the strongest and most startlingly passionate showmanship of the whole weekend.Unless one had snagged a spot up front after Gossip's dance party–inducing set, sightlines for Sonic Youth's festival-closing performance were a challenge. Undeterred, myself, Ben London, Long Winters leader John Roderick, and Sunset booker/Mt. Fuji Records owner Mike Jaworski all braved scaling the chutes and ladders required to gain an enviable vantage point on the roof of Neumos. I've seen Sonic Youth more times than I can recall, but they are always satisfying, especially when they whip out old favorites like "Death Valley '69" toward the end.Culinary maverick Michael Hebb staged the perfect Dionysian benediction for the evening, hosting a midnight One Pot dinner over in the Vita Bean Room, featuring performances by The Lonely Forest, Head Like a Kite, the Blue Scholars, and Fatal Lucciauno along with seemingly bottomless bottles of red wine, with platters of fire-roasted vegetables and grilled lamb chops prepared by Nick Castleberry (Sitka and Spruce), Christina Choi (Foraged and Found Edibles), and Robin Leventhal (formerly of Crave, and soon to be a contestant on Top Chef). The Capitol Hill Block Party may be all grown up, but the sense of community generated that night was even warmer than the record-setting weather. Topping 2009 will be hard, unless I can convince Lajeunesse that it's his moral obligation to orchestrate a Fugazi reunion in

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