20(ish) years of the Capitol Hill Block Party

LaJeunesse hears from business partner Joey Burgess at the 2015 festival (Image- CHS)

LaJeunesse hears from business partner Joey Burgess at the 2015 festival (Image- CHS)

Old Block Party flyers courtesy Gapay

Old Block Party flyers courtesy Gopay

The 2016 Capitol Hill Block Party is being advertised as the 20th edition of the music festival, but it might be older than that.

It all depends on who you ask.

“I started the Capitol Hill Block Party in 1997 because I was frustrated with the corporate feel of Bumbershoot and the amount of baby carriages,” Jen Gapay tells CHS. “I also wanted to create more of a cool party scene in an urban environment like Capitol Hill.” Gapay said that she wanted people to have a chance to drink, listen to music, and listen to street performers “in an actual street.”

The Block Party’s origin is attributed to Gapay of Thirsty Girl Productions, though a skate shop and longtime Pike/Pine business Crescent Down Works may have hosted some version of the event before Thirsty Girl’s first party in 1997.

Meanwhile, current Block Party producer Jason Lajeunesse says he only has one regret about his reign as king of the CHBP. Lajeunesse, who has been involved in the event since 2006, says the times Block Party has gotten wet are what keeps him up at night. “I would go back and make it not rain,” he tells CHS.

However it was born, Block Party has been a big time music festival — and charging for entry — long enough for its wayward youth to become old timers. The music isn’t likely to stop anytime soon, as current owner and producer Lajeunesse plans to continue growing the festival’s reputation and popularity even as he keeps its overall footprint constricted to E Pike. This year the block party runs from July 22nd to 24th.

Gapay said that from 1997 to when she sold the outfit in 2000, it was free and open to the public, and the only area fenced off was the bar. A single-day ticket to today’s CHBP, in contrast, will run you more than $60. UPDATE: Gapay tells CHS we screwed up in our description of the end of her run with the early CHBP. She didn’t sell the festival. “My biggest business mistake,” she says in the CHS comments, below.

The cost of producing the event was also far lower back then, of course. Gapay said that in 1997 the flatbed of a truck served as the stage, and performance was limited to five bands and a handful of DJs. There was entertainment for non-music lovers, too. Gapay remembers Blamo the Drunken, Surly Clown, and a dildo ring toss run by Babeland as being “highlights of the event.”

This is where the CHBP origin story gets a little blurry: Anne Michelson, who ran a skate and snowboard shop and started Crescent Down Works, said that she started a block party prior to Thirsty Girls first event in 1997.

“My kids and I lived in the neighborhood and thought that we should have a block party like they have in residential neighborhoods,” said Michelson. “Sort of a block party for alternative people.” Michelson says Crescent Down Works ran the event for a couple of years and then turned it over to Thirsty Girls.

Construction -- Jim Bennett/CHBP with permission to CHS

Construction — Jim Bennett/CHBP with permission to CHS

CHS Block Party Coverage from Past Years

While Michelson may have truly started the block party, the event the business owner held back then bears little resemblance to the 30,000+ attendee, days-long party it is today.

“For 11 years Marcus and I worked to make Capitol Hill Block Party one of the most credible small festivals in the US, with Jason booking the talent that helped elevate it to a nationally recognized event,” David Meinert said in a statement announcing he and co-owner Marcus Charles had sold the festival to Lajeunesse in 2012.

Lajeunesse is particularly excited about ODESZA headlining the festival this year, and says the Block Party was able to book the band even though ODESZA had more lucrative offers because of the festival’s track record of working with and supporting local artists. “ODESZA, we didn’t outbid anybody on them — they chose to accept our invitation,” said Lajeunesse. “We’re not throwing money around like Coachella.”

Lajeunesse said booking bands for the festival is always something of a dance. Who gets a spot on the lineup is partially driven by the tastes of the block party staff, partially driven by what the local music scene is at the time, and partially driven by the musician’s availability. There are several past performers, like Sonic Youth and The Flaming Lips, who, Lajeunesse says, were offered a spot at the festival four or five years in a row before the stars finally aligned to make it happen. Artists on the wish list for future festivals include Modest Mouse and PJ Harvey.

This year Lajeunesse said ticket sales are strong and the festival has “more crossover with electronic music than in past years,” because that is what he and Block Party’s crew saw reflected in the local music scene. But “next year that could completely change.”

You can purchase tickets, learn more about past Block Parties, watch interviews with past performers, and see the full lineup at capitolhillblockparty.com.

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5 thoughts on “20(ish) years of the Capitol Hill Block Party

  1. Hello, Jen Gapay here. And I did start The Capitol Hill Block Party in 1997 and have many documents that prove that, Crescent Down Works sponsored by event the 3 years I ran it. If they put on a block party prior to that, i never knew of it and it certainly wasn’t called The Capitol Hill Block Party. I also did not sell The Capitol Hill Block Party –Unfortunately..My biggest business mistake

  2. Jen Gapay and Thirsty Girl should get all the credit for starting the CHBP. Ironically, Ann Michelson didn’t only not start it, she tried to keep it from getting it’s permit several times.

  3. Hmm. Not how I remember it but CDW did have a block party prior to Jen and Thirsty girl. And how I remember it is that they asked to take it over. And for the record, I didn’t try to stop permitting completely. I tried to stop the third day and I tried to make the for profit business of CHBP reimburse the small businesses that were so heavily impacted. That’s all.