Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival
3 Sep 2011: Seattle Center Seattle
This past weekend, the 41st Annual Bumbershoot Festival rounded up Seattlites young and old to celebrate arts and culture from around the world. Throughout the three festival days—Saturday, Sunday, and Labor Day Monday—the best late summer weather the region has to offer set the stage for the acclaimed festival. With the past two Bumbershoots plagued by the typical rainy, Seattle weather, tens of thousands arrived this year eager to listen and watch music, dance, drama, and the performing arts.
This was my first Bumbershoot. Having moved to Seattle only a year ago, I’ve been around for two of the festivals but I decided not to fork up the cash last year. It just seemed a little too pricey. Like many others, the $40-ish price tag is the most conflicting issue of the whole event—prices have gone up significantly since 1980, the last year admission was free. A slow rise in response to funding cuts and an overall restructuring led to the festival’s current state: between $35 and $45 for single day passes and up to $475 for the platinum three day pass. While it seems that 12 hour a day for $35 is certainly worth it, there are a good amount who complain the lack of big name acts is a hole that’s widening every year.
That said, I arrived on the scene with photographer and also-Bumbershoot-virgin Joe Lambert at my side. We vowed to go into the festival experience with open minds. The biggest questions on my mind were: how packed is it going to get, just who in Seattle is going to see the musicians billed, and what about the other arts, how are those going to be implemented?
Held at the quirky and dynamic Seattle Center, the festival grounds are worth mentioning. To the south is the gigantic, and gigantically absurd Space Needle, always within view, inescapable. The equally-as-distracting Experience Music Project (EMP), with its fuchsia and metallic exteriors, also forms part of the perimeter. The Key Arena, which offered Bumbershoot’s largest stage, is opposite the EMP. To really evoke the gods of sunshine and fun, the giant, open fountain could be found right in the middle, spraying its rainbow-clad mirth for anyone that needed some refreshment. Other stages were littered throughout the area, mostly of a medium magnitude, most attached with lawns. The festival also sported three theatre venues for spoken word, dance, and drama, and there were comedy stages, film settings, and a very strange basement stage in the Exhibition Hall, which featured rock bands and the disturbing Bumbershoot After Hours party.
I knew about the geographical setup before going into Bumbershoot, which brings up a point: there is absolutely so much going on at this festival that it is A) impossible to see everything and B) illogical not to prepare for. So Joe and I met beforehand to kind of sketch things out. We got it all down and felt confident. The best parts of the festival were of course the surprises, but that being said, it didn’t hurt to be ready before hand. One pre-weekend surprise was learning about the secret stage nationally-acclaimed KEXP, University of Washington’s radio station, was hosting. The “Music Lounge”, only available through ticket giveaways and platinum tickets, hosted five mini-sets by featured musicians every day.
Usually the first music lounge set of the day was also the first real thing to check out during the day. With the gates at 11 am and the Lounge at 12 pm, that first performance was key to setting the energy and tone for the rest of the weekend. I was overjoyed that the festival’s opening act was Shabazz Palaces. Joe and I found the lounge, pretty much indeed a secret, tucked away into the bowels of Seattle Center, and then got ready for the show. The tiered seating filled up slowly, and eventually Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler and crew got on stage for the set. They started with a bang and actually made it through nine tracks. Most of the songs were from the new album, Black Up, but reimagined, remixes featuring aquatic vocals and beats running twice as fast as the album versions. Passion for Butler, an iconic emcee, came in the form of sweat as an arc on his brow. You could tell he was playing for a crowd that he respected, for family rather the public. The big show would be later, but this was his astute introduction.
Navigating between the stages, all manner of chaos greeted us. This is festival. This is festive. This is spectacle at its finest. Shiskeberries was selling chocolate covered fruit on kabob sticks. There was a troupe of people dressed orange—orange people, we called them, whose bodies were painted in orange, who wore orange cloths, gave out orange balloons, and had an orange dish full of carrots at their table. The orange continued throughout the weekend giving a sense of the ‘Weird’. Bumbershoot, it should be noted, has always been qualified as a place harkening on the power of the strange. This is Seattle. This is Other. And yet you would think that the commercialization that the festival has seen since its indie and free beginnings would diminish that incorporation of the weird. Not so. In one tent Marlo Davis and Jo David, local art curators, gallery owners, and conceptualists hosted a “Bumber by Number” installation. Visitors to the tent could, for free, pick up a card with a number, walk over to a dishes filled with wax fruit, pickup said wax fruit, and find their number on the wall. Like a giant version of a kid’s playtime. Along the other walls were paintings by more famous artists, nation-wide, who had reconfigured well-known art using their own color-by-number technique. One artist named Bill Blair did a guitar color-by-number. Needless to say, it was an engaging exhibit.
After bidding the tent adieux we passed the Impossible Skate Park exhibition that despite its presence in a fully-functional skate park was actually, disappointingly closed to all skateboarders. We passed BIG BURRITOS and Award Winning Island Noodles. There were vendors selling $5 sunglasses and $40 rubber watches. Starchild $ Company provided a colorful addition with ambitious face and body paint.
We still had time to kill before the first public act of the day. Stumbling around the grounds we passed a building full of screen-print vendors, LA’s Toyota-Sponsored Global Inheritance group, who generated electricity live via a human hamster wheel, who took that energy to create snow-cones onsite, and who were in charge of screen-printing free Bumbershoot tote-bags.
One of the first large local acts to see the stage was Brite Futures, whose pop-rock history had swarms of youth filling the Key Arena in anticipation. The band, previously Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, has had mixed criticism regarding selling out and growing up, but when they finally showed up, their success was clear. The power anthems surged with razor lighting, electro pop bursting throughout the stands. By the second song, I had an idea of just how serious Brite Futures’ intentions were, but I still couldn’t get over these young kids playing around on the stage, rousing handclaps and fist pumps. Heading out I caught a glance of a puzzled older crowd lining the back perimeter of the main floor.
Bumbershoot is all about timing, and inadvertently gaps in large-stage performances are necessary. Tucked into one corner of the grounds we happened upon Bumbershoot’s visual art extravaganza. The Teleportation Exhibit housed impressive pieces on illusion, including the beautiful work of stop-motion animator Britta Johnson, whose short Snow Angels video depicted the unfurling of fir trees. Co-curator Kathy Lindenmeyer explained the entire exhibition was, with the help of coordinator Chris Weber, one year in the making. Out of the slew of dazzling images and sculptures, Chicago’s Geoffrey Alan Rhodes was most impressive; in the Mirror Series 1, Rhodes stands in front of a mirror slowly wiping his visual presence away until the only part of his body not invisible is his inner mouth and tongue. Honorable mention? Dunk by Jack Davis, in which an inflated basketball is trapped within a glass casing.
Seattle is one of the most literary cities in the country, and so it’s not surprising Bumbershoot makes an attempt each year to focus on the spoken word. The first set at the Words & Ideas stage to pique my interest was a panel on artists, money, and projects. Sponsored by the free newspaper the Stranger, the talk featured past and current recipients of Genius Awards. The $5,000 award is granted each year to various artists and there is no application fee. The Stranger makes it a point to choose those worthy on its own. While it was curious to see what other artists were doing with their money (or lack thereof) in the city, Joe and I bounced early on. It felt almost pretentious to sit around in an air-conditioned theatre having meta-conversations on art while the best days of the summer, of bacchanalia, of entertainment, exploded just a few steps away.
I passed the Frandy Bars (fried candy bars) stand and tried not to vomit to the signage depicting Fried Oreo Cakesters. I passed live human sculptures, the kind you see in just about any city, standing in a single pose for as long as it took to get paid. I watched break-dancers, bought a bratwurst, passed magicians and street performers. The All State Insurance Tent beckoned with promises of VIP passes. Their computer terminals looked more than shady. As drawn as I was to the mess of consumerism going on all around me, I found those attendees who were passive the most interesting. People coughed up the pretty penny to get in, and yet lounged around all day, passed out on the grass, reading in the shade of the trees. Who reads at a major arts festival?
Having spent our free time in artistic pursuit, we headed back to the Key Arena for the Presidents of the United States of America. It had been years since I saw them the first time, and I was curious to see if they still had it. Short answer: the band still had it. The arena was more packed than it would be all weekend. I was disappointed and I guess unsurprised that all of the band’s newer material fell short from the old classics. Is there a way to trump some of the most memorable and memorably-weird pop-rock of the ‘90s? Again the Weird flashes its ugly grin. Again I thought about Bumbershoot as the Weird, as its name is half umbrella and half parachute. The festival so far hadn’t struck me as being way out of the park. Nothing shocked or necessarily excited me, beyond belief I mean, but the festival’s tradition was alive. Bumbershoot is still alternative.
The fun didn’t end with Presidents. We hit up the Music Lounge for one of my personal favorites, New Orleans virtuoso Trombone Shorty. He played with his Orleans Avenue backing band, who were young but all impressive. I had never seen so many dancing Seattlites in my entire year living here. He slung his trombone like a cannon, had enough energy to blow down the walls. These were all notes I had taken frantically, excitedly. At the apex of the performance Troy Andrews (Trombone Shorty) sustained a trumpet for over nearly two minutes. Many people left the show speechless.
Joe and I agreed that we were hyped, energized, riding the high that Shorty set up. At the outdoor, lawn-based Fisher Green stage we popped in to see Tijuana’s Nortec Collective. The featured musicians, Bostich & Fussible, sported accordion and horn, and were backed by several “band members” who provided beats a la iPad. Despite my post-modern digital confusion, I had a great time, and the audience met the groove with a party.
Making our way to the Experience Music Center, we noticed an Uncle Sam Robot encouraging an alternative presidential race (the candidates including Dan Savage, Hall & Oates, Minus the Bear). Through the crowds and food stalls we reached the Sky Church, which, sponsored by the Decibel Music Festival, was probably the most impressive listening experience. Within the audio-visual asylum we got to see Nice Nice. As the amoeba of beats poured forth, guitar morphing and embracing, hundreds of audience members stared at the swirls of light and wall-sized visualizations. ‘60s Sci-Fi, Pink Creatures, skateboarding videos, scantily-clad women circa 1970s, and comic book characters all added into what turned out an immersive set.
Shabazz Palaces, who opened the day, gave it the boost it needed with an outdoor set mid-afternoon. The set started with a few technical hiccups, and for a moment I thought the audience was never going to lend the appreciation I knew the group deserved. Fortunately by the fourth or fifth track Ishmael’s aquatic vocals exploded out in a psychedelic frenzy entrancing the audience. What I enjoyed as a fan was seeing the change in the group’s behavior toward adaption between Music Lounge intimacy and Fisher Green performance antics.
There was a lull as blunt as gravity: what goes up then goes down. We watched a beautiful gypsy troupe belly-dance. We saw Beat Connection’s alluring house made blasé by poor amplification and an audience bent on performing mock-rave dance moves. We passed a stand selling Spirit Hoods, ridiculously over-the-top head-pieces for every furry’s enjoyment.
In the Exhibition Hall we watched doom-metal-pioneers and long-running rockers Pentagram perform to an enthusiastic crowd. As grotesque as it was nostalgic, the set mesmerized and shackled. As Joe ran around grabbing shots of the laser-producing hardware and the band’s ancient appearance, I watched the audience with reverence. The oldest metal-heads were paired with teenagers freaking out to the hardest power chords imaginable. At one point the singer, Bobby Liebling, fell down to his knees with the horrified face of someone experiencing a heart attack, but no, he was fine. This was his own attempt at merging his age to suit the pain of the music, his own attempt to become a shadow of what he once was.
Joe and I parted ways after that and I booked it to the Sky Church to see Free the Robots, who I had never heard but was curious about. The first sounds that introduced me as I stepped back into that air-conditioned centrum was a Shabazz Palaces sample—“the beat will always save us” perpetuated measure after measure. Was this an homage? Was there festival dialogue going on here? The showmanship of glitch/dubstep/bass wizard Chris Alfaro, paired with giant animated robots covering all the walls incited the younger crowd into movement. Part dance party, part hip-hop club, the youth stayed transfixed.
I reconvened with Joe for Little Dragon, who played Fisher Green as one would expect: flawlessly. Everyone around me expressed similar reserved joy as singer Yukimi Nagano floated around on stage, a darling in a fluttering scarf. As with most high-production acts, I was slightly upset the music lacked any difference from the album.
After Little Dragon, it was Trombone Shorty again, whose outdoor set at the large Starbucks stage thrilled me (and everyone else) as the Music Lounge. The sets were unfortunately the same, with the main difference being song length; outside, amidst the thousands who looked on happily, the band had solos lasting three times as long, and they even hosted a more traditional jazz battle that had the audience reeling.
It was at this point, with Joe still lost in the fray capturing acts I couldn’t make, that the fatigue set in. I headed back to the Key Arena to check out the most surprising act for me festival-long: Vusi Mahlasela, the South African folk legend. I only captured the last few songs, but wish I had shown up earlier. Stunning as they were haunting, the music pierced me. It was sad that the Key Arena was nearly empty. As he partly sung, partly wept, and partly yelled “Why do we mistake / people for a cancer?”. I wished everyone knew who he was and what he was doing. Likewise, it felt like a privilege to be there.
It would have been a powerful end to a great first day, but I still had to see two more acts: Minus the Bear and Mavis Staples. At this point I was pretty much exhausted having been in the sun for hours on end and most-likely dehydrated into oblivion, but I pressed on. By pressing on, I mean I entered the Fisher Green beer garden, regretfully forked over $7.50 for an IPA, and drank the most refreshing beer I’ve had all year as Minus the Bear played tracks from all across their ten-year career. With my phone just about dead, I sent off a last message to Joe and booked it to Mavis Staples, who played the Starbucks Stage with her family gospel choir. It was 9:30 and there she was. Like a queen, an announcer, a preacher, she stood there in black, and her voice carried. I couldn’t even get close enough to see much because the only lights were from the stage and the lawn was littered with shadowy figures wrapping up their last strands of consciousness, but it didn’t matter. I felt like I was in some greater space, witnessing a musical event I can proudly tell future generations about. After the set was over, I bumbled on out and walked home, holding my head in reverence to the legend of gospel.
Minus the Bear