Growing up in an arts-heavy family from Seattle, attending Bumbershoot every Labor Day weekend was a given. The festival, and to some extent the city itself, have become a forum for music of all kinds and for theatre, literary readings, performance art, video, and film. Bumbershoot was conceived by the Seattle's Mayor's Office in an effort to boost tourism and revenue over 30 years ago, and is now a nationally recognized event for artists and people who support the arts in all its forms. The festival's emphasis has always been, and remains, on Northwest artists, but in recent years more big names have been brought in, resulting in larger crowds and higher ticket prices. Fearing increasing competition and changing public taste, the 1980's saw Bumbershoot's producers, One Reel, seeking big business sponsorship, and by the late '90s the festival was breaking box office records, but admission remained only $6. This year a single day pass was $20. While it's true that artists come from across the country, resulting in tremendous opportunities for once-in-a-lifetime crossover and exposure, I've begun to wonder if Bumbershoot hasn't become another example of a local gem drowned in the great revenue stream.
We Seattleites have numerous arts festivals and fairs year round to celebrate a broad spectrum of culture and history in the Pacific Northwest, but eclectic Bumbershoot is the biggest. Successfully playing host to, and producing a wide variety of music – rock, pop, r&b, world, hip-hop, jazz, blues, and others, Bumbershoot's tenants include encouraging discovery and adventure through hearing and experiencing as much as possible. And so, the best thing about the festival, along with great visual arts, is that it brings to Seattle four-days of solid, unrestricted music. Not only ten hours a day at the festival, but in local bars and other venues by night, extending into the early hours of the morning at private parties throughout the city. The worst part is that it's impossible to see and hear it all, even if you are really trying (wink, wink).
This year there were nine sponsored music stages including the huge Comcast Mainstage, which featured the weekend's heavy hitters, such as Seattle's Modest Mouse, the North Mississippi Allstars with all-star tribute to rhythm and blues, hip-hip 101 featuring the Black Eyed Peas, De La Soul, and Common, Leftover Salmon, Wilco, and R.E.M. among others. The Bumberella Stage had multiple sponsors, including JamBase.com and KEXP 90.3 FM (Seattle's answer to "What do you want to listen to?"), showcasing some of this years' finest contributors to the ideals and spirit of the festival. Following The Slip, local darlings and national flavor of the moment, Maktub, set the weekend rolling Friday night with an inspired set. Also gracing the stage during the weekend were jazz/funksters Robert Walter's 20th Congress, homegrown talent Skerik and the equally gifted Syncopated Taint Horns, the hypnotic, eastern beats of Karsh Kale, reggae chameleon Eek-A-Mouse, and supa-group Lushus, featuring Grant Green Jr., Chris "CD" Littlefield, Bernie Worrell, Brad Houser, Reggie Watts, and Dale Fanning. I was elated to hear so many of the artists on whom I cut my teeth playing with artists who have in turn, awed and inspired them. You could see the joy, intensity, and rapture spread across the faces of performers on stage reflected by the audience.
Brad Barr of The Slip
The seven remaining stages featured hundreds of different bands, some with the kind of crossover and "sitting-in" that the Bumbrella Stage had, but none to the same extent. Notable performances by "world-groove" trio the Living Daylights, the highly acclaimed Derek Trucks Band, the mighty Benevento/Russo duo, and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey were fodder for conversation all weekend. Seattle was again well represented by "the greatest rock n' roll band in history," The Supersuckers, as well as new comers Pi, featuring an altered high-octane line-up of Thom Bell, Leif Dalan, Brad Houser, Jessica Lurie, Leif Totousek, and Joe Russo. Ranging from complex jazz to beer swilling rock n' roll, it was all there. While it's notoriously hard to please everyone all the time, generally Bumbershoot does as good a job as anyone at pleasing hardcore fans, but also introducing potential fans to existing music throughout the city.
Jessica Lurie Ensemble
Many of these artists later participated in the Skerik-led Grande Jam, which closed the Bumbrella Stage on Monday night. With upwards of a dozen top-flight musicians rotating in and out of the jam Skerik, "the janitor," did a fine job tending the flock and giving the inevitable chaos some form. At some points within the two-hour set, however, the effect was that of a tag-team showcase rather than a jam. Don't misunderstand, it had groovetacular moments, but there was an air of over-stimulation on stage. Later, I asked Maktub guitarist Thaddeus Turner if he had enjoyed performing. He smiled and laughed, adding in a quizzical tone, "up there? There were some bad m*therfuckers up there." As the weekend was coming to a close and my sunburn was silently raging, I began to suspect that one simply cannot put that many great musicians on a stage and expect them to improvise in a meaningful way without some sort of structure (i.e. jazz standards) or rehearsal, and so I bailed to catch up on some much needed sleep. And just why was I so tired, you ask?
Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet
Bumbershoot ran until about eleven every night, but bars in Seattle don't close until 2 am, which leaves room for additional adventuring. Friday night offered high-energy brassmasters the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the Fenix Underground in Seattle's Pioneer Square, while at the The Rainbow local deconstructionists Crack Sabbath unleashed their uber-heavy, jazz-influenced, euphoria-inspiring mayhem. Skerik and Ron Weinstein whip up a whirlwind around a manic, yet solid rhythm section made up of Mike Stone and Keith Lowe. Several local guests came out to sit in, most notably showman and vocalist Brad Moen and guitarist Ari Zucker. Crack Sabbath come out of hiding about every six months, usually for a two-night stand, and proceed to blow anything and everything else in Seattle and surrounding areas out of the water. Bumbershoot weekend was no different. The band was friskier than I had seen them in a while and after Saturday nights' show I was profoundly reminded just how deeply I dig this band. Just can't get enough of that wonderful Crack.
Over the last couple years, after-hours parties have sprung up around Seattle at places with names like "Lo-Fi" and "Commonfire," but the original locale is simply "the loft." The host and conceptualizer of these year round all-night fests is Brian DeWaide. A local promoter for several years, Mr. DeWaide frequently opens his living space/studio to artists and fans of improvised, on the edge music. Music swirls from the speakers, lights scuttle about the room and about 150 of your closest friends dance and laugh the early morning away. Many times, nationally touring artists have wound up at the loft after their own shows; Friday night the loft featured Seattle's favorite non-band, Das Rut, with Brian Jordan of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and ET of the Dirty Dozen. The general consensus was that the band simply "tore it up – soloing, dueling, all of it." Saturday night the loft welcomed regulars The Living Daylights with another special guest, Will Bernard of Motherbug. Three "slammin" sets with set-break beats provided by Otha Major, who later joined the Daylights during the third set. Rounding out the weekend, Sunday night at the loft offered Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet all jacked up on near-lethal cocktail of Joe Russo and Marco Benevento. A good-sized room, the loft was so packed, there wasn't even space for a keg! Skerik announced the audience was in for a special night, but who knew that meant the set-break artists were Benevento/Russo, and the second set would begin by each of the horns making their way back in to the organ/drum/horn mash. It was a "monumental, New Orleans-style, boogaloo, full-on monster" show. As a proud Mr. DeWaide put it, "hell yes!"
Das Rut at The Loft
Commonfire Arts Collective in the Fremont neighborhood is a self-described "DIY recording studio" and sometime late-night venue. Friday night was an interactive experiment with digital performance activist and graffiti writer, The Street Phantom, and DJ Willis. Saturday night Commonfire welcomed Taarka, who were described to me as "eclectic, complex, and mesmerizing." Each night, sometime around 6 am the music died down throughout Seattle; remaining devotees shuffled towards their cars and homes for a couple hours of sleep before doing it all over again.
This years' Bumbershoot left me with a conflicted taste in my mouth. I am all for supporting the arts, both locally and nationally, and do so compulsively. However, I feel that Bumbershoot has lost its edge by becoming less a "Seattle arts festival," overextending itself to profit makers. While a majority of sponsors were regional, those that weren't stuck out like a sore finger (care to guess which finger that would be?). I was just going through the motions, detached from the festival and my surroundings, although very into the music, and apparently many folks felt the same way. Bumbershoot must reestablish a balance between art and commerce if it hopes for Seattleites to remain loyal. It could go the way of so many other fine festivals, bands, or venues, which have been crushed under the pressure and weight of the bottom line. I understand it – I just don't like it. But all that doesn't speak to the weekends' music, and that is what matters most. There were opportunities around every corner and it appears that locals and visitors alike took advantage of them. The adventurous spirit of the festival and the city was well represented, most especially by often-local artists including, but certainly not limited to, Dale Fanning, Reggie Watts, Jessica Lurie, and Skerik. These artists have unique sounds and styles, which each translate very well into the free form, groove and space influenced music popularized by the 'jamband' scene. Their ability to spearhead and elevate collective jams in just about any environment, and thus their success, is truly astounding and inspiring. Seeing them quasi-monthly for years at places like the loft, and then seeing them raging around all weekend, I was struck, realizing how I have taken each for granted. Should Bumbershoot give an MVP award, any of these folks would certainly be deserving candidates. So while Bumbershoot provides an impetus for artist to flock to Seattle over Labor Day weekend, it is more than just the festival that makes it an excellent choice to come.
Words by: Courtnay Scott
Images by: Super Dee
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