Tech reviews

Review: Revamped Bumbershoot is a reassertion of Seattle’s identity

No one was more excited to be there than Ben Bridwell. The disarmingly scraggly Band of Horses frontman was outright giddy to be back in the city where his band took flight, snapping a Sonics flag as he took the stage to play a bunch of “Belltown songs” written not far from the Bumbershoot stage.

Sunday’s mercifully overcast skies and intermittent sprinkles, after the festival’s scorching opening day, made for an appropriately Seattle homecoming, setting the mood for the Sub Pop alum’s weighty, Southern-charmed indie rock. “Ahhhh, I’ve been looking forward to this so much,” Bridwell exclaimed in his light South Carolina drawl, shouting out the label that helped launch his career and later Neumos, where Band of Horses played their first album release show in 2006.

During what was easily the most heartfelt set of Bumbershoot’s 50th anniversary weekend, songs like “NW Apt.” and teary-eyed crusher “The Funeral” came hammering down harder than one of Shawn Kemp’s old tomahawk dunks. Speaking of, the Reign Man himself was spotted side stage earlier, watching East Coast revivalist Benny the Butcher slay the best (and one of the few) hip-hop sets across the grounds.

Once again, Bumbershoot felt like a grand expression of the proudly offbeat Pacific Northwest, as the new organizers opened the festival’s arms to a wide range of artists of all disciplines for one chest-thumpingly Seattle party. Even the food seemed more intentional, pushing beyond the name chefs and restaurant groups of scale to include neighborhood favorites like Hillman City pillar Delish Ethiopian Cuisine.

It was a welcomed weekend of cross-pollination in a city where experiences can widely vary based on the neighborhoods or scenes one inhabits.

It’s not every day one can stumble out of a sweaty punk gig at DIY bastion the Vera Project and into an imaginative exhibition that was part fashion show, dance performance and electro-pop concert helmed by Portland visionary Fuchsia Lin, or vice versa, that took over Bumbershoot’s Fashion District runway.

After years of resembling a more mainstream commercial music festival (and yielding some truly incredible lineups in the process), Bumbershoot commemorated its 50th year and first under organizers New Rising Sun by hoisting its freak flag once again, bringing back some of the quirkiness (from cat circuses to witch temples) and countercultural edge of yore. Even the signage seemed more concerned with stoking curiosity than selling overpriced cocktails, with sign spinners roaming Seattle Center artfully twirling and juggling signs that read “You can go your own way” or simply “Explore.”

It was a weekend of getting reacquainted with old Seattle favorites like Band of Horses and a reunited Sunny Day Real Estate, which performed Saturday, as much as new discoveries. One of my personal new favorites? Singer-songwriter Cassandra Lewis, a former Portlander now making her way through Nashville after 98.9 KPNW’s Marco Collins linked her with Brandi Carlile’s old managers, leading to a record deal with Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sounds. 

“I think this might be the biggest crowd I’ve ever played for,” Lewis said Sunday at the KEXP stage, dedicating a riveting queer/addiction struggle number (think Dolly with some fire) to her pal Collins. 

Lewis’ stardusted classic country evocations bowled over the crowd, her immaculate voice coming on stronger than an Elliott Bay wind on an unreleased breakup tune from her next record. “These are all the words I wish he would have said to me, soon to be memorialized on a Grammy-winning album,” she half-joked. 

Wishful thinking, but I wouldn’t bet against it. 

On a deeper level, the re-imagined blast-from-the-past Bumbershoot felt like the reassertion of a specific Seattle identity amid a period a great and often uncomfortable change. Or at the very least, it was a reorientation of one very public cultural compass.

For all the homegrown artists intermingling with international bands of various eras and scenes — from ’80s punk heroes the Descendants to contemporary roots/soul rocker Brittany Howard — many of the out-of-towners taking Bumbershoot’s five music stages embodied some of the region’s progressive values and individualist creative spirit.

On Sunday, Russian resistance fighters/performance art collective Pussy Riot unleashed a torrent of dystopian dance-pop protest bangers with a side of kink, courtesy of two BDSM backup dancers. Their feminist, sex-positive, anti-fascist lyrics — delivered through sugary pop melodies and guttural screams — made for the most confrontational set of the weekend and were a hit with an unsuspecting afternoon crowd.

Other times some of the non-locals more directly reflected cultural movements born in the Pacific Northwest.

“We need an all-girl and nonbinary mosh pit!” shouted Destroy Boys singer Alexia Roditis midway through the Sacramento punk band’s thrash-and-bop set at the KEXP stage on Saturday. The directive evoked the “girls to the front” mantra coined by Olympia’s feminist punk pioneers Bikini Kill, whose drummer Tobi Vail performed earlier in the day with her other band Morgan and the Organ Donors. It was a testament to the enduring power of art and ideas incubated in the kinds of small, DIY music and art communities threatened by the soaring cost of living in a tech-moneyed region.

Completing the full-circle moment, an elated Roditis was dancing side stage while Saturday’s headliner Sleater-Kinney, forged in the same Olympia riot grrrl scene, gave a joyfully ferocious performance.

Before Sleater-Kinney’s set, the big screens flanking the stage displayed messages thanking Bumbershoot sponsor Amazon for “making Bumbershoot affordable for everyone,“ as the company underwrote a limited amount of discounted early-bird tickets, distributing another 5,000 tickets to underserved communities and various nonprofits. It’s not an unprecedented move and somewhat similar to San Francisco’s free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, launched and subsidized by a wealthy venture capitalist. 

It’s a glaring juxtaposition — The Evergreen State College’s influential feminist punks, brought to you by your tech overlords — the microcosms of which we confront every day; every time a new development replaces our favorite mom-and-pop shop or threatens a cherished music venue. 

Credit where it’s due, over the course of the uneasy relationship between Seattle’s arts communities and tech companies, artists have long asked the well-financed corporations that benefit from the cultural capital Seattle’s storied music and arts scenes have built to give something back. (RIP Upstream.) Supporting Bumbershoot in its pivotal comeback iteration after years of financial turbulence certainly isn’t nothing. But you’d also be hard-pressed to find an artist with rising rent to make who’d say it’s enough. 

New Rising Sun has a 10-year contract with the city, giving them a significant runway to build out the Bumbershoot vision unveiled over a seemingly successful debut weekend. While the rainy Sunday draw was noticeably smaller, organizers estimated 20,000 people attended on Saturday, a marked increase from recent years. For the first time in a while, you can say that the future of Bumbershoot looks promising.

And that’s worth celebrating. 


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