Although the sun was shining when the crowds began to gather at the Seattle Center during the early afternoon hours of Saturday, September 5th, there was an inescapable chill in the air. The opening of the 45th Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival dawned in a new era: one characterized by $85-a-day ticket prices, and a new Festival ethos that has, for the second year running, moved away from big-name, heavy-anchor headliner acts. Bumbershoot has largely gone back to its roots, having abandoned the Bob Dylans, Mary J. Bliges, and Tony Bennetts in favor of a more organic, indie approach. Festival organizers have argued that this allows for a more evenly distributed budget, one that can support numerous great acts as opposed to just a handful (with a supporting cast of sometimes spotty quality).
Yet there was a curious and halting air to proceedings on Saturday: a buzz absent from the festival grounds not noticeable in years past. Even the 2014 festival, much maligned due to poor revenues, didn’t boast this level of funktastic unease, which was clearly the result of more than just a couple ugly rain and thunder clouds in the distance. Indeed, the festival looked different, what with the curious arrangement of the stages around the Seattle Center, and the shocking (and heretofore unparalleled) explosion of advertising booths and corporate sponsors. Companies like Toyota and Samsung have paid to have their tents at Bumbershoot in the past, but they’ve never been in such generous company as in 2015. The assumption of management responsibilities by concert giant AEGLive obviously had something to do with this, but on Saturday it remained to be seen what kind of impact this would have on the festival as a whole.
This year would be no different than previous ones in terms of the basic criteria through which it would be judged: the music. In this regard, Saturday did pretty well for itself. The day started on the “Starbucks Stage” with Phoebe Bridgers, a young L.A. singer-songwriter whose post-modern folk-rock mélange helped nudge things off in a pleasant direction. The sun was still shining when Ms. Bridgers finished her set, and On and On began theirs over on the “#NeverTamed Stage.” Currently touring behind their well-received sophomore album, ‘And the Wave Has Two Sides,’ On and On played well, albeit to a small crowd. An electro-shoegaze indie-rock group based out of Minneapolis, On and On represented an early hint of optimism for Bumbershoot, a festival known for its uncanny ability to consistently stock a lineup with lesser-known gems.
A more widely known gem also hailing from Minneapolis, Atmosphere, played not long after On and On wrapped up around 3:30. Atmosphere has never striven to be anything but good, middle-of-the-road hip hop, and in this regard it has been (and will likely continue to be) a respectable success. Many of the things that Atmosphere has been doing since the late-90s have been aped and improved upon by industry heavyweights like Kanye and Macklemore, so it was nice to see the originals do their thing as Saturday afternoon turned into early evening.
Yet as Atmosphere launched into “God Loves Ugly,” a cold rain began to fall on the audience gathered in Memorial Stadium to watch the hip hop performance. Nothing more than an aggressive mist at first, the precipitation didn’t scare off that crowd, or the one that had gathered at the Starbucks Stage for Jamestown Revival not long after. A mountain-funk jam band hailing from Fort Collins, Colorado, Jamestown Revival played their particular blend of low-level psychedelic rock under the brooding shade of increasingly angry clouds: ones that didn’t seem content with a meek drizzle.
Indeed, this was to be the case, as a punishing, fast-moving storm system rolled over downtown Seattle and drenched Bumbershoot front-to-back. All shows save K.Flay in the Key Arena were suspended due to the accompanying lightning, and from about 5:30 – 6:30 p.m., the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival largely consisted of scattered pockets of wet, shivering concertgoers huddled beneath whatever outdoor cover could be found.
Fitz and the Tantrums made a valiant attempt to salvage the evening, and did a commendable job. Their set, along with the magnificent one put on by Cake later that night did much to buoy the spirits of a largely defeated, damp, and exhausted festival. Yet as Sunday dawned, and the second day of Bumbershoot broke, it was clear that an already lean festival, weighed down by the financial burdens that couldn’t allow for any rallying-point acts, was simply limping along towards the finish line.
Mikal Cronin did admirable work jolting the scattered collection of afternoon attendees to attention with his thoughtfully conceived brand of garage rock, and was a magnificent lead-in of sorts to The Melvins, one of the second day’s most anticipated acts. Proto-grunge folk heroes, The Melvins were part of an early breed of post-punk, anti-glam-rock metal warriors that laid the foundation for the early-90s Grunge renaissance. Based out of Washington State, this was the band that made it okay to define a sound by screaming lead vocals and heavy distortion. Bumbershoot 2015 was a better festival for having them, and the crowd (such as it was) responded well to the hometown heroes.
Another local Washington product, The Cave Singers, played not long after that, and acted as yet another steady pillar in a festival that seemed to be trying hard to go through the appropriate motions of the expected experience. Yet that was the thing: it all seemed a little too manufactured. All the acts that played Sunday seemed like the bands a community survey would pick for a Seattle music festival, one meant to appeal to the widest variety of potential Pacific Northwest attendees.
Social Distortion went on early Sunday evening, as if to fulfill both the 90s-nostalgia and hip hop requirements of the day’s first half. Their set was a spirited one, mixed with a hearty helping of classics (i.e., ‘Ball and Chain’) along with new cuts: all to the roaring approval of the mid-to-late thirty-somethings bobbing next to the fifteen year old skater punks in attendance. Although the evening’s headliner, Neko Case, was touring behind a new album, her presence as a frequent visitor to the Pacific Northwest (and Bumbershoot in particular) felt like yet another uninspired bone tossed to the audience.
Sunday’s remaining big-name act, Faith No More, seemed like a desperate, cost-effective grab at nostalgic ticket consumers who might be tempted to brave the festival just for the one act. This was entirely ironic, since the new Bumbershoot was meant to move away from this line of attack in favor of more balance. What’s left, then, was a Bumbershoot that felt less dynamic and fresh, and more like a patchwork gathering assembled from the spare parts of previous festivals. Indeed, with the exception of The Melvins, Neko Case, and The Punch Brothers, perhaps the three quality stand-outs of Sunday, everything about Sunday and Bumbershoot as a whole seemed entirely uninspired.
Monday offered little to combat this sentiment. While the weather finally began to turn, and the sun emerged from its retreat, the attendees didn’t seem similarly inclined. This is the fourth year that Lost in Reviews has gone to Bumbershoot, and 2015 represented what was, far and away, the most poorly attended of any four festivals. Seattle Center grounds that were normally jammed with people looked positively anemic when viewed against previous years. And Monday’s final acts, the best being Devotchka and Bassnectar, were a resounding whimper rather than the traditionally expected bang. A Bumbershoot Festival that seemed determined to simply shuffle by did just that as the relative handful of people made their way to the Seattle Center grounds for one last insipid day. In all, it seemed entirely fitting. Groups like Minus the Bear and Hey Marseilles played well on Monday, yet were mainstays on the Seattle music scene, and didn’t bring that much variety to a crowd that has seen them many times before.
Only time will tell if Bumbershoot will continue into 2016 and beyond: if the lean festival of 2015 was the necessary sacrifice for greatness on the horizon. If this is indeed the case, it was a small consolation to the damp thousands that made it out this year, for never in the history of Bumbershoot have so many payed so much and suffered so miserably to see so little.
~ By Warren Cantrell