by Scott Sammons
Every Labor Day weekend, despite the rising cost, I try to go to at least one day per festival. Bumbershoot is among the largest and oldest music and arts festivals. It is usually hard to pick the “best” day to go with many good acts spread across the three to four days. Music, art, movies (from the Seattle International Film Festival), comedy and writing are among the array of humanities choices represented.
I can’t talk about Bumbershoots of the present without talking about Bumbershoots of my past, or at least comparing them. I’ll spare you all the drippy, nostalgic details, but they hold some of my best and worst memories. Bumbershoot is important to me; it’s been a healer, a mirror, an illuminator; the place where I’ve tested different versions of myself. I feel close to it, like an old friend I visit once a year.
Upon entering, the excitement and expectation overtook me, and I was met with the usual scene: The fountain, a permanent fixture at the Center; this year, large blow-up letters spelling BUMBERSHOOT; tents with wares like hats and bongs and paintings; stages with pre-music playing; and above it all, the Space Needle.
And the people. There were more people there than it felt like, but that only highlighted the lack of energy I felt. Perhaps it was the Sunday hangover from Saturday, but I was a little concerned. One thing I look forward to is seeing the cadre of teenagers in attendance. They dust up everywhere like clusters of cyclones, the limit-pushers and trendsetters, the loud mouthed de-criers of the future, the fuck-yeah-I’m-dope-smoking-so-what-it’s-legal boys jumping and bounding around the fountain, the my-short-jean-shorts-are-shorter-than-your-short-jean-shorts girls giggling and pushing when they see their friends 100 yards away. And they all extend their arms for the selfie: if there is no selfie, you were not there. It reminds me Bumbershoot is for everyone. And I get excited for them as they are creating their first memories with the festival. But their energy and innocence always makes me smile.
I spent most of the day at The Mural Amphitheatre, one of four outdoor stages this year. It was where my 2015 festival experience effectively began and ended. I first saw Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. I didn’t know much about them, and I got two songs at the end of their set. They had a fun, Van Morrison vibe with a punchy brass section. The first song I caught was very catchy, whose chorus was “Son-of-a-bitch! Get me a drink…” Yessir.
Bread and Butter played at the next stage over. They had a punky, stripped down sound which reminded me of the Strokes and early Beach Boys. It had a good beat to it. There was a small group of folks letting loose up front who might have even seen Brian Wilson live . When they ended, and as I was walking away, I overheard a girl say to the guy next to her, “yeah, they’re really cool. I’m friends with Shane on Facebook.” Wanting to be close to fame, even semi-fame is nothing new, and the statement was quintessential for our time. She might as well have said she met him at the beach party last weekend.
A few other highlights from the day:
• Flatstock, a grouping of mostly letterpress artists who make rock art posters, was in the Center House. This has been a part of Bumbershoot (and other festivals) since the early 2000’s. Check out more at http://americanposterinstitute.com/flatstock
• I don’t know their music all that well, so it was nice to hear Hey Marseille’s version of Never Tear Us Apart by INXS, with its catchy melody punched out by a cello.
• Comedian Hari Kandabolu (http://www.harikondabolu.com/), played the Intiman Playhouse. He is one of the wittiest comedians today. His politically charged bits are both uncomfortable and poignant.
Which brings us to Built to Spill, ending my evening at the Mural. I got a Hilliard’s Brewery “12th Can” pale ale and a good spot near the front of the beer garden boundary. They were just finishing sound check as I was getting situated.
I have followed BtS since first hearing them at a friend’s house in college, in 1997. When the first song from Perfect from Now On hit my ears, I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t know music could sound like this. Even though that is clichéd, it is often difficult to explain something that hits you viscerally. The notes, the chords, the words, the melodies, the production–it swirls together and clicks, like gears in a machine or water down a river. This happened in their music, but also in the listener.
They played one of the best shows I’ve heard in a long time. With a new album out (Untethered Moon), there were a couple songs I didn’t recognize. But only a couple. It was a great mix of songs from most of their albums: New Wave Alternative, Nothing Wrong With Love, Perfect From Now On, Keep It Like A Secret, and others.
I noted meaningful lyrics of songs that hit me as the show played, and which I wanted to write about later. I realized they would have the same meaning here, but in general, Doug Martsch’s lyrics are the kind that make you feel like it is, or it’s going to be ok, in the sense that you’re not alone: “we all feel that way, we just may not admit it to each other.” Lyrics like, “In the morning, feeling half right…” and “When I get that feeling like I’m gonna start I just have to stop!” and “And I’d like to see it but it’s something you just feel / And I’d like to feel it but it just isn’t real.”
When Mr. Martsch signaled the last song, saying thanks to the crowd, I was already satisfied. Then, the opening notes to “Randy Described Eternity” hit my ears, much like they did at my friend’s house in college. It ends where it begins, I thought, although, nothing was ending necessarily, except the great evening with a great band playing great music. And even Mr. Martsch fibbed a little, too. As one note ended, another began into a new song. The closing set was about five songs. When they really finished, the crowd erupted, more than satisfied.
I stood contemplatively aside as others filed out of the grassy amphitheater, not prepared to let the bliss start to fade just yet. After several minutes, I approached the stage, said a sincere thank you to long-time guitarist Brett Netson, and Mr. Martch for a great show, then turned and walked away myself. I looked back thinking about how awesome that show was, how, even after so many shows, they can make their songs new, play a little bit deeper into them, and cull out even more raw emotion. Even now, I don’t want it to end.