Over the past weekend, the Upstream Music Fest + Summit slammed into Pioneer Square with over 300 music groups and major financial support from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. How did it go?
The much-anticipated Upstream Music Fest + Summit, brain child (and wallet child) of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has come and gone.
Now that its three-day invasion of Pioneer Square is over, this is the festival’s moment for reflection and reckoning, after its inaugural year of concerts by over 350 bands and talks by music-industry insiders from jazz legend Quincy Jones to hip-hop star Macklemore. And some of that reflection, says Vulcan spokesperson Anna Imperati, will happen on lounge chairs “on a beach.”
Upstream was, as expected, a strange and sometimes chaotic collision between music festival and work-a-day, big-city life.
People played pingpong on public tables in Occidental Square while Portland band The Thermals rocked an outdoor crowd just a few hundred feet away. New Seattle trio Dead Rich played grinding, melodic pop (with some rapping) in a fenced-off beer garden while neighborhood regulars hauling their belongings in black plastic garbage bags danced along in a nearby parking lot.
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“I think it went very, very good,” said Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces and Chimurenga Renaissance, both of which played at the festival. “There’s always room for improvement, but you don’t know what to improve until you do it, you know?”
Since the festival ended late Saturday, artists generally seem happy with their paychecks and treatment, attendees are enthusiastic (with a few gripes about security) and organizers are declaring Upstream more successful than they’d thought it’d be.
Imperati said 30,000 people bought (or were given) passes, and an estimated 5,000 more showed up for the free shows in four venues, including pop-up shows in Occidental Square by bands who’d be playing in passes-only venues later. The festival had expected around 25,000 attendees, she said, and everyone at Upstream was very pleased with the turnout. (By comparison, the 46-year-old Bumbershoot tends to attract well over 100,000 people per weekend.)
She declined to disclose any financial information, including how much the festival cost and how close it came to making a profit.
Small-business owners in Pioneer Square seemed more ambivalent.
Mike Cho, who has helped run Pizza Professionals on Occidental Avenue South for 16 years, said business shot up around 20 percent over the weekend. Across the street, Louis Hur, who’s run the Saveway Market corner store for the past 19 years, just shrugged at the question. “Eh,” he said. “It’s been slow.” And some music fans said they wouldn’t buy one-day passes (which ranged from $45 on Thursday to $65 on Friday and Saturday) for a slew of local bands they could see at other local venues for under $10.
But the best thing about Upstream, from a concertgoer’s point of view, was its artistic intimacy.
Unlike big, get-’em-in, get-’em-out headliner festivals like Sasquatch! or Bumbershoot, Upstream packed hundreds of bands — a few of them famous, most of them not — into one neighborhood for three days. More than once, I found myself waiting at a crosswalk or sitting at a bar next to a musician who’d performed a gorgeous, mind-blowing set just a few hours before.
The worst thing about Upstream was the chaos of a first-year festival trying to get its act together: complicated sign-ins to “activate” digital wristbands; inconsistent security requirements (some venues were fine with people carrying bags, others were more draconian, which bogged down entry and increased lines); a lack of parking for bands with big vans full of gear; bands who got their artist passes, but then had to stand in line with ticketbuyers to get those pesky wristbands.
While Upstream felt a little Orwellian at times, in the end, it fulfilled its promise of turning Pioneer Square into a “walkable mixtape”: an eclectic, sonic buffet of hip-hop, jazz, rock, R&B, country and a few acts that defied genres.
All you had to do was follow your ears — or get in line with people who seemed to know what was what. On Thursday, my unintentional guide was someone with pigtails, black lipstick, an unzipped black jacket and no shirt underneath. That individual turned out to be the hard-edged transfeminine rapper Michete.
Michete knew where the good shows were — including the basement-punk band Girl Teeth from Bellingham, who played an endearing cover of the Wheatus song about being “a teenage dirtbag, baby” with “two tickets to Iron Maiden, maybe,” and another song about Texas Sen. Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer.
On Friday, I hopped into any line where I saw Ishmael “Ish” Butler from Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces. One Butler sighting led me to JusMoni, a dreamy, slightly psychedelic funk-soul singer with Stasia Irons (formerly of THEESatisfaction) upstage, DJing on her laptop.
Some venues were packed, some were nearly empty — and some, like the 9:45 p.m. set for freak-country band Brent Amaker and the Rodeo at the raw-brick Comedy Underground, were vacant 15 minutes before start time and swarming with happy fans just minutes later.
“I thought the festival was awesome,” Amaker said. “I used to spend a lot of time in Pioneer Square and it was cool to get a glimpse of what that neighborhood could be with activity on every corner. You could just walk around the neighborhood and see a friend you haven’t talked to in awhile and realize: ‘Oh, my friends are playing!’ … I think they did a big favor to everyone over the weekend.”
Other folks who run Pioneer Square venues said plans changed at the last minute: sudden sound-design changes, or proposals for a lighting grid that wouldn’t make sense in a given room.
Artist Tariqa Waters, who runs the gallery Martyr Sauce with her musician-husband Ryan, said Upstream had approached them a year ago to turn their space into a venue, but pulled out the day before because the city said it wasn’t up to code for a full-capacity music show.
On Saturday, they decided to eat chips and drink wine at their downstairs gallery with a few friends and seemed sanguine about the affair.
“It’s the first year,” Tariqa said. “These hiccups will work out.” Ryan nodded and added: “No harm, no foul. They’ve taken on a lot. There’s no love lost. We love the city and we love that it tries to do the most.”