It’s Paul Allen’s ambitious new music venture to showcase local talent. All in all, the music was strong and events well-organized.
Walking toward Pioneer Square during the fest’s early hours on Thursday afternoon, however, one had to strain to notice there was a music festival going on at all. That is, until rounding the corner on First Avenue, hearing the guitars blaring from Occidental Square, and seeing several dozen people in various states of engagement with music.
Loud music aside, it looked like any other weekday rush-hour in downtown Seattle. SXSW, in contrast, essentially shuts down parts of Austin for a week each March as luminaries from all facets of music and tech industries descend on the city.
Of course, every festival has its growing pains — even Coachella lost close to $1 million its first year. And expecting Seattle’s own version of SXSW to emerge fully formed is a pipe dream.
Luckily for concertgoers, and perhaps even for local musicians, Upstream shows promise.
The festival is undoubtedly ambitious: more than 300 artists playing 30 stages across three days in Pioneer Square, plus a two-day summit filled with TED-style lectures that cover the intersection of technology and music.
There’s also a tension that undergirds the whole enterprise, which is often the case when moneyed interests give local arts a cash infusion. Artists — many of whom are unknowns even in Seattle — get a chance to network and gain exposure. (They’re also being paid well.) On the other hand, a three-day pass costs $135 for a festival where three-quarters of the lineup regularly plays local shows with a $10 cover.
This contradiction was made explicit at the summit Thursday morning. At a breakout session on community-building, rapper Gabriel Teodros pointed out the irony of holding such a discussion at an event associated with Allen’s Vulcan Inc., which has been buying property in the rapidly gentrifying Central District.
On the whole, though, Upstream’s good intentions were manifest. The stages were easily walkable and the festival as a whole was incredibly well-organized. Large-scale installations from Northwest artists dotted Pioneer Square. And local musicians who applied to play the festival and got passed over were granted passes to the summit, which was well-attended but far from crowded.
The festival is also a boon to young bands like Bellingham quartet Girl Teeth, who’s been together for a little more than a year. The group played tuneful, slackery pop-punk songs about bad boyfriends and Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer to a crowd that was college-aged, like the band.
Later, at a different venue in the same building, R&B singer Falon Sierra showed off her vocal range over plain, forceful beats. She quoted Mao before launching into a song that sampled Donald Trump, all while a logo for a prominent sparkling water brand shone above her.
Offering a far different strain of R&B was Guayaba, a highlight from the festival’s early hours. The Bremerton artist sang and rapped over an inventive but hard-hitting production, commanding the basement stage in Kraken Congee as patrons in the back ate bowls of savory rice porridge.
That scene — an up-and-coming young artist playing to a diverse crowd in a packed, unorthodox venue — approaches what Upstream set out to do. It’s a vision for Seattle’s music community that’s easy to get behind.