The tech-backed Upstream Music Fest celebrated Northwest artists at a time many are feeling pushed out of Seattle.
Even with the beer flowing in the VIP area and the unrelenting sun shimmering off Tacocat’s ever-glittery wardrobes, it was hard to miss the elephant in the room early Saturday. Opening the main stage at Upstream Music Fest, the Seattle surf-punk faves paused amid their breezy set to dedicate “I Hate the Weekend” — a song bemoaning entitled young business bros parading their intoxication around Capitol Hill each weekend — to the “rock ‘n’ roll-themed condos that displace actual musicians” and their new inhabitants “who make way more money than I ever will in my whole life,” said singer Emily Nokes.
It’s especially poignant coming from one of the city’s most successful indie bands, which is barely able to afford to stay here.
Zola Jesus wasn’t as lucky. Following Tacocat in the Sound Lot main stage area, the goth-tinged electro-pop singer and ex-Seattleite earnestly professed her love for her former city throughout her gripping performance — one of the weekend’s best, feedback issues be damned. “You will forever be my home, even if I don’t live here,” she told the enthusiastic, modest-sized crowd.
The real-life Nicole Hummel moved after realizing she couldn’t afford to buy a house in Seattle. “It wasn’t gonna happen — a little ol’ musician like me buying a house in this big, expensive city,” she said.
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With musicians struggling to make ends meet as Seattle’s unprecedented growth — led by the tech industry — marches on like one of Cut Copy’s galvanizing 4/4 beats at Upstream’s main stage, it’s a thorny backdrop for the second-year festival backed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, a noted music lover we spotted taking in a dazzling performance from pianist Bill Laurance.
Still, it didn’t dampen the mood — at least not for long — during the lively three-day bash emphasizing Northwest artists.
Besides ironing out some of the first-year kinks, Upstream took a step forward this year by bolstering its headliners — often the deciding factor for potential ticket-buyers — without overshadowing its greatest strength: serving as a gateway to Northwest music for the uninitiated.
According to Upstream organizers, more than 30,000 ticket holders — about as many as last year — attended this year’s festival, which took place June 1-3.
During his jubilant party of a set at a crowded Axis 1 stage on Friday, prominent Seattle rapper Sol shouted out Upstream and developmental hip-hop youth program the Residency — one of the fest’s many guest curators — for “creating space for local independent artists.” Although organizers beefed up its bigger-name main stage acts this year, led by R&B star Miguel and psych-rock hooligans The Flaming Lips, 65 percent of Upstream’s acts were regional, organizers say, many of which regularly play $5-$15 local club shows. While cool national additions like Hot Snakes, whose post-hardcore onslaught careened through a Saturday main stage crowd like a jackknifed semitruck, helped make ticket prices more palatable, Upstream’s best utilitarian value is its ability to serve as a crash course in local music for Seattle’s many newcomers.
There were seemingly more than a few newbies inside a packed Central Saloon, when Portland’s Black Belt Eagle Scout delivered her fragile indie-rock tunes to an early Sunday crowd. Between her uncluttered compositions with strong, simple guitar leads, Katherine Paul proudly informed us she’s a native Washingtonian who grew up near Anacortes. The response: silence so deafening you could hear a guitar pick drop.
“Are you all not from here?” she asked with a chuckle. “That’s OK. Well, welcome.”
Other Northwest standouts included Seattle’s up-and-coming slacker rockers Great Grandpa and Portland’s worldly folk-pop vets Y la Bamba, the latter bringing a psych-steeped set to hip Portland label/boutique Tender Loving Empire’s showcase at Elysian Fields on Saturday. Tacoma’s thriving hip-hop scene was omnipresent throughout the weekend, highlighted by rapper/painter Perry Porter, who delivered one of the best (if slightly disjointed) sleeper sets, live painting between sweaty trap bangers at Comedy Underground. “Holy [expletive]!” exclaimed one apparent new fan. “Who the [expletive] is that, dude?”
The exploratory feeling didn’t always stop with the fans. In the standing-room-only basement of the new 13 Coins, Moroccan guembri (a skin-covered, three-stringed bass lute) player Mehdi Nassouli — delighted to be playing in “the Jimi Hendrix city” — was joined by Appalachian country picker Ben Townsend and Port Townsend folkie Abakis for a cross-cultural roots jam early Friday evening.
Hopefully a few new Seattleites found their way to Sunday’s rare Murder City Devils show, part of longtime local music booster Kate Becker‘s reunion-heavy showcase commemorating the 25th anniversary of Redmond’s Old Fire House Teen Center. The Seattle garage-punk greats blasted through rowdy favorites like “Rum to Whiskey” and “Dance Hall Music” for a crowd of veteran local scenesters.
Given the diffuse nature of the urban festival spanning 15-plus venues around Pioneer Square, gauging crowd sizes can be tricky, though there were noticeably fewer people at the main stage for Saturday’s headliner — reunited pop-punks Jawbreaker — than there were for Miguel and The Flaming Lips. The question facing Upstream going forward is how well it can balance (expensive) ticket-selling headliners while keeping prices down and retaining its Northwest focus — a much-needed distinguishing trait among a crowded festival market.
With any luck, hopefully Upstream will help turn people on to the next Murder City Devils. Provided they can afford to live here.