Searching for the Wizard of Bumbershoot

Vortex Music Magazine

Our journey to the Emerald City for the 44th consecutive edition of Seattle's Labor Day arts festival. Photos by Christina Bargel.

The yellow brick road is lined with Northwestern Americana: farms, a one-armed sculpture of Jesus, a rundown water and amusement park, a billboard with Uncle Sam that reads “Immigration or Invasion?”, the mammary-shaped Tacoma Dome, and Jack in the Boxes that play Modest Mouse.

Driving north on I-5 from Portland, our friendly rideshare driver has red curls coming out from underneath his beanie. Like the friendly Lion who’s not cowardly at all, he picks up any hitchhiker he sees. I’m with one of Vortex’s photographers, who must be Dorothy. Which I guess makes me Toto. She and I are on our way to see Oz’s crowning jewel, the largest arts festival in the United States, the 44th annual Bumbershoot.

We arrive in Seattle a day early to scope out the Seattle Center where Bumbershoot has always taken place—since 1971. The Seattle Center is a 74-acre entertainment plaza with parks, a giant fountain, indoor theaters, and outdoor venues and amphitheaters. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, it has the feel of a vintage future, complete with a monorail and Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. Also, there are constant reminders of grunge—large paint-peeled walls, rusted stadium entrance gates, dusty monorail windows, and tiled, trough urinals.

One of the most unique things about Bumbershoot is the wide range of ages in attendance. The event attracts everyone from Facebook-updating teenagers to stadium rock-fed baby boomers. This is a festival that’s not too rowdy and drug-fueled like Sasquatch, or glow stick central like What The Festival. There are a lot of families. But make no mistake, the reassuring scent of weed did frequently fill the air (including someone’s mom sharing a peace pipe with the daughter and friends she was chaperoning). Even though family friendly, the Emerald City is still green.

At any given time, there were 10 different performances going on. Our plan of attack was to catch as many as we could. A little here, a little there—all the while keeping our eyes open for the Wizard.

DAY 1: SATURDAY, AUGUST 30

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM DAY ONE

MODERN KIN: Pavilion Stage

Kris Doty, Drew Grow and Jeremiah Hayden—click to see more photos by Christina Bargel.Kris Doty, Drew Grow and Jeremiah Hayden—click to see more photos by Christina Bargel.

Launching into a new song, the lost nostalgia in lead singer Drew Grow’s vocals was like a machine gun wail opposing the rain outside, with all the stomping and hooting one would expect from the anger of falling in love and losing it in the sun. I emailed drummer Jeremiah Hayden about the name of the song and he said: “That song is actually so new that it is as yet untitled, unfinished, unrecorded—maybe we even played it a little prematurely - haha.” My official suggestion: Keep playing it and call it “In the Sun.”

The small cluster of a dozen decorative umbrellas tacked to the ceiling of Bumbershoot’s only indoor music venue matched many of Modern Kin’s motifs. The decorations heightened the emptiness of the ceiling, just as the broken heartbeat of Kris Doty’s stand-up bass illustrated the loneliness in “Abandon.” A hidden sadness emerges from that song—it’s the warm feeling you get in your eyes that tells you you’re letting it out, just as Grow’s shirt, soaked by the end of the set, revealed how much of himself he left on the stage.

This was the kind of art we came to see.

COMEDY GRAB BAG: Leo K. Theatre

Comedy Grab Bag, a Portland-based comedy troupe headed by Jay Flewelling and Kimberly Brady, induced some much needed laughter. Joining them onstage were a dozen other Portlanders telling the story of their troupe coming to Bumbershoot and their attempt to cut the show down to their allotted time.

Drawing from Northwest stereotypes and pop culture, they put on a solid show that the audience ate up. The highlight was seeing Flewelling pour “gasoline” all over Jimi Hendrix’s guitar before nonchalantly spraying it across the first three rows—nothing like schticky humor that involves the crowd.

SAM LACHOW: Fisher Green Stage

For a hometown rapper, I wanted there to be a larger crowd. In Sam Lachow’s defense, his set started at 1:15pm—a decent time for the middle-aged, three-kids-and-a-corndog crowd but pretty dang early for a rap show. Still, I expected more from a metropolitan city on a Saturday.

When we got up close, however, there was a strong energy. Lachow was backed by a band—it’s always good to see rap backed by a trumpet, drum kit and keytar. Live instruments provide the audience with something more to look at and to feel in the moment. And as we soon found out, the fans that were there... well, they were going pretty nuts.

Raz Simone takes a dive while sharing the stage with Sam LachowRaz Simone takes a dive while sharing the stage with Sam Lachow

The highlight of the show was when longtime collaborator and fellow Seattle rapper Raz Simone came on stage for the song "Nothing’s Gonna Change" and performed the first and only stage dive that we saw all weekend.

BIG FREEDIA: Fisher Green Stage

The performance started with loud, dirty bass and then came the dancers—two big-booty chicks on pedestals and two skinny, fast-moving dudes darting around the stage. We were instantly brainwashed by the booty. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. I broke away for a second and looked around: The whole crowd had stunned smiles on their faces—everyone was staring at the jiggling juggernauts. And then came Big Freedia, the ass conductor.

Freedia owned the stage while rapping, shaking and pointing at her dancers demanding that they: “Shake! Shake! Shake!” Almost everything she rapped was on repeat, stamping the lyrics into our brains while the dancers stamped the asses into our core.

At one point before twerking, Freedia put her hands on the DJ booth bars and bent over to the crowd—an act usually mistaken as supplication, submission and even defeat. But the magic of Big Freedia empowers that position, putting the power back into the “power bottom.” And that is why her female ass-shaking dancers were on pedestals—because that’s where they should be.

If you go to a Big Freedia show, be careful: Her music subliminally affects the subconscious and you may be prone to outbursts. At random times for the rest of the day, Dorothy and I would quote Freedia over and over: “I’m that queen that’ll make you bounce! I’m that queen that’ll make you bounce!”

MIDDAY BREAK

Outside of the KEXP Music Lounge after catching Poliça’s last song, we met up with our editor, who had been to Bumbershoot many times and knew the ropes. He explained how we should leave the Seattle Center to get cheaper drinks. Brilliant! With his knowledge of Oz, he’s definitely the Scarecrow. But before the three of us took our break, we had to catch the act I was the most excited to see, by far the edgiest artist at Bumbershoot...

DANNY BROWN: Fisher Green Stage

Near the front of the stage, we were surrounded by braces. I asked the Scarecrow to look around and find someone 25 to 35. He couldn’t find any and neither could I. What we did see was a group of 15-year-old girls behind us chain-smoking bowls. We surely weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Just like Danny Brown’s show at the Roseland Theater back in May, DJ SKYWLKR started off by spinning Waka Flocka’s “Head of the State.” After that, the rest of the set was completely different. And not in a good way.

SKYWLKR did his job to hype up the crowd, but he played six songs before Danny Brown even came out on stage—a bit overkill. Finally, the best rapper in the world came out, but his mic level was much too low.

I was the angriest puppy in Oz, looking around to see if anyone else noticed. The teenagers didn’t notice shit. I asked the Scarecrow and he agreed that he couldn’t make out the lyrics, but said perhaps it was because we were on the side of the stage. Smart. So we moved into the beer garden—front and the center—but it was the same. Danny Brown’s mic levels were indeed too low.

And just like at the Roseland, Brown did his routine of asking the audience, “Where the molly at?” right before dropping into the song “Dip.” However, his voice dipped down to almost a whisper with the word molly. At the end of the set, Danny Brown left the stage early as SKYWLKR played three more songs to end it. Suspiciously, the volume instantly got louder the moment Danny Brown left the stage.

My conspiracy theory: Bumbershoot overlords, the flying monkeys, knew how many kids would be in the audience, told Danny Brown to tone it down and sabotaged his sound. This is not a new technique at festivals. It happened when Rage Against the Machine played at Coachella in 2007, and it even happened at this year’s MFNW with the festival’s only rap group, Run The Jewels. The Wicked Witch lures us in with edgy acts but won’t give us the real thing.

Two good things about the set: Despite the sound levels, Danny Brown and SKYWLKR danced like mad men and had high energy the entire time. And they played "Attak," a breathlessly dope new song with no chorus.

Set List:
Break It (Go)
Smokin & Drinkin
Express Yourself
Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine)
Lie4 (Remix)
Handstand
I Will
Dope Song
Attak
Kush Coma
25 Bucks
Dip

SMRT TALK WITH THE WRITERS OF THE SIMPSONS: Charlotte Martin Theatre

Six Simpsons' writers who have been at it for more than a decade a piece sat down to chat about the longevity of America's favorite family, but the best quote from the panel was undoubtedly: “Ideas are like panties, there’s a million of them.”

WALK THE MOON: Fountain Lawn Stage

The Scarecrow and I sat at the fountain and watched Walk the Moon from afar. Even though we were not close, it was easy to see that this band was receiving the biggest crowd response out of all of the musical acts on Saturday. Thousands of people jumping in unison. Thousands with their hands up. The performance also boasted the best light show so far.

A Canadian walked right up to us and introduced himself and his girlfriend, offering us a drink and a toke. We found our Tin Man and his big heart. Meanwhile, Dorothy worked her way up to the front of the crowd to take pictures and to her surprise there was an ASL interpreter signing to a group of deaf people. Dorothy also knows sign language and told us what her new friends explained to her:

Twenty-six-year-old Matt Starn (deaf) passed away in July due to cancer. There have been musical interpreters at Bumbershoot for the past 10 years, but it wasn't until two years ago when Starn encouraged a lot of people in the deaf community to check out the festival. He was responsible for exposing Bumbershoot to the deaf community, and with the nonprofit Deaf Spotlight, he made sure that there would be interpreters at a variety of the festival’s performances. Before Starn's passing, he specifically requested for The Head and the Heart, a band which he really liked, to be interpreted. Dorothy was told to make sure to go to The Head and the Heart the following day, that the signed performance was going to be dedicated to Starn.

Dorothy then taught us how to say “Bumbershoot” in sign.

WU-TANG CLAN: Memorial Stadium

Not surprisingly, Wu-Tang came on 24 minutes late. Knowing what I know about the eight current touring members (Method Man was not present), they were either bickering amongst each other, getting high, or both. It must’ve been like herding stoned, squabbling cats for the group’s leader/producer, the RZA. But eventually they came on.

They kicked it off with “Bring Da Ruckus” and right away RZA started spraying champagne all over the crowd. A great way to start. Also not to my surprise, given the piss-poor sound at Danny Brown, the sound was less than mediocre for Wu-Tang. The bass and vocals were too high, and we lost the treble, the samples and all the nuances that really mold a rap song. If you didn’t know Wu-Tang’s music, it was hard to tell which song was which. Bummer.

Also, for a mainstage headliner, the stage lighting was second-rate—too low, not enough variance, and not nearly as dramatic as it should be for the prolific Wu. The light show at Walk the Moon on a smaller stage was way better. The Wicked Witch was at it again. I’m convinced she doesn’t like rap music.

The highlights of the show were the freestyling and scratching. At one point DJ Mathmatics and the RZA had a scratch battle. And man did they move fast. I mean fast. Faster than Freedia’s male backup dancers fast. It was like there were frames missing in their movements.

By the end, the crowd had dwindled down to almost half the size and I blame the sound on that one. You just can’t keep a crowd on bass and vocals alone, even if you’re Wu-Tang. They did not play an encore, nor did the crowd demand one.

THE AFTERPARTY: The 5 Point Café

Just around the corner from the Seattle Center along the monorail line sits a divey little half bar, half diner. And if you ever go to Bumbershoot, I suggest you go. Dorothy, the Scarecrow and I sat down and not 20 minutes later a pitcher of beer was bought for us. From who? The Tin Man of course. He and his big heart happened to also be at the same bar. We all drank up and ended the first night of Bumbershoot with a group hug. Together, we had high hopes of finding the Wizard.

DAY 2: SUNDAY, AUGUST 31

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM DAY TWO

We bumped into Sam Lachow and asked him if he was surprised by the small crowd at his show on Saturday. He looked shocked and said, “I thought it was a big crowd, especially for being at 1pm. Most of my friends didn’t even make the show—they were too hungover.” Dorothy and I totally understood, as we didn’t get to Bumbershoot until 3:15pm on Sunday, three and a half hours after it started.

SCHOOLBOY Q: Memorial Stadium

As we walked past the largest group of cops we saw at Bumbershoot—six—onto the less than half-full floor of the mainstage (which is still a lot of people), Schoolboy was rapping “White Walls” with special guest Macklemore at his side. And I hadn’t seen that many people in bucket hats, well, ever.

You could feel the cops standing behind the crowd during the song “Yay Yay,” but Schoolboy acted like he didn’t even see them—and probably didn’t. He closed the set with “Man of the Year” and ended by saying of his record: “Oxymoron—go bootleg it, steal it, get it any way you can. I’m out. Peace.” And those were the coolest words spoken at Bumbershoot.

RED FANG: Fountain Lawn Stage

The sounds of Red Fang echoed across the Seattle Center plaza as kids played in the fountain on day two of BumbershootThe sounds of Red Fang echoed across the Seattle Center plaza as kids played in the fountain on day two of Bumbershoot

The sun had come out for the first time at Bumbershoot and it was one of the coolest sights seeing children playing in the fountain juxtaposed with the thrashing sounds and melodic vocals of Portland metal rockers Red Fang. It was also the biggest mosh pit I had seen so far—good job PDX.

SCHOOLYARD HEROES: Fountain Lawn Stage


We were on our way to another show when Dorothy said, “Y’know, I’ve heard easy-listening, singer-songwriter female vocalists at Bumbershoot, but no rock and roll so far. You think Seattle would be into that.” And right then, it was as if the Great Wizard sensed her wish because in the distance we heard raw female vocals.

We got to the stage and frontwoman Ryann Donnelly, in ripped fishnets and a leotard, was captivating the small, buck-wild audience with her crazy eyes and screaming. Supporting her were a long-haired, thrashing bassist and backup vocalist (Jonah Bergman), an afroed, smiling guitarist (Steve Bonnell), and a drummer wearing tight short shorts (Brian Turner). And there was Donnelly, at the helm of Bumbershoot’s best performance.

The ASL interpreters were there too, this time dressed up in theme with the band and rocking out. What an awesome spectacle.

Schoolyard Heroes finished their set, and then for the first time at Bumbershoot 2014, it finally happened: The crowd demanded an encore. It was by far the smallest audience I had seen for any of the outdoor acts, but they were moved and they needed more. And the band came back and gave us an encore.

THE HEAD AND THE HEART: Memorial Stadium

The Head and the Heart is more than hipster folk. Their headlining performance illustrated an honesty and warmth that made me rethink using this phrase to describe the Seattle band.

I’m instead going to call it as it is: modern-day Americana folk. A group of urban cowboys singing into the face of darkness. And in their performance on Sunday night, that darkness was the plague of cancer and death. The Head and the Heart dedicated their set to cancer research and treatment by plugging the American Cancer Society on the screens surrounding the stage and by bringing out a group of children onstage, some of whom were being treated for cancer.

It was an appropriate dedication, as we had learned the day before of the recent death of 26-year-old Matt Starn who lost his life to cancer. Starn was specifically responsible for the ASL interpreters at The Head and the Heart’s performance.

The Head and the Heart played their morose songs “Lost in My Mind,” “Winter Song” and “Another Story.” I couldn’t help but think that the pluck of every string, the beat on every drum, and every vibration of the vocals were all a part of the dedication. It was a strong energy to be felt in a crowd of thousands, especially in the ballad “Rivers and Roads.”

The warmth filled my eyes again.

It’s hard to perform in the face of death. Probably one of the most goddamned hardest things to do in this world... but the show must go on.

“The sun still rises, even with the pain. The sun still rises, even through the rain.”

BOOTSY COLLINS: Fisher Green Stage

Bootsy and crew (drummer pictured) preserving the funk while security glowersBootsy and crew (drummer pictured) preserving the funk while security glowers

To finish off the second day, Bootsy put on a funk spectacle (with support from Portland trumpeter Farnell Newton), complete with over-the-top, bedazzled costumes, Parliament and classic funk songs, and popular hooks like Outkast’s “ATLiens.”

Best Bootsy Collins one-liners:

► “They got a curfew on the funk.”
► “You mothers over there [pointing to an actual group of mothers]... sing!”
► “Lets give yaw’ll a funk test.”
► “Let me take this coat off, and show you what the funk I got under here.” Which, to the delight of Seattle, just happened to be a #12 Seahawks jersey with Bootsy emblazoned across the back.
► “Everybody quiet now, I wanna [be able to] hear a rat pissin’ on cotton.”

Best moments: At the end of the set, the stage manager and security came out five times to tell Bootsy and the band to stop playing. After the third time, Bootsy led the audience in a Seahawks chant. After the fourth time, the performers started to auction the aforementioned Seahawks jersey. After the fifth time, Bootsy’s backup singer immediately went back to the audience and exclaimed, “And we take credit cards!”enticing the audience to bid higher.

After they stopped playing, I looked at the time—Bootsy only went six minutes over.

LOS LOBOS: Mural Amphitheatre

Catching their last song on the way out, I realized two things:

1. Everyone in the audience was over 40 years old.
2. They stopped playing 16 minutes late and security didn’t seem to care.

THE AFTERPARTY: Shorty’s

Belltown’s cavernous, pinball-filled bar with a clown room is one of the best places to go after Bumbershoot. It reminded me of a funky Portland bar, especially the back room with the large captain chairs. It was in the back room where we met an octogenarian woman with a big white hat reading a book in the dim bar light. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the woman and I ended up closing down the bar together. On our way out, I said goodnight to the woman. She smiled and gave me a big kiss on the lips. And that is how we met the Good Witch.

DAY 3: MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM DAY THREE

On the final day of Bumbershoot the sun was out, providing the kind of picturesque Northwestern summer day we all dream about. Dorothy and I went to the End Zone stage and started to toss a frisbee with a group of strangers listening to smooth hip-hop.

CHIMURENGA RENAISSANCE: End Zone Stage

While tossing a disc and listening to the sounds from the small corner stage in Memorial Stadium, I kept thinking how the beats sounded so similar to Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, one of my favorite rap groups. It was the signature finger piano that really evoked the Shabazz sound, along with the spacey samples layered on top of the beats. Halfway through the set I heard a new vocalist, who sounded just like one of the rappers in Shabazz Palaces. “Man, they are really ripping their style,” I thought. I stopped tossing the disc and walked up to the stage. To my surprise, it was Shabazz Palaces, just under a different name.

Chimurenga Renaissance is Tendai Maraire’s (one half of Shabazz Palaces—above) side project with guitarist Hussein Kalonji. The other half of Shabazz Palaces, Ishmael Butler, joined them onstage for a couple songs. What a nice Labor Day surprise.

Chimurenga Renaissance is similar to Shabazz Palaces in sound, but carries more social commentary with it, like in the song “The B.A.D. is So Good,” and at times feels more like street rap and less like experimental rap. Chimurenga Renaissance also features more guitar and is heavy with Zimbabwean influence.

NEON TREES: Fisher Green Stage

Frontman Tyler Glenn ripped up the stage with MJ-esque dance moves and the all-ages audience loved it. Glenn (30 years old) recently came out in April and got big cheers when he exclaimed, “I’m proud of being gay!” There were 30-plus photographers in the photo pit, the largest we saw at Bumbershoot. Dorothy had to fight to get pics of this band that has been thrusted into superstardom. Expect to see less of them on a side stage. Neon Trees is a mainstage band.

JACCO GARDNER: End Zone Stage

The performance reminded me of a ‘60s version of Morning Teleportation, and it wasn’t just the Beck-style hat. Both artists are hallucinogenic, but Jacco Gardner is less of a party psychedelia and more of a seasoned psychedelia. The Scarecrow acutely pointed out that they sounded like an updated version of Strawberry Alarm Clock. A big reason why is the keyboard. At times it was organ tones and other times it was 8-bit classical—like Mario tripping at the symphony.

This is the type of music you listen to in college while driving across country. Or while your buddy is driving and your head is out the window in the clouds. Or at the end of a three-day festival, with some of the audience laying on the ground, spaced out.

REVEREND HORTON HEAT: Mural Amphitheatre

Psychobilly is still alive, and it closed out Bumbershoot with ‘50s swag.

Preaching to his flock through a retro mic, the Reverend started his set by playing four new songs off of his new album, REV, and the flock boogied down.

In between songs, the Rev cracked jokes with the audience—“Our new album is the worst one yet”—and made light of his relationship with Sub Pop Records saying, “Let’s forget that whole lawsuit thing.” He’s a down-to-earth, funny guy. For instance, Dorothy showed me the spreadsheet with every artist’s stipulations on how long photographers could be in the pit taking pictures, either saying “first three songs” or “first 20 minutes,” but next to the Rev’s name it simply said: “Whatever.”

Before the planned encore (not only were they the last band of the festival but they still had 15 minutes left), the audience cheered, knowing it would happen. The Reverend came back out smiling, “Look at us trying to get gratuitous applause.” They ended their set and Bumbershoot with the classic “Galaxie 500.”

THE AFTERPARTY: The Docks by Olympic Sculpture Park

By the end, Dorothy and I were fried. We relaxed and reflected on the weekend by the Puget Sound—a perfect, calm place to go after the last night of Bumbershoot. While hearing the seagulls and watching the waves, we laughed about the young weed-puffing audience, reminisced about Schoolyard Heroes’ encore, and were amazed by how much art we experienced in only three days.

We had not found our Wizard. But what we did find was a vital piece of the Northwestern arts scene in a beautiful city that reminded us of home. With the range of musical acts and plethora of theater, talks and comedy, Bumbershoot provided an experience that can truly be enjoyed by all ages.

And then I realized: I didn’t think I could’ve asked for anything else even if I actually did encounter the Wizard. What was missing? What had we not already received on that Labor Day weekend? Maybe tickets to next year’s Bumbershoot... and some fucking Danny Brown vocals.

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