The story of the humble inaugural year of any given music festival and eventual rise to the top of the music festival game is the norm for the majority of the most notable Seattle festivals we all know; the average festival takes time to grow, it needs time to establish itself, get a higher budget, book bigger or more in-demand names, all in order to keep itself relevant and at the forefront of everybody’s minds when the next festival season rolls around. This sort of love and warming-up takes a lot, so it’s rare to find a new festival that everybody knows about, that feels like it’s always been there, before it’s even had its first outing.
The promotional campaign and marketing push for the Upstream Music Fest + Summit has been one of the hardest we’ve seen in Seattle for any festival. Whether it’s downtown Seattle billboards, the front page of your favorite online music publication, or even on local news channels that don’t usually promote non-pop music festivals, Upstream is everywhere, and the hype for the festival’s first ever year began when just the core concept was announced, with the promise of a lineup to come later. For a while, we could only cheer the festival on as one that has quite a lot to show for all the hype it’s received, but even the harshest skeptics, as well as those that were rah-rahing it from the very beginning, could agree that the festival’s lineup delivered on what they originally teased in a big way.
Most ads I’ve seen for Upstream mention the 300+ bands that are performing over the course of the festival’s mere three days, which is surprisingly high for a festival’s first year. Though I’m sure the budget and financial investment that goes into Upstream is part of the reason they’re able to book the likes of The Long Winters, Flying Lotus, Mike McCready, and even Jay Park, the curation side of Upstream has managed to succeed with flying colors where other festivals going for large-scale presentations have failed immensely, which is balancing really great, attention-grabbing headliners, but filling out the rest of your lengthy festival bill with worthwhile local artists that people will actually enjoy going to see.
With more than 300 artists, some national but mostly locals on the up-and-up, some of the best artists that’ll be performing all weekend are some of the less popular, but really awesome and equally deserving bands that comprise a good portion of the festival’s lineup across all its days. Upstream themselves have been making a good attempt at trying to highlight these less popular bands, but today I’d like to share with you my own recommendations for 21 artists that probably won’t suck at this year’s Upstream Music Fest. Why not just 20? Because I like to go one step beyond.
(Friday, 9:00 P.M., Elysian Fields)
Seattle certainly isn’t lacking for loud, distorted stoner rock and metal bands that sound like your ears are about to give at any moment, and a major player helping break Seattle’s sound barriers is Sandrider, one of the noisiest and most attention-grabbing bands Seattle’s had in some time. If you go into their music, expect to hear expertly-layered and complexly-arranged, but skull-crushing and demanding music. Their set isn’t to be missed out on if you’re looking for a band you can slowly head-bang to dramatically, but intensely.
(Thursday, 8:45 P.M., House of Sparkling Ice at 109 Washington)
I was first exposed to Tomo Nakayama when he played a free show I went to in the International District, the second performer out of six total. People only really started showing up as the more popular touring artists played later in the day, but Nakayama’s set was so intimate, sincere, and beautiful that I was in a blissful, delirious trance watching his set from beginning to end. Definitely a set for people that want something that’ll quietly enrapture them for a little while.
(Saturday, 11:45 P.M., Comedy Underground)
Silent Servant‘s approach to techno and tech house music is striking because even compared to most minimal techno and future garage musicians, Silent Servant adopts a lo-fi, effect-heavy and stylish sound that may not be as pretty or as clear as other music of its kind, but pays a lot of attention to texture and timbre. His 2012 record Negative Fascination is the perfect end-of-the-world industrial techno rave of my dreams, and I’m sure this feeling can be felt way harder in the live setting.
(Friday, 8:15 P.M., Weyerhaeuser Woodshed at Zocalo)
Seattle is home to a lot of great alternative pop and electronic musicians, but with a lot of those performers, you get the sense that they aren’t looking to cross over into the mainstream pop-consuming market. GEMS‘ music, on the other hand, has stellar production value, and their songs follow that alternative R&B and indie pop fusion formula really well, with some intoxicating and extremely catchy pop songs like “Blow Out the Light” and the achingly-sensual “w/o u.” Judging by the amount of Spotify streams they have, I think it’s fair to say GEMS, if they haven’t yet, are soon to be Seattle’s next breakout band, and it isn’t hard to see why. Now is a good chance to see them before they blow up.
(Thursday, 8:30, Nordo’s Culinarium)
One of the most standout bands in Seattle’s growing sea of bands blurring the line between rock and electronic music, Furniture Girls are decidedly an electronic music outfit – genres like trip hop and acid jazz come to mind – but they aren’t afraid to show off their rock side too, with in-your-face live drums and some good guitar playing on the majority of their tracks. Their songs are rich with sound, and the vocals are both soulful and lively. While the first day of any festival tends to be the least eventful, Furniture Girls will likely be one of the highlights of Thursday.
(Friday, 9:15 P.M., Stage Seattle)
An unenthused skim through the music section of The Stranger in a 2015 issue turned me onto the music of Romaro Franceswa, and after listening to his album Balance over and over again the year it dropped, Franceswa quickly became one of my favorite voices in Northwest hip hop. Franceswa definitely has that sort of raw, underground sound that a lot of Seattle hip hop artists have, both in the sound of his production and the often relentless flows he has on nearly every track, but his music sounds really panoramic and skillfully-produced, like a lot of care went into how each track sounds. Franceswa will be playing before Raz Simone and Sam Lachow, and will hopefully draw a sizable crowd that’s willing to match his energy.
(Saturday, 12:00 A.M., Martyr Sauce)
With the name Boy Harsher, and with an album title like Yr Body Is Nothing, I was hoping for something pouty, moody, and just the right amount of gothic. All three expectations were luckily met, but Boy Harsher’s sound is way more electronic, minimal and lo-fi than I was expecting. Fans of minimal synth and synthwave music will probably like the warm, Tobacco-ish analog sound of the synthesizers on their songs, but fans of dark, smudgy contemporary acts like Cold Cave and John Maus will be taken by the shadowy, obscured beauty of the band’s music. Make sure you’re wearing your best black lipstick, fake eyelashes, and your goth band tee of choice.
(Thursday, 8:30 P.M., Axis 1)
Something tells me CHARMS would be really intense live; their songs on record kind of sound like what I imagine to be playing through the headphones of someone trying to escape from a quickly-decaying city as buildings are falling all around them. There’s a vividly sinister vibe to the band’s music, and a high amount of tension and urgency from every element in the mix, whether it’s the loud, effect-drenched guitar or the booming drums. This show won’t be for the faint of heart, but stick with them and you’ll likely come away feeling one step closer to the end of the world, but in a good way.
(Saturday, 9:30 P.M., Kraken Congee)
IG88 remains to me one of the best and most talented producers in Seattle, and as his 2016 album Hiding in My Hands grows older, I find myself going back to its cold and vast soundscapes more and more. IG88’s music can sometimes follow grooves and song structures that are somewhat expected for his style of electronic music, but IG88’s ear for sound and chops as a producer help him stick out, because a lot of his songs are wrapped in beautiful melody and a kind of bright, misty aura. Plus, if you go to his set you can watch him play his MIDI controller live; it’s great.
(Saturday, 11:00 P.M., Martyr Sauce)
If there’s any Seattle band worthy of having “Haunted” in the title, it’s Haunted Horses. They’re an experimental rock duo that are all over the map stylistically, with strong elements of noise rock, industrial rock, and post-punk coinciding in equal disharmony. Listening to their music with really good headphones at a loud volume is an entrancing experience, their songs are expansive and their sonic palette is consistently crushing and vigorous. They haven’t been up to much since their great 2013 album Watcher, but with them playing Upstream, hopefully they’ll have a chance at a second wind, because they’re an obtuse, but captivating musical duo.
(Friday, 10:00 P.M., J&M Cafe)
I first stumbled across Seattle’s Evening Bell around the time we started last year’s 100 Bands in 100 Days series, and upon my initial discovery of the band, I figured they wouldn’t be for me, since they seemed to be another Northwest band bringing contemporary indie folk together with alt-country and Americana elements, a somewhat worn-out style nowadays, but Evening Bell’s songwriting strength, very well-produced studio music, and tender, affecting live performances have all helped them climb to the top of the Seattle underground folk food chain. Not a set to be missed if you’re looking for an intimate, emotional ride.
(Saturday, 11:15 P.M., Weyerhaeuser Woodshed at Zocalo)
Tastemaking label Hush Hush Records has been seminal in bringing the murky, obscured electronic sounds of the Seattle underground to the forefront of our scene, most notably through the aforementioned IG88, as well as NAVVI, one of the boldest and most carefully-assembled alternative pop projects we’ve had in a long time. Kristin Henry’s arresting, ghostly voice boldly calls out from an evoked musical world that’s cold and hazy, but bleakly, stylishly gorgeous. Dark synthesizers, glitchy, sometimes hard-hitting percussion, and expansive, kaleidoscopic effects, combined with Henry’s distinctly elegiac vocals, lead to a finished product that sounds like it’s taking place inside of a dark, laser-lit spaceship flying around in the solar system at a leisurely pace.
(Thursday, 10:00 P.M., Trinity Nightclub)
The Seattle underground hip hop scene is about as tight-knit as scenes go in the Northwest, and still a lot of underground appeal as a regional scene where some of our newest, freshest names are bound to make it big, and of this newer crop, Dave B is one I see that’s probably going to “make it” with time. Even when faced with the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario of replacing Goldlink at the very last minute at last year’s Capitol Hill Block Party, Dave B still managed to deliver one of the best local sets any of us saw that weekend, and when I checked out his studio material after this performance, it became clear to me he has it; great flow, charisma, interesting stories to tell, and just a natural, raw hunger. His set definitely shouldn’t be missed on the first day.
(Thursday, 9:15 P.M., CANADA presents BC Music House at Quality Athletics)
There are a lot of really good psychedelic-tinged new wave and post-punk revival bands nowadays, but Art d’Ecco‘s shyer, lo-fi, reverb-drenched style perfectly recalls the darker, edgier side of peak-era post-punk music. The project’s 2016 LP Day Fevers sounds far more indebted to smudgy, bleating goth-pop bands like Depeche Mode and Faith-era Cure, but other tracks like “Rita Mitsouko” also sound largely influenced by industrial rock acts like Killing Joke, more than most other bands nowadays striving to relive the glory days. Bring your earplugs to this one, but expect to walk away madly in love.
(Saturday, 12:45 A.M., Trinity Nightclub)
I like Ca$h Bandicoot‘s studio material he has posted online a lot; while electronic music is one of the most cutting-edge things happening in Seattle, not many around here are going for the sort of jittery, unpredictable, sporadic style Ca$h Bandicoot adopts that’s both overwhelming and overwhelmingly fun. More than anything, though, Ca$h Bandicoot’s live and DJ sets seem out of this world, and sometimes you just need a good late-night dance set at which to completely lose it, then feel massively sore the next morning.
(Friday, 9:45 P.M., Nordo’s Culinarium)
Seattle’s Gibraltar probably isn’t exactly a band that’s going to change the way you listen to music or anything, but they’re one of a handful bands that always come to mind whenever I think of solid, young underground rock bands helping keep some warm blood in our often cold and introspective local scene. 2017’s Let’s Get Beautiful has a really clear, buzzing sound that you want out of a good modern indie rock record, especially one with a poppy, hooky vibe, and founding member Aaron Starkey provides some of the most captivating performances on any indie rock record you’ll hear this year. They seem to have gotten even better since I first saw them early in 2016, so their live performance should be one of the highlights of the festival.
(Saturday, 8:45 P.M., Trinity Nightclub)
Natasha Kmeto has been one of the leading voices in Portland’s electronic music scene for a while now, with her last record Inevitable being her most personal and emotionally-stirring. While Kmeto’s music may sound minimal to the extent that it rarely goes over a certain threshold, her songs are filled with an immaculate amount of detail and different textures, and her songs perfectly balance the two realms of being meticulously-assembled and complicated, and being really catchy and somewhat poppy, putting her pretty close to indie-art pop crossover territory at several points throughout her more recent discography. I last saw her live at The Armory in Seattle Center when it was pouring rain outside, and they had to move it indoors; the dour weather outside only made Kmeto’s heartfelt performance invoke even more feelings deep inside my soul. Make sure you try to fit her set into your schedule.
(Friday, 6:00 P.M., Galvanize Basement)
The DFA Records-esque sounds of J GRGRY is sort of Seattle’s perfect answer to some of the weirder sounds in alternative dance and dance-punk music of the 2000s. Lead singer Joe Gregory brings a grim, somewhat sinister sound to even some of the most radio-friendly tracks on their newest album, Gold Teeth + Glass Eyes, with some bright, crystalline tracks that are also pretty single-worthy here and there. While J GRGRY is among the newer faces to breakout in Seattle, the project’s sudden acclaim and saturation isn’t exactly unjust.
(Saturday, 9:30 P.M., Trinity Nightclub)
Youryoungbody has kind of a spooky and occult, yet mysterious vibe that recalls everything from graveyards to horror movies of the 1930’s to cyberpunk imagery, and their bass-heavy, cloudy, and sometimes loud and crisp songs are as fitting for a dance floor as they are for someone’s dark, foggy haunted house. Their set will be taking place at night, because that’s when the ghosts come out, and together they’ll rave until the morning sun, when they’ll be promptly vanquished.
(Saturday, 6:00 P.M., Comedy Underground)
Listening to any of well-traveled London-via-Seattle artist CCL‘s couple mixes available online is a somewhat hypnotic, dreamlike experience where dark, calculated sounds are combined with unique samples and tracks to create an overall experience that has an unpredictable, but stellar flow. While most of the really good electronic sets are taking place pretty late at night on each day, CCL’s set will probably be one of the things that keeps your Saturday moving at a fast, but enjoyable speed.
(Thursday, 11:15 P.M., Kraken Congee)
As part of the musical duo You’re Me, Vancouver, B.C.’s Yu Su has been injecting her unique perspective and artistic style into the Vancouver electronic music scene for a while, and together with many other artists on the 1080p record label, Yu Su’s intricate, artistically robotic sounds have been lighting up Vancouver’s dance floors in a pretty big way. Any of Yu Su’s mixes she has online are worth diving into, and if you’re wanting a good idea of her sort of methodical, busy production techniques, listen to You’re Me’s excellent Plant Cell Division.
(Jess wouldn’t miss Jay Park’s set for the world. Write them love-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find them on Twitter @PaxilParty.)
You can get more info about Upstream HERE.