Bumbershoot: The Coachella Years Are Here to Stay

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(All photos taken by Glen Casebeer.)

After the mild disaster that was Bumbershoot 2015 – a festival that tried to be the festival for the teens that dream of Coachella by booking extremely popular names like the Weeknd and Ellie Goulding, but ultimately grasped the wrong end of the entirely wrong stick – its follow-up iteration had a lot to make up for. At this point, nobody with a passing interest in reality thinks Bumbershoot is or is even trying to be its old self; they can show all the 20th century footage of Bumbershoot they want in between performances for extra cred, but it’s now a pop music festival for a pop-consuming audience. And though there were undeniably a handful of musical performers I was stoked to see, my overall initial reaction to the final Bumbershoot lineup was, “Man, the first annual TigerBeat Music Festival lineup is looking pretty stacked!”

I was game for some easy-consumption pop ephemera, but Friday didn’t exactly start things off on the right foot. My day started by going back and forth between Atlas Genius on the Fisher Green Stage and Iska Dhaaf on the main stage, neither of which were the sort of larger-than-life festival-burners you would hope for. I’ve been very impressed with Iska Dhaaf’s live performances in the past seeing them in smaller spaces, and their ferocity and passion were still there, but their idiosyncratic, spastic post-punk style was an odd fit for the large arena they were performing in. Atlas Genius, meanwhile, seemed like they were having a lot of fun, but their dime-a-dozen indie rock sound didn’t warrant sticking around for more than a song or two. Vancouver alternative dance duo Bob Moses fared much better, performing their first ever show with their new live drummer, and I watched as festival-wanderers couldn’t help but stop and take in alluring, tender dance songs like “Talk” and “All I Want.”

Along with Bob Moses, Sub Pop’s Father John Misty was my most anticipated act of the first day. Following Tyler, The Creator‘s wild and audience interaction-heavy performance, J. Tillman and his band took to the main stage for an expectedly incredible live performance. From the first few notes of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” Tillman and co. left it all on that stage. Father John Misty was the best live act of Capitol Hill Block Party 2015, and though his performance at Bumbershoot was less heavy on the witty stage banter that many associate him with, hearing almost all of I Love You, Honeybear performed to perfection was fantastic as it’s ever been. Tillman mentioned this was the last ever performance on the 250-date ‘I Love You, Honeybear Tour,’ a tour which he mentioned he got through with, “only one meltdown.”

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Father John Misty stole the show on day one, but his set highlighted the worst part of the entire festival: the crowd. Performance after performance, it became painfully clear who was there because they really love music and were dying to see these artists, and who was just there because everyone they knew was going, and wanted to be able to tell everyone they were there and post about it all over social media. People talking over the music amongst themselves all throughout sets, not even facing the stage, staring down at phones the entire time, leaving en masse after the only song they knew by the artist they were seeing, just squatting so they’d have a better spot for whatever act was up next; it was a depressing environment to see even the best artists of the festival in if that’s what you were actually there for.

However, like the seven stages of grief, the weekend did get better as it went along. Everyone I talked to prior to the festival expressed massive excitement for hardcore hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, and their extremely powerful live performance did not disappoint. Killer Mike and El-P traded verses with fiery chemistry, as DJ Trackstar lended his masterful turntablism to beloved tracks like “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Banana Clipper.” Prior to them, New York trio Flatbush Zombies delivered one of the most amped-up performances of the day, breaking through to the fickle crowd long enough to get them to equally flip out for a good portion of the tracks off 3001: A Space Odyssey, and a medley of tracks off their breakthrough BetterOffDead mixtape from 2013.

I couldn’t have possibly imagined sitting through two hours of Macklemore, and luckily the Fisher Green Stage was happy to provide a satisfying alternative. Sydney, Australian outfit Jagwar Ma was my biggest surprise of the weekend, a band whose studio material I like well enough, but in the live setting, their unique blend of psychedelic rock and alternative dance was nothing short of amazing. Maybe it was just the copious amounts of MDMA the crowd was slamming all weekend, but dancing along to Jagwar Ma with everyone else all having the time of their lives yielded one of the most blissful shared feelings of wonderment all weekend. Afterwards, Explosions in the Sky closed out the Fisher Green with the sort of grandiose, crescendo-heavy post-rock they’re known for, which they performed to perfection. “We know who we’re up against, and we know he’s from here, so we appreciate you coming out to see us,” one of the members declared, before we all closed out our Saturday in halcyon.

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For the first several hours of Sunday, the day belonged to its side-stage performers. Grave & The Pink Slips were the perfect firestarter to start the day on the right foot. I first saw Grace McKagan et al live last month opening for Guns N’ Roses, and even seeing them on a smaller stage, they bring the sort of swagger and energy that you’d hope for out of their brand of attitude-heavy dance-punk. Over on the Starbucks Stage, rising UK-via-California indie pop star Bishop Briggs‘ amazing singing voice won over the hearts of the crowd, and her three-piece backing band offered the right amount of smooth and sensual grooves to really drive it home. Even if, like most other popular artists there, most of the crowd was likely only there to hear her one big single, those who stuck around probably left the set as enamored as I was.

Hometown heroes The Flavr Blue wound up being one of the best I caught all weekend. I’ve been impressed with the trio’s live energy in the past, having caught them on the Capitol Hill Block Party main stage last year, but I’d forgotten just how much charisma and stage presence its members have. Hollis Wong-Wear is the clear frontrunner in the group, being one of the most charming and vocally enchanting singers in our region, but Lace and Parker held their own, trying to set the roof on fire at every opportunity. Favorites off their several well-received EPs made their way into the setlist, as well as a couple covers, of Drake’s “One Dance,” as well as Nirvana’s “Lithium.” Obviously there’s no easier way to pander to a Seattle festival crowd than a Nirvana cover, but the cover went down without a hitch, with each of the members exchanging lead vocals throughout, and turning it over to the audience for the bridge and outro.

For me, the whole day was just a build-up to the double whammy of Tame Impala and Death Cab for Cutie on the main stage. The crowd anticipation was the highest it was all weekend for Tame Impala, and once the quintet came out and went straight into “Nangs,” it was like we were all transported to a different dimension entirely, a notion furthered once songs like the dreamy and hypnotically-looping “Let It Happen” made their way into the setlist. Incredible renditions of all their best songs that were true to the records were matched with trippy visuals and endlessly colorful lights. Tame Impala was another band everyone I knew was excited for, and I think it’s fair to say they didn’t disappoint. It didn’t really occur to me just how many excellent songs the band has in their catalog prior to their set, but there was no filler throughout the hour they played.

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Those of us who were able to avoid the all singing, all dancing shit-show that was trying to get into KeyArena (even though I’m sure Porter Robinson also made for an enlightening festival closer) had our Bumbershoot closed out by Death Cab for Cutie on the main stage. Even though Death Cab is, to me, in the upper echelon of mainstream indie-alternative bands, I’d never actually seen them live, and given the sort of crowd they would be performing for, I figured their setlist would be mostly material from Plans through Kintsugi, with the occasional Transatlanticism cut thrown in for variety. I was hoping for at least one song off the underappreciated We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, so imagine my excitement when just a handful of songs in, Ben Gibbard declared, “this one is called ‘Company Calls.'” Death Cab’s setlist was varied and luckily didn’t rely too heavily on Kintsugi, instead even busting out tracks from The Photo Album and You Can Play These Songs With Chords. While not the most explosive performance in the world (though I don’t think anyone would expect that from DCFC), they were a really good way to end the festival, with the deep cuts balanced out with smashes like the cripplingly depressing crowd singalong “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

For a festival whose 2016 lineup was simultaneously highly lauded or viciously vilified upon its initial announcement, my experience with Bumbershoot 2016 was mostly a positive one. Even if the purists aren’t happy with the beloved Seattle music and arts festival now trying to be the northwest’s Coachella, I give this year’s organizers credit for trying to go the extra mile to try to bring a festival like that to a region that doesn’t have one. Having no pretenses of being authentic or dignified isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as you can book some big names and give the average person a reason to drop three figures on weekend passes, and the insane amount of attendees this year says to me that their change in direction has paid off. Bumbershoot 2016 drew in all sorts of people I know personally that would never have gone in, say, 2006 or 2004.

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But, simultaneously, you could easily make the argument that Bumbershoot is now a festival for people that don’t care all that much about music. That was certainly a vibe I got at points throughout the weekend. It was incredibly ironic to see Father John Misty performing an expectedly fantastic, passionate, high-energy set on the main stage of this festival when it’s become the exact sort of monopolized, corporate music festival he’s controversially filibustered in the past. It was when I was standing there, trying to hold onto every word J. Tillman was singing, as intimate and existentially dreadful songs like “Holy Shit” filled the arena, but barely being able to hear him over the mewling teenagers that were only there because Halsey would be there about 40 minutes later, that I barely had any idea where the hell I even was. However, I was able to get over the crowd after a while and just focus on the great performances many of the acts had to offer.

The insane amount of people in attendance says to me that there will undoubtedly be a Bumbershoot 2017, and it’s easy to see what that’s going to be like. Bumbershoot’s lineups move in gradual steps in whatever direction, and they’ll probably continue to head in the radio pop/dressing room pop direction they chose to focus on this year. Will they ever fully abandon their appeals to the rocker crowd? Probably not, especially given the unbelievable crowd that showed up for Third Eye Blind and Billy Idol on the side stage, but the festival people are dubbing “Bumberchella” is the new Bumbershoot, and it’s here to stay. Bumbershoot 2016 may have been a festival its attendees experienced through their iPhone camera lens, but at least the music was mostly good. Long live Bumberchella.

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