Thoughts from a weekend at Seattle's relaunched Bumbershoot festival

click to enlarge Thoughts from a weekend at Seattle's relaunched Bumbershoot festival
Seth Sommerfeld photo
AFI got the Bumbershoot main stage crowd fired up at the Seattle Center.

Despite what Frankenstein, every zombie show ever and the rancid script of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would suggest, reviving the dead doesn't always end in abject disaster.

Case in point: Bumbershoot.

The Seattle music and arts festival rose from the grave last weekend after a three-year hiatus. The 50th edition of the Emerald City's biggest Labor Day tradition packed in crowds for two days of cultural overload.

Even before COVID killed concerts there for a bit, Bumbershoot's future was rather bleak. Longtime promoter One Reel crashed financially in the mid-2010s, and entertainment giant AEG stepped in but somehow couldn't figure out how to make the festival profitable enough. (How an org can run Coachella but not figure out a fest in the heart of Seattle over a holiday weekend is beyond me.) But earlier this year, Third Stone and New Rising Sun took over and announced a festival relaunch.

It was clear as soon as the music lineup was announced in March that things were shifting course. Bumbershoot was going to be a slightly smaller scale fest. Gone were the top-end headliners of past years like Lorde, Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd. Instead, the organizers clearly were aiming for the burnout alt-rock dad demographic: Sleater-Kinney, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, Band of Horses, Fatboy Slim. Not exactly chumming the waters to bring in the young'uns there.

But when it came time for festivalgoers to descend on Seattle Center last weekend, lineup hesitations mostly melted away. People turned out in droves, yet the vibe around the festival grounds was extremely chill. Organizers were clearly striving for more of a community fest rather than juggernaut, and that seemed to jive with the folks who showed up. While Saturday was toasty at times and Sunday had spurts of being a typically raining and cool fall day, the warm aura of the people seemed unaffected.

While the festival experience can often be a blur, there were plenty of highlights that spring to top of mind. Seattle acts like the silly adult punk of Wimps, the party-starting dance music of Chong the Nomad, the Afro hip-hop of Chimurenga Renaissance and the family blues punk of the Black Tones showcased the city's different musical niches. Northwest rock legends Sleater-Kinney and Sunny Day Real Estate both demonstrated why audiences still show up well after both bands burst onto the scene in the '90s. It also wouldn't be a proper Seattle festival without Reignwolf shredding and Thunderpussy writhing around on stage. Pussy Riot was a blast, as the hyper, pop-art punk act brought protest, provocation, guttural scream and sex positivity to a large crowd (some of whom looked on with amusing befuddlement). On the nonmusical side, additions like the style-focused Fashion District and the pro wrestling of Bumbermania were fun new cultural additions, though adding back in more performing arts, comedy and conversations would be a good touch.

Of course, not everything about Bumbershoot's return was flawless. If anything, it seemed like organizers might've oversold tickets considering how overstuffed some of the crowds felt. The indoor Vera Project stage was nigh impossible to get into in the evenings, and finding a passable view for the Mural and KEXP stages at night was a losing proposition for many. That's all the sillier considering organizers didn't use Memorial Stadium for a stage, instead opting to use the massive space as an barely-attended oversized drum circle. The overcrowding might've been OK if spots like the Mural stage had screens showing the performers, but only the main stage — the one that needed it the least — got video.

The lineup could also use an injection of some youth and diversity in future auditions. Apart from being dragged by their parents, Gen Z audiences were largely left out in the metaphorical cold. Certain genres seemed underrepresented (hip-hop, EDM), but more crucially there needs to be more diversity — while some of the locals helped in this respect, the vast majority of headliners were older, white guitar dudes. It's hard to build a true community fest when most folks on the stage look the same.

Still, it seems like Bumbershoot is at least back to being a viable going concern for any Inland Northwest music fans seeking a Labor Day getaway. As Fatboy Slim closed the festivities on Sunday night with throngs of people blissing out and dancing under the spiritual shadow of the Space Needle, you could feel any issues fading away into the pulse of the music.

There will be growing pains for Bumbershoot going forward, but growing pains are at least an indication that you're still alive. ♦

Rhythmic Collective Duo @ Ponderosa Bar and Grill

Sat., Sept. 30, 7-9 p.m.
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About The Author

Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...