Friday night. Outside the Zocalo Stage. Outside the restaurant venue, a large man wearing a 3 day festival wristband is yelling to passersby, “This Festival sucks! There’s no blues, no metal, no jazz, and not enough rock. All the artists are young, it’s like they rejected all the old talent. And you can’t find anything. The venues are too spread out…” This quote is a perfect example of the wrong way to approach Upstream Music Fest.
If you approach Upstream Music Fest as a series of opportunities then it could really be something special. I spent my weekend exploring new music (left, SuperDuperKyle), connecting with members and fans of the local music scene, and enjoying main stage caliber performances both on the main stage and in intimate venues. This festival feels tailored to folks like me. People who are more than happy to give artists a chance. The artists I saw were seasoned. The sets I saw demonstrated talent who have dedicated themselves to their craft. Age is one thing, but time spent gaining experience is another. You can tell these folks put in the time. It’s hard to say most fall into one specific genre. If anything, the artists I saw that weekend seemed to blend genres. To lump them as one label kind of marginalized their act and limits the perspective of what they do.
Here’s a breakdown of my Upstream experience.
KEXP Stage @ Little London Plane – The mini sets performed at the KEXP Stage this year were amazing. I was lucky enough to catch a set each day of the festival. I was able to see Little Dragon, Zola Jesus (left), TacocaT (above), Hot Snakes, and Khris P., all perform sets broadcast live on air. The atmosphere provided by the venue lent well to each artists performance. It was great getting to head bang outside the windows during Hot Snakes. Zola Jesus hung around before and after her set, and was very approachable. Seeing how relaxed she was showed a direct dichotomy from how heavy her sets eventually were. A major highlight during the Tacocat set were the characters milling around in the windows behind them. There were confused tourists, photographers, street performers, and even a man wearing a full purple jumpsuit, rainbow helmet, and carrying a magenta shovel.
The Summit – I started my Upstream by attending the Summit. The Summit portion of Upstream was aimed towards educating people about the music industry. This year’s Summit was a vast improvement from last year’s. The separated venues allowed for little to no sound bleed, and the cheaper price tag facilitated a definite increase in attendance. Of the two talks I saw (Roadmap to Success, and Artist Management), attendance was well enough so that people were standing along the edges as most of the chairs had been filled. Overall, the talks were informative and the crowd seemed engaged.
So Pitted – At this point into the festival, I had attended the Summit, saw Zola Jesus, Little Dragon, and SuperDuperKyle all perform. Last year, So Pitted’s set was a highlight of the festival after one of the members cut off his pony tail and tied it to the front of his head during the set. Not wanting to miss another possible highlight, I attended So Pitted’s (left) set. If the outfits of the members didn’t catch your attention, then the culmination of this punk rock trio’s set definitely did. At the culmination of the set, one performer threw a giant inflatable cube into the crowd. The crowd confused at how to proceed, picked up the cube and tossed it around as if it were a beach ball. Then a member of the crowd grabbed the cube walked it to the front and began spinning, while another band member put down his guitar that he was playing, jumped off the stage wearing a light on his chest, and plugged himself into a floor plug-in the ballroom. As the light began blinking on and off, the performer’s brother jumped on stage and continued the set with the band until the set ended. The member with the blinking light was then brought the cube, which he posed with. Awesome. (Video of this on my Instagram.)
Storme Webber – I had time between sets (after So Pitted, but before Miguel), so I decided I would walk around and just see what sounded good. As I was walking I saw a guy who looked like he was in a hurry and was carrying a lot stuff, so I offered to help carry a box to his set. He was grateful and asked if I would be interested in checking out his set. I had time, so I decided to sit in. The performer’s name was Che Sehyun, and he was performing with Storme Webber. This set was different from everything else I saw at Upstream. Storme Webber, Avery R Young, Che Sehyun, and Tuesday Velasco brought social issues to the forefront and made me feel inspired after their performances. I didn’t think a performance with such a social conscience like this would be showcased at Upstream. In the end, I walked up and thanked all the performers. A few days later I was surprised to see Che had an article written about him in the latest issue of City Arts Magazine (page 19).
Miguel – Easily Miguel (above) was the most packed performance at the main stage that weekend. People were pushed up against the beer garden rails. My favorite part of Miguel’s set was when he told everyone to put away their phones and just be there with each other. Enjoy the moment. I took two photos and put away my phone for the remainder of the set. This was a good set.
Great Grandpa – By the time I was at this set, I had seen Tacocat, Zola Jesus, Hot Snakes, and Strange Ranger. Great Grandpa (left) was a band I was looking forward to seeing again live. They remind me of an early No Doubt. I stood on the far left side. As we saw the lead singer captivate the crowd, all of a sudden a bubble machine went off. A combination of the packed crowd and the direction the bubble machine was pointed, caused the bubbles to both fly over the crowd and also cover anyone standing near the machine in soap. Most other crowds I feel this would be a negative, but covered in soap we all looked at each other and just laughed. One guy commented, “I guess Great Grandpa just helped me skip a shower.” The set was great, the ground was slippery, and was definitely a performance to remember.
New Track City – This was the first set I saw at the Comedy Underground. This venue was perfect for a hip hop show and lent great to a high energy duo like New Track City. A moment that stood out to me from this set was when one performer prompted the crowd, “We’re from Federal Way. Who here’s reppin Federal Way?” (light cheers) “It’s all good. I take it ya’ll reppin Seattle then?” (loud cheers). I like seeing a performer surprised when they realize they have a great following outside of their home neighborhood, especially a duo like New Track City who I felt with the performance they put on deserve the following they’ve cultivated.
Jawbreaker – I had one goal for Saturday: Get in the mosh pit at Jawbreaker (left). I showed up to the set a little late so I hung around the edge of the crowd trying to scope out where the inevitable pit was. I finally saw the pit in the heart of the crowd and not wanting to be a jerk, I gave it 5 songs before I saw my opening to run in. I charged in and had a great time. I found myself jumping, pushing, and singing along with fellow fans. I ran into a few friends (literally and figuratively) and pretty soon arms on each others shoulders we were in this kind of unbelievable situation. I never thought I would be able to say I moshed at a Jawbreaker show, but I seized the opportunity at Upstream.
Moorea Masa and the Mood – I don’t know why but the third day of Upstream I was more in a partying mood than I was any other day of the festival. By the time I was watching Moorea Masa and the Mood (above), I had seen Khris P, The True Loves, Whitney Ballen, and Spesh, and I had maybe a drink or two at each venue. By this set, I was feeling it. Even in that haze, I remember hearing Moorea perform and falling in love with her voice. Her set was impressive, and reminded me of the first time I heard Norah Jones. I bought her album after the festival concluded.
Tres Leches – By the time I made my way to the Central Saloon to catch Tres Leches’ performance, I was pretty “faded” and had already stopped imbibing. I had seen a few bands perform at prior shows, and Tres Leches I had most recently seen perform at Folk Life the week prior. I remember dancing during their set and enjoying the style of music they dubbed “Dark Basement”. You know a band must be special when you look around the room and see members of other bands (pretty sure I saw Tacocat and Terror/Cactus) as well as local personalities (like fashion blogger Fresh Jess). At one point in the set, one of the band members took a globe with South America cut out with the words “Trapped” and “Denied” scrawled across it, put his mic in the globe, and began yelling into it as the other members continued playing. The set was fun but also controlled chaos I would want to see again. As the set ended, I met up with some freinds, and we all made our way to the Flaming Lips set.
The Flaming Lips – I saw The Flaming Lips (below) perform last year at the Paramount and remember having a feeling of elation. People around me were crying from being overwhelmed with emotion during that Paramount set. The set I saw at Upstream was entertaining but nowhere near the emotional trip the Paramount set had been. The set had a lot of the same gimmicks (balloons, the unicorn, etc.), but I think what I’ll remember the most from this experience was being in that crowd singing along to the music. As the alcohol was wearing off, it was while singing “Do You Realize?” that it hit me just how cool this festival had been, and how great this crowd was. Any crowd where you could turn to your neighbors and see everyone singing the same song will probably give you that feeling.
Eventually my festival experience had to come to an end. It was a weekend of great opportunity, fun, and just deep appreciation. I appreciated every act I saw that weekend. I feel like if you approach this festival with a sense of exploration and love for music, any music really, you can come away feeling like you had a great time.
I split away from my friends and began making my way to the street car. On the way I heard a sound coming from the Starbucks stage. It sounded fun so I decided to go in. I made my way close to the front and began dancing. This band had a ton of energy and although the crowd wasn’t too large and looked pretty tired, were really giving it their all. I danced even if it seemed like those around me were more grooving, if anything. Eventually after maybe 3 songs had passed, I turned to the person standing next to me and asked a question that perfectly encapsulates both my experience and also the spirit of “Upstream Music Festival and Summit”, “Do you know what band this is?”.