"Seattle owns the future and they don't know it," composer Ron Jones tells a crowd at WaMu Theater during the second day keynote of the Upstream Music Fest + Summit. There's a bite to his words, feeling like equal parts admiration and condemnation. A native to the Northwest who relocated to Los Angeles, he went out of his way to hype up the potential of our corner of the country. So much so, in fact, that he recently moved back to Stanwood, WA, and built SkyMuse Studios.
Jones' words may have not come at the top of the weekend, but they felt like a thesis statement to the entire vision of the festival. Upstream was conceived as a way to highlight the local talent in Seattle and the surrounding Northwest. With over 300 bands on the bill — most of those being local — the festival showed just how much our region has to offer. That's not the problem, at least not in Jones' eyes. It comes down to a need for some of the "LA energy", for the music community to assert itself as the great, wondrous thing it already is.
As you may have noticed, the title of this piece is more-or-less lifted from Michael Azzerad's seminal tribute to DIY music Our Band Can Be Your Life (itself a reference to The Minutemen's "History Lesson - Part II"). I'm hardly the first writer to play off this title, and definitely won't be the last, but the idea of Azzerad's book was heavy on my mind as I sprinted between stages from Occidental Square to The Smith Tower and all the way back down to CenturyLink Field. Azzerad sought to inspire artists to pursue their craft by showing examples of influential bands that made it on their own terms, like Fugazi and Black Flag. While I'm sure Upstream can have that effect too, what it really emphasized was the role of the fan. The artists are already here creating the scene; now it's time to get the rest of the city to engage. And that's where Upstream's inaugural year really begins.
Walking down the stairs to Kraken Congee early on Thursday night, I could already hear Bremerton rapper Guayaba's voice bouncing off the brick walls. The room, covered in red light, was already approaching capacity and I couldn't even find her at first until I noticed all the heads in the room were turned toward the back corner. In lieu of a stage, Guayaba delivered her bilingual set with her feet on the concrete floor like everyone else and a semicircle of people formed around her. The crowd was rapt in her bilingual flow, roaring after every song. Guayaba mentioned she'd been fighting laryngitis that week, but there was no way of telling as she finished her set with the solemn acoustic ballad "Paloma". It felt remarkable in a few ways. 1) Guayaba sounded amazing, 2) the attentiveness of the audiene, and 3) how much it felt like a typical Guayaba show (in a good way). There was no pretense of a festival, just Guayaba setting up her laptop, spitting, and hyping up the crowd in a space that felt very DIY. Before I could even let all that settle in, I was already off again to the see Porter Ray on the Occidental Stage. That was an early lesson — there's so much to see that if you take too long to digest what you just saw, you might miss out on something else great. Also, rain is essential to getting the patented "Seattle ambiance".
Ever the pinball, I bounced across the street to Zocalo to see indie rock outfit Tea Cozies give their final performance ever. The venue offered an interesting dichotomy of modern Seattle: upscale chips and salsa, fancy cocktails, and the distorted sounds of deteriorating garage pop. But in the end, it didn't really matter where they played; Tea Cozies were going to throw down no matter where or when they played. The band had been a key force in the local scene for 12 years. That they could end it at Upstream was profound in that they were surrounded by the artists they came up with, had an inspired, and maybe even one over some last minute fans. But still, no time to reflect — gotta run and see CHARMS a few blocks over churn out their noisy, manic riffs. Like I said, there's always something else.
I don't mean to make the bouncing between the stages sound too exhaustive. There was definitely an adrenaline rush trying to catch everything I could, but it also prompted some of the best parts of the festival and what local music has to offer. Within the span of 30 minutes and on the same block of Pioneer Square, I was able to jump from the entrancing, celestial R&B sounds of JusMoni and DJ Staas THEE Boss then cross the street and hear Ole Tinder's rustic twang at the J&M Cafe. Jumping next door to the Central Saloon and discover Idaho prog-rockers Thick Business before heading out to see queercore punks Sashay blare their ferocious songs in the concrete Galvanize basement. Each act felt like they existed within their own universe, but they didn't. Once I had time to think about that sprint later on, I realized just how well it exemplified how musically diverse our region is.
While nearly every facet of the scene was represented throughout the weekend, it quickly became clear just how much Seattle hip-hop is on the rise. Sunday night headliner Shabazz Palaces and keynote Speaker Macklemore may have been two of the most prominent rap names on the bill, but walking from venue to venue you could experience the new generation of rappers and producers embedding themselves as the next breakouts from our town. Not just that, but also how tight the community is. Rapper Taylar Elizza Beth transfixed a crowd that was equal parts fans and peers, with her tantalizing, ghost-like vocals and swooning aura. Likewise, Falon Sierra and Cosmos' Thursday evening sets, with the crowd's dancing and cheering along. Along with consistently vital presence of DoNormaal, the energy around the hip-hop scene feels ready to explode at any moment. Not just that, but producers as well. Production collective Northern Natives held things down on the 18th floor of the Smith Tower, remixing chart-topping hits and spinning local cuts. At all levels of the scene, excellence is being executed.
That's not to say that rock and punk weren't pulling out all the stops either! Pearl Jam's Mike McCready played in essentially a basement venue with a line out the door! Alongside other local icons like Sunny Day Real Estate's Jeremy Enigk and The Long Winters, Upstream didn't forget what put them on the map all those decades ago. Yet again, the glory belongs to the new kids. Walking into the Central Saloon on a rainy Friday night to find Great Grandpa on the stage was comforting in a way. On the verge of releasing a new album, Plastic Cough, that (in this writer's opinion) is poised to give them the larger audience they deserve, the band ripped through disenchanted anthems with swaths of fuzz and guttural bass. Post-punks Dreamdecay gave a brutal performance near the end of Saturday night, blaring their songs about displacement and feeling torn between cultures.
Not to get too #corny, but there's always been something special happening in the local music scene. It's the reason Quincy Jones remembered the town so fondly in his introductory keynote on the first day of the summit. And why Ron Jones came back. And why Macklemore never left.
One of the criticisms Upstream faced was "You can see any of these bands any night of the week for $5-10." Sure, that's true enough. But that's also the point the festival was trying to make. Look around you. Hear all this beautiful music from bands, rappers, producers, DJs, singer-songwriters, etc. These are your neighbors and it's a privilege to have all of them here in our own region. For a few days, they were all gathered together in one space, regardless of whatever corner of the scene they typically exist in. You don't have to wait for Upstream to see them again. Our scene can be your life.
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