Upstream! Music Festival
May 11-13, 2017
By Nick Anderson
I’m leaning against a tree that must have been old when my father first ventured into Occidental Park. A pretty girl bought me a beer and told me she doesn’t know what to expect; it’s her first day working at the Comedy Underground and while she’s looking forward to the money, she has no idea what the crowd is going to be like. “It’s the first day, right?” She’s cautiously optimistic, which seems to be the prevailing mood.
It’s the first day of Upstream Music Festival’s first year and everyone is testing the water. The first band, Midnight Faces, is doing their damnedest to make the crowd wake up and take notice. It’s commendable: They sound great, a strong bass anchoring the ethereal guitar, leaving the drums all the room in the world to get hips shaking. But it’s (relatively) early in the day and we’ve all got a long way to go.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Another music festival? Isn’t Seattle already lousy with these friggin’ things? And this one is just tailor-made for the tech-friendly upwardly mobile. See, the wristband you’re given is not just for flashing at bored door people. Oh no. Upon reception of said wristband you’re directed to activate it and it is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED (caps courtesy of the helpful pamphlet accompanying said said-wristband) that you download the Upstream app to do so.
What this means for those without smartphones I don’t know, but I’m betting that if you can afford tickets you’re not rocking a flip phone (or maybe you are, I don’t know what kids think is cool these days).
So now, when entering a venue, the door person scans your wristband with their smartphone and also scans it when you leave.
I can appreciate this from a security point of view; this is a major music festival with some 300+ performers and keynote speakers spread across multiple bars, blocks, and days in downtown Seattle. The potential for disaster is mid to high. But I’m also not naive enough to think that a festival this “on brand” isn’t going to horde all that data and meticulously comb through it in order to better profile it’s attendees and dangle those profiles in front of would-be investors. Looking at my info alone, someone could probably figure out when I used the restroom. In short, it’s your libertarian uncle’s worst nightmare.
Remember that prevailing mood of “cautious optimism?” It’s important. Here’s the thing about the wristband and especially the app: It kind of works. The app has the entire festival’s schedule and it can be broken down by day, time, and place. When you find a band you want to see, touch the star beside their name and 15 minutes before their set time, a notification pops up.
The app also has a whole bunch of other goodies, like music recommendations, and Upstream Radio channel, and a map of the festival “grounds.” The map…the map needs some work. But that’s ok! It’s the first day of a massive fest that’s got some serious moxie. And I prefer moxie to perfection.
The overall vibe was positive. Everyone had bands they were looking forward to seeing or had caught a keynote speaker earlier in the day. There were no giant crushes of people or lines stretching to infinity. Musicians wandered around, mingling with the attendees and checking out other acts. Plus, since the fest didn’t quarantine itself from the rest of Pioneer Square, the neighborhood was integrated. People on smoke breaks watched the free stages and I’m sure the local restaurants made a killing when festival-goers looked up from their fourth beer and realized they hadn’t eaten since 4 p.m.
Upstream’s musical line-up was spot-on. Eclectic but familiar, a multitude of genres was accounted for and well represented.Sundries made me swoon with their soulful punk while Dead Rich showed off some dances swagger. Bread and Butter have the early evening crowd some classic Americana, keeping everyone eagerly engaged even though it started to rain. Brite Lines swept everyone off their feet with their infectiously earnest folk-pop. Charms ripped the AXIS 1 stage apart. Grynch spit cerebral rhymes and He Whose Ox Is Gored carved out stoney riffs. The Maldives soared like falcons, like they always do. Dude York are the band I want to take home to my mother because I think she would find them cute but also kind of annoying. MASZER are terrifyingly brilliant and one of a handful of Seattle bands that I wouldn’t want to follow on stage. And Hobosexual are the still the kings of all things hairy and heavy.
While the music was great and well-curated, the most illuminating part of the day was talking to the grunts in the trenches, the ones who get shit done, the Staff. I talked to bartenders, door people, security personnel, volunteers, other journalists, and promo reps to get a feeling for how the nuts and bolts of this bold experiment were holding together. Surprisingly well, apparently. There were some snags and snares to be sure but nothing uncommon to any other festival of this size. One member of security was wearing a Kevlar vest under his shirt but was kind of sheepish about it after scanning the crowd. “Now I’m just a little too warm,” he grinned.
At another point, I was chatting with some journalists in the press room when a volunteer walked up and asked if we’d like some wine, which we eagerly accepted. The volunteer brought the wine to us, prompting someone to gush, “Well, table service is a new one.”
I also got a chance to talk to my buddy Mike who books the Central Saloon and was heavily involved in Upstream’s talent buying process. He told me a little about what the festival has planned and while I can’t go into it here, it’ll be exciting if the powers that be bring their ideas to fruition. One tidbit I can share: Upstream will be back next year.
Cautious Optimism. It’s a healthy attitude to cultivate and it’s one that I can’t ever remember hurting anyone. Like a better journalist than myself once said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Strap on the wristband, download the app. Let a pretty girl buy you a beer and leave the bulletproof vest at home. Float along with Upstream and see where the current takes you.