Upstream Music Fest
Pioneer Square in Seattle, Wash.
Friday, June 1, 2018
By Nicholas Anderson
The sun is setting upon Puget Sound and it hits the bricks of Pioneer Square as if they’re animated by its amber, making them look organic, like they might hold life. Maybe they do.
There’s someone asleep and twitching under one of those heavy wool blankets that come in the back of U-Hauls. People are wandering around, staring at their phones. I am one of them. There’s a tent anchored with a cinder block to the sidewalk and a guy not much younger than me is crouched inside of it playing a guitar. I wonder if he has tickets to Upstream. Hell, maybe he’s playing it.
I don’t know if this is the right way to go about this. This is supposed to be fun. And Upstream is fun. It really works in a lot of ways. I like the official app, it makes logistical sense and it’s nice to have a push notification telling you: “hey, this band starts in fifteen and you better get to hoofing it.” And I love that you can tip the musicians with it. I hope every artist makes a million dollars from this feature.
Speaking of artists, every one that I’ve talked to who has played Upstream has had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. And all of the artists that I saw on the first night were exceptional. [b r a c k e t s] showed that post-punk ferocity still has a place in Seattle. I know nothing about DJs but American Nudism had people dancing and I’m pretty sure that’s rule number one. GENDERS dropped some stylishly blurry psych on an audience gazing at their shoes. Bellingham lent us their finest, Dryland, and they are become death, destroyer of worlds. Blood Drugs is better than any of us deserve. I was hooked by The Seshen and their enigmatic frontwoman Akiyoshi Ehara (the rest of the band was great too, the plethora of baseball caps notwithstanding).
And then there’s Gold Casio. Oh, sweet baby, Gold Casio. We as a species might as well give our souls to a higher power and our hearts to our mothers because our collective asses belong to Gold Casio. This band is, top to bottom, built to please. Great songs, talented musicians, a commanding stage presence, and a shoe game second to none (I did say top to bottom).
So where does my earlier semi-melancholia factor in? I suppose that it’s tough for me to square the fact that the app I’m so fond of asks me to declare my annual income in order to activate it while the festival is being held in a neighborhood that is ground zero for the Seattle’s housing dilemma. I have to wonder if a shameless data mine hiding beneath a music festival’s umbrella is really what I want for my city’s music scene. And I have to question my own point of view, opinions, and prejudices. Am I just getting old and contrary? Is it too much to ask of a fest to shoulder a societal issue that is far broader, complex, and deeply rooted than any form of entertainment could ever hope to address ? Hell, maybe Upstream is a boon to Pioneer Square. All the bartenders seemed to be making money and all the local restaurants were open late, selling food. Some guy followed me for a block trying to hustle a dollar which I didn’t have because all my money’s in the bank because rent is due. And yet I wonder if these things couldn’t be achieved by investing in this city’s culture as a whole and not with another festival that costs a bank’s worth of money to get into. I honestly don’t know.
My oldest friend is giving me a ride home so I’ve got to leave a little early. We’re stalking through the Square, talking about the bands, about the festival, about the city itself. He played it last year and had a secret set this year. We don’t really know what to make of it and I’m starting to think that’s OK, maybe nobody does. Some people, from all walks of life, will make money from it, in varying amounts. But I’ve never found money to provide much in the way of answers, let alone meaning. And as for looking for meaning in the music itself, well the best art always raises more questions than it answers. Here’s to the Upstream Music Festival. Long may we question it.