Man of Many Acts

Bumbershoot booker Chris Porter tries to catch the trends, keep it Reel, and always have a backup when Devo bails for China.

By Kevin Friedman December 27, 2008 Published in the August 2008 issue of Seattle Met

IN JULY 2005, with Bumbershoot just weeks away, Chris Porter, the festival’s chief music booker, thought his work was done. Then he got a call: Ani DiFranco, one of his headliners, had to cancel for health reasons. Bad news, but Porter figured he could work it out. Less than 24 hours later, another call: Devo, the grand finale, was canceling, too; front man Mark Mothersbaugh needed to go to China to adopt a child. “I was like, Are you kidding me?” Porter recounts. “It has to be that kid? How about some kid in Brazil?” But all ended well; Porter landed Elvis Costello and Iggy and the Stooges as replacements. “You just have to be prepared to keep calm and be ready to fix the problems that come your way,” he says, calmly.

Why put yourself through the ordeal? For Porter, who’s just over 40 and, with his wavy black hair, recalls a young Cat Stevens, it all comes down to love of music. This is his 12th Bumbershoot. He started out booking talent for rock clubs in Boston 18 years ago, landed a job at Steven Tyler’s bar Mama Kin’s, then made his way out west. Even now, Porter keeps a foot in the club scene; he DJs a monthly “Moe Mod” night at Moe Bar and also dabbles in acting, oversees music for the WaMu Family Fourth, and books artists for Seafair’s music stage. But Bumbershoot is in a class of its own: “It’s like booking three months’ worth of bands for a club, but condensed into three days.”

Most people start thinking about Bumbershoot in the waning days of August, as a last hurrah before school starts, clocks change, and the rain returns. As senior programming manager for One Reel, which produces Bumbershoot, Porter will start thinking about next year’s festival just weeks after this year’s ends. He’ll wade through thousands of demos and press kits sent from all over the world. “I literally get submissions from about 1,200 West Coast regional bands, and then I get about 2,000 pitches from agencies [for established performers] for the 120 slots we’re trying to fill.” Porter savors memories of Bumbershoots past, such as booking the Pixies in 2004: “I remember seeing this band with about 40 other people back in Boston, and now they mean so much to so many people.” Another highlight was scheduling the famously loud metal band Motörhead on the main stage in daytime. “My boss called me back to the office trailer behind the main stage, which was literally shaking. She had this stricken look on her face, and I felt like a 15-year-old pissing my parents off with my stereo too loud. It was great!”

"My boss had this stricken look on her face, and I felt like a 15-year-old pissing my parents off with my stereo too loud. It was great."

What excites Porter most, however, is not booking big names but finding unexpected nuggets—comebacks and up-and-comers who don’t play the big stadium, such as rediscovered soul artist Darondo, the Bay Area band Howlin Rain, and the Israeli band Monotonix. “The essence of the festival is found on some of the smaller stages, the stuff you’re not going to see every day.”

Bumbershoot has grown over its 38 years, attracting bigger acts and larger crowds. Some longtime festivalgoers resent the longer lines and greater emphasis on rock and hip-hop, but Porter notes that in the mid-’90s, when -grunge burst into the mainstream, Bumbershoot’s managers missed the boat: “It was because they were programming for the founders’ generation.” Soon afterward, One Reel started working closely with KEXP FM, local talent buyers, and other professionals to keep up with trends.

“It’s dollars and cents, and we need to get people in,” says Porter. “I’m not going to apologize for being popular. That’s what keeps us going. And also, if you get locked out of one show, explore, and I guarantee you’ll discover something you’re not familiar with that you’ll really like.” Keep that in mind if your favorite act takes off for China at the last minute—and be glad your job doesn’t depend on it.