Summer Festivals

Bumbershoot 2016: Nothing's In the Right Place

The highs and lows of this year's Labor Day weekend festivities at Seattle Center.

By Seth Sommerfeld September 7, 2016

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Macklemore and Ryan Lewis headlining Bumbershoot.

There was no standup comedy at the Cornish Playhouse at Bumbershoot 2016.

While that might not seem like a big deal to some, that's a borderline unfathomable loss for comedy fans and performers. Cornish Playhouse is an ideal home for festival standup comedy. It's one of the reasons that Bumbershoot was the favorite festival for many comedians before before AEG Live took over running the fest. Heck, Mike Birbiglia taped his last standup special at the Cornish Playhouse because he loved the venue so much as a Bumbershoot performer.

But instead of hosting great acts like Nick Thune and Morgan Murphy, this past weekend the space served as an administrate hub for the fest (one that could've been housed in any number of other Seattle Center structures). The lack of comedy in Cornish Playhouse was emblematic of the main problem with the year's festival: nothing seemed to be in the right place.

Obviously festivals change and evolve, and there are complicated logistics with operating the various venues, but the tweaks made to Bumbershoot 2016 continually failed to make logical sense. Let's start with the obvious: this year's festival took place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Why on earth would you move the city's signature Labor Day event off of Labor Day? Isn't that the whole point of holding it on the holiday weekend? You know when you can hold a festival on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? Any week. Additionally, it's not fair to the performers or attendees to start programming before 3pm on a Friday workday, but that happened this year.

The shifting venues also provided some major problems. Instead of setting up in Cornish Playhouse, a good chunk of the comedy moved to Teatro ZinZanni and Vera Project. While it has historic One Reel ties, including Teatro ZinZanni—a venue off of the Seattle Center campus—as part of Bumbershoot is baffling. Not only is it a mediocre comedy venue compared to Cornish Playhouse, crossing Mercer to try and get into a show meant dealing with having to re-enter security on your way back into the main fest (which was especially frustrating if you made the trek just to find out ZinZanni was at its fire code capacity).

And ZinZanni wasn't the only Bumbershoot venue with capacity issues in 2016. The young'in had to wait in monstrously long and unweildly lines all weekend in the hopes of getting inside KeyArena to see their EDM. The new KEXP studios served as a lovely home for three-days of the city's best local acts, but it also had a nasty habit of reaching its maximum occupancy limit for the later acts. The same can be said for the Words and Ideas stage, which was shoved into the far too small Center Theatre at the Armory. Meanwhile, the multiple theater spaces in the Seattle Children's Theatre (which had been used effectively in past years) housed nothing.

It also still doesn't seem right that the festival organizers eliminated Fountain Lawn stage in 2015. While the smaller stage presented some minor noise bleed issues with Memorial Stadium and Fisher Green, having a another non-capped stage was important to the spirit of the festival. It's frustrating to when you can't get into KeyArena, KEXP, Teatro ZinZanni, Center Theater because they've all reached their capacities (there's a decent chance SIFF and the Laser Dome capped out at certain times too, as they have in past years). More outdoor options are always welcome.

Even some of Bumbershoot's smaller character-building color was out of place this past weekend. The poster show Flatstock had long provided a vibrant buzzing, lively energy in the Armory, but this year it was shoved into the depths of the Ex Hall. And since Cornish Playhouse (which employs the same walkway) wasn't hosting events, the Ex Hall and its nondescript side entrance doors felt all the more hidden and isolated, which meant fewer people checking out Flatstock, the festival's dance offerings, and the worthwhile local visual arts display Brent Watanabe, Seattle Experimental Animation Team, and Coley Mixan.

While there were still plenty of superb performances that made Bumbershoot 2016 worthwhile (see below), the fundamental planning and layout of this year's festival proved to be a constant mild headache. And when people are shelling out $129 for a single day's worth of action, the least organizers could do is get things in their proper place.

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Iska Dhaaf

Other observations:

  • Iska Dhaaf opening up the Memorial Stadium stage on Saturday with a rocking set also marked the end of the band's unprecedented local summer festival run. This year the group managed to play Sasquatch! Festival, Capitol Hill Block Party, Doe Bay Fest, and Bumbershoot. We're fairly certain that's never happened before, and because festivals discourage that sort of thing (lord knows how Iska Dhaaf got around it), we don't expect it to happen again anytime soon.
  • The most entertaining performance I saw all weekend came courtesy the Improvised Shakespeare Company. It's really hard to describe great improv after the fact, but the one-act play the troupe crafted out of the audience-suggested title, "Blackbeard's Surprise Party," was pure brilliance. From a complex rhyming opening monologue to the plot about love, betrayal, and murder on the high seas to a multi-verse song about the duties of a ship's bosun to questionably erotic squat-infused dances, the whole Shakespearean style epic was an uproarious delight. If you ever get a chance to see the Improvised Shakespeare Company, don't pass on the opportunity.
  • While searching for another friend, a photographer pal and I stumbled across St. Lucia set at Fisher Green. I'm normally pretty kind, but all I can say is wow... this band is garbage. I imagine hell sounds something like if you play these three videos at the same time.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, the best band I stumbled across all weekend was the Pink Slips. Frontwoman Grace McKagan (yes... she's Duff's kid) channeled an extremely Courtney Love vibe as the band ripped for some playfully theatrical grunge-inspired tunes. If anything, McKagan's reliance on the preening theatrics went a bit overboard (some authenticity is lost when fake blood is added into the mix), but overall the Pink Slips provided a fun little surprise.
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Father John Misty

  • It's frustrating that audience still don't laugh at the right times during Father John Misty concerts. There are lots of incredibly sharp deadpan jokes in the songs and banter, people. Don't just stand there stonefaced. Bumbershoot marked the final performance for FJM as part of the I Love You, Honeybear album cycle, and he didn't hold back: slinking and writhing around the stage, tongue-in-cheek bragging about only having one major meltdown, and primally howling during the superb and rowdy closer, "The Ideal Husband." It was a great goodbye, even for those not totally in on the joke.

  • While they might not have drawn huge crowds at the Vera Project, it was nice to see Bumbershoot allocate space to atypical local programs like Brett Hamil's political comedy talk show The Seattle Process and Chris Allen's local history podcast The Seattle Files. Bumbershoot's standup comedy and Words and Ideas programming is always (at the very least) solid, but it's also excellent to have things that sort of split the difference intellectual and humorous distance on the bill.
  • There was something undeniably strange about Pony Time playing its final show at Bumbershoot on the pristine and sunny KEXP stage. For seven years, the garage punk duo thrived on Seattle's dark and grimy stages in front of rowdy beer-guzzling audiences. The polite KEXP audience that stood at a distance while sipping their teas and coffees certainly provided a different mood. Still, Pony Time sounded great as it tore through its catalogue one last time. Long live Pony Time.
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Pony Time

  • While most of the teens (which seemed more than ever to be majority of the Bumbershoot audience) flocked inside KeyArena to see the EDM headliners, it was nice to see the festival bring in a band like the Front Bottoms for the more emo-leaning bleeding heart kids. (I may have a soft spot in my heart for those that scream out their lungs to clever and mildly nerdy songs about heartbreak.)

  • The thing that makes Run the Jewels such fantastic festival act isn't just the bombastic and aggressively energetic hip-hop jams, it's also Killer Mike and El-P's chemistry. The pair possess the charm of an adorable married odd couple that jokes about their differences while always landing on the same page. It's a delightful treat that adds a little sweetness to the fiery mix. Oh... the group also busted out a new song from the upcoming Run the Jewels 3 and it was dope.
  • I have a theory that all you need is two or three mega hits to basically be invulnerable in the modern music industry. An artist doesn't need to stay consistent from album to album anymore, because people don't buy albums. They just turn out to see the singles they know. Over the past year, I've encountered more friends that were fans of The Heist who didn't even realize Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had put out a followup album (This Unruly Mess I've Made) than ones that had actually listened to the new record. But it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter that only one of the new album's singles charted ("Downtown" at #12), because the fans are committed to the mega hits. And it really doesn't matter in Seattle, where the duo is almost deified in certain circles. Those people turned out in droves for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's Saturday night headlining set, and the duo delivered its typically energy-packed live set. Even if the pair never reaches the same heights as The Heist again, don't expect the live turnouts to dissipate anytime soon. Because... hits.
  • Explosions in the Sky's instrumental rock always stirs up serious emotions when taken in live, but thanks to Macklemore's fireworks display, there were literally explosions in the sky during the group's final number. And that was just downright magical.
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Third Eye Blind

  • Third Eye Blind's Sunday evening crowd at the Fisher Green stage was massive. And that makes sense. While the band hasn't been ultra relevant on the charts in some time, having a few huge, huge hits during the era when people still bought music matters, especially to the type of people casually wandering around the Seattle Center grounds looking for something to watch. If something else isn't circled on their schedules (for example, Tame Impala), casual fans will stick it out through some unfamiliar songs for the communal bliss of tunes like "Jumper" or "Semi-Charmed Life." And Third Eye Blind still sounded good playing them, so why not?
  • Ignore the fact that he's 60 years old, Billy Idol can still rock. Sure, the Sunday night crowd at Fisher Green (justifiably) wasn't as into it when he played newer songs, but when guitarist Steve Stevens started playing a riff from one of his '80s hits like "Dancing with Myself," the atmosphere instantly became electric and Idol's charisma did the rest.
  • Pro tip: It's probably not advisable to get laughably rejected by your crush shortly before watching Death Cab for Cutie play. While, theoretically speaking, it might be a cathartic release to sing-along with all of Ben Gibbard's emotional cutting lyrics, it would probably still sting like hell in the process. Theoretically speaking. Regardless, the band's Bumbershoot-closing homecoming at Memorial Stadium sounded on point as ever. After a full album cycle in support of Kintsugi, the group's two newer members (Dave Depper and Zac Rae) finally feel official and capable of pull off a seamless performances of the older material. As fireworks went off overhead during the encore-closing performance of "Transatlanticism" it was damn near impossible to not be swept up in the poetic beauty of tender emotions.
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Death Cab for Cutie

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