Armed with just a basic $30 pass, I’d had a blast on my first day of Bumbershoot 2011 and caught nearly a dozen great live performances, but for my second visit to the festival I was fully prepared to do some serious damage with the all-access pass burning a hole in my pocket.
Hidden away through a (pretty much) unmarked back entrance to the Seattle Childrens Theater lies the undisputed tête de cuvée of any Bumbershoot experience – The Music Lounge. While a few tickets to each performance at this venue are released to the public a month before the festival via local radio station KEXP’s website, they’re in extremely high demand and disappear in minutes (Pickwick was a late addition this year and those tickets were snatched up in less than three minutes). The remainder of the 200 or so spaces on the tiered bench seats in the sound isolated Eve Alvord Theater are reserved until showtime for the lucky folks holding either Platinum or Press passes.
Ten minutes before Charles Bradley‘s performance in the Music Lounge is set to begin, I flash my pass and take my spot in a very short line of press-type folks. To my right is the Platinum Pass line and it’s a little longer, but not much. To my left is a line of about 100 that goes around a nearby corner – the lucky crowd that got those KEXP web tickets. Five minutes later, I can tell on my first step into this acoustical masterpiece that this is going to be something special; not a hint of sound is leaking in from the festival grounds outside. Side of stage, right, I recognize longtime KEXP DJs Cheryl Waters and Kevin Cole at a broadcast desk as I grab a seat – second row, center. As the audience settles, a bright red “On the Air” light is lit and Cheryl introduces Charles Bradley to those in the theater, her on-air audience and the rest of world via live webstream.
Now, while I would love to see Mr. Bradley focus his substantial talent on his own funk and lighten up on the channeling of the godfather of soul, to watch his show from 15 feet away at eye level (and with substantial eye contact with the artist) is something very rare that I don’t foresee getting to do often enough. He has the crowd mesmerized as he tells his heartbreaking life’s story through his rich and heartfelt songs. It looked an awful lot like this, only sweatier:
The Music Lounge has, unquestionably, THE best sound quality at Bumbershoot and offers one of the most intimate experiences this side of the artists’ rehearsal spaces. I find myself seriously regretting having missed the past couple of days performances in this venue… Shabazz Palaces… Vusi Mahlasela… Trombone Shorty… Pickwick… bands that were performing before audiences of several hundreds and often thousands on other stages during the festival. It is, quite simply, the stunning gem of any Bumbershoot experience… for those lucky enough to get through the doors.
I’m sold on the Music Lounge and would be more than happy to turn right around and catch Fitz and the Tantrums, but the 2 o’clock hour is literally overflowing with local talent so I bounce around the festival grounds for the next hour like Jim Carrey sans adderall. My Goodness shreds the concrete cave that is the Exhibition Hall, its hideous echo in piercing sonic contrast to the perfectly balanced Music Lounge. The crowd is loving them, and so am I but it’s really fucking loud and I’ve lost my beloved EarPeace plugs, so I head off just in time to catch Head Like a Kite’s Dave Einmo bringing Asya Smoosh back for a little Daydream Vacation action… nice timing! Dave brought all of his props out the closet for this one: Life-sized Panda, Mannequin Head, Evil Knievel Jumpsuit. I bail when Dave insists on having the Panda shave his mustache and the Plushy next to me makes a weird moaning sound. Ewww.
Grand Hallway wins me over once again in the sunshine at the Mural Stage. I just can’t say enough about Tomo Nakayama’s songwriting or his amazing voice. He’s a huge asset to Seattle music community and Grand Hallway’s latest LP Winter Creatures is a masterpiece that won’t get much rest around here once the sky converts back to greyscale… any day now.
I don’t think that I’ve given Phantogram’s latest full-length Eyelid Movies a week off since its release early last year, so I’m downright giddy to see them in the Music Lounge next. This is a band that would fill the lawn a few hours later with thousands of fans, has toured for the last two years both headlining and opening for some of the hottest acts on the Indie scene – Yeasayer, the XX, LCD Soundsystem, Miike Snow – and scored premium slots at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch and Treasure Island. With a flash of my pass and a five minute wait outside, I’m ushered back into the third row of a tiny, air conditioned and sound insulated Eve Alvord Theater that is barely full to watch them perform five or six of their best songs from about twenty feat away. Life. Is. Good.
<Insert moment of silence here to let that sink in>
The stage has been transformed from Bradley’s horn-heavy septet to high-tech metro minimalism with Sarah Purcell and Josh Carter’s numerous keyboards, samplers, beat machines and assorted electronic toys. KEXP has this gig down to a science, and after a very short wait, that red “On the Air“ light brightens and Phantogram, now performing with live percussion over their sampled hip-hop beats, wows the crowd with their lush, sexy & dreamlike shoegaze & trip-hop inspired electropop. The addition of Tim Oakley on the sticks has proven to be a brilliant move for Phantogram, adding a more organic texture to their sound and energy to their performance. It’s a helluvashow & the highlight of my weekend.
With time tight, I rush across the festival grounds to the EMP as Lemolo, a local buzzband very much worth looking into, is already starting their performance on the smaller of their two stages. The venue is already at capacity and more than 100 poor souls are waiting in line with virtually no chance of entry. I flash my pass once again and am directed to a side door where a handful of Platinum and Press Pass holders are waiting patiently. Five minutes later, I’m halfway up a set of back stairs when the gorgeous sounds of Meagan Grandall and Kendra Cox’s breathy & downtempo dream-pop start to permeate the stairwell. The stairwell exits right next to the stage & the room, while full, feels really good – not too crowded except around the premium spots – and a positive, fresh vibe.
The crowd is mostly townies and they’re clearly fans as they sing along to familiars from the duo’s Limelight EP and singles, but Lemolo hushes the crowd with several new songs from their upcoming debut LP. While the crowd focuses intently on the stage, I focus on a tall, frosty sampling of fine Northwest hops upstairs on the balcony bar. That pass will get you into a sold-out venue at the last minute, but it’s not going to get you a great vantage point in a room packed with music fans who waited in line for an hour to see their favorite new band. This is my second Lemolo show of the day and I’m still basking in the afterglow of my Lounge experience, so I’m happy to hang back and enjoy some great new tunes. Both Lemolo and the room sound great.
This was a pretty serious day in terms of the live music experience. When I look back, and include memorable performances from Motopony (more to come from them), Fly Moon Royalty and a second show from Phantogram after dark on the lawn, it will rank right up there with some of my most memorable ever. Viewing the festival from two vantage-points made me realize that the value of that Platinum Pass lies not only in its ability to get you through doors that you might not even have known existed (a tremendous value by itself), but also in the added value of allowing you to the time to catch performances that you might otherwise miss while standing in some of those long lines for the best shows.
Is it worth the extra $130? Well that does depend on what that $130 means to you, obviously, but I’d call some of those Music Lounge performances pretty much priceless experiences and I’ll return again and again for as long as Bumbershoot will let me just for those shows. Those types of experiences will stick with me forever.