For the first few weeks of September, those of us who were lucky enough to cover all three days of Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival are repeatedly asked one question: how was it this year?
The question is tougher to answer than you’d think. Bumbershoot enjoys a 42-year history in the city (almost as long as the Space Needle itself!), and the quality of any single year isn’t just about the artists on display. Bumbershoot is constantly changing and evolving, adapting itself to new challenges, new venues – and, of course, ever-changing musical trends. Those who remember the old days of $5 tickets and soon-to-be-huge grunge bands may wish that things had stayed that way, but there’s no way that kind of festival could survive in the modern marketplace. And besides, who’d want to do grunge all over again?
Actually, maybe Seattle would… kind of. One of the biggest changes at this year’s Bumbershoot was the decision to have curated stages, the largest and most successful of which was the Sub Pop Stage. And yes, they did still include some grunge heavyweights, specifically Mudhoney’s set on Sunday night. This had to be one of the best-attended shows of the festival, and even those who don’t remember ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ from the first time around seemed to find a desperate energy in Mark Arm’s timeless performance. Throw in an appearance by Krist Novoselic during The Vaselines’ set on Monday, and you could almost imagine it was the early 90’s.
Unfortunately the same didn’t hold for Jane’s Addiction’s headlining set on the Saturday night. The KeyArena can be an unforgiving venue at times, and while the other Mainstage acts – Missy Higgins, Gotye, AWOLnation – managed to kick up a storm, Jane’s Addiction turned into one of the festival’s biggest disappointments. Was the sound to blame, or has Perry finally lost his touch? Whatever the reason, fans were grumbling before the set even finished, and it put a dampener on Day One of the festival.
The same couldn’t be said for Day Two, largely thanks to the immortal talents of Tony Bennett. Bennett’s inclusion on the bill looked like a bold move in a lineup that included the likes of Skrillex and Mac Miller, but his show was the highlight of the second day. Nowhere else would you see wheelchair-bound octogenarians and baseball cap-wearing teens enjoying the same performance, and Bennett proved that charm and talent are indeed timeless. It helped that he seemed to be enjoying himself, and there was nothing forced or contrive about the standing ovation he received when he ran (yes, ran) back onto the stage to accept his applause. In the year that the Seattle Center turns 50, it was sweetly apt that a living legend should rule the Mainstage.
As for Day Three, things felt like they were already winding down for the rock half of the festival, as the Mainstage was overtaken by Skrillex‘s teen fanbase for the evening. Combined with Mac Miller the day before this couldn’t help making Bumbershoot 2012 feel a little younger – and a little poppier – than previous years, but if you were under twenty then you probably thought you’d overdosed and gone to heaven. For the rest of us… well, we were just thankful that rising Seattle star Reignwolf managed to put in such a blistering lunchtime set, overshadowing everything else that day. Let’s have him on a bigger stage and later in the day next year, please.
Bumbershoot 2012 didn’t always feel like a vintage year for the 42-year old festival. The headlining acts seemed to lack rock heavyweights, and the indie rock lineup in particular fell flat, with sub-par sets from Keane, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Best Coast. When you also consider that many bands closed their hour-long sets after forty minutes, you have to wonder whether all the artists were really feeling the festival vibe this year.
But what it did prove is that Bumbershoot is about more than just individual performers, or even the entire music lineup. With great food options (thanks to the sublime new restaurants in The Armory), a comedy and film lineup that would be the envy of any major festival, and a little sunshine to help things along, Bumbershoot was still a success. And if it wasn’t perfect – well, we can always try again next year…