by Mackenzie McAninch
SEA MONSTER RADIO SHOW HOST
(Guest blogger from Sea Monster Radio Show) ~ ~
2018 Upstream Music Fest Review
Lukas Nelson is just calm, cool and collected…when he wants to be. Playing rock and roll with just a touch of an alt-country twist, Nelson and his band Promise of the Real had all 1,000+ attendees at the Main Stage of Upstream Music Festival boogie woogin’ on Saturday night as the sun slowly began to set on a gorgeous early Summer night. Or just singing along. At times Nelson highlighted his long vocal yelps, holding notes for 10+ seconds, especially on the moving ballads. But make no mistake that his band are rock and rollers also (they are often Neil Young’s backing band) and Nelson ended the regular set by playing the guitar with his teeth as the band tore down the stage. As for the show being over though, the crowd wasn’t having it and demanded an encore, which is tough to get at a music festival because of time constraints. Nelson and the crew did it anyway, having the whole crowd singing along to “Turn Off the News,” filled with lyrics that can probably better the world, no matter which political side you might be on.
Upstream Music Fest is a hustle. Now in its sophomore year, there are 20 different venues to go see live music at, usually all at once on the hour. Plus many busking performances sprinkled in-between. You have to do research and draw up a plan of what you want to experience. While it’s not physically possible to see every act that performs, if you’re okay for only staying at each show for 1-4 songs, you can get a lot of ground covered and get your money’s worth. This also requires comfy shoes, healthy eating, taking many water breaks (free and easy access at most venues), and as mentioned, strong time planning and discipline. Using this formula, I was able to catch 13 acts on Saturday.
From Nelson, I headed over to The Central to see Butterfly Launches From Spar Pole. Not familiar? Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) plays in this band (his other band Giants in the Trees would play this venue later on Saturday). This set drew many the music history buff of an audience, including Jack Endino, Nirvana’s first producer. This band does storytelling poetry over top of acoustic music. It’s interesting art as poet Robert Michael Pyle, a classy looking older gentleman with a touch of Mark Twain resemblance, reads stories from a transcript while the band played the same riffs over and over. Honestly, The Central was just the wrong venue for this performance. There were too many people talking way too loud in the back of the room, seemingly unaware there was even a show happening. Mix that with a bit of heat in a hot room and the nauseous smell of too-deep fried food, and I had to bounce after just two songs.
Great Grandpa was a fun pop band that had lots of bubbles from a bubble machine. Bubbles!! Amen Viana had it going on over at the J&M Café, with a mixture of world music and a drummer rapping, courtesy of their 9-piece band that included some brass. People were dancing their butts off at that show.
Pop outfit Y la Bamba had fun, driving rhythms and are not an easy band to describe when trying to pin them down. They had some very gorgeous harmonies going on though. Across the street, closing out the Main Stage for the night was long-time punk heroes Jawbreaker. The venue was packed out for them and those die-hard fans knew all of the words to the songs. Blake Schwarzenbach had hilarious banter between songs: “How’s it going in V.I.P? Congratulations on making the 1%!” “Hi, we’re a band called Jawbreaker, if you happen to be from the tech world.” Long live punk rock.
Tiny Vipers had me hooked with frantic piano work and looping to intrigue the mind, right from the first song. Things slowed down drastically though and it felt like a bit of a let down from a pulsating start. A 10+ year veteran on the Seattle music scene, one-woman band Tiny Vipers (Jesy Fortino) plays brilliant, challenging, moody and at times seemingly tortured music. Hopefully that inspires enough to look into her. Back over at The Central, it was Jack Endino’s turn to just play good old Neil Young attitude, we don’t give a shit if you like what we do or not, rock and roll with his band MKB Ultra. The singers were great and though Endino might be best known as a producer, to not much surprise he can wail on guitar too.
From there it was a hustle to get back down to Elysian Fields in time to see the end of Ural Thomas & The Pain’s soul-filled set, but I made it for the last four songs. Thomas has been around. He’s played with James Brown, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and has played The Apollo 44 times. The man can put on a show. What he did best was put a smile on the faces of each member in the crowd, who ate up everything this 8-piece band had to offer. The man oozes positivity and ended the set with the beautiful song “Smile” https://vimeo.com/171533681. This was hands-down my favorite new discovery of Upstream so far.
I ended up missing both Pomo and Visible Cloaks, because when you’re walking by a venue and you hear Portland sorta-soul band Dirty Revival playing, you have to stop what you’re doing and go see them perform. Seriously, what other band did covers of both Nine Inch Nails and En Vogue, with a soul music twist? They are such a great band.
Starting to feel the exhaustion and hunger of the day after midnight, I ordered some scrumptious Mexican food and sat down with some friends at Zocalo restaurant, listening to Skerik Band featuring Thione Diop doing their soundcheck. But when they hit, that room caught absolute fire and people poured into the venue from outside, packing the place out. While this may be one of 217 bands that Skerik plays in, this version had the before mentioned percussionist Diop, Andy Coe on guitar, Damian Erskine on bass and power house drummer Tarik Abouzied. This is literally a gang of monsters that take you on some kind of journey that touches on jazz, rock, world music, fear and insanity. Spend some time looking up YouTube videos of each of those performers. They’re about the best of the best around Seattle in their own respected crafts.
I started Sunday off by listening to Black Belt Eagle Scout throw down at The Central for a few songs before heading to the Main Stage to see local Seattle soul outfit the True Loves. On this day, the True Loves were down to only a 7-piece band, but packed no less punch and the dancing crowd approved of everything, including a new song debut. This all-instrumental band are KEXP favorites and they paid homage to Sharon Jones during their set, as they always do.
I was moving a little slower on Sunday so I hung out at the Verizon V.I.P. Lounge with some friends as we waited for Valerie June to hit the Main Stage. This Verizon hookup was for anyone who uses their service, and it included free drinks, appetizers (even shucking oysters!), comfy couches, cell phone charging stations and a great view of the stage. Valerie June was dressed in mermaid colors, wearing purple, turquoise and light green. Mixed with some 50’s throwback glasses, she’s a lesson that you should never judge a book by its cover. She’s a country singer produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and has that Southern drawl during song breaks. Like a true Southerner, June preached between songs about how important it is to “Follow your soul. It always knows where to go.” “I came to shine today as bright as I can. Every one of us is unique. Every person, every tree, every wind blow. We’re all unique.” And she took her time explaining these things, being in no rush whatsoever. One long story lead into her song “Tennessee Time” in which she quipped “We move slow and easy in Tennessee” during the middle of the song. Her band was solid, especially her Hammond B3 player with his Leslie amp kicking. June was also a great banjo player. My only complaint is that her voice has an odd tone, somewhat stretched and whiney sounding. At times it’s so high pitched it almost has a border line Fran Drescher sound to it, which can be nails to a chalk board for sensitive ears. Most of the time it’s just sweet, sweet country singing and the voice is fitting. But after about five or six songs, that high squelch was just too much for me during one certain song and I had to move on.
Fresh off the release of her latest album Shine A Light, Portland artist Moorea Masa brought her easy listening R&B sound to the Embassy Ballroom stage. Assisted with beautiful vocals from a pair of backup singers, Masa likely would have been just fine without them as her voice is a strong force as well, but the singers made for a nice touch. After just a couple of songs that hooked the crowd, it’s no surprise that k.d. lang is a fan of Masa and has had her on the road with her. The piercing LED lights on this stage were a bit much too and I had to stand side stage to not be blinded so I could see what was happening on stage.
High Step Society. They got a late start and were still doing a sound check when I got there after their scheduled start time. They seemed frustrated and plagued by sound issues and it appeared they just decided to wing it and get the show going. The half sit-down crowd seemed appreciative of them, but I’m not sure it was the right audience for this dancing, New Orleans-style party band that put clarinets and trumpets to use along with a laptop for beats.
Seattle band Tres Leches straight up blew my mind. Art punk is a term, but I’m not sure what to call them. They were just good. The three band members rotated instruments (guitar/bass/drums/vocals) after every song, which is always impressive. They paid homage to “I Fought the Law” and transformed that into “Blitzkrieg Pop” at one point, getting the packed out Central to sing and dance along, including members of local herors Tacocat. Then the bass player (at that moment) busted open a globe that had a flashing light in it, threw the microphone into the globe and screamed vocals into the globe in a meltdown. It was chaotic, concerning, confusing, epic, intriguing and rock and roll, all rolled into one. I will go see them again. And again.
The Flaming Lips were the only band I watched from beginning to end all weekend. I had planned to only watch about half of their set and go see more bands, but I just couldn’t pull myself away. Packed with the largest crowd I saw all weekend, the Lips are just magical. No idea gets left out at their show. It’s like they have dreams and then decide to turn their cartoon-like dreams into reality. Giant fake hands that shoot lasers, a blowup “Evil Pink Robot” on the stage, the largest disco ball you’ll ever set eyes on, Wayne Coyne riding a fake carousel horse through the crowd while wearing rainbow wings and singing, Coyne getting into his legendary plastic hamster ball and rolling all over the top of the crowd in it while singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” gigantic bouncy balls all over the crowd, dancing human-sized eyeballs, enough confetti to make the cleanup crew cry and of course a laser show to cause a seizure with their at-times pulsating but playful music. Did I miss anything?
I stopped by the Murder City Devils’ set for a few songs and they blasted a rowdy set to a crowd that was still kicking and just as rowdy late on Sunday night, paying respects to this 22 year Seattle staple hard garage rock band. It seemed like a fitting way to end Upstream 2018: Rock and Roll will never die.
As mentioned earlier, this was Year #2 for the Paul Allen brainchild Upstream Music Festival. It sure seemed like they worked out many of the kinks from the first year. The app was great to use, the venues were all in good walking distance from each other, the lineup was very diverse, and it seemed like artists that performed were happy, including buskers. I’d be hard pressed to come up with many complaints about the festival. It will be interesting to see what the attendance numbers looked like. I feel like there might have been less attendees this year, and Sunday especially felt very empty. However I wasn’t there on Friday night to compare it. Props to everyone involved with Upstream though and as I said last year: If this crew of staff aren’t able to make The Seattle version of SXSW happen, then nobody ever will. Here’s to hoping year #3 happens.