Two popular ideas about music festivals:
1. They are a fun way to see a bunch of bands you like and maybe discover some new ones while celebrating the hedonistic pleasures of community.
2. They are Walmart—proof of the further decline of a once-unruly strand of culture into a one-stop-shopping excursion for people with too much money and more interest in seeming like they're into music than in actually being into it.
Both of these are true.
Two popular ideas about Upstream Music Fest + Summit, the new endeavor dreamed up by Paul Allen, which happens in Pioneer Square May 11 to 13:
1. It offers an exhaustive selection of talent, more than 300 bands, most of them local (and all of them apparently being paid), thus serving as a high-profile showcase for Seattle music in a novel setting, and thus might be a fun way to spend the weekend.
2. It's the one-thing-too-many that reveals when a cultural moment has passed its peak—too many bands you can see any time at too high a ticket price; too much emphasis on the myth of a growing music industry and too little sense of clear artistic intention, curation, identity; too great an implicit triumphalism about the scale of Seattle's most recent boom and too little solidarity with the artists and musicians who can no longer afford to rent even a terrible apartment in a crummy neighborhood.
Both of these are true, too. Or at least they're both equally liable to be true. Which, in a funny way, qualifies Upstream as sort of a perfect snapshot of the bifurcated cultural milieu of Seattle in 2017, in which everyone is suspicious of everyone's motives because the imbalance of power, opportunity, and access is so irremediably vast.
The inauguration of a festival on this scale opens a huge bucket of questions: Will the market bear yet another festival a couple weeks before Sasquatch and a couple months before Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot? Will Seattle's growing population of tech-industry workers (whom I suspect Upstream was largely designed to serve) have sufficient interest in local culture to go see a centralized cross section of it? Will the combined drawing power of local bands with small-to-moderate individual drawing power be enough to make Upstream feel like an actual festival and not just the latest attempt to import the energy of SXSW to the PNW?
Also: Will they hire good stage managers? Will the sound be okay? Will people come? Will the checks clear? Will it rain? Will it be a total disaster? Does my hair look all right? Here was a Caesar, when comes such another? The answers are unknowable until May 13 or so. What will happen until then? Same thing that always happens: Some people will come. Some people will not. And everyone will complain.
The one thing we can say for sure is that the bill, which is very big, is also very strong. Here are the artists we recommend you check out if you make it down to the festival. (SEAN NELSON)
Find The Stranger's complete Upstream Music Fest + Summit calendar here, complete with set times, venue information, a wealth of critics' reviews, and music clips.
Young Seattle DJ Biome (Louise Croff Blake) has been a steadfast force for outward-bound minimal techno in sets that have illuminated events like MOTOR, and while opening for international acts like MESH and Bambounou. Technically proficient and possessing deep knowledge of the headiest tracks in the genre, Biome elevates you to psychedelic mind states with her selections. DAVE SEGAL (Thurs, 11:45 pm, Kraken Congee)
You'll be hard-pressed to find a more original band than Cosmos. On their latest album, Moonshine, they combine a flurry of each band member's personal tastes: hiphop, jazz, soul, funk, and electronic, joined with lead vocalist Campana's charismatic lyrical style. The resulting sound not only holds together but makes for catchy, fantastic fun. AMBER CORTES (Thurs, 10:15 pm, House of Sparkling ICE at 109 Washington)
With a lo-fi instrumental sensibility and a deep, incantatory voice, Emma Lee Toyoda makes music that only sounds simple. Her album, Sewn Me Anew, is full of rich, complex delights that evoke the kind of private sadness that often translates into unforgettable performances. It also foretells a promising future. SEAN NELSON (Thurs, 9 pm, Buttnick Building; Sat, 8:15 pm, AXIS 2)
Most music that's explicitly "fun" is a chore to endure. However, Seattle's Fabulous Downey Brothers can pull it off with rare aplomb. They're obviously hugely skilled players who just happen to have a predilection for novelty-cartoonish tones and spazzy dynamics, not unlike Devo, Oingo Boingo, or early XTC. But within those parameters, FDB compose naggingly catchy tunes that usually come bundled with several surprises per minute. DS (Thurs, 10:30 pm, Buttnick Building)
Falon Sierra's soulful voice draws comparisons to Ari Lennox or Amy Winehouse, but make no mistake: It's her dreamy storytelling flair and quirky twists (like sampling a Lars von Trier film) that prove she's doing her own thing. Also, that girl can emote. AC (Thurs, 6 pm, House of Sparkling ICE at 109 Washington)
Guayaba's debut EP, Black Trash/White House, sparkled with life—a vivid, genre-bending fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms, dancehall, and hiphop. Her previous musical incarnation, Aeon Fux, kicked ass live, so there's little doubt Guayaba will be anything but a dynamic, dance-inducing good time. AC (Thurs, 7 pm, Kraken Congee)
So Pitted play heavy, dissonant, minimalist punk that makes you want to get in trouble with the law. Judging from their dense sound, you wouldn't even know the band is only three people—guitarist Jeannine Koewler, drummer Liam Downey, and lead singer and guitarist Nathan Rodriguez. On stage, Rodriguez has the creepy, beguiling swagger of Marilyn Manson without all the cheesy vampire branding bullshit. AC (Thurs, 9:15 pm, the Piranha Shop)
Get your good ol' fashioned psych rock right here, folks! Freakout Records' own Acid Tongue embrace the California surf and skate scene of the 1960s by making fuzzy, laid-back music worthy of being in a state where weed is legal—just make sure to preboard. AC (Fri, 10:30 pm, AXIS 2)
It's crazy how FlyLo has gone from deep-underground beat surrealist to Kendrick Lamar beatmaker and Thom Yorke collaborator in about five years, but the LA producer has somehow made his quicksilver rhythms and astral atmospheres translate to big outdoor stages—and even KeyArena at 2015's Bumbershoot. Mr. Lotus's high-def, jump-cut electronic sorcery is fierce. DS (Fri, 10 pm, Main Stage)
At only 18, Parisalexa already has the sophisticated voice and performance chops of many musicians twice her age. Her setup is simple—keyboards, vocal loops, maybe a guitar—but the effect is striking and worth listening to every spellbinding word (some of which she makes up on the spot). AC (Fri, 9 pm, Martyr Sauce)
I confess: I haven't heard this band, but it marks the return of Pearl Dragon (formerly of Champagne Champagne, among other bands) after five years away. Many more years of following his pursuits have proven that whatever he does is worth paying attention to, so you might want to go welcome him back to where he belongs: in Seattle, on a stage. SN (Fri, 8 pm, the Piranha Shop)
Fans of guitar-driven rock will dig this trio's wily, grungy ways. Each member contributes to the band's immense sound: Jordan Gomes builds full and heavy bass lines, Lupe Flores wails on the drums like there's no tomorrow, and guitarist and vocalist Lara Hilgeman's forceful voice will rip you apart (in a good way). AC (Fri, 5:30 pm, J&M Cafe)
Roughly speaking, drummer Chris Icasiano and saxophonist/loop manipulator Neil Welch are the 21st-century Seattle version of Rashied Ali and John Coltrane. They resurrect fiery, 1960s avant-jazz and update it for modern ears accustomed to experimental electronic music and noise rock. It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. DS (Sat, 9:45 pm, Nordo's Culinarium)
With Chimurenga Renaissance, Seattle hiphop maverick Tendai Maraire and Congolese-American guitarist Hussein Kalonji combine the former's Zimbabwean musical background with high-energy 21st-century rap machinations yielding a fusion of commanding rhymes, complex rhythms, and rich melodies. This is a much more extroverted and party-friendly proposition than Shabazz Palaces (also playing at Upstream, also highly recommended), the experimental hiphop group to which Maraire contributes percussion and mbira. DS (Sat, 7:45 pm, 88 Keys)
It's funny (by which I mean unbelievably frustrating) to realize that you can spend years on a quest for perfect pop songs (the kind with melodies you can't shake and words you feel like you dreamed) only to learn that one of the most reliable practitioners of the form is right here in your own backyard. Seattle, it's time to hoist Chris Staples onto our shoulders and recognize him for the stunning talent he is. SN (Sat, 8 pm, Court in the Square)
There's a special place in my heart for the original J Mascis/Lou Barlow/Murph combo before the major-label years took over, but for some reason, I never fully got aboard the reunion train when they got back together in 2007. They have a new album out, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, but I'm still betting on (hoping for?) a 30/70 mix of new album/nostalgia trip at their live show. AC (Sat, 8 pm, Main Stage)
These increasingly grim times call for rock groups that both mirror America's darkness and offer catharsis from it. Behold Seattle's Haunted Horses, whose cantankerous post-punk salvos puncture your malaise even as they magnify your angst, thereby helping you break on through to the other side... while also making you want to break some skulls. DS (Sat, 11 pm, Martyr Sauce)
If there are ever songs that can lull you into feeling as good as you do when you're watching cat videos, ings brings. But hidden behind her mellow, pretty pop reveries and Joanna Newsom–esque voice are deep ruminations on self-respect, time travel, and, of course, crushes on boys. AC (Sat, 4:15 pm, Court in the Square)
Having tried on the noms de guerre Jenn Ghetto (as a member of the late, lamented Carissa's Wierd) and S, this Northwest veteran now comes to us with an appellation as triumphant as her 2014 album, Cool Choices. Not to suggest her songs have abandoned the melancholy nature that made her work so indelible over the years. It's just that now they feel like she's writing about the feelings, mastering them instead of whispering them from the bottom of the well. Her prowess as a writer, player, and singer have become formidable, too. A rose by any other name would rock as hard. SN (Sat, 8:30 pm, Buttock Building)
Here's the thing: Jeremy Enigk's first solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, is one of the truly epochal NW LPs. Released in 1996 after a tumultuous period for his band Sunny Day Real Estate, this collection of surreal, chamber-instrument-laced acoustic songs changed the landscape, introducing Seattle to an entirely new palette of sound and feel that effectively ushered in the next 15 years of music from this region. And the shows at which he debuted this material remain some of the most staggering performances I ever saw. If you don't know Frog Queen, you're in for a treat. If you do, you're probably already lining up for this show, at which Enigk will perform the album in full, backed by Andrew Joslyn and the Passenger String Quartet. SN (Sat, 7:45 pm, Fuel Sports Beer Garden)
The reigning queen of footwork (a speedy, maniacal style of dance music born in Chicago, fusing house and jungle, and heavy on looped vocal samples), JLIN is simultaneously the genre's breakout star and an outlier. Her set at 2015's Decibel Festival revealed her mastery of oddly angular rhythms and claustrophobic bass frequencies in tracks that morphed mercurially. DS (Sat, 12:45 am, Comedy Underground)
If you think that rock should fuck shit up and help listeners release pent-up energy and angst, you should make it a priority to catch Toronto's METZ. One of Sub Pop's most rugged and galvanizing artists, they grind out riffs geared to trigger maximum headbangage and wield distortion with the dangerous discernment that dude in Texas Chainsaw Massacre did with the titular tool. DS (Sat, 9:45 pm, Fuel Sports Beer Garden)
There are two—nay, three—things I love about Nacho Picasso. One, you can tell from his sometimes funny, sometimes perverse (sometimes both at once) rhymes that dude gives zero fucks. Two, he blithely raps about cocaine and other vices, providing an antidote to Seattle's sometimes squeaky-clean rap scene. Three, every time I hear that name, I picture Picasso eating nachos. AC (Sat, 10:15 pm, Galvanize Basement)
Over the last seven productive years, Britain's Pye Corner Audio (Martin Jenkins) has constructed a glittering tower of hauntological techno and beautifully morbid ambient music. His deft touch with melody and eerie moods makes him one of the few producers who can straddle the worlds of the eldritch Ghost Box label and subterranean dance music. DS (Sat, 9:30 pm, Comedy Underground)
For more than 20 years, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have been conducting a master class in smart, sad, hilarious, emotionally caustic, and politically engaged and enraged rock 'n' roll. If there are catchier melodies in this time zone, please tell them to show themselves. No band offers a better illustration of how much can be accomplished by so perfectly spare a setup, or of the artistic bounty that can come from two people working together for decades. There's never a bad time for Quasi, but right now they are more welcome than ever. SN (Sat, 9 pm, AXIS 1)
Earth's preeminent hiphop experimentalists continue their unbeaten streak with the new album Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star. Shabazz Palaces' Palaceer Lazaro, Tendai Maraire, and producer Erik Blood once again nudge hiphop into a vaporous, sensuous future that's at once "street" and outer space. They bestow rhythms, melodies, flows, and dynamics you've never heard before, and they're all fascinating. DS (Sat, 10 pm, Main Stage)
Part of the darker-than-thou techno sect known as Sandwell District, LA producer Silent Servant (aka Juan Mendez) forges a severe, pitiless brand of dungeon dance music that makes most other artists in the field sound frivolous and annoyingly optimistic. He understands that the greatest techno minimizes "human" qualities and stresses machinic precision and power. It's war, y'all. DS (Sat, 11:15 pm, Comedy Underground)
It's been less than a year since the arrival of Sloucher's Certainty EP, and two things have become clear: (1) Those seven songs are in the queue to stay and (2) no other local release since has come close to surpassing the airtight construction, deathless melodies, and swooning connection to the essence of Northwest indie pop. SN (Sat, 6:45 pm, Court in the Square)
There's no delicate way to say it: This band fucking rules. They play with the punishing urgency of young Superchunk, songs full of power and abandon but also set alight by excellent pop instincts and shrewd songwriting. Their third album, Full of It, has been a mainstay since its release last year, and their live shows are exciting in a way rock bands often don't even bother aspiring to anymore. Too bad for those losers. SN (Sat, 6 pm, AXIS 1)
Jazzy, funky Seattle avant-garde keyboardist and Royal Room owner Wayne Horvitz corrals some of the city's most accomplished musicians in order to interpret songs by the astronomically legendary Sly & the Family Stone, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra. If this prospect doesn't excite you, maybe you need reeducating... or at least a slap upside the head. DS (Sat, 11:15 pm, Nordo's Culinarium)