The directors at Upstream are serious about television safety.
The directors at Upstream are serious about television safety. Ulysses Curry

There's been some discussion about Upstream Music Fest + Summit, Paul Allen's attempt to do SXSW but in the PNW, and with his name on the back of the chair.

One question is: If Paul Allen really wants to do something for the local music community with his first wave tech money, why not invest in affordable housing projects so musicians can afford to live here? But the big question seems to be: does it suck? Is the festival ... bad?

The only thing that sucks is that you have to sell some part of your internet soul right off the bat. In order to enter the venues, you need a wristband. In order to *activate* the wristband, you need to download the app, powered by Amazon :). In order to download the app, you have to sign in with Facebook, or else fill out an online form, and then you have to agree to yada yada yada, and whatever, yes, take it all, take everything, you fucking data-mining bloodsuckers. (If you don't have a smartphone, and if you don't want to download the app, there is a website workaround.)

After passing through the technological gates, though, you do have a fancy application that is actually pretty useful! You can search shows by venue or artist if you want to stick to a schedule. Clicking a little clock icon tells you who is playing during any given half hour, which encourages discovery. A special digital tip jar allows audience members to tip musicians, and the musicians, I'm told, get all the money, which is cool.

What's not cool is feeling like a barcode. The festival organizers have charged event staff to stand in front of doors and scan all those who enter. You beep in. You beep out. This allows them to know how many people are occupying a given venue in real time. But after a while you get used to feeling like a grocery item. You've been one since the day you were born, anyway. And there are no real choices in capitalism, etc.

Speaking of capitalism, I didn't hear much in the way of complaining from the musicians. One band I talked to said they were paid $750, which is on the higher end of their expected take for a normal show. They were billed on the first day of the festival, kinda early in the line-up, and the venue at which they played was capped at 49 people, so I'd imagine they were in one of the lower paying brackets.

I also didn't hear much in the way of complaining from venue owners. I ran into a guy who runs a theater in Pioneer Square that Upstream was using, and he was smiling ear to ear. Earlier in the day, Upstream sent in a contract production crew. They set up their own sound system and offered a lighting rig for the show. It all went pretty smoothly, and the venue owner took the rest of the weekend off. However, the diners at Kraken Congee—one of the festival's more cramped venues—seemed a little miffed to get an unexpected serving of hiphop with their juk. But whatever, it's a city.

I didn't even hear much in the way of complaining from the drunk and beautiful and animated hipsters, who scuttled between venues sneaking sips of whiskey from their pocket flasks. "Listen, rich people aren't obligated to give their money to anybody," one local musician (who wasn't playing the festival) said to me as we drank a beer in the alleyway during the magic hour. He went on to share his qualified praise of the festival: they did right to decentralize the curation process, they did right to book so much local hiphop and R&B, they did wrong to erect a technological barrier between the audience and performers. But, overall, he seemed pleased.

It was, after all, pleasing to walk around Pioneer Square in the evening. Even though Brand Ambassadors patrolled the streets, even though I felt at times as if I were walking through someone's Spotify playlist, and even though I was surrounded by a bunch of restaurants I couldn't really afford to patronize, all the bricks and ivy in the district were free. While I was there, at least, you could see—or at least hear—most of the outdoor acts without paying. And if I wanted a cheap bite and a drink, the music-free Firehouse was close by. That was another cool thing: Being able to escape the Festival Zone prevented that captive animal feeling I sometimes get at music festivals.

Oh yeah, and the music was good! At 30-minutes long, all the sets I saw were blissfully short and sweet.

Falon Sierra singing good. Nice shot of the complex wristband situation, too.
Falon Sierra, singing good. Nice shot of the complex wristband situation, too. Ulysses Curry

Falon Sierra provided some very fine sativa R&B. Lots of chillvibes, and she always seemed to have a smile in her voice, even when taking swipes at the president.

Heaven and hell at Kraken Congee.
High contrast at Kraken Congee. Ulysses Curry

I was also very impressed by rapper Guayaba, who played songs off her new-ish album, Black Trash/White House. She showed off her chanteuse chops with a slow crooner swimming in Spanish guitar. A+

Boyfriends! Ulysses Curry

This was the first Boyfriends show I've seen without their old bass player, Shawn, and their drummer, Ian. The new line-up worked out okay, though. The band would play enjoyable surfy grooves during the verse and chorus, and then, during the bridge, singer Mikey would wander over to the drum machine and have a little conversation with the cowbell and snare sounds.

Woo! Thunderpussy! Woo! Sunny Martini

I'm sure Thunderpussy played a spectacular, powerful set at Comedy Underground. However, I cannot confirm this fact because I didn't get in. The line was too long and event staff told everyone the venue reached capacity. This is one of the other things that kinda sucks about the festival: it's feast or famine, crowdwise. Long lines into shows don't necessarily mean you won't get in, though. I learned later on in the evening that the venue cleared out soon after I gave up on the line, and most everyone who wanted in got in.

The Fabulous Downey Brothers are fucking awesome.
If Seattle's "tech world" discovers the Fabulous Downey Brothers, the band will become wealthy beyond all reason. RS

The Fabulous Downey Brothers played a kickass, costume-intensive set. The band puts off a lot of Devo fumes—the keyboard player karate-chops his Korg—but they're fun as hell. At one point, a singer put a cat scratching post over his head and then wedged a microphone in-between his mouth and the post and just started screaming. It was cool.

The other thing I like about this band is that their drummer plays real drums, and he's really good at it. You'd expect a tech-y outfit like FDB to use a beat machine or something, but they don't. They use good old fashioned kicks, snares and cymbals. Using a real drum set added depth and a visceral heartbeat to the robotic vox, and served as a metaphor for the Thursday iteration of the Upstream festival. If you can see past the glossy exterior of the whole extravaganza, you'll find a beating heart in there.