The Saturday of Upstream functioned more or less exactly the same as Thursday and Friday had. Despite what appeared to be less-than-overwhelming crowds (a festival spokesperson claims "over 30,000 attendees throughout the weekend," which is a big number), many people (your humble narrator included) were turned away from rooms that weren't full due to capacity restrictions or onerous security regulations. Then there were the frustrating glitches with the offensively complicated wristbands, which came with two pages of instructions that stopped just short of requiring a pledge of your firstborn child’s immortal soul to "activate." Also, it was raining and every show you wanted to see was happening at the same time. HOWEVER...
...these felt like comparatively minor qualms if you were willing to surrender to a bit of inconvenience (and a ream—in every sense—of personal data) in exchange for being able to wander through Pioneer Square, of all neighborhoods, and see and hear an indisputably heroic array of local talent playing for all they were worth. The last time there was so much musical energy happening down there was during the heyday of the joint cover—which allowed patrons to hop between several bars in a night for one small fee. The big difference was that by the time that offer went away, the neighborhood had stopped attracting the kind of artists (or audiences) that discerning people were interested in seeing.
As a resident of the neighborhood, I can’t deny it gave me a particular thrill to find so many bands and people I love within a few blocks of my door. That perfect feeling of passing between rooms at a party with different waves of music coming at you from every direction—that was going on all weekend. Past the window of Little London Plane where Summer Cannibals played a punishing KEXP session while an acoustic guitar dude busked across the street, then past Occidental Park for a snatch of Thunderpussy sound checking with Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and then a blast of Porter Ray starting his second triumphant set of the weekend in the parking lot of a sports bar (of which more later), while the mighty strains of Industrial Revelation (also on their second set of the festival) bled into the crisp afternoon.
If you stopped in your tracks pretty much anywhere within Upstream’s ambit on Saturday you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the epicenter of Seattle’s musical energy. Whether that made you feel energized and optimistic or manipulated like a sucker is entirely up to your particular disposition. There are many good arguments against this event, in terms of both conception and execution, and let me assure you sister, brother, friend, in the past few months, I have heard them all.
But, having spent the past long weekend sampling Upstream’s wares, feeling its vibes, and playing a very enjoyable show (at an art gallery that should never host amplified music), I find myself weirdly on its side—if only because it gave Seattle’s bands and fans a new, weird umbrella to stand under for a few days. If they never do another, I won’t necessarily weep, but I’ll remember this one fondly. If they do, I hope they will implement sweeping conceptual and practical changes—but I also hope they can preserve the good bits. In the course of three days, no fewer than five people told me, unbidden, that Upstream afforded the best day/night of music-going they’d spent in years. That’s an accomplishement worth harnessing.
My fondness will of course be tempered by the fact that despite having three different wristbands binding my radius and ulna (one for being a performer, one for being a journalist, and one for being a “VIP”), I was denied entry to the Barsuk showcase at Court in the Square, thereby missing sets by two of my favorite local rock bands, Ruler and Sloucher, exactly two blocks from my apartment. It wasn't the biggest deal to me—I’m also friendly with these bands and bumped into several of their members during the weekend, and it’s not like opportunities to see them play are scarce. But If I had paid, I'd have been pissed—and I heard many anecdotes about similar situations from people who did and who were.
More frustrating was being turned away from the main stage as Shabazz Palaces stepped into what I assume will be the beginning of an extended imperial moment. It turns out that the tote bag I was carrying was too big to be allowed into the stadium. That’s fine, of course. Them’s the rules. Those rules would have been easier to swallow had the bag in question not been a freebie given to me (and all performers) by Upstream, and emblazoned with the festival’s flailing salmon logo. Despite the tens of thousands of empty seats in that stadium, it was gratifying to know that Shabazz was filling it with greatness.
But if one performance illustrated the degree to which Seattle’s musical firmament truly showed up for this unlikely event, it was Jeremy Enigk’s performance of his 1996 album Return of the Frog Queen. As I indicated in my preview, this has always been one of those records for me, and it was the only show in the whole festival (including the one I played) that I was legitimately dying to see.
I was chagrined to learn it would be held at a venue called the Fuel Sports Beer Garden, which was in the parking lot of one of the tackiest bars in Pioneer Square. Which is saying something. But even if you’re fine with sports, as Seattle continues to pretend to be, only a lunatic would deem this the appropriate venue for the performance of such a warm, intimate, stately, delicate, and magical album. Also, the stage was in the shadow of the Smith Tower and directly below a huge, handmade “12” sign created out of Christmas lights. To say nothing of the motherfucking Miller Lite branding all over the goddamn place. Also, it was raining, hard, so there weren’t many people there for the beginning of the set.
Any musician who has been around as long as Jeremy Enigk, whose first record with Sunny Day Real Estate came out 23 years ago last week, has faced worse situations, and anyone who goes into rock’n’roll looking for a surplus of dignity is screwed from the get go, but this seemed like a particularly unjust scenario. I’m only speculating, but this is a show that would have commandingly sold out Benaroya Hall, and sounded perfectly suited to such august surroundings. Yet here we were, saying “no, thank you” to the Jell-O shots server in the minimal tank top and Daisy Dukes, as we crouched under a makeshift canopy next to the burger and hot dog grillmaster, in a parking lot built for tailgate parties and beer pong-offs.
If you were looking for an encapsulation of everything that has changed about Seattle and Seattle music in the past 20 years, here it was, and for a dollar extra you could get it with double Rumple Minze.
Then Enigk and his band stepped forward and started to play, and everything else disappeared. They delivered the only things that could have rescued the moment: pure conviction to the material, the players’ impeccable skills (huge respect to Andrew Joslyn and the Passenger String Quartet for breathing such vital life into Mark Nichols’s original arrangements), and above all, Enigk’s incomparable voice, which is undiminished by decades, and maybe even more astonishing for the grain that time has added to its singular tone. I doubt I have gone more than a month or two without listening to these songs in 21 years, and I don’t know if they ever sounded better.
In the face of the band’s humbling power and grace, all the absurd wrongness of the frame around them simply melted in the rainfall and almost became glorious for being so wrong—the incongruously aggro stage lights shining out to illuminate the raindrops was an especially strong effect—and for proving, again, again, again, and always, that music affords us the opportunity to transcend the tinniness of our daily context not by escaping it, but by looking it dead in the eyes and refusing to be diminished.