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Bumbershoot – Music, Comedy, and Art Safely Tucked Under Seattle’s Umbrella

After an oddly unprecedented summer full of mostly sunshine, the first day of Bumbershoot, one of the largest music and arts festivals in America, kicked off with weather more familiar to the citizens of Seattle, Washington: rain. Undeterred, people were ready and prepared for the three-day event with jackets, plastic ponchos, and, yes, even umbrellas so as not to miss any of the music, comedy, and art spread out over the Seattle Center in the shadow of the Space Needle.

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Typical Day in Seattle
In many ways, Bumbershoot is indicative of Seattle’s cultural vibe. Have an eclectic taste in music, well there are several stages set up with musical acts ranging from up-and-coming artists to established acts topping the Billboard charts to veterans who show no signs of stopping. Travelling from one end of the Seattle Center to the other I heard new artist, and winner of the Experience Music Project’s (EMP) Sound Off!!, Otieno Terry perform a beautiful cover of The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” only to have the music eventually taper off until the heavy beats of Sam Lachow’s hiphop set took over at Fisher Pavillion. This is a festival where Bootsy Collins gets driven around in a golf cart and everyone watches him drive by and goes, “Yup, there goes Bootsy Collins!” And I consider myself a winner on all levels when I can sit outside and eat a Skillet burger while members of The Presidents of the United States of America, plus some male audience members, shake their butts on stage as Luscious Jackson sings “#1 Bum”. I also understand that a lot of this is filled with local references, but maybe that’ll just entice you to make your way to Seattle one of these days.

The arts are also heavily emphasized at Bumbershoot, which says something when you consider the amazing talent brought in from the musical acts alone. Peppered throughout the grounds were booths from local and out-of-town artists selling hand-crafted jewelry, clothing, and ephemera. The great thing about walking the grounds and hopping from booth to booth were the varied conversations people were having with the artists and sellers over their wares. Even if they didn’t buy anything, people were genuinely interested in how the artists created their products. The level of engagement between artists and festival-goers is, in my opinion, what really makes Bumbershoot stand out. Not only are there the outdoor booths, but several art installments were inside various buildings. Flatstock is a staple of the festival with artists gathered who mostly specialize in creating posters for many of the bands and comedy acts featured. But there are also several interactive art exhibits that truly required the full engagement of those participating. Seth David Friedman’s “Black Poem” requires viewers to create a narrative by feeling their way along a series of oblong sculptures without the use of sight. And “Finger Power” by the Seattle art collective LET’S encourages people to interact with the piece by controlling lights, sounds, and video. And because Seattle is ensconced in a region well versed in technology, the Bumbercade offered several games that engaged the senses and morality of the people playing. The most touching exhibit, however, was the tribute to photographer Jini Dellaccio who passed away in July. Selected photographs were displayed to show Dellaccio’s ability to produce striking images through the faces of her subjects. In many of the photographs it’s the eyes that draw you in as if you’re meeting the person face to face.

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“Finger Power” by LET’S
To top it all off, Bumbershoot pulls in a staggering lineup of comedic acts as well as shows that play on the traditions of storytelling, variety acts, and civil interrogation. The Words and Ideas section of the grounds featured a wide array of performers who, like the musical acts and artists, relied on engaging the public to emphasize the greater meaning of community and the shared experience of those in attendance. One such show, The Failure Variety Show, featured several performers sharing stories of how they failed – whether through relationships, jobs, or reliving past failures from childhood – while two technicians attempted to build a Rube-Goldberg machine for the grand finale. The irony being that the machine wasn’t finished by the allotted time and the technicians madly scrambled around the stage triggering sections one-by-one. Whether intentional or not, the failed attempt at building the machine brought the audience together through laughter and the knowledge that failure isn’t the end of the world and good things can happen as a byproduct of failure.

And as far as the comedic acts go, it’s hard to fail with solid performers like Paul F. Tompkins, Janeane Garofalo, Pete Holmes, Rory Scovel, Michelle Buteau, and Doug Benson, just to name a few. Even if you’re not familiar with their standup, going to see one of the comedy shows can quickly create new fans. I got to witness such an event at the first Dead Author’s podcast where H.G. Wells, as played by Paul F. Tompkins, spoke with Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, as played by Rory Scovel. Watching the improvised interplay between the two kept the audience, if not the performers, on the edge of their seats. Or literally out of their seats as Scovel’s Carroll wandered the stage in fear of the tablet Tompkins’ Wells used to record a promo for the podcast.

Three days just doesn’t seem like enough time to cover everything Bumbershoot has to offer, but luckily there’s so much to explore and discover. Even when you think you’ve done everything, something or someone surprises you with something they’re selling, a joke told with perfect timing, or an old song played with as much passion now as it was when you first heard it. One visit to Bumbershoot will never be enough. By the end of the weekend a year almost seems too long to wait for the next festival.

Author’s Note: For those who don’t know, this is my last article for Word of the Nerd. No, no, don’t cry. It’s been a great three years writing and podcasting through the site, but now it’s time for me to strike out on my own. I’ve made a lot of friends and it’s definitely made me a better writer. I’ll probably pop in from time to time, but if you’d like to keep reading my work and listening to my podcast, That Girl With the Curls, you can find me at The Maniacal Geek or on twitter @darling_sammy. Just remember to stay classy and be excellent to each other.

 

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Paul F. Tompkins and Rory Scovel
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The Failure Variety Show
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Flatstock
 

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About the author

Samantha Cross

Sam is a self-described "sponge for information" soaking up little tidbits here and there that make her the perfect partner on pub trivia night! Hailing from the beautiful Pacific Northwest, she indulges her nerdy and geeky qualities by hanging out at the local comic book shop, reading anything she can find, and voicing her opinion whether you welcome it or not. An archivist and historian, she will research any and all things and will throw down if you want to quote Monty Python, Mel Brooks, or The Simpsons!

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