Friday, November 15, 2013

The Blues Is All Right at Bumbershoot

Disclosure Pre-ramble: in early 2012, the non-profit OneReel approached us about curating a “Blues Block” – working with their Program Director to facilitate the booking of a three-act segment on the Mural Ampitheatre stage at Bumbershoot. Within the confines of budget and consensus, we strove to present a block of music to showcase an exciting blend of local, regional and national talent combining the familiar with the hopefully soon to be familiar. In order of appearance, the 2012 Blues Block comprised the Ty Curtis Band, the Karen Lovely Band, and the Harmonica Houseparty starring Magic Dick & the Lee Oskar Orchestra; in 2013, it was Ayron Jones & the Way, Nikki Hill, and the Duke Robillard Band. While our arrangement with OneReel bore no mercenary interest for us, I felt it fair to lead with noting our (albeit limited) involvement in the festival. That out of the way, not a word of the piece below is influenced by what is disclosed above. OneReel’s Bumbershoot Festival is the annual consumer-friendly music, arts and culture event of record for the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the United States. With a reported attendance this year of 125,000 over three days and ticket purchasers from all 50 states plus 33 countries, it resides in the national rock & pop event conversation with Lollapalooza, Bonaroo, Austin City Limits, Sasquatch, and Coachella. The significant difference in programming is, while Bumbershoot’s music line-up alone stands next to the others, it also offers a well-rounded cultural palette of performing arts with deep content showcasing comedy, film, and in a given year anything from theater and art galleries to vaudeville and burlesque, flash mobs to literary readings, not to mention a knack for introducing audiences to tomorrow’s stars and a noticeably heavier hand for showcasing its homegrown local and regional talent. If there is less Blues than there used to be, that’s more indicative of the consumer landscape than the festival itself, which has always and continues to offer more of the genre than its competitors nationwide. For a price which registers at a fraction of what the other name-brand festivals across the land are charging, Bumbershoot gives the consumer a broader and more interesting presentation of music, arts and culture past, present and future – and more Blues – than any other rock & pop festival. Some have challenged Bumbershoot’s commitment to the Blues, and perhaps rightly so – but not so quick, as all things are relative to time and place. Admittedly, there used to be more Blues at the festival. There also used to be a whole lot more Blues in popular culture, on the radio and television. In the 70s, even as singer-songwriters commenced the decade while disco and punk closed it out, Blues-rock was filling stadiums and hanging in the Billboard Hot 100 throughout with Zeppelin, ZZ Top, the J. Geils Band, Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and the like. In the 80s, it was full-on mainstream via the height of commercial AOR (album-oriented rock) radio and MTV, helping to usher in the careers of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, to name a few. Blues and its related family of genres was pop in the 70s and 80s, or at least a consistent resident of the Top 40, prominent magazine covers and such. Blues-as-mainstream began to taper off in the 90s, but not without the career renaissance of Buddy Guy and B.B. King, the introduction of Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and significant arcs in the careers of artists like John Hiatt and Bonnie Raitt. That’s why we saw more of it on the mainstream rock & pop festivals back then. The general public was consuming more of it. The one consistent piece to this examination is, Bumbershoot has been doing more of it than its competitors at every turn. In the 70s, while the other rock & pop festivals were programming music only and headlining Styx, REO Speedwagon, Ted Nugent, and Journey, Bumbershoot was rolling with the pop acts of the day but also with Willie Dixon, Etta James, and local heroes the Amazing Rhythm Aces, offering programming highlights by computer via touchtone phone starting in ’75, and adding extra elements like the Alternative Theater Festival, the OneReel Vaudeville Show, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, literary presentations, film workshops, dance and opera to its programming. When Live Aid ’85 gave us only George Thorogood, who used his mid-afternoon time slot well by having the otherwise-uninvited Bo Diddley and Albert Collins sit in, and a rough-sounding reunited Zeppelin with Phil Collins on drums, Bumbershoot gave us Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray, and Wilson Pickett. The US Festivals in ’82 and ’83 only came as close as Dave Edmunds one year and Los Lobos the next, while Bumbershoot gave us Thorogood, Bob Willis & the Texas Playboys, Tina Turner, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – not to mention, Firesign Theatre and Henny Youngman on the comedy stage. Dollars for donuts in the 21st Century, it doesn’t get better than Bumbershoot. Using one example (all the other biggies fall in), Coachella’s advance pre-sale for 2014 was $349 for general admission to the three-day music festival, or $799 for VIP, plus $60 for a shuttle pass to get and from the parking lot, $150 for VIP parking, $85 for camping and a host of other options including fancy tents and tee pees ranging from $2200-6500. Even the base price is so lofty, it comes with a down payment and installment plan option – this is true, not a figure of speech. The pre-sale sold-out in early September and the line-up won’t be announced until sometime next year. The 2013 line-up was mostly an oldies & indie rock bill, arguably as strong and interesting as Bumbershoot’s music line-up but inarguably not as well-rounded and decidedly three times the price. The only Blues-friendly artist I noticed on Coachella’s lineup was the amazing Vintage Trouble, which also played Bumbershoot along with Eric Burdon & the Animals, the Duke Robillard Band, Nikki Hill, Ayron Jones & the Way, and Vicci Martinez. And that was just one day at the Mural stage. The numbers and Blues-friendliness are the same and similar for Sasquatch, Lollapalooza, Bonaroo, Austin City Limits, et al. Comparatively, Bumbershoot’s 2013 advance pre-sale was $45/day or $115 for all three days. Perusing the price points and respectively awesome artist line-ups at the other major rock & pop festivals, Bumbershoot runs the table by offering more value as it consistently produces a more interesting and exciting bill of entertainment and experience for a decidedly lower, accessible price. And more Blues. Ayron Jones (photo courtesy of Nate Hultman):
Duke Robillard (photo by us):
Nikki Hill (Matt Hill on guitar, photo by us):