Review: Upstream 2017


The complex Romance of a New Music Festival in Seattle

We are standing at the base of the steps leading into CenturyLink field, staring back north towards Seattle’s skyline, which is at night now, in black and fluorescent window tone, and there is the giant main stage in front of us, the main stage of Upstream. On the stage performs Shabazz Palaces. We have been watching them, in the rain, with the smoke machine offering a realistic appearance of mist, not being able to distinguish what is real and not, what is theatrical and not, and it is mid-set, and Ishmael Butler asks two questions: the first, which is “How many of you are Seattle natives?” A few dozen of the few hundred pairs of hands reach out into the night and Ishmael confirms with a “Okay, so we have three Seattle natives in the audience.” After some musings, he asks: “How many out-of-towners are there?” and a gaggle of uneasy cries shoot into the sky like bottle rockets. “Thanks,” he replies, “I’m going to remember your faces.” I’ve lived in Seattle for six years so I feel neither native nor foreign, but these questions remained some of the most pertinent of the entire festival, and, remarkably, they arose in such direct dialogue from the Shabazz set with only a few hours left before the inaugural festival’s close.

About fifteen minutes earlier, one of the projection artists of the event, a friend who I’ll refer to as “A,” was accompanying me to the show and I was, in my exasperated manner, attempting to explain how difficult it would be to write about Upstream for Queen Mob’s. “I guess I’m going to have to go for the ‘Millennial Introverted Anti-Gonzo Journalism’ approach, I joked. Looking back on it, could I have been more pretentious, more white-guy-being-self-indulgent?

Out of the four or five festivals I’ve ever attended, which includes a Folklife where I was a performing poet, Upstream 2017 felt the most uncertain. Not in a bad way, of course. The festival, which ran three days in the standard Thursday through Saturday mode, also included a two-day summit filled with panels of industry leaders, some of which represented business, some of which represented tech, and, occasionally and with arguably glaring tokenism, some of which represented the music itself. I did not attend the summit. I only attended the festival, due to time constraints. QMT not being one concerned with money, this was a completely voluntary experience.

Not covered in this piece: witty Seattle street art.

Part of the festival’s uncertainties revolved around its massive presence: on one hand, you’ve got this huge new things that’s highly marketed with all the promotions on social media and banner ads on all the major Seattle websites, and on the other hand, no history or culture to back it up and say “this is what this is about.” I found myself feeling heartless and wandering aimlessly, albeit rushed and methodically, to what I was always hoping would be a good experience. And, actually, the experience was great. Even as “press” I found 90% of all the live acts I stumbled into enjoyable, really enjoyable, with top notch sound and, despite the short set times and nearly impossibly short sound checks, quality musical performance.

Despite the bubbly and floaty quasi-adrenaline rush from the overloaded experience, there were several moments where I felt saddened (maybe even guilty) that I couldn’t catch everything that Upstream offered. The music was obviously only part of the experience, similar to South by Southwest, Bumbershoot, and so on and so forth. That the festival also included a significant set of KEXP programming involving live performances and workshops left me feeling like I failed to be exposed to the heart of the festival. That I didn’t stop and check out all the visual art (yes, there was that) in all its glory made me feel like I wasn’t representing a huge slice of “cultural offering” Upstream was trying to embed into its foundations. Even worse in all my grandiose amateurness, the array of visual installations that were widely unpublicized and probably (unfortunately) ignored by many were concocted and organized by the seemingly-indefatigable efforts of the fairly brilliant Julia Greenway, a Seattle-based curator who I’d previously collaborated with back in the day through a residency at Cornish and a couple of other neo avant garde programs.

Methodologies that may or may not be necessary in covering a music festival in 2017

It had been only a week before the festival’s opening day that I received the note from one of the organizers that I, Greg Bem, writer of Queen Mob’s Teahouse, would be allowed a press pass (and a photo pass, if I desired) for the entirety of the festival, with complete access to the Upstream Summit as well. QMT not being a regular casing for writ on music festivals, it was probably my previous coverage of Bumbershoot (an exhausting, dementia-inducing affair in my drunkest moments of 2011) and my ability to apologize profusely for applying late (I applied nearly a month past the deadline for press pass requests) that got me the pass. Or, as A mentioned to me, they probably needed as much press as they could get. Indeed, actually, looking at the daily responses from major outlets like The Seattle Times, coverage was lackluster. This wasn’t Pitchfork, or Coachella, or Sasquatch, despite the incredible lineup. Search “Upstream” on Pitchfork and you’ll find a whopping 0 results. Who gets taken seriously?

When I received, with astonishment, the acceptance letter, I did two things: sent A messages of childlike joy, and canceled most of my social activities for the next seven days. Then I took a look at the website, and cried inside a little. Around 300 artists is the total listed on the website. 300. How the hell was a person, regardless of their privilege and free time, supposed to assess such magnitudes? I activated that inner database nerd inside all of us librarians, and started with a spreadsheet. It took approximately 3 days of listening to .5, 1, or 2 songs by each artist to decide exactly which musicians, bands, producers, emcees, etc I would go see. I created a spreadsheet that included only the artists that I found had a mid, high, or mandatory level of enticement (all arbitrary, of course), and tried to include on the list every genre possible. In reality, I probably mostly saw beats, hip hop, pop, and electronic music, with a few exceptions. In addition to listing the artists, I included links to their pages in the spreadsheet, as well as their performance times (obviously) and venues (obviously). Based on Soundcloud usage (plays per track) I even tried to indicate which artists were “new” and which were not, which was a terrible idea and I ditched it after figuring out it was almost impossible to even define what “new” means in terms of data. Finally, I color-coded everything, because I’m a fucking nerd. One other thing—if the artists didn’t have music online, I excluded them. This I kind of feel bad about, looking back, because there are luddites who don’t give a damn about the Internet and are still awesome artists. But in this case, the time it takes to investigate such people and actually figure out if they stack up or fit in with the rest of the scheme felt impossible. Maybe, then, that’s some legitimate social commentary for Upstream: have an Internet presence or GTFO?

Local SPD Presence

Fortunately for my sanity, but also incredibly problematic at the same time, I had several non-excusable engagements, including a library workshop all day on Friday in Vancouver, WA (approximately 3 hours south of Seattle by car), and a PageBoy artist party I’d be performing conceptual work at Saturday evening. I would not catch Thursday’s nightly performances, nor Friday’s early evening performances, nor the middle of Saturday evening, and sure, I missed some of the “big picture” by not being there the entire time, but even just typing this logic has led to a triggering of that Bumbershoot coverage in 2011 when it was almost impossible to keep up over the course of 10 hours, three days in a row. So I guess these constraints were a good thing.

With a shortcut to the spreadsheet on my phone, the only other piece was downloading the official app, which was actually pretty impressive. After installing the app and creating an account (which is tied to your wristband, which you have to electronically activate, most directly through the app), you can track all the artists you want to see, which then allows you to most immediately see those artists in the app. I obviously starred those artists with priorities of “high” and “mandatory,” thinking that the only reason I’d have to go to a “mid” was if I needed to fill time or if I couldn’t get into one of the others (venue capacities being a huge issue in some of the cases, actually). At this point in my thinking, I remember thinking, I wish I knew more people who could just splice their lives like this and devote three days to writing about a music festival. It would be awesome to have a writing partner for QMT. Maybe next time. The app also allows for a map, which is good, because Google Maps doesn’t have all the pop-up venues. And artists descriptions with links to their music and so on and so forth. You can also have the app send you notifications 15 minutes before an artist is to perform (and, actually, the distance between Kraken Congee and CenturyLink is probably about 15 minutes if you’re walking a regular pace—and by you I mean me).

So I had my spreadsheet on my phone, where I would bold all the people I saw. I had my app setup and ready to go and help me find obscure venues and give me updates if anything crazy happened (nothing did, really, or if so, I missed it). And I had my time constraints, which meant I was ready for the festival. Food and beverages were plentifully provided to the press, including catered Tom Douglas salmon-on-crackers, Marination Station’s famous pulled pork sliders and SPAM sliders, Dick’s Burgers (A and I would end up succumbing to this red meat when we noticed several bags of Dick’s just sitting there, lonely), beer, water, coffee, chips, cookies, sandwiches, and even some delicious whiskey (pepper-flavored, which, when combined with ginger beer, was brilliant) from Westland Distillery in SODO. They also had some of the best cookies I’ve ever had in my life, courtesy of Hello Robin. See cookie.GIF (below) for details.

All of this consumerist bliss was found at the social enterprise Impact Hub, which does good things for people in Seattle, and is located right in the middle of Pioneer Square, where Upstream was based, and right outside of it was the SPD’s mobile police station, and right outside too were the streets normally filled with much of Seattle’s homeless population (there are countless services for the homeless and the poor in Pioneer Square, including multiple shelters) nowhere in sight. I still wonder where they all went to this day—maybe the cop presence turned them off to the usually dark and brooding streets.

Impact Hub was a great center and positioned basically in the middle of everything, and offered us huge screens with which to watch music videos from other music festivals, KEXP live performances, and other miscellanea. The bathrooms were available and the staff were helpful. Most of the time I had questions that couldn’t be answered, like “When does the press room close for the night?” I would get a smile and “Maybe around 12?” I took the hint: eat the Dick’s and go watch the music.

The Actual Festival: Thursday

What follows will hopefully be an appreciated recounting of an exploration of the festival itself. One of the main reasons why I wanted to attend Upstream was because of reasons directly related to Seattle’s culture, and that has to do with Seattle’s culture breaking and burning and crumbling, or so I like to think, when alone at night, with no idea of how to experience Seattle anymore. So I wanted to see exactly where Upstream fit into my image of Seattle, and I wanted to see if it would change my perceptions. I was, as they say, going into this open minded. I was simply curious, and my bar was low, but it wasn’t absolutely in any sense.

The Sundries/Central Saloon/Photo by Sunny Martini

Thursday began with a slow start. After taking the 4PM Light Rail from my apartment to Pioneer Square, gawking at the reverse commuters going South, and getting my credentials at Impact Hub, my wrist band, and a glass of wine courtesy of Guardian Cellars (which tasted neither profound nor blasé while in such a rush), I hopped over Elm Coffee Roasters, a local favorite that costs too much but feels nice to enjoy. I got to the first venue. Scan in. I literally had to get scanned in with a scanner. That wrist-band and its electronic chip. Cyborg like. The 5pm show at Central Saloon featured a band called The Sundries, who I noted as a fairly typical and fairly young rock outfit. I didn’t really make any connections between their tight performance of “clean and approachable rock music” and other artists I currently listen to. I was busy with some stomach pains from earlier Vietnamese pork I had consumed, and I was busy thinking about the Central Saloon, a historic bar which I had never been in, which was almost entirely empty, but which slowly filled up to 25 people in front of the stage. I thought of the rage of Seattle in transition. I thought about how polite it felt. Everything smelled like fried potato and grilled meat, both of which made me feel even worse. I remember The Sundries having some issues with timing on account of the drummer, but probably you wouldn’t notice it if you had just worked all day (I hadn’t) or were drinking (I wasn’t). The last song I heard was “Smoke,” which had a line about growing older, which resonated with me. Could it have been an omen? Would Paul Allen, the primary figure behind Upstream, approve of such a disposition?

Scan out. Yes, scanning was required to leave each venue, at least on the first night, and for many of the venues on the second and third nights. I ran over to Nordo’s Culinarium, a local favorite to many artists for providing sophisticated dramatic performances, trendy to people who enjoy being surrounded by actors and narratives while they consume a multi-course meal. Scan in. Step inside. I looked at the fake taxidermized animals on the walls, which were covered in a red paint, or maybe they were just red plastic. It was very beautiful inside. The place was also mostly empty, so I sat down, and drank some complimentary water. The band, Colorworks, played a great sound and looked very trendy. They were classy. I looked at disgust at the menu, which had an item for “coffee and donut holes” that cost $10.00. I did not look further in the menu, and focused on Colorworks, whose singer sounded a bit off-key but the music was clear. There was a certain young white demographic that isn’t surprising in Seattle, though the youthfulness in this venue in particular evoked feelings, again, of Seattle and its bourgeois transitions. They sang a song called “Madness 1969” and I wonder about people who write songs like that and weren’t alive then. The harmonies and the longing of these uniquely loud and attractive pop songs reminded me of Ben Folds, Weezer, and the 1990s. I felt like a kid again. Before I stepped out, the lead singer said something like “Thanks to Paul Allen—you’re such a mensch!” to the audience. Scan out.

House of Sparkling Ice VIP Area

Walking around the corner, my face buried in my phone, I looked at the streets and noticed what seemed like fairly commonplace foot traffic and pedestrian presence. It was, of course, still light out, and Friday, and Pioneer Square is filled with tech startups, and restaurants, and tourist stops, and all the social services I mentioned previously. These realities make the neighborhood one of the more heavily-trafficked places in the city, but nothing felt “festival” at this point. The effect of attending a festival but not feeling like you’re at a festival is a bit odd. It’s like the uncanny valley, but for events. Scan in. I’m at The House of Sparkling Ice now, which is sponsored by the zero calorie beverage (Sparkling Ice). Everywhere it looks fun, like Tokyo, with neat lighting, balloons, and colored ice that apparently has nothing bad in it for you. There are many free samples. Rich Smith, fellow poet and literary expert for The Stranger, walks up to the 21+ area, almost entirely empty except for me and a security guard (we are talking about expected attendance), and we briefly trespass into a VIP area, where there are numerous balloons that are shaped like fruits. I will never forget Rich Smith holding the pineapple balloon. We are told by the friendly security guard we’re not allowed in there. It is very friendly and not threatening. We are both press, we can have fun like this.

Falon Sierra/House Of Sparkling Ice/Photo by Brian Oh

Then Falon Sierra, a beautiful beautiful singer, goes on the stage. Her DJ accomplice, whose name was not announced, does not say anything but is bouncing around everywhere, like his body is made of rubber. I do a close-up video of him, in hopes of turning it into a GIF someday. The music is great and I think about how it’s nice to show up early and how it’s nice that these venues are practically empty (though looking back on that, it’s weird to think it was like that). The sound is crisp and I can’t describe it, but you could probably hear nearly the same thing by listening to Falon Sierra’s music online. The audience was racially more diverse than the previous two shows, and from that point on I did start to think about what types of people were at which venues, in a way I hadn’t before. It would, of course, turn out to be most young, well-to-do white professionals at these things, but not exclusively so, and, as A would later tell me, the artists all had access to the festival, which is probably the norm, which meant probably a lot of the artists, who were from all sorts of different backgrounds and demographic categories, would be present at the various shows. Scan out.

Scan in. Buttnick First Ave is the name of the venue, and Michete is the lightning bolt that’s already performing when I enter. Dear god, I was in love. The entire vibe got twisted into this electric performance piece. Electronic beats, comedic, absurdist comedies, extremely sexualized, but only borderline perverse, this was fun music. “Come get it daddy” screamed/sung into the microphone while the crowd chanting back or singing along. It was a mostly younger crowd who were all delighted when Michete said things like “Sorry for my lack of professionalism,” played songs on their iPod, made the torn black jeans and golden yellow glasses pop, had to play a song over again because the iPod fucked up, and even popped “another Adderall” in front of the crowd because they were “doing all the drugs.” There was an urgency to this, a kind of expletive necessity. There was a feeling that this had to exist in order to get to the core of that Seattle culture stuff I zoned on and on about before. I watched Michete while a crowd of people younger than me screamed “Recognize this pussy, acknowledge this cunt,” and felt like I was back in front of Marilyn Manson or the Bloodhound Gang again, like my adolescence was in full blossom, and nothing could stop it. But I had to go, I had to see others. Scan out.

Michete, before the adderall

It wouldn’t be a Seattle festival without support from Starbucks. Scan in. The Starbucks Stage was located at a space called “The Ninety,” and it felt exactly like you would expect from Starbucks: nice but not in your face; precious, but not at risk. Snagging a free bottle of cold brewed coffee (the kind that has the cream and cocoa and honey in it) for later (I did not need more coffee in me at this point), I turned and faced the music. Brite Lines, a band from Seattle, was whimsical and jolly, filled with beautiful and sorrowful ballads (like, it felt like a ballad just listening to it). I stared at the venue’s weird, spiky interior design while the three guitars and two percussionists did their thing. I felt like this venue was more proximal, intimate, and the bathrooms were closed off, and I had to urinate. This would become the first time this motif started to affect me. I made a note on my phone: “The band is great and the crowd is small but it feels better with less people.” Scan out.

Child of Starbucks

Not helping was the rain pouring in the streets. I thought about climate change and I thought about being alone and having to find a bathroom and wondering about where the homeless pissed when they needed to, and how many cops were everywhere in this neighborhood right now and how all those spots you could piss in no longer could be pissed in without risking receiving any number of citations that would be perfect for someone with my income. I walked faster. I notated how sober it all felt and remembered what Rich Smith said two venues prior: this might just be another Paul Allen project, and who knows how much effect it will really have on Seattle art culture. I made a surprise stop at Quality Athletics, another bar I’d never been to, for a bathroom. Scan in. The Velveteins, a band from Edmonton, were playing here, at Quality Athletics, which was the weird CANADA Presents stage, which I still don’t know the true meaning of, though I could perhaps look it up. I noted the ritzy sports bar vibe of the place before releasing my urine in the easily-accessible bathroom. The band, through the walls, sounded clean and enjoyable, but the vocals of the singer were really loud. Someone, I thought, should tell the sound person to fix that. I looked at people who were straight-up enjoying the music and thought, if I just suppress all my critical thinking skills, this could be a really fun show. I got a little sad and then realized I still needed to see Grace Love before heading to Vancouver in the dark. I noted the psychological effect of being aware in the middle of all of this, noted the drummer’s green question mark hate, and left, just as the song “When We Arrive” began. Scan out.

Grace Love and Band

Surprisingly I wasn’t exhausted at this point, and I think all of the walking, and the lack of need for running, was a great thing for the body. Also, without having to drink, and being slightly caffeinated, there was a certain sustained energy. I headed to and arrived at the Court in the Square venue, which is literally a court that is covered by a roof, one of those faux plazas often seen in malls in Asia or Las Vegas, and got scanned in. I had arrived at a finally-packed performance. The rather open venue was completely full, with individuals standing in places they should not stand, and others trying desperately for a good position to see Grace Love, whose singing was a blend of the blues, jazz, and pop. A mixture of a hell of a voice, and a heavenly voice, is how I would describe Grace Love’s singing, and the music that backed her up was very interesting: ten or so musicians and she posed together. I thought it was unique but beautiful, in a way, the support mechanisms between the human voice (which was the dominant instrument) and the others. The complimentary fullness of the musicians, the electric guitar especially, kept my eyes and ears open. The conversation between Grace and the others was enduring, and yet despite the loudness, it was very much a sound of love, of compassion, of holding. I also noted an old friend of mine and South Seattle neighbor Ben Hunter playing violin in the band. I thought about Ben and his amazing advocacy work, and thought about people I’d known before, and don’t know very well now. And then I returned to the show. If you asked me what the audience was doing, I would tell you: “crying and grinding at the same time.” I’ve been to many shows before, but this was the first show where this apex of human emotion was reached in such a mesmerizing way. I dipped back toward the entrance and the crowd closed behind me, with people more invested in this than I was, and the strange feeling of irony even if it might not really be irony, patted me on the back. It was with a terrible sadness that I ended this first night, as I wanted to stay not only for Grace Love and her brilliance, but for all the other potentials that could be sharing their own magics as well. Scan out.

Vancouver Intermission in a Single Image

Go to Vancouver, Washington, if nothing but to check out a cool public library, and then commute to Portland.

A Night in the Stream: Friday

Imagine you’ve just driven through rain and traffic up the I-5 corridor, past Olympia and its evergreens. Past Tacoma and its dome. You’ve safely parked, consumed some Thai/Laotian food for dinner, and you’re on the light rail. Things are fine. You’re excited you’re able to participate in something larger than you, even though you haven’t had the proper chance to process what it is you’re participating in, some kind of purgatorial vaper coating your skin and keeping you distracted, keeping you from your thoughts.

The light rail coasts into Seattle. Rain is intermittent. A person probably ten years younger sits right in front, their phone clearly displaying the Upstream app. The train, as can often be the case around 8PM on a Friday night heading northbound, toward the core, is nearly empty. Taking out the phone, loading up the spreadsheet, noticing twice the time period as last night, noticing 56 potential artists to witness rather than 17. It is early. The light is dim in the sky but it is still there.

Being 8:05 when I arrive to Pioneer Square, I am on the verge of missing Grammy Award winner Bill Laurance, whose instrumental work was one of the best surprises in my previewing of all the Upstream performances earlier in the week. His jazz music spoke to me, so to speak, and it was imperative I see him. It turned out to be his first time playing in Seattle. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Did I mention the scan in? Did I mention the wrist band, which still worked, in its electronic glory, despite having showered, despite having traveled hours and hours across the state of Washington? Purple band is press. I’d memorized this phrase, because so many would ask for credentials, and this was all I had.

Bill Laurance and Band

88 Keys, the venue Laurance played in, was arguably completely packed, but in typical Seattle fashion, it was not hard to move through the crowd (people give space out this way) and find a location near the front. The majority of the crowd was middle aged, occupying tables. Imagine a jazz club, and that’s what 88 Keys felt like, embodied, that soulful core of jazz that exists on some concept of occasion. Despite the jamming out and the incredibly complex, enduring solos, the vibe carried itself under the banner of Radiohead, or even Nils Frahm. There is lack of exceptionalism in their live performances: they do things and it sounds fine, it sounds beautiful, natural, unforced. Everything blends. I thought about psychedelic mushrooms producing similar effects. I thought about “soundtracks of the future” and “soundtracks of my future.” Michael League and Lionel Lewis joined him on bass and drums. Just as I moved through the mild sway of crowd back to the entrance to disappear as abruptly as I arrived, their song “Swag Times” came on, and I was reminded of what I would be reminded of again the next night, in a completely different setting: Lil B. (Note: I would later find out that Paul Allen was at this show, probably only a few feet away from me. I wonder how he felt about the show, and what else he saw.)

My mind orgasming with the ecstasy of powerful and wholesome music, I moved away, only to notice that the system had changed, too. There was no scanning out. Apparently, the scanner staff, in their Upstream jackets, a very cheesy yellow color, had been given access to the manual checkout button, so they could simply count with the click of a button as people left. Thank god.

The Stadium and the Art

I rush-walked to the Main Stage, not knowing the protocol or how long getting there and getting in would take. Main stages tend to be something special in their experience—and a unique piece could easily be written on how they function, what their purpose is, how they create their own experience in the greater confines of the festival. Indeed, it was the case here, as well, with the rain coming down heavier and heavier. I needed to see AlunaGeorge, whose work I had heard without knowing, a couple of years ago, who I described as “Mandatory” if only because I wanted to dance. Getting to the stadium area, I noticed the large pink sculpture sticking straight out into the sky. One of Julia’s curated works, it seemed. I had no idea what it meant, nor, I suppose, was I supposed to, and I didn’t have time to stop and investigate the rather large and imposing monument. Wading my way past food trucks serving zero customers and vendor tends housing zero customers, with what was essentially a vibe of obscure creepiness, I got to the gates of the entrance to the stage. There were about ten rows. The first row told me I could not bring my bag in. Press. Go over there. I went over to a special line that involved walking out of the main entryway and around a special metal fence, and I was greeted by two individuals who were cheerful, had no idea what “press” looked like (it’s the purple wristband) and only partially checked my bag. Granted, I had nothing of illegal natures or values within, but I thought that anyone with a logical mind in some working condition could have entered without issue. Whatever—these things happen, and are nice—stop thinking about it.

AlunaGeorge, from a long way away

Chuckling, I approached the stage, which was reversed into facing the stadium. It was a pleasant effect, allowing attendees to use the stairways going toward the stadium (with the concession stands on the very top) to not only stand and see the stage from any distance, but also in some cases take shelter from the rain, due to a very precarious design feature overhanging those stairs. I stood under the precarious design feature, sober, awake, uncaffeinated, and cold. Around me, people danced, drank, and, as usual with any event, talked too loudly for my comfort. Regardless of these factors, I was blown away with how amazing the sound quality of the show was: she sang and danced along with two other dancers donning big, puffy coats, while the gigantic screen behind her showed multiple angles of video of her. It was simply a great experience, one that I’m sure most event producers never reach in all their work with live music. The audience had roughly 1,000 people in it, based on my guess, which was as good as anyone’s in the growing darkness of the night, with the near-perfect overlays of smoke machine and bright spotlight.

AlunaGeorge/Main Stage/Photo by Brian Oh

“You Know You Like It” currently has over 100 million views on YouTube. The DJ Snake-produced track is one that probably you and your mother and your colleagues have all heard—either on commercials, in shows, on the radio, on Spotify, remixed on Soundcloud, or on YouTube, and hearing it live was fantastic. “What you want? What you gonna do?” evoked a lot of ideas. What does this festival hope to accomplish? What is this festival trying to do? What has it already done? A big, wealthy event pressed down like a stamp into one of Seattle’s oldest and most iconic neighborhoods. Now we have this. Now we have to do deal with this. But it’s kind of cool, right? What else would have been happening in that parking lot those nights? And the rest of the spaces, glowing with the congregation of people who could afford the tickets, and the artists themselves (artists which, bands and projectionist accompaniment and so on, all totaled probably over 1,000 individuals). One of the fantastic things that did it for me at the AlunaGeorge show was when she waxed on about being from England and bringing the rain wherever she went (there was a perfumous irony to the statement, being in Seattle), and then calling the audience a bunch of fucking troopers. That we were, for so many reasons.

Waiting for Maiah

At some point I had to leave, and that was probably when I compulsively checked and saw the incredibly endless list of additional acts ahead of me. Things get blurry in my memory despite my notes. I remember running back north in this 4-square block area, crossing paths with a couple of buskers, one playing the bagpipes, the other, blond, looked at me and smiled. No time for smiles. I felt like I was “working,” really that first pang of awareness that this feels like duty, like I’m responsible to making sure this all goes down the way it needs to. I got to the next venue AXIS 2, to see Maiah Manser, who blew me away in her digital representation of herself. There was a line. I flashed back to the email press received alerting them that if needed they could go to the front of the line. The line was five people in length. It didn’t seem worth getting into that conversation. I waited and saw the packed room through the huge glass windows reaching up to a vaulted ceiling. A club space, or event venue, or bar, or both, AXIS is what I think of when I think “no more parties in LA.” It was nice but had an unfinished vibe, as many of the venues I encountered had. Maiah Manser was behind schedule due to sound check, and the room had a denser crowd than any venue I’d found formally, and not in Seattle style, people were pressed up against each other. Which is to say I did not want to stay long, so I listened to a couple songs when she finally played, was fairly underwhelmed and unimpressed. Had I been able to see the band, see Maiah in anything other than a glimpse in front of the static-TV-esque projection background, I might have had something more to say, but her washes of rock music and moaning into the mic did little for me staring into the backs of 6.5-foot-tall dudes in front of me. I remember a bunch of others looking forlorn as well, and I wondered if this is how short people feel on a regular basis. As I moved back to the entrance, I heard one group chatting about going to Flying Lotus, and another group trying to describe Maiah Manser’s sound. Typical conversations, perhaps, but poignant too in this moment of flux.

in the middle of Pioneer are two pedestrian spaces. The one that is not Occidental Square contained roughly a dozen glowing chairs, which cast a lovely and fun character across the otherwise dark and brick environment, and a giant tunnel, which I stubbornly refused to go in, mostly because this artist installation had a huge line in front of it every time I passed by, until the very end, when staff were dismantling it, and then it was too awkward to ask for “one last walkthrough.” Looking at the app, there is no indication of these two pieces, the chairs and the tunnel, being part of the art installations of the festival, which leaves me curious and eager to research their stories. Note: after reviewing the press photos available to writers such as myself, I was able to see the output of the tunnel. Below is what I missed.

People who are not me who are waiting to enter the tunnel.

Tunnel Art: Liminal Passage/Photo by David CongerStill recovering from the claustrophobia of AXIS, I moved toward 165 S Jackson Street, which turned out to be a giant, barless room, most likely originally an art gallery, converted into a tiny, intimate venue. The room was empty but there was a line outside. I wanted to see Parisalexa and only had a few minutes before her set was scheduled to finish. Why the line, I asked a man, who distinctly was in line and did not have a wristband, but also knew all the lyrics of the songs and was incredibly happy as he say along with the young R&B artist. Apparently, the venue had a fire code not allowing more than 49 people in. What a sad problem to have! It was clear that the venue had more potential, but at least the door could remain open, the windows also large and allowing full view of the stage. I only heard half a song before I was allowed to enter, as Sassyblack, a nationally-renowned beatmaker and singer, took the stage. Clearly, Sassyblack was the host of this event (that is, this evening and this stage), which was a surprise and delight to me. Several years earlier I had the opportunity to co-host Sassyblack at the North Seattle College Library, where she played in the library, and after we did a short interview. Due to equipment failure, that interview never actually got published, but it was awesome to experience her library performance, and now it was awesome to see her again, the top of her hair dyed red, her smug smile encompassing warmth and community. She was only on the stage a moment before DJ Native Sun, an incredible performer from DC, laid down a mix that converted the venue’s motionless crowd into a dance floor in seconds, including, thank god, myself.

Chocolate Chuck!

The showcase, which I’d later learn from Sassyblack was her own curation, continued with her brother, Chocolate Chuck, whose online works had significantly impressed me. I was reminded of seeing beats performed live in Philadelphia as Chocolate Chuck played a single beat for a minute or two before moving on, cracking jokes in between. It was clear his artistry was mindful and intense, but his vibe was lighthearted and friendly. Unlike the disconnect often seen between audience and performers at musical events, there was no disconnect here, no pretention existed in the room among those performers that evening. There simply was no room for egomania or prestige, and as such the music was so much more accessible, obtainable, beautiful. Of “Professor Chocolate” and his music, I wrote: “his beats are pretty incredible and outlandish,” the clear output of the 16 years of DJing and producing he carries with him. After stopping by Sassyblack to say hello, and promising to be back for her own performance later that night, it was time to book it. From one corner of the spectrum to another, I had to get my ass to Flying Lotus.

Flying Lotus/Main Stage/Photo by David Conger

How am I supposed to write about the Flying Lotus segment of the evening? Do I talk about how I booked it back to the main stage along with a swarm of others? Do I talk about how this was probably the reason why so many people paid for festival tickets for Friday? Do I talk about how young millennials enjoy really good music? Let’s just start with the scan in. It was the same exact process and duration to go through security as press, but I also managed to note the scanner had a count of 1,000 people, which made me think, “There’s probably 1,000 people here now, with a huge line of others entering.” That at least gave me a sense of scope. Still, regardless of the size, the place felt huge, vacuous, large enough to hold three times that. The rain of the city continued, a drizzling effect utterly similar to a Gotham from the comics. I found myself buying a beer for the first time, and heading back to my position from earlier in the day, where I had a clear view of the stage, and was not in the throng of concertgoers. Flying Lotus. I’d seen him perform at the Neptune several years ago, but had not seen him since You’re Dead! came out, or his collaborations with Kendrick started growing and becoming more regular, so frankly I did not know what to expect. What I did encounter was a nice medley of works old and new, with the iconic double-screen projection art that gave off the appearance of depth: one screen in the front, then Flying Lotus and his equipment, and another screen in the back, with both screens aligned and playing similar visuals that remind me of the wide range of fun in a DMT trip.

Several things of note happened at this show: 1) Flying Lotus also acknowledged the rain, but then acknowledged we must be used to it here in Seattle; 2) he played a fantastic Twin Peaks theme remix that I hadn’t heard before, and that probably would never sound better anywhere other than Seattle; 3) he oddly mentioned Dr. Dre going to vegetarianism; and 4) some of his visuals involved cops with their pants down, smiling in caricature. Throughout the set, I sank into the city, felt this eruption of “this is possible, this is happening,” and yet also felt distinctly Seattle—that is, it felt subdued, small-scale, and obtainable, despite everything else. Not the only thing to happen on a Friday night out in Seattle, this was still a fantastic experience filled with people looking for fantastic experiences.

A brief glimpse of The Thermals

It was with these sentiments that I pulled myself away from Flying Lotus and ran to the Comedy Underground to catch The Thermals, another nationally-famous, and this-time local, feature. Like a basement venue, people packed into the small, rectangular room and watched The Thermals blast their songs with high energy very similar to the recorded versions. It had been a long time since I listened to them, but they still sounded as urgent, as demanding, as uplifting. And yet, the audience was all young and I was not felt pressured into sticking around. The one question I had was: why not a larger venue?

I stumbled back into the square and tried to figure out where I could be, where I was supposed to be. For the first time, my planning went incorrectly, as I made my way to Stage Seattle, a nightclub reminding me of being 21 again. I thought that Sam Lachow, famous local emcee, would be doing his tight-knit verse, but instead I was greeted by Romaro Franceswa and friends. The show had just started, and the club was not nearly packed. Nearly everyone that looked like they were going to the club was in the club. It was an interesting effect, seeing a handful of people (like me) clearly not fitting in or fitting the vibe. Regardless, it wasn’t about me or anyone else except Romaro, who was standing on all sorts of things, rapping about this, or that, in that Chief Keef style, and people were into it . . . until the technology failed. I’m not sure what the protocol was supposed to be, but on one of the tracks, Romaro hyped the room up through a Capella, saying the same phrase over and over, to let the beat emerge out of the speakers like a summoned god. But the god never came, and this happened three times, and on the third time, Romaro left. And he didn’t come back. And when the Mac computer finally started working again, the DJ played Kendrick’s Humble, so symbolic in the face of this tragedy, and people danced, and Romaro never came back. Obviously, I did not need to spend my time dancing in a dark and erotic club, so I left, and as I figured out where to go next, as Sam Lachow was not performing at this venue for a couple hours (did they reschedule him?), I heard the doormen at the exit talk about how Romaro had just walked away. I was saddened by this experience, and thought about it, as an artist, how that must feel, how you work yourself up to the position you want, have everything laid out in your mind, and then there is failure, and what is the best response to that failure? I would have chosen to go deal with it alone, too.

Before, during, or after Romaro’s departure

With extra time on my hands, I moseyed (for the first time, this verb can be used) back over to the Starbucks Stage, where I encountered Shaprece, whose singing had been truly inspiring during my previewing, but I did not think I would be able to see her or her music, due to the other priorities (which I now acknowledge are male-centric). I’m grateful for having seen the last part of her set. The absolutely beautiful lyrics and the absolutely beautiful voice was paired with modified vocals through the variety of available equipment and a very chill, distinct electronic accompaniment from her DJ seeped into the walls, and everyone at this heart-of-the-night performance was in-tune with it. The DJ was present, utterly so, and maintained the ability to handle his pad with incredible skill. Her final song, carried over from an A$AP Rocky beat, was a soft close, also humble in its own way. I unexpectedly chuckled after she asked the audience of thirty or so people how many people were into A$AP Rocky and only one hand went up, and that hand was not mine. Still, the song was played and its cascading feel was a full one.

The extraordinary Sassyblack

At this point I remembered feeling happy that the night was almost over. At some point, I made the decision not to stay out until 2 in the morning and see every single timeslot I could, and this was a preemptive decision, in anticipation of having to stay out until 2 the following, final night of the festival. Once again, I made my way to the Jackson Street venue to see Sassyblack close out her showcase. I arrived expecting a line around the block but I was early, and DJ Native Sun was once again playing his amazing mix of electronic and hip hop. There was no line so it was easy to enter, and enter the audience. Within fifteen minutes, though, there was a line outside. With careful setup and a empathetic, welcoming introduction to herself, Sassyblack performed. It was by far the apex of the festival for me: a local genius capable of transforming an evening into a place of wonder, excitement, respect, and love through personal and communal expression was only the beginning of this experience. If only it was available on a regular basis, I thought, the world would change so much. Near the very end of the performance, the audience participated in a call and response chanting “I am free” and “We are free” among other lines that truly unlocked us, set us into a space of transformation. Everyone in the room was a different individual, but this brought us together, and we all responded to it together. What greater implications can there be? In the context of the festival, there is such freedom to the wandering and saturated nature of what’s available, what’s possible. And it happens. And you’re there, and then you’re gone. But what about the analogy? What about the greater message here? I thought of Seattle and its earth-moving machinery littering the town on the brink of a new identity (another new identity). I thought of myself and the changes I’ve made in the last 9 months. I thought of everyone in that room going through so much of what we go through, and thought about at least being able to be aware of this space, this moment, this magnitude, is one that will change our lives for the better.

Dazzled doesn’t nearly describe the feeling I carried as I floated toward the light rail tunnel, but it comes close. The chance to head back to my home with the tones and phantasmagoria of statements and utterances was, if nothing else, complete.

I write this with a cold. I’ve been writing this with a cold the entire time, actually. The cold was to come about nearly a day after the last day of the fest, Saturday, of which I write of now. A sore throat which led to the dizziness, the feverishness, the lack of energy, the eternal congestion. But still we push on. In telling a story of such positivity, there deserves to be some balancing act, some offsetting factor.

In thinking about the third and final day of Upstream, which I attended in two parts, the first part, before taking a moment to go be an artist in my own right, and the second part, which happened after being the artist, I think about the fleeting nature of the event, and the lack of community, the lack of necessitated commitment, the pushing on, the pushing on, the pushing on, and the constant question made present since the beginning: to what do we belong, to what do we owe our presence?

Ings/Court in the Square/Photo by David Conger

It was a bright and sunny Saturday, which was balancing the festival’s previous rain-drenched weathers. It was bright and sunny, and taking the rail in at 3:55PM after a day of sitting inside my apartment watching online training videos was a welcome relief. I skipped visiting the press center at the beginning of my journey into Upstream, heading straight to the Court, to catch Ings. Ings is as much a band as it is an individual artist, who produces “Lullaby Rock,” whose work is heartwarming. As I entered the venue, which no longer required my scanning in (they had, like other venues, switched to a full manual activation—out of fatigue, laziness, or optimization is to be determined), I found a group of early-afternoon-festival-goers all paying the fullest attention to this woman’s music I could have ever imagined. The music was light, fluffy, sleepy: songs my overly-caffeinated body couldn’t fully connect with, songs my body needed more protein to fully grasp. But I enjoyed the songs and their introductions, as Ings mentioned the one about time travel, and the one about Kurt Vonnegut, and the idea of thinking about all the planets existing out there, and this one couldn’t possibly be the only one with life. As these loud, soft songs bounced around the covered court, part of me wanted the festival to end right there. And the other part of me pushed forward.

It was far less pink in person.

It was to Zocalo I went next, my first time at the venue, which is posh enough that I didn’t even need to look at the menu to know that I wouldn’t be ordering anything from there. Instead, I crawled up to the bar, rotated the barstool to face the stage, and sunk into what was a very hypnotic, cloud-like sequence of songs from Lushloss, whose work I couldn’t help but compare to Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, but more feminine, and with singing, and with a wider range of texture. Humorously, I caught myself making the comparison and immediately stopped that thought process where it sat. It was more important to listen to the music, to get the emotional honesty coursing through it, and to watch as yet again another nearly-empty venue showcased some incredible music. I “scanned out” by smiling back at the hostess who stood vigilantly next to the main entrance, before exiting back into the warm, accommodating day.

It’s a bit strange to call places like this “beer garden.”

It was to another new venue I turned toward, and approached, only a block away, the Fuel Sports Bar’s Beer Garden, which was a makeshift beer garden placed on top of the parking lot that sits right next to Fuel. It was pretty nice, and it seemed to also be great for the neighborhood’s homeless population, a handful of which stood immediately outside with a full view of the stage. Apparently they were allowed to interact with the festival, in their own way. As I approached and entered, once again using my “press” status to excuse my man purse, I found myself drawn to the music. I skipped the Jell-O shots and incredibly-priced beer, and plopped myself down in a seat, because why not sit when you’re listening to hip hop. The artist before me: Porter Ray. The music: incredible. Porter Ray does a comparable job to artists like Kendrick Lamar and Notorious BIG and Pusha T: there are stories woven into these finally-sketched songs, and they are performed with an impeccable lyricism. The images, the music and the tones, the narrative and characterization—it all falls beautifully in place, and it’s not surprising that Porter Ray is as popular as he is (and it surprised me that there weren’t any more people at his performance). It was an added bonus to see an equally competent rapper join: Stas THEE Boss (of the former outfit THEESatisfaction) came out and performed a song in the warmth of the sun that felt true and on time. At one point I mused silently about Porter Ray’s brilliance and its burden of being a product of the industry. Many of the cliché narratives of misogyny, drug use, crime, and an obsession with money come out through the lines, many of which are quite beautiful, and I was reminded of the documentary The Souls of Black Girls, which explores how the media and entertainment industries have profound cultural influence.

It was due to starvation that I moved out of the beer garden and let the rap alone. Bouncing over to the press room at Impact Hub, I enjoyed the ridiculous splendor of “press” status with a whiskey cocktail and sliders. I noticed Macklemore, performing live at some Bumbershoot or another, on the screens, and wondered how this festival might have been influenced by Bumbershoot. Or not. What are the similarities and differences? Obviously music was the main focus of Upstream, in its summit, which I did not attend, the workshops, which I did not attend, the live KEXP specials, which I did not attend, and the festival itself, which I did attend. There was some boundary breaking with the installed art, but not much. And in that way, Bumbershoot’s essence as a “cultural” festival representing much of more of Seattle as a place of many types of artists and thinkers was unique. And so, then, we have to ask, what does Upstream provide to us? To me, it’s a rainy festival in the Springtime, which is a perfect time to have festival, since nothing else is really going on in the area, I guess (aside from Folklife, and Sasquatch, and so on and so forth). If it truly becomes an annual festival, it will be worth seeing how it evolves and becomes more self-aware, rather than just an opportunity to do something in Pioneer Square when there’s time and space to do it. Note: tourist season doesn’t really ramp up until July, so there’s no conflict with all the ghost tours, underground tours, cocktail tours, historic tours, and on, and on.

Waiting to catch a ride in a very old elevator.

Part one of Saturday concluded with a trip to another venue I hadn’t seen yet: Smith Tower. To be honest, I’d never even been inside of Smith Tower, on any floor, and this venue space was on the 18th floor, which was exciting. Smith Tower at one point was the largest building West of the Mississippi, and its architectural style continues to be one of prominence in an otherwise boring city of architecture. The elevators, by the Otis Elevator Company, are apparently the originals from when the building was built, said the elevator operator who was also working the festival (nice that they employ the people who normally work the jobs, though perhaps elevator operators are hard to come by). Before even getting to the elevator, however, there was a long line that shot out into the street of people waiting to get to the elevators. I would soon find out, after using my “press” status to allow my large bag inside, that the elevators only allowed six people per trip up or down, which thus explained the wait. It’s not that the elevators are fast or slow, but that there is a lot of traffic, and only two elevators, which must be manually operated.

Checking out the Northern Natives sets from the back.

Arriving to the top, I was incredibly glad that I had made the choice to go into the tower. The view of the horizons (yes, all four of them) was easily accessible in this unoccupied office space, which was turned into a music venue. I took a few pictures of the International District, Pioneer Square, SODO, and Beacon Hill, before turning to face the music I had shown up to see: performances by Samurai Del and, then, Sendai Mike, two producers and DJs of the Northern Natives group. Both were fantastic in their own way. I did feel odd, and thought, “maybe this is what LA feels like,” when I realized how racially diverse everyone around me was, and how everyone around me looked like they made roughly $30k more than me annually. It was a “nice” group, flashy but smart. “Smart Club” attire? Is that a thing? Everyone was dancing, even me, positioned in front of the giant speakers that blew open my mind over and over again. The more party beat style Samurai Del focused on was replaced with a subdued funkiness from Sendai Mike. The entirety of the performances was backed by these strange light bar panels abstractly arranged behind the artists, and I imagined more grit, I wanted more grit, but what I got was comfort and stability. Local outfit Night Shift must have arranged this venue as there was a display running throughout the venue that said “What is a Night Shift venue? Safe space. Mindful. Consent. Let’s Vibe.” I was into it, and would have enjoyed just going there for the entire festival. Sadly, I wouldn’t return after dark, but I imagined it could become quite the space of intimacy and unique experience looking over a lit-up city amidst a group of intoxicated young people. Alas, it was not in the cards for me, as staying for the rest of the performances also wasn’t in the cards. I had a PageBoy performance to attend.

You’re paying for that view.

The party details, which will remain secret, are full and varied, but essentially what happened after the party, which took place on Capitol Hill, was this: A, who also performed at the party, joined me on the train ride back to Pioneer Square and we proceeded to attend the later shows together, which is what follows, if you’re even paying attention at this point.

The last frame of the evening begins with me announcing: I’m at 10,000 words and who knows what I’ve even done through this piece. This might be the most I’ve written all year in a single piece. It might be the most I’ve written about a single subject at all. This is longer than the Cormac McCarthy novel emulation that I failed to write after a few chapters. And yet this is it. It’s just a story, like any other story. I think about how rounding out this story, telling it fully, will allow the meaning to come upon itself. That doesn’t make it good, strong, or acceptable writing, and it doesn’t mean I’ve fulfilled my role as a contributor to society, or made any alarming or profound statements or conclusions. Not at all. So is it just trash? Just garbage? Of course not. I do hope that the bits and pieces that get read, either by me in a year when I’m revisiting this piece, or the few folks that click the link when it shows up in their feeds, or even the robots crawling the web to take a look at the internal linking going on, will find some value in something that’s been said.

A surprisingly easy position to accomplish.

When Shabazz Palaces was playing, and that line “I will remember your faces” was uttered, my heart beat rapidly. It was the kind of promise that rarely gets made so bluntly in Seattle. It was a commanding presence, something that was not hiding in the mist, not waiting on the other side of the rain clouds, and it was real, earnest, and authoritative. A and I chuckled about it at the time, but I found it to be one of the most striking moments of the entire festival, and thank god I encountered it, that phrase, splicing one half of the set with the other half of the set. It was also curious to see that the Shabazz attendance was significantly lesser than Flying Lotus. I did wonder as I do now if the attendees were actually mostly people new to Seattle who hadn’t been here a couple of years ago at the height of Black Constellation, if they had little to no relationship with the Shabazz trajectory, and maybe they were all new, just new, and they could be excused. But on the other hand, maybe they were diehards, maybe they loved Shabazz and wanted to see them on this really neat big stage. Who knows. I know what I felt: an admiration and a sense of pride. I’ve always felt that way about this group, because I to this day think they are some of the most innovative musicians creating music today, and I do think they continue to take hip hop into new realms that were previously invisible, and their live performance is one of true elevation. I found a few things to note about this particular performance, the first I’d seen in a few years: 1) there were a lot of low-res projection visuals going on, which was an awesome counterpoint to the quality and scale of the music itself; 2) many of their classics were reworked and sounded fresh with altered beats and timing; 3) they used jellyfish in some of their visuals. It was with dismay that A and I didn’t stay for the rest of the performance, but of all the times I felt the urge to see as much as possible, it was this time that rang true.

We rushed through the night like strangers, like workers, like witnesses. We stopped by Quality Athletics and listened to a song or two by Said the Whale, which was good but the venue was packed and I couldn’t even see the strange locker room interior design because of how many bodies there were in the way. I did note the song about intimacy that played, which spoke of losing intimacy, while some people made out in the corner. I noted that zero people looked unhappy at that given moment. It was weird, in a Stepford Wives way.

Beef and beer.We rushed through the night forward, onward, onward, this time to see Hibou, a rock outfit that sounded like an opiate-induced Wavves, and the crowd was younger, and it was the Courtyard in the Square, and it was nighttime, and the tone was completely different.


We rushed through to the press room, where no one was checking our wristbands, and so A could get in, and we ate Dick’s burgers, which had been left there, all that meat and bun waiting for someone to eat it, and so we had one, then two, and complimentary beer, and there were a couple of people who looked like the walking dead hanging out with their laptops, and everything felt done, exhausted, over. But we ate, we drank, we had been starving, and now we were filled with energy.

It was electric!

It was then back to Nordo, the place with the donuts I couldn’t afford, to see Wayne Horvitz and the Electric Circus, which was playing songs from Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and Sly, and holy shit, the line was too long, and we couldn’t get in, even though A worked there, volunteered there, said she might be able to get let in the basement, lead us through the VIP area to the kitchen, where we could slip into some seats, and yeah right, it was packed, at maximum capacity, so we just stood outside and waited, and I wished the velvety curtains hanging down in front of the main entrance had been pushed to the side so we could see the band, in all its glory, its amazing electric glory, from the street, but instead I breathed in, and waited, like the rest of the people, and we were let in, eventually, and we were placed, standing, behind the sound person, who looked like a wizard in front of that control panel, that board, and there were no tables available, and I wouldn’t have bought anything if we had been offered, but we weren’t offered, and so we just sat and watched and let the electricity of the horns and strings and drums and voice crash over us and the mind was blown, blown, and then it had been a couple of songs, so we had to push forward, wondering why that music couldn’t exist every night, changing the entire fucking world.

Chase Miles on the left; Luna God and fan on the right

To another new venue, new restaurant, we went, the tentacle-themed Kraken Congee, located in a basement, or a sub-basement, where we wondered if it was like Seattle, being down there. First was Luna God, who played party music while we drank beer and cider and watched people get down, and there was no grinding by anyone, no, it was intellectual, it was free dancing, flowing dancing, and just a great acknowledgment of the music history, this DJs fantastic ability to see music as history, and present it as such, like Girl Talk without the bullshit and the stage hopping. We stuck around then Chase Miles came on, changing the vibe but people kept pushing forward, kept listening, and suddenly A and I were up front, right in front, taking pictures, watching the smiles, feeling the dawn of some kind of kraken fury of music and culture and there was no exhaustion and there was no regret, for the fullness of joy and freedom was upon us, and meanwhile I remembered chanting back to Sassyblack with the rest of that crowd, on the previous day, “I am free.”

We pushed forward, hopped back up the stairs to the street level, and pushed on, A wanting to go to Smith Tower, and when we got there, my “press” status was finally denied, the jerk managing the line said the purple band isn’t press, you need to have the sticker, and all I could think of was “fuck this, fuck the sticker, fuck the pass” because who the hell invented the sticker? And it was at that moment that I was told, flat-out, “no,” by this guy, and I realized the power struggle for what it was, and I let him have it, he could have his way, and I could move back, back, back to something better, and A realized this to, so we just left, we abandoned the Smith Tower idea.

We headed to Comedy Underground: last stop of the evening. It was not empty but not packed, and it was there that I discovered Silent Servant, who I hadn’t marked even as “mid” on that stupid spreadsheet, but who should have been marked “mandatory,” because the music was delightful, full, aquatic, progressive, and weird, and industrial, but also house, but also genre-less, and we were there, close, closest, swaying, bouncing, being.

It was then 1:00AM and Jlin took the stage, and she was in all black, and she made the direct transition as Silent Servant faded out, and her music became alive, and it was then, there, that the sounds of all the industry across America became alive with her, and shook us, and every two minutes people cheered, and even sober there was no telling what would happen, or what our minds and bodies would make us feel, as we kept allowing the music, seemingly unending, to come at us, machines, the sounds and essences of all the machines, battling into us, batting into us, and reverberating beautiful into the night.

Jlin/Comedy Underground/Photo by Sunny Martinez

I thought about Upstream and I thought about it and I thought: this, this is what it is. It’s the sequence, it’s all about the flight, sure, and the uncertainty, sure, but it’s also about the sequence, and what that looks like when all the experiences are lined up together, and you’ve gone through the process. I thought about the tunnel. I thought about the lines, and the scanning in and out, and the differences in experience between Sassyblack’s show and all the others, and I smiled, feeling content, nearly orgasmic, that post-coital glow that leaves your head reeling in amazement, in a mesmerized finality at two in the morning.


There can’t really be a conclusion, can there?

The part I’ve been dying to write about since I started this piece 11,633 words ago is the part I can’t write. I can’t go into all the stats and details. I can’t provide the press releases and the hard data and facts and the research. I can’t provide any evidence because, after writing through this, that’s not what this piece is about. Call it lame reporting, or self-indulgence, or a rewarding personal exercise for personal sake only, but this is what has resulted. In a future, Upstream happens again, and my next narrative builds upon this one, and the experiment continues, and a fuller picture gets painted. But until that time happens, all I can feel content with is portraying, in perfectly acceptable QMT fashion, this narrative of Seattle’s newest festival. One might ask: was it successful? I would say: it happened, so yes. One might say: “It’s a privileged experience,” and I would have to agree completely. But in a playground for the rich, by the rich, it’s what we would expect to come out of here. It might have flaws, failures, and maybe even be a bit unethical when it comes to looking over those people of poverty who usually call the neighborhood of Pioneer Square “home,” but Upstream is certainly not thoroughly awful—in a place that is desperate to retain its cultural legacy and not become completely swallowed by the plasticity of corporate culture and excess, generic consumerism, Upstream is a needed move in the right direction. As it matures it will, hopefully like the city itself, build in more room to choose a path of self-awareness and awareness of the city itself, and be conscientious of doing more good than harm in its design. For now, the individual experiences (or at least my own) appear satisfactory.

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