Review and Photos by Max Stewart
Despite the fact that I only attended the final day of Seattle’s Upstream Music Fest + Summit, it was still enough time for me to get a Venti-sized taste of the city’s unique musical flavors. The festival’s inaugural year included more than 300 bands (primarily from the Pacific Northwest) which all ran the gamut genre-wise: Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, Jazz, Hard Rock, Country, Folk and many others were represented the second weekend in May in the Emerald City.
The event was funded in large part by the unofficial king of Seattle, Microsoft Co-Founder and fellow music enthusiast, Paul Allen, with sponsorship contributions from hometown corporations, Amazon and Starbucks. The basic premise of Upstream is to fuse live music and an industry conference into a hybrid event akin to Austin’s SXSW (keynote speakers included locals Quincy Jones and Macklemore, who talked the changing face of the music industry). Consequently, the layout of Upstream was not like that of a traditional festival where you are confined to a single site or campground for three days amongst the dirty festival wookies and trust fund “hippy” girls in headdresses. Instead, the music was seemingly in every restaurant, bar, and flex event space in the transitional neighborhood, Pioneer Square. Hell, there were even DJs performing on the 18th floor of an office building, Smith Tower. The Mainstage was located just outside the gates of CenturyLink Field, a.k.a. one of Paul Allen’s castles (he owns the Seattle Seahawks and partially-owns the Seattle Sounders).
The final day of the festival began with a non-local band on the Mainstage that I was looking forward to checking out: the Experimental Jazz wizards, Snarky Puppy. The clouds parted for their 4:00 P.M. start time, and the band’s high-energy instrumentation set an extremely high bar for the day. Although only given an hour, the ‘Texas-bred/New York-based’ Jazz fusion collective no doubt had the chops to jam all day. Snarky Puppy’s technically-precise yet accessible set had fans standing behind the guardrail and sitting on the concrete steps leading to CenturyLink yearning for another hour of music. As it turns out, Paul Allen is a fan of Snarky Puppy, too; he was sitting inside a white, covered tent just behind the soundboard watching them with some friends (like a King outside of his castle watching some handpicked entertainment… Alright, I will stop with that analogy).
Immediately following Snarky Puppy’s stellar performance, I snapped a picture of their bassist / composer / producer Michael League while he was chatting it up with Allen (who happens to be lightheartedly wearing two baseball caps: the official Upstream Fest hat on top of a Snark Puppy hat).
Right before Dinosaur Jr. made their way to the Mainstage, Upstream brought out Nicky Vassallo, a young guitarist who won the festival’s “Guitar Slinger Showdown” and an opportunity to perform a few songs for the Upstream audience. As he coyly sat down and the rain poured (in what apparently was only his second time ever playing in public), Vasallo proceeded to give a lesson on how to add an authentic personal touch to guitar playing. This wasn’t your typical hotshot phenom doing his best Stevie Ray Vaughan impression, Vassallo was playing highly complex, difficult scales over a clean tone. I turned around and saw many other jaws on the ground in the crowd. I don’t think that’s the last we will see that young man…
Although hailing from Massachusetts, Dinosaur Jr. does have a connection to Seattle because apparently Singer / Guitarist J Mascis was offered to join Nirvana by Kurt Cobain.. TWICE. The band has not lost an ounce of distorted energy either: Bassist Lou Barlow’s bounced around like they were playing tiny club in 1986. The rain let up a bit as Dinosaur Jr. performed their noise-indie rock with Mascis standing in front of not one, but three, Marshall double stack amplifiers.
I left wide-eyed and ears ringing after seeing the Alt-Rock legends, and headed to the Flatstick Pub to check out Seattle bluesman, Ayron Jones (earlier in the day, the employees at Emerald City Guitars suggested I see the axe slinger / songwriter). As I squeezed my way into the packed-to-the-brim venue, Jones was attacking the electric guitar in a vicious yet sonically-satisfying fashion. His R&B-infused Blues prowess, along with with a soulful voice and a ‘made to be famous’ on-stage charisma, make Ayron Jones a sight to see live. Highlights included “Feedin’ From the Devil’s Hands”, a cover of “Purple Rain”, and when he walked into the crowd to slay us all with his razor-sharp solos.
After the show, I introduced myself to Barrett Martin, the producer of Ayron Jones’ new album, Audio Paint Job (which is out today, by the way), who sang Jones’ praises. I am rooting for Ayron Jones to get some national recognition, he has what it takes with a sound that is equal parts Gary Clark Jr. and Soundgarden, and a touch of Run D.M.C.
Martin was also the drummer of the Grunge bands Screaming Trees and Mad Season (a band he was in with Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready), so as an obsessive fan of that era in music it was so cool hearing him reflect on the “Mike McCready & Friends” Thursday night show: “Mike and I have known each other for 25 years, we played a Stooges and Mad Season song [“River of Deceit”], which was one of our bands”. (Upstream was just a few days before Chris Cornell’s tragic death. R.I.P. to the best modern rock singer and a Seattle native).
Barrett Martin suggested that I check out Jazz legend Wayne Horvitz’s Electric Circus, where listeners were treated to some intricate and impressive Jazz interpretations of Sly Stone, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra. Had I not gotten this tip from Martin, I would not have even known about the Jazz sensation, Horowitz. Earlier in the night, I stumbled upon METZ, a noise-rock band from Canada signed to the Seattle label, Sub Pop. Their blistering and relentless sound literally drew me in from the sidewalk. Only a three-piece, these guys play with the might of a hard rock army. Check them out, but clear out some space cause you’re gonna want to mosh.
Walking through an alley, I peeked into a warehouse and saw Portland’s Quasi, an indie-rock duo comprised of former spouses Janet Weiss (from Olympia, WA’s Sleater-Kinney) and Sam Coomes. They seemed to have a White Stripes-in-a-coffee-shop vibe, and not just because they are exes in a band together… In the very wee hours of the night, electronic outfit Yak Attack kept the party going at the Flatstick Pub.
Every time I make it to Seattle, I feel a kinship with a local music scene I only know on the periphery. The last time I was in town has been well-documented in a previous Live Music Daily post; I witnessed The Sonics reunite at Easy Street Records, bought a beer for Eddie Vedder, and was welcomed with open arms by a community of musicians and fans during a fun evening. Seattle definitely should take pride in its musicians, as the city has obviously churned out some nationally-adored artists (JImi Hendrix, Nirvana, Heart, Fleet Foxes, to name a few). That’s why we should all be hoping that Upstream Music Festival + Summit grows and develops over the years. “The thing I like the most is focus on local bands,” said Martin, who hopes that going forward Upstream will “keep the programming focused on new and upcoming bands, [which will] keep it organic and those bands will go on to be national”.
Traveling from the East Coast, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the vast majority of names on the bill were musicians that I had never heard of. If not for the Upstream Music Fest + Summit, I would have never known about Ayron Jones, Wayne Horvitz, or METZ. These kind of events are crucial in cities like Seattle where the music scene is vibrant and abound with talent. “There is a propensity to see the same headliner bands playing festivals,” Martin added, and “a festival get diluted and it loses its locality. And we are a powerful musical city”.