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Bumbershoot: Seattle's Music and Arts Festival

Updated on August 29, 2013

Bumbershoot Arts Festival: Not Just for Bands Anymore

What's the difference between Bumbershoot Arts Festival and the Northwest Folklife Festival? They're both held in Seattle, and at the same venue (the Seattle Center, in the shadow of the infamous Space Needle), after all. Well...Bumbershoot: 1) is somewhat bigger; 2) requires tickets; 3) goes beyond Folklife's Northwest regional focus; 4) includes a film festival; and 5) doesn't push overpriced souvenir buttons on you to help pay for itself. Also, it's louder (I gave up busking at Bumbershoot years ago, when the ambient noise got so loud that I could no longer hear myself); and features a plethora of alt-rock and indie music acts that I've barely heard of. This last detail is the reason that I still love Bumbershoot, and still attend faithfully every year: the lineup forces me to check out new and unfamiliar music, some of which I actually end up liking...

The upcoming Bumbershoot Festival will be held at the Seattle Center during August 31-September 2, 2013. I'm still puzzling over the acts I photographed at the festival last year; and I may have lost most of my shots from Bumbershoots 2010-2011 when my old hard drive went down the tubes. It's still in the shop with some nice guys trying to salvage some of its data...

Delhi 2 Dublin perform at Bumbershoot Arts & Music Festival September 7, 2009 (original photo).
Delhi 2 Dublin perform at Bumbershoot Arts & Music Festival September 7, 2009 (original photo).

The Music Festival that Is, Was, and Might Have Been

Believe it or not, it used to be more world music, and more affordable!

The Bumbershoot Festival of Arts and Music is not quite what it used to be. That's not necessarily a bad thing; change is one of the few constants in the Universe. There are, however, things about the "old Bumbershoot" that I liked better than the direction the festival has chosen in more recent years. In the early 1990's when I first discovered Bumbershoot, there was more of a world music/worldbeat focus, along with more spontaneous drumming, dancing and busking; and I continue to be saddened at how all of these things have more or less gone by the wayside.

So, what do I miss from Bumbershoots past?

  • World Music Acts on Every Year's Lineup: Back in the 90's, at least, Bumbershoot's music performances were much more similar to the ones you'll still likely see at WOMAD festivals, or at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. We had performers and bands like Altan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Zakir Hussain, Black Umfolosi, Kongar-ol Ondar, Ali Farka Toure and Lo'Jo headlining stages as a matter of course. Nowadays, one is lucky to find one or two such acts during the whole festival: in the last couple of years, the best shows I saw were the Swedish folk trio Väsen, and the amazing Angelique Kidjo of Benin (both well-attended and wildly appreciated). Contrary to some views, the World Music scene did not play itself out and disappear just before 9/11; and plenty of younger music fans love international and worldbeat bands just as much as their parents and hippie aunties before them.
  • BumberDrum: Yeah, what happened to Bumbershoot's end-of-weekend percussion jam that everyone loved to dance to? It sort of dried up and disintegrated about ten years ago, when the best drummer they had on the BumberDrum stage was a hip young classical tympanist. Bumbershoot producers take note: the Drum Love never dies! Don't let the World Rhythm Festival and the Oregon Country Fair put your event to shame--bring back the drum jams, in one form or another!
  • Busker Acts That You Could Actually Hear: I used to be one of the regular buskers at Bumbershoot, until the surrounding noise level went up so high that I couldn't hear my unamplified self anymore, no matter where I set up shop. Most other buskers I know have quit performing on the grounds of Bumbershoot for the same reason. Is there any way that this situation could be remedied, for all our sakes? At least the Northwest Folklife Festival is still sonically busker-friendly...
  • Bonfires and Other Fire Ceremonies on the Final Night: It's always kind of sad when a festival's over; but Bumbershoot's fiery end-of-weekend performance art always served to keep the inevitable letdown feeling at bay just a little bit longer. Only a few years ago, they still had the bonfires, costumed fire-dancers, torch-jugglers, stilt performers, and processions to the bonfire site that festivalgoers themselves could join. Surely the Fire Department could be persuaded to let all this flaming goodness return to the Seattle Center just one night a year?
  • Impromptu Drum-and-Dance Jams Around the International Fountain: Few things can make you feel as though you are helping to create (as well as consume) culture like taking part in spontaneous drum circles surrounded by amateur bellydancers and nostalgic Deadheads movin' and groovin'. The current spate of bicycle artists and Rockstar Drink Vertical Ramp shows are all fine and dandy; but it's time for the young drum-and-dance crowds to take over the International Fountain and Fountain Lawn again, and remind everyone that Bumbershoot is about PEOPLE and ARTS, not energy-drink corporations and Corporate Radio. And FINALLY...
  • Reasonable Ticket Prices! Back when One Reel produced the WOMAD USA Festival for four blessed years (1998-2001) at Marymoor Park in Redmond, WA, many people complained bitterly about the $35-per-day ticket prices to that event. Well, guess what--Bumbershoot tickets cost at least that amount nowadays, even with gosh knows how much public and private support being pumped into the festival every year. Three-day passes are becoming cost-prohibitive for people on limited incomes, and families with young children. Surely there is some solution to this state of affairs--scholarships, sliding-scale admission, or more volunteer slots, perhaps? Let's get together and brainstorm this...

Anyway, these are simply my thoughts and opinions. I still enjoy the festival every year, in spite of the ticket prices, crowds and indie acts that I've never heard of (some of which, after all, I actually come to like). But perhaps the folks in charge will read this lens, and be moved to go a little "worldbeat-retro" this year...

*The photo included here shows a performance of the band Delhi 2 Dublin at the Bumbershoot Festival on Labor Day weekend 2009. Photo © 2009 by Karen I. Olsen.

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Bumbershoot Artists on Amazon - Just in case you didn't make it to the CD tents on time...

Feedback on the Fest - Give us your impressions of Bumbershoot--whether you're a veteran or a first-timer!

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    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 4 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I have never attended, but it is definitely oh my Bucket LIst. I live in Vancouver so its just a couple of hours away, but on the other side of the border.