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Bumbershoot
A Magical, Multifaceted Festival And Effective Cure For End-Of-Summer Blues--And General Crankiness
by: Duncan Strauss

So, it's the dog days of summer. It’s hot, you’re cranky. Or, depending on when you're reading this, maybe it’s not overly hot, but you're still cranky. Or, perhaps you're not cranky at all--maybe it’s just me who’s cranky.

The point is: we're inching toward the end of the summer, which means some of us have to go back to school, some of us have to go back to work (or are already there), some of us are exchanging crankiness about the heat of the summer for crankiness about the end of the summer, as we watch our favorite memories (lounging at the beach & soaking up the sun, or staying inside--out of the sun---and sipping cool beverages, or hanging with friends &/or family in a way that seems uniquely afforded by summer, or whatever), getting ever-smaller in the seasonal rear-view mirror as we zoom toward Fall.

So while I surely can't speak for everyone, I know many find the period when Summer gives way to Fall depressing, or at least anticlimactic. And an antidote for this condition might well be a long weekend right on the cusp of this transition--you know, Labor Day weekend--that’s fun, lively, entertaining, culturally enriching, something that's a rejuvenating blast whether you're 2 or 92, and particularly if youland anywhere between those ages.

I may have just the thing: Bumbershoot, which is less colorfully known as The Seattle Arts Festival. As the wisenheimers among you know full well, bumbershoot is slang for umbrella, an indispensable implement for those living in Seattle, an area where the forecast for most of the year is rain, more rain, followed by heavy rainfall. But rain is almost never part of Bumbershoot, one of the many traits that makes the weekend so magical.

And "magical" really doesn't overstate the case: While Coachella is much hotter (in all senses of the term), San Diego Street Scene is handier, and other festivals across the country have their respective bragging rights, Bumbershoot is arguably better, broader and more venerable than any of 'em.

For starters, the first Bumbershoot was held in 1971, making it a mere two years younger than good ol’ KUCI. So both the station in Irvine and the event in Seattle are in their mid-30s, but remain fiercely-independent, peppy, progressive forces. Along those lines, Seattle alternative weekly The Rocket assured its readers, "Bumbershoot may be over 30, but it’s OK to trust it."

And we’ll get into the specifics of why The Rocket --and just about everyone else inside and outside of Seattle--so enthusiastically embraces Bumbershoot in a moment.

But right now, while we're addressing how Bumbershoot may favorably compare to higher-profile fests, let’s talk numbers. Over the course of the Labor Day Weekend--comfortably spread out amongst the Seattle Center, a deftly designed 70-acre parcel of land--some 2500 artists are presented on 20-plus stages, and while music is clearly the focus, the programming also includes film, comedy, dance, theater, visual arts, a significant literary element, and lots more.

This means that over those four days, you could see Elvis Costello, Iggy and The Stooges, Mavis Staples, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Bill Frisell, Duke Robillard, Meredith Monk, Son Volt, Talib Kweli, Dave Eggers, Tegan & Sarah, Billy Preston, Buckwheat Zydeco, The Decemberists, Trey Anastasio, Patton Oswalt, M. Ward, The Donnas, Michael Franti & Spearhead, The New York Dolls, The Gospel Hummingbirds, Mary Gauthier, The Posies--and this is just scratching the surface, especially considering that there are whole stages and/or days devoted to electronica, hip-hop, “buskers,” not to mention plays, films, readings, comedy, art exhibits, recitals...and a zillion things to engage and delight kids of all ages.

I know what you’re thinking--well, I think I do: The tickets for this must be insanely expensive. Wrong. A four day pass is $55--less than 14 bucks a day. Of course, you can also buy a two-day pass ($30), or a one-day ticket ($18), but if you think you can go at all, probably best to try to hit all four days--especially if you're coming from Southern California.

Yeah, it's a pretty serious road trip--about 1100-1200 miles, depending on where you're leaving from--but I know people who've done it, and for them the potent virtues of Bumbershoot easily trumped the wear and tear of all those hours in the car. If you can swing it, far better to hunt down a good airfare online. Similarly, if you pounce now, you can probably still find a hotel room for a reasonable rate-- specially if you don’t mind sharing the room with a bunch of friends, bringing everyone's cost down.

Which actually can work out fine, because you tend not to spend much time in your room, anyway--most of the weekend, you want to be at the Seattle Center. Even before the music or other action starts each day--or when you’re looking to mix up activities, or just take a break--there is no shortage of other stuff to do.

Not only are the Festival grounds incredibly user-friendly--once you’re at the Center, all indoor and outdoor venues, eateries, beer gardens (yeah, you heard me) and other facilities are an easy walk--they also include the old, famous Space Needle and the newer, somewhat less-famous Experience Music Project.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the EMP is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's sprawling I-Love-Music-And-I-Have-Millions-of-Dollars-To-Prove-It museum/interactive extravaganza/performance space combo. It's a very cool place, definitely worth checking out, and in recent years, Bumbershoot has used the EMP's Sky Church as one of its venues.

There's a ton more I could explain (I went to my first Bumbershoot in 1991, and while I missed a few years in the early 90s, I've hit most of 'em since then--so I have a pretty good handle on the event, including ways it’s changed, mostly through belt-tightening measures), but rather than let this wander into an even more bloated blab-athon, let me just emphasize three final points:

(1) Big and sprawling as Bumbershoot is, this is an enormously well-organized and skillfully executed event. The organizers have it down. One upshot is that the vibe there is exceptionally relaxed, one of the chief factors that makes Bumbershoot truly magical.

For example, they just assume you're going to be nice, responsible and respectful of fellow fest-goers--so they don’t search you or anything you’re carrying when you enter the grounds...they don’t care, for instance, if you're bringing in your own food or bottles of water. They want you to be comfortable and don’t want to force anyone to do or buy anything, though I should mention there’s lots of great food available on the grounds, and you can buy and enjoy beer or wine in the aforementioned beer gardens.

(2) Even if you’re all excited by the schedule--including, as is often the case, two great bands playing at almost the same time--may I suggest that you not try to scramble from stage to stage, in hopes of seeing everything. That's a common mistake of the Bumbershoot rookie, like overeating at a tantalizing brunch buffet, and feeling crappy the rest of the day. If you try to see too much, instead of a relaxed, magical time, you’ll wind up feeling stressed and edgy, and while you can always come and go from the outdoor venues, the indoor venues sometimes involve longer waits to get in, or worse, they sometimes "sell out."

So just go over the schedule and decide which shows for you are "must see," make sure you get to those comfortably, and fill in the rest of your time with an array of experiences, musical and otherwise. Besides, there’s always next year. Indeed, just about everyone I know who goes to Bumbershoot for the first time comes back the next year...and the next. This ranges from friends of mine you haven’t heard of to people like comedian David Cross (HBO's "Mr. Show," Fox's "Arrested Development"), who started coming a good five or six years ago--booked as a performer--and I've run into him just about every year since, regardless of whether he’s scheduled to perform. He's just become a Bumbershoot fan.

(3) Probably everything else you need to know can be found at http://bumbershoot.org. And if you have other questions that you think I might be able to answer, e-mail me here. Lastly, some of the material and a few of the phrases that appear in this article I stole from a previous article I wrote about Bumbershoot. If you have a problem with that, please call 1-800-BITEME.

See what I mean about the crankiness? That'll all be gone when I return from Bumbershoot.

Photo courtesy John Taylor
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