My Bumbershoot Saturday: The Weather Was Unusually Spectacular, Ray LaMontagne Surprised, Yet Crowds Were Historically Slim

Shorter lines for hand-dipped corn dogs was a pleasant by-product of a lightly attended first day of Bumbershoot 2011.
"Well, this is nice," said Andy Cabic, frontman of the band Vetiver, as he looked out from the Fountain Lawn stage straight at the Space Needle and a sky full of blue. "The weather and the view."

Indeed, Saturday's weather was the best Bumbershoot has seen in at least five years, which made for a most pleasant festival experience, and no shortage of stunning views. It did not, however, buck the trend of dwindling audiences that's plagued the city's 40-year-old arts institution.

It's hard to believe there's been a day in Bumbershoot's recent past that was as poorly attended as Saturday, and that's coming after several years of miserable weather. And while the festival's mood is typically electric, with hordes of fans spilling out of arenas, stadiums, and theaters, rushing between acts and elephant ears, Saturday was unusually mellow and understated--encapsulated nicely by Vetiver's lounge jams--and not so unlike an old-school Bumbershoot Friday, long since retired.

Like those chill, festival-starting Fridays, the thin crowd made for an easy festival experience, if not for improving the event's bottom line. There's a reason, after all, that Bumbershoot resigned the poorest performing day of the weekend after 2006. But there weren't just fewer people at the first day of Bumbershoot 2011. There were also shorter lines (a plus), fewer vendors (a minus), fewer places to get coffee, fewer arts organizations peddling their wares, fewer stages, and far less buzz and anticipation for the evening's finale.

After a string of disappointing years at the turnstiles, Bumbershoot brass announced that they would be realigning the fest as a smaller festival to fit its trimmer audience. None of the changes resonated more than the move of the mainstage from the outdoor Memorial Stadium to inside KeyArena--a venue that's been dark during Bumbershoot for a number of years, but acted as a side stage until the early 2000s, hosting acts like Elliott Smith, Built to Spill, and MxPx.

Had it been raining during LaMontagne's closing set, the move indoors would have seemed prescient. Instead it was a bother and a buzz-kill. His haunting, raspy voice resonated (literally) nicely inside the arena's natural echo chamber, and his crackerjack band elevated his adult-Americana to a soulful roadhouse stew. LaMontagne doesn't have the indie cred that local do-gooders like Fleet Foxes, Head and the Heart, or Neko Case do, but his set--OK, the first 45 minutes (this reporter did want to catch some of Mavis Staples' well-intended show)--was more disciplined, authoritative, and improvisational than his local counterparts.

It wasn't that the first day of the new Bumbershoot was poorly run, marred by difficulties, or badly booked. But for the first time, the fact that Bumbershoot really is a different festival came out of the abstract. And it's going to take some getting used to, or further tweaking. We'll see.

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