Far, Far Away (From Home): My Personal Bumbershoot History

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Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, singing my song at Bumbershoot 2003. Photo by John Davisson.

The first time I ever stepped foot on Washington soil was in September of 2003. I was living in Kansas City, MO, working a horrible nightshift job as a graphic designer at a bumper sticker factory, and took the first non-road-trip (read: flying) vacation of my adult life to Seattle to catch Bumbershoot. My reverence for Seattle was on par with (if not significantly higher than) most folks my age; for those of us who came of age in the early 90's and got to grapple with our angsty teenhoods along with Cobain/Vedder/Cornell/Staley/etc., Seattle was the holiest of holy lands. Being from a muggy fly-over town that didn't have any sort of recognized scene and was lucky to get an annual music fest with Rick Springfield or Loverboy as the headliner, the notion of the 2003 Bumbershoot lineup made my head spin. R.E.M.? Wilco? The Shins? Modest Mouse? Band of Horses? The New Pornographers? The endless inspiration of Flatstock? 4 days of music for 48 bucks? My little Midwestern mind was blown, and a pilgrimage was made.

I did my damndest to see every possible band I could, took in as much seafood and Thai food as my stomach could handle, and realized that not every city is stifled by 98% humidity in early September like my hometown was. I talked to some of my graphic design heroes at Flatstock (howdy, Art Chantry and Jeff Kleinsmith), had a coffee at the old Uptown Espresso by the Sub Pop offices (getting a peek into Kleinsmith's office), and had a chance run-in with Jeff Tweedy and Mykal Jorgenson of Wilco outside of the Post Office at 3rd and Union hours before they played the main stage of Bumbershoot.

As my girlfriend at the time was inside mailing a postcard, I told the Wilco frontman and keyboardist how I had journeyed from Kansas City for the show, and Tweedy seemed genuinely perplexed that someone would travel halfway across the country to see his band. Having watched the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart a few times, I was a little leary of the cagey moodiness that Tweedy had displayed in the film, but he put that to rest in a hurry. Tweedy excitedly pulled their setlist out of his back pocket, and handed it to me to study. I took it for a gift, or at the very least, a preview of the show we were about to see. He asked "Does it look like we're missing anything? Anything you want to hear?" I noticed a glaring omission of Being There's "Far Far Away" (a special song for me and that particular girlfriend) and told him so. Without a second of hesitation, he drew a Sharpie from his Levi's, crossed off a song, and scribbled "Far Far Away" in its place. My jaw dropped, and I'm amazed that I managed to continue a conversation past that with he and Jorgenson. Fast forward a couple hours to Memorial Stadium, and I'm shoulder to shoulder with 17,000 or so other fans. 11 songs into their set, waiting in anticipation to see if this was just some giant cruel joke the universe was playing on me, and Wilco starts strumming the breezy intro to "Far Far Away". I know why they're playing this. I know the story. It's a weird little serendipitous secret that only Tweedy, Jorgenson, myself and my girlfriend know. Every hair on my body stands up, and I turn into one gigantic goosebump of a man. Overwhelming doesn't even begin to describe the culmination of feelings coursing through me at that very moment, in this strange city in front of one of my favorite bands in the known universe. I had my sneaking suspicions about it before, but Seattle has confirmed itself as a magical place to me.

Fast forward nine years, and I'm living in Seattle. Celebrating my fourth year of making the move from my hometown of Kansas City, a place I really, really liked (Rick Springfield, humidity and all) to a place that I absolutely love. Still geeking out about mountains and oceans and beaches and ferry boats and all of the things we never had in Kansas City (although, KC still has you lapped on barbecue, Seattle). Celebrating my third month of marriage with a woman that I had to make a giant journey and leap of faith to meet here in Seattle. Surrounded by all of these positive milestones in my life...and I'm bitching uncontrollably about the Bumbershoot lineup.

We've all done our fair share of griping about Bumbershoot over the years. "Ugh! The lineup! The traffic! The prices! The crowds!" are all things that we've all said at one point in time or another. I griped about every single one of these things before the beginning of the festival. Some of these are for good reason; in the 9 years since I first attended Bumbershoot, the price of tickets has gone from 48 dollars for four days of stellar, A-list entertainment to 125 dollars for 3 days of strange, somewhat relevant headliners and a heavy chunk of local/regional bands. Four days of music whittled down to three, and a 2003 weekend pass won't even pay for one day of Bumbershoot in 2012? Aside from gasoline, what else has made an equally dramatic jump in price in the past decade?

Aside from prices, all of my other bitching dropped pretty immediately once I stepped foot in Seattle Center. I never found myself with too much downtime between sets I wanted to/felt obligated to catch. Would I ever, in my right mind, pay money to see Jane's Addiction or Tony Bennett on their own? Not likely. Did I still enjoy the weird dichotomy of those two headliners' sets? Heck yes. Was Blitzen Trapper's enormous set of flawless riffage worth the price of a weekend pass on its own merits? Absolutely. Aside from missing The Dirtbombs' apparently phenomenal set and Mudhoney's set of pretty new material, I didn't feel like I missed anything I absolutely HAD to catch over the course of the weekend. I enjoyed the changes to the Armory and the additions of some pretty great local food options (and a quiet place to sit down to eat and get away from a constantly hustling crowd). More than anything, I loved being at a festival full of a bunch of things that I liked but nothing that I particularly loved; it made for a more spontaneous experience where you could wander past a band that sounded good and stop to soak it in, versus running 300 places to catch specific, familiar acts. And isn't that why music festivals are so great anyway? That chance to make random discoveries, to stumble upon unfamiliar new worlds?

After attending five Bumbershoots over the past nine years, I still get incredibly excited when I'm walking through Seattle Center's gates. I may grumble about the lead up to the actual event (talking myself out of having fun all the while), but even with the overpriced tickets/parking/beer/food, even with the great unwashed masses of crowds (reminding me that I've hit that age where I hate teenagers more with each passing day), Bumbershoot and it's sometimes frustratingly eclectic options are still one of the things that make Seattle feel a little bit more magical than any other city in the world. Bumbershoot was my first real reason for coming out to Seattle, and even as I get used to (read: totally spoiled by) the incredible amount of entertainment options that this city provides, I won't ever forget how Seattle clicked with me and latched onto me during my first Bumbershoot.

 
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