City Arts Fest struggles with identity, but draws top talents

The inaugural City Arts Fest was unlike any music festival Seattle has seen and that appears to be the exact vibe event organizers were shooting for when planning the four-day celebration of music and art in Seattle.

Unlike your typical festival there weren’t any “stages” per se. It was more like a series of shows scattered across the city taking place at various venues at various times. This worked to both the advantage and disadvantage of City Arts Fest.

On one hand having shows spread around town made it difficult to hop between sets, which can be an appealing aspect of a music festival for many. On the other hand, knowing the distraction of a competing show was so far away made it a lot easier for me to sit back and enjoy the show I was attending instead of get pulled in the direction of something else, which is something that often happens to me during festivals.

The $60 wristband price was a good deal if you wanted to attend multiple events on different nights. The trick, like most festivals, was deciding which events to attend and how to manage the logistics of frantically running all over the city to make sure you got full use out of your wristband.

But what makes a festival great isn’t whether I can jump  from watching Gogol Bordello to Blue Scholars to Belle & Sebastian in the same evening. Most of what makes a festival great is the quality of music, or at least that’s what makes a festival great in my book. So in that regard City Arts Fest was pretty successful for a first year event.

But the first year success doesn’t mean  there isn’t need for improvement. For starters, the festival really didn’t feel much like a festival and I’m not the only person who has this thought.

While the bookers of the festival did a good job of bringing in big name headliners, organizers didn’t do that good of a job of creating an identity for the festival. Earlier this month when I interviewed Steven Severin, who helped book the fest, he said City Arts Fest wasn’t trying to be Bumbershoot, Sasquatch! or Capitol Hill Block Party. Well, mission accomplished on that front.

City Arts Fest definitely succeeded in staying off the turf of the other festivals. Sasquatch! has a reputation of being a festival for discovery, Block Party has the feeling of a being a big summertime party and Bumbershoot is the family-friendly festival. So what is the identity of City Arts Fest? Is it the festival with wristbands? Is it the festival that sprawls all over the city? Is it the festival that appeals to old and young music fans? Or is it the festival that really isn’t a festival? The answer isn’t quite clear after year one.

Overall, having City Arts Fest in the fold of local music festivals is a good thing. Any time music, be it national or local, can be celebrated in the city is a win not just for music fans but for the arts community. It will be interesting to see how the festival evolves and what its identity becomes if City Arts Fest returns next year.

Identity issues aside, as stated earlier what makes a festival great in my book is the talent and City Arts Fest definitely shined in that regard. Here’s a recap of the final three City Arts Fest shows I attended:

She & Him @ The 5th Avenue Theatre (Oct. 23): Let’s get this out of the way, there needs to be more concerts at the 5th Avenue Theatre. It’s a beautiful room with amazing sound that would be a perfect fit for medium-sized acts that come through town.

During She & Him’s set Zooey Deschanel’s voice carried well but her band’s sunny California pop felt a bit out of place for a dark and rainy autumn evening. Deschanel bounced around the stage, hopping in place and banging a tambourine over her head while her highly capable backing band (featuring M. Ward, the Him of She & Him) filled the venue with the shimmery pop and twang that makes the group’s songs such a treat. Deschanel’s hubby, Bremerton’s own Ben Gibbard, was reportedly in the front row and she called Seattle her “sort of” home at the beginning of the set. Unfortunately I only stuck around for about 45 minutes because I had to rush across town in time to catch Big Boi (there’s that Achilles heel of figuring out logistics rearing its ugly head). Luckily the set times were staggered in a manner that allowed for catching two headlining sets in the same night.

Big Boi @ Showbox SoDo (Oct. 23): This show felt more like an Outkast concert than it did a showcase for Big Boi’s solo skills. “Rosa Parks,” “ATLiens,” “Elevators,” “Bombs Over Baghdad,” “Ms Jackson,” “Ghetto Music,” “Fresh & Clean” and at least four or five more Outkast tracks I can’t remember made the set list. It was easily one of the loudest club shows I’ve attended and served as a reminder of just how great Outkast’s  music is (as if a reminder was needed).

Of course this wasn’t just a Outkast show, Big Boi did perform several tracks off Sir Lucious Left Foot including “Daddy Fat Stax,” ” General Patton” and “Shutterbug” and the capacity crowd ate up every second of every song be it a hit single or a new track. Big Boi teased fans with news of an upcoming Andre 3000 record, a Goodie Mob album, Cee-Lo record and an upcoming undated release by Outkast. It was definitely a different vibe compared to the She & Him show earlier in the night and being able to go from Zooey Deschanel banging on a tambourine to Big Boi encouraging the ladies to shake it like a tangerine in the same evening, logistics be damned, reinforced musical diversity as City Arts Fest’s main strength.

RA Scion, Brent Amaker & Head Like A Kite @ the Crocodile (Oct. 22): This is the one show I attended that gave City Arts Fest a festival feeling. The excitement was nearly palpable during the sets by these three distinctly different artists. Highlights included Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s BAR Brigade (a group of fans that dress up in cowboy costumes during BAR shows) getting kicked out of the venue for lighting sparklers, Brent Amaker joining Head Like A Kite on stage while wearing a gas mask, The Rodeo’s  Graig Markel jumping on stage with HLAK and all the spontaneous dance parties that seemed to erupt in the crowd throughout the show.

All of that was great fun, but the crowning moment was easily Head Like A Kite’s cover of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which turned the song into a joyous romp of an electro-rock mashup that needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated. Oh, and did I mention there were burlesque dancers on stage and a burlesque performance between sets? Again, there’s that diversity making an appearance. The Crocodile definitely carried a festival feel but it would have been nice if more than just a handful of the bigger shows City Arts Fest had that same feeling. Maybe next year?

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