Inside Seattle's enduring love affair with Bumbershoot
Seattle Times music critic Patrick MacDonald sat down with Norm Langill, the One Reel executive who has been a part of Bumbershoot since the 1970s, to talk about how Seattle's music and arts festival has changed over the decades.
Seattle Times music critic
Bumbershoot has evolved over the years, and no one knows that better than Norm Langill, president and CEO of One Reel, the not-for-profit company that produces the event. He's been involved with Bumbershoot since its beginning in the 1970s and is the one who ultimately takes the bouquets and brickbats, the praise and complaints.
As the 2008 festival drew to a close last Monday night, he looked out a picture window in the press room at the still-bustling crowd below and said, "I see people really engaged out there. A mixed crowd."
He turned to me, smiling.
"It was smooth. It was really smooth this year. I feel comfortable enough to not even ask about attendance."
Dropping his straw fedora onto a chair, he plopped down on a couch for an interview. He talked about why the festival is geared toward young people, why Bumbershoot is different from other festivals, how the Web has reshaped it, its association with AEG Worldwide — the entertainment and sports conglomerate — and his own personal Bumbershoot history.
"I've been at every Bumbershoot," recalled Langill, 58. "I performed at the first one in 1972 [as an actor/producer with One Reel Vaudeville Show] and started producing in earnest in 1980. So that's a long time.
"I was 30 years old when I started doing it. My experience and my taste and my energy was derived from being that age. It was about finding where the wellsprings were, what was exciting, what was new. And I think the festival has always been about 14- to 40-year-old people."
He said friends his age complain that the festival has gotten too crowded, that it's hard to find parking and that the music is too loud.
"As you get older," he observed, "you're not browsing as much through life. You generally know what you want, and your time is viewed as being more precious, and you just don't 'hang' anymore. But that age group of discovery, when you're propelled by your own curiosity, from 14 to 35 or 40, that young period, that's what Bumbershoot's been about.
"We're not celebrating the chestnuts, we're celebrating where the creative spirit comes from. And that is a constantly evolving thing. That's what the event has really been about, that's what keeps it vital and changing."
But some things about Bumbershoot, he said, never change.
"The sense of common ground, of being at a party, of being at a celebration, that hasn't changed. It's entertainment, culture, the arts, in an hors d'oeuvre-tray sense — like, I'm gonna have a little of this, a little of that, a little more of that, less of this — which appeals, actually, to people's surfing sense, which now is part of everybody's Web search. That appeals to people now. They enjoy getting that different stimuli. You can't find that anywhere else except at a festival."
Gesturing toward the window, he continued, "There's not this much variety anywhere in the city at any other time during the year, where you can get a little bit of everything."
He emphasized that AEG, which co-produces the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and produces the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in California (and also owns the WaMu Theater), does not run Bumbershoot.
"We're now part of this triumvirate of festivals supported by this major player in entertainment," he explained. "They don't control any of the programming, they just help us out when we need it."
He said that the union with AEG raised the status of Bumbershoot, "from being a swell local arts festival to really being recognized as a place where the next wave, or the new type of music, things you may not have been aware of, start bubbling up, that we're a step ahead of the current culture."
Ultimately, he said, Bumbershoot reflects the uniqueness of Seattle.
"Seattle is a really smart town," he said, "a terrifically smart town. It's a creative town. It's always about curiosity and discovery. So that's why I think the town's embraced Bumbershoot. People here are not looking to be reinforced about the status quo, they're always looking to the next step. I think we're lucky to live here."
For those who want to "ask about attendance": One Reel reported last week an estimate of 142,000, down from about 150,000 people for the three-day fest in 2007.
Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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