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A Jewel of a Festival

Labor Day Weekend in the "Emerald City" of Seattle is tough to beat.

by Paul Gerald

Maybe your ears are still ringing from the fun you had at the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival. Or maybe you're still just a little hung over from your weekend at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. But maybe, just maybe, you find yourself wanting more -- something fun, cultural, hip, and not overly debaucherous, something in a great city at the best time to visit it. Well, folks, there is such a thing, and it is called Bumbershoot.

Bumbershoot is what happens every Labor Day weekend in Seattle, the "Emerald City" of the Pacific Northwest. You may have heard that it "rains all the time out there," and in fact this festival's namesake is an umbrella. But Seattle this August 29th through September 1st is expected to be in the upper 80s to low 90s, with mountains and the Puget Sound in full view of downtown, and with five days of music, art, food, film, dance, theatre, street performers, puppetry, circus acts, bungee jumpers, and the damnedest bonfire you'll likely ever see.

Seattle is one of America's great Boom Towns. Fifty years ago, it was a little port known as the "Gateway to Alaska" and not a whole lot else. Then came Boeing, then came the Great Migration of Californians, then grunge, then Microsoft, and now Starbucks, microbrews, REI, and a rediscovery of the outdoor pleasures of life. Seattle is home to them all, and therefore it has become one of the more eclectic cities we have. It's certainly the only city in America where mountain-bikers and sailors and computer programmers share double lattes with ex-hippies, bookworms, tourists, and grunge freaks.

Since 1971, its signature festival, like Memphis in May, has taken on the characteristics of its hometown. It might be beer, barbecue, and the blues in the Bluff City, but at last year's Bumbershoot, I found myself having to leave a David Grisman show halfway through to see Poi Dog Pondering hit the stage, all in preparation for John Lee Hooker that night. The next day I sampled Israeli drummers, a rock-and-roll polka band called Brave Combo, a "Kids Versus Cops Poetry Slam," a zydeco jam session, and people doing trick bungee-jumps off the Space Needle. I overslept the next day, so the Shanghai Acrobatic Theater was sold out before I got there, as was Eric Bogosian's one-man show, so I settled for watching the Uzbekistan Tightrope Walkers and then catching the Indigo Girls on the main stage.

See what I mean by "eclectic"?

They won't announce Bumbershoot '97's schedule until July, but there will be more than 2,000 artists involved, and some other names on last year's musical list alone included the Sex Pistols, Ani DiFranco, Phoebe Snow, the Presidents of the United States of America, Arlo Guthrie, Average White Band, Nanci Griffith, Isaac Hayes, the Spin Doctors, Crash Test Dummies, and a whole lot of names (unrecognizable to me) in the worlds of ballet, classical, percussion, country, and even opera.

It's tough to beat all that for $10 a day, or $24 for the whole thing (and this year kids 12 and under get in free). It might, however, cost you a bit to get to Seattle. Northwest (and, by the logic of "competing" airfares, everyone else) does the job for about a $500 standard fare. The best advice there is to find a good travel agent and ask him or her to keep an eye out for cheap fares. You could also fly Southwest out of Nashville for about $350, with a connection through L.A. or Phoenix.

We won't discuss taking Greyhound out there (because I've done it and don't wish to relive the memory), but you could go a little nuts and take Amtrak. That roundtrip fare will run from $258 to, ahem, $692, depending on how the planets are aligned when you call. (I'm really not sure what else might drive Amtrak's fare system.) It takes three days by rail, but the run over the Northern Rockies and Cascades, especially in the glass-topped lounge car, is worth getting through Central Station and the Memphis-to-Chicago part.

Even if you don't go to Bumbershoot, put Seattle high on your list of places to go -- in the summer. It's a great city by itself, but it's even better when used as a taking-off point. Drive a couple of hours east and get lost in the Cascade Range, dotted with so many trout-filled lakes and streams that from an airplane it looks like a beaded quilt. An hour west is the Olympic Peninsula, home to more mountains but also to some of the largest stands of ancient-growth rainforest still around and mile after mile of wilderness beach, accessible only by foot. Seattle sits right on an ocean sound, and just north of it the San Juan Islands call out to all who would board a sailboat or kayak. Vancouver is just a few car-hours away, Alaska a few boat-days away, and Mount Rainier seems like it's right over your head.

But I forgot to fill you in on the Bumbershoot bonfire. Last year five female artists created five huge "contemporary totems," and to these the public added, all weekend long, their wishes and dreams. Then all five were torched "in a cleansing ritual fire on Monday night," sending all those wishes and dreams wafting toward the heavens. Quite a sight.

For more information on Bumbershoot '97, call 206-281-8111 or surf to http://www.bumbershoot.org. For the Seattle area in general, use 206-461-5840 or http://www.seeseattle.org or http://www.seattle.yahoo.com.

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