Downtown Sounds

Calling out around the world

Thursday, July 2, 2015

When Downtown Sounds began 11 summers ago, Bellingham’s downtown core was a different place. No, it was not some burned-out, rundown hellscape, but it did have more than its fair share of empty storefronts and was in need of both an image change and some revitalization.

Let’s face it: There comes a point in everyone’s life when a makeover is probably not the worst idea.

Enter the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.

Founded in 2000, the Downtown Bellingham Partnership has one singular, simple mission: to encourage the general public to engage—and stay engaged—with downtown Bellingham. With a philosophy firmly rooted in accentuating the many positives of the Downtown Business District, the Partnership lures people into wandering the streets via art walks, newly introduced wine walks, the Bite of Bellingham, and more. In doing so, it is their hope that the public will discover or be reminded of the many delights this downtown has to offer, while also showing them that taking to the streets to scare up some action can be a safe, family-friendly affair.

I would say they’ve been wildly successful in these endeavors.

Personally speaking, owing to the efforts of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, I have familiarized myself with local artists and visited galleries not on my normal radar, tasted food from nearly every restaurant and food truck with a downtown address at the Bite of Bellingham, handed out candy to kids (yes, I really did that—once) on Halloween as part of my role as a downtown employee—basically, I have been a wholehearted participant in nearly all of their undertakings, as have many of you, and probably will be until the end of recorded history.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that of all the many activities the Downtown Bellingham Partnership devises for my personal amusement, Downtown Sounds holds the biggest place in my heart.

Eleven years ago, when I heard the rumor that the Downtown Bellingham Partnership had devised a plan to stage concerts in what had been a smelly alley between the Wild Buffalo and Mindport, my first thought was something along the lines of, “Oh hell, yes,” and it hasn’t deviated from that viewpoint since.

But I’m far from the only fan of this concert series, as it outgrew its alley locale within just a few years and moved to Bay Street, where exponentially more people could enjoy it. Along with a bigger “venue” and a bigger stage, the series itself got bigger, expanding the number of shows and increasing the size of the talent.

Much of this expansion can be credited to Lindsey Payne, who has been the Partnership’s events manager since 2008, and has made Downtown Sounds her pet project. With great energy, good humor and no small amount of what could quite likely be magic, Payne has used every last resource available to her to grow the concert series into what has become Whatcom County’s biggest music festival. This year, in conjunction with Bellingham Parks and Recreation, Downtown Bellingham Partnership was awarded a Levitt Amp grant, which is a thing I only understand inasmuch as it affords Payne the means by which to give us a better Downtown Sounds experience.

Which brings us to this year’s concert series, which begins Weds., July 1 on the block of Bay Street between Holly and Champion streets (or between Bayou on Bay and the Pickford Film Center, if you happen to be more landmark-oriented). Because at some point I probably jokingly threatened Payne with an unpleasant outcome if she booked a reggae band (hey, we all have our personal musical kryptonite), that is exactly what she did for the kickoff of the 2015 incarnation of Downtown Sounds. However, even I have to admit that the band in question, Third World, is more than deserving of a spot on the Downtown Sounds stage—and not just because they’ve been around longer than I have. They’ve played with the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder is a fan of their soul- and funk-infused reggae, and they’re about a billion times more badass than I will ever be. As well, the retooled Yogoman Burning Band will open the show, which will be a Bellingham homecoming of sorts for drumming frontman Jordan Rain, who has just returned from spending several months in New Orleans.

The next week, July 8, the stage will belong to Acorn Project, who are certainly no strangers to either Downtown Sounds or their large and supportive Bellingham fan base who will no doubt show up en masse to dance to their electro-funk. But Acorn Project aren’t the only Downtown Sounds veterans with a huge local audience that will play this year’s series. Polecat will headline the July 15 concert, and their high-energy bluegrass will draw the kind of crowd to which they’ve grown accustomed in these parts. The penultimate concert of the series on July 22 will feature Wild Buffalo regulars Ayron Jones and the Way, a band that gains buzz and plenty of new fans every time they roll through town. It wouldn’t be Downtown Sounds without a straight dose of funk, and this year, Payne has saved it for last. Pairing Seattle’s Five Alarm Funk—with their percussive, Latin-tinged Afro-punk—with Bellingham funk supergroup Baby Cakes is an inspired musical marriage and a fitting swan song for the 2015 series.

Aside from the music, what makes Downtown Sounds such a no-brainer when it comes to including it in your summer schedule—other than the sheer convenience it offers, that is—is that it is always free, family-friendly, open to all and starts at the still-reasonable hour of 5:30pm. Food vendors will be there to sate your appetite and the beer garden will be back to slake your thirst. All that remains is for you show up and do a little dancing in the streets.

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