Downtown Sounds

Fifteen years and counting

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

I probably spend more time thinking about Downtown Sounds than most people. Usually, right around Memorial Day, the piece of my brain allotted to the longtime local music series flickers to life. That is about the time I reach out or run into Downtown Bellingham Partnership Event Director Lindsey Payne Johnstone and attempt to get her to divulge who is on her wish list of talent and what changes she might have in store for that year’s series.

However, no one devotes more time thinking about Downtown Sounds than Lindsey. She’s been at the helm of the concerts, first as an intern and now in her current position, for more than a decade, and a very bright, bold line can be drawn from her vision for the series to its stunning and ever-increasing success. And every time Downtown Sounds experienced a growth spurt—it’s gone from a neglected alley to encompassing two entire blocks of the downtown core—Lindsey gained a commensurate uptick in her workload. It now takes the bulk of the year to organize the five weeks of concerts, which means Lindsey always has Downtown Sounds on her mind.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the free, family-friendly series that has become downtown Bellingham’s signature summer entertainment event, and even though it’s hard to imagine it beating the attendance records it set last year, something tells me this could be the biggest Downtown Sounds ever.

First, the logistics. The 2019 Downtown Sounds begins Wed., July 10, with concerts happening weekly through Aug. 7. The Downtown Bellingham Partnership closes Bay and Prospect streets to car traffic for the shows, and the gates open at 5:30pm. The music is free and family-friendly, with a beer/wine/cider garden for the adults, a kids activity area that takes up more square footage every year, and food vendors for when everyone gets hungry. If last year’s attendance is any indicator, expect to dance, drink and play giant Jenga with a few thousand of your closest friends. The whole thing ends at 9ish, when Downtown Sounds volunteers will take on the herculean task of breaking down the temporary venue and returning the streets to their normal state.

Now, for the fun stuff: the music.

Kicking off the series’ 15th season is a band that I saw for the first time when they first played Downtown Sounds—Polecat. It’s fitting they be the ones chosen for this honor since they have graced this particular stage quite possibly more than any other band. For their July 10 outing, they were allotted the entire time slot—which is no problem for a band that has a million musical friends and about as many tricks up its collective sleeve. Expect to see some Petty or not, music by the mysterious and elusive A.guest, and much more.

The next week, July 17, Lindsey managed to nab one of those unexpected bookings at which she particularly excels, this time it’s the Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans. History has shown that groups with a marching-band vibe have been proven crowd pleasers at Downtown Sounds, and I can only imagine that the Grammy-nominated band with 35-plus years of experience will have folks marching right along to the beat. Saxophone-fronted funk band Raincity will open.

Something tells me that Bellingham’s salsa dancers will be out in force when Orchestra Zarabanda comes to Downtown Sounds for a July 24 show with the Bilongo Quintet. This city is home to a lively salsa scene and this show will be worth a watch as much for what’s happening in front of the stage as what’s happening on it. Bring your dancing shoes in case the urge to salsa in the streets overtakes you.

With the second-to-last Downtown Sounds concert of the year, which happens on July 31, the series dips a toe into electronic music. However, this is not your standard-issue, beat-heavy, “unsa unsa” music typically heard in clubs. Instead, it’s Portland’s Sepiatonic, who combine live and electronic music with vaudeville elements to create a theatrical show that should fit quite neatly into the Downtown Sounds niche. They’re bringing Analog Brass with them to open the show.

The final Downtown Sounds concert of 2019 occupies a special place in Lindsey’s very full heart as it features Monophonics, a band she characterizes as a “longtime favorite.” Considering it was her love of music that brought her to Downtown Sounds, the fact that she numbers this psychedelic soul band from California among her favorites is significant indeed. She’s paired them with local opener Willdabeast, which is an excellent means by which to get this party started.

From the outside, it certainly appears as though Lindsey’s plan from the jump was to grow Downtown Sounds into the entertainment cornerstone it has become, but to hear her tell it, that’s not the case. “I don’t think we ever imagined it getting this big,” she says, “but we’re so glad it did.”

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