Downtown Sounds

Taking it to the street(s)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

When Downtown Sounds began during the summer of 2005, it was a grand experiment. The idea was to take the unsightly alley between the Wild Buffalo and Mindport, spruce it up, build a stage at one end of it and throw some free, family-friendly concerts with the goal of encouraging people to engage with the downtown core in a new way, and to promote adaptive reuse of a place most of us would just as soon ignore.

In theory, it was a great idea. But no one knew how it would play out in real life.

In truth, there was no need for worry. They built it, and we came.

Over time, it would become clear that the issues that would arise from Downtown Sounds would be those of too much popularity—hundreds of people thronged the alley each week, ensuring that Downtown Sounds would become a staple of Bellingham’s summer entertainment schedule. Just a few years in, it became abundantly evident the alley’s capacity was not nearly great enough to contain the music and those who flocked to it.

It was a nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

So, for its fifth anniversary, Downtown Sounds received the gift of a change of location and some much-needed breathing room. It broke out from the alley and took over an entire city block—that of 1300 Bay Street—where it has remained ever since. The move proved immediately beneficial, and attendance swelled from hundreds to more than 1,000 people each week.

But with the Bay Street locale also came some growing pains, a thing that became crystal clear when 3,000 people showed up to see MarchFourth Marching Band during the summer of 2011. To accommodate the seemingly unstoppable success of the beloved concert series, the stage was moved in order to more effectively pack in the people.

However, even that has not been enough to keep Downtown Sounds in check.

“We felt the growing pains last year,” says Lindsey Payne Johnstone, Downtown Bellingham event director. “The garden was very congested every day of the series. It’s a good problem to have!”

So, when it has outgrown an alley and then a city block, what is Downtown Sounds to do? For Payne Johnstone, the solution was obvious: It was time to commandeer an additional city block.

That’s exactly what she’s done, and for the 2017 series, the stage will be on the move once again, to its new home on Prospect Street (near Bayou on Bay), leaving Bay Street to become an expanded beer garden and Prospect Street to be closed to traffic and open for dancing, community bonding and other forms of wholesome revelry.

The logistics nailed down, Payne Johnstone was free to focus on doing what she does best: booking the bands that have made Downtown Sounds the wild success it has become, thus extending what I’m fond of referring to as the “reign of Payne.”

As usual, she’s packed the 2017 roster with serious talent, and the series begins Weds., July 5 with a surprise headliner, the Prime Time Band, who, along with being Downtown Sounds veterans, are also a band I was pretty sure had called it quits a few years ago.

“Their last performance at Downtown Sounds in 2014 was one of my favorite memories of Downtown Sounds ever,” Payne Johnstone says. “Craig Jewell and Michael Harris got onstage with them and sang TLC’s Waterfalls—it was amazing. That was one of their last shows as a group, but the band is getting together this summer to play at a few weddings and it was the perfect opportunity to get them back on the Sounds stage.”

They’ll be joined by Baby Cakes, who promise a set full of surprises, up to and including the debut of some original material.

The following Wednesday, July 12, will be given over to Portland’s Dirty Revival, who Payne Johnstone describes as being “vibrant and soulful” with a lead vocalist who has “serious pipes,” a statement I’m prone to agreeing with. The Naughty Blokes will open the show.

At the midway point of the series, July 19, comes tried-and-true Downtown Sounds veterans Polecat. It is true that it was at their first Downtown Sound appearance that I discovered the sheer technical and crowd-pleasing abilities of the much-loved local band, and those abilities have only grown since. The last time they were scheduled to play Downtown Sounds, their show was thwarted by a freak thunderstorm and, thanks to some quick maneuvering by Payne Johnstone and the Wild Buffalo’s Craig Jewell, the show was moved inside the Buff, which is great and all, but there’s nothing quite like seeing Polecat al fresco on a balmy summer evening. Add Hot Damn Scandal to the mix and all I can say is, stay away, rain.

The 2017 series penultimate week, July 26, will feature Downtown Sounds first-timers Swatkins & the Positive Agenda, along with Snug Harbor, and Payne Johnstone is looking forward to the dance party that will no doubt ensue.

“Steve Swatkins is one of the members of Juno What?! and is currently playing with Allen Stone” she says. “He’s a great guy and this is his new band.”

Whether it be method or madness, I’ve noticed that Payne Johnstone likes to use the final week of Downtown Sounds—Aug. 2 in this case—to stray a bit from her proven booking formula and change things up a bit. This year, she had Naughty Professor, a self-described “future funk” band all the way from the Big Easy. She’s paired them with Deadly D, who I’m told are “so excited” to make their Sounds debut, so this will no doubt be a high-energy show.

It remains to be seen whether taking over multiple city blocks will be enough to contain either Downtown Sounds or Payne Johnstone’s ambitions and imagination, but, personally speaking, I look forward to that glorious time when the reign of Payne extends to the farthest reaches of our fair city.

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