Downtown Sounds

Downtown Sounds

1300 Block of Bay Street


Most of us probably don’t spend a lot of time considering what goes in to making the ridiculously popular concert series Downtown Sounds happen.

For five weeks every summer, as if by magic, the 1300 block of Bay Street is closed to traffic, a stage goes up, bands begin to play and we throng there by the thousands to spend the evening dancing in the streets. At the end of each week’s show, we disperse, the temporary venue is dismantled and, by the next morning, it’s like the whole thing never happened. Were it not for the happy memories and tired muscles, we might be tempted to think we’d imagined it all.

Like I said: magic.

The 2017 series will begin Weds., July 5 with the Prime Time Band and Baby Cakes, continue July 12 with Dirty Revival and the Naughty Blokes, get stomping with Polecat and Hot Damn Scandal on July 19, segue into Swatkins & the Positive Agenda on July 26, and culminate with Naughty Professor and Deadly D on Aug. 2. By the time it’s over and the last note fades into the night, we’ll be all danced out and sure no small amount of sorcery has been afoot.

Typically, it takes a whole lot of work to make a thing look effortless, and so it is with Downtown Sounds.

The concert series, now in its 13th year, is under the general purview of civic-minded nonprofit Downtown Bellingham, but if Downtown Sounds has a human face and identity, it is certainly that of Event Director Lindsey Payne Johnstone, who has made it her labor of love almost since the beginning. And for Payne Johnstone, Downtown Sounds is a year-round affair.

She begins planning the next year’s series as soon as the sun sets on the current year’s run of shows—and while many of us recognize her for bringing top-notch musical talent to the Downtown Sounds stage—and she says her “band button is always flipped on”—in truth, her to-do list is as long as it is varied.

By now, Payne Johnstone and Downtown Bellingham have spent months applying for street-closure permits, making sure their liquor license is in order, filing a traffic plan, securing funding and confirming artists. Once those items are checked off, Payne Johnstone focuses on food vendors, breweries, intermission entertainment and all of the other endless pesky details that ensure a successful series.

“I have a ‘Lindsey To-Do Each Week’ list during the series that keeps me organized,” Payne Johnstone says.

Payne Johnstone is aided and abetted in checking off items on that list by the four other Downtown Bellingham staffers—she says that despite their different job descriptions, the sheer size of Downtown Sounds makes it an “all-hands-on-deck event” for the nonprofit’s staff—so that when the day of the first concert arrives, they are ready to show all of Bellingham the good time to which they have grown accustomed.

It takes far more than five of even the hardest-working and most-dedicated workers to pull off something like Downtown Sounds, and toward that end, Downtown Bellingham enlists the help of a veritable army of volunteers and the financial assistance of their community-minded series sponsors.

“We love volunteers! We have roughly 25 volunteers each week to help with setup, staffing the beer and wine garden, and helping with takedown,” Payne Johnstone says.

Add to that the support the sponsors provide, and you start to get a sense of just what makes Downtown Sounds tick.

“Sponsors make our event worlds go round,” Payne Johnstone says. “Sponsorship support impacts everything from the artist budget to the number of porta-potties we’re able to provide. Other than revenue from the beer and wine garden, sponsorship is the primary way we are able to continue growing this event. 2017 sponsors include Sanitary Service Company, Lustick Kaiman & Madrone PLLC, Bayou on Bay, Faithlife, Judd & Black Appliance, WECU, Whole Foods, and David Hovde with Windermere Real Estate.”

Payne Johnstone got a potentially panic-inducing insight into just how important those sponsorship dollars are this year when Downtown Sounds’ title sponsor dropped out just as she was making final band confirmations.

“Downtown Sounds would not have its success without the support from so many businesses and people in our community,” she says. “A huge unsung hero for this year is Sanitary Service Company. President Paul Razore approached us after hearing our previous title sponsor had to suddenly close their doors, and couldn’t commit to sponsorship. We had lost a substantial amount of funding only a few weeks ago—his phone call saved the day!”

She is also quick to acknowledge those who have been aboard the Downtown Sounds bandwagon from the very beginning.

“Besides financially supporting the series, Steve Crosier, owner of Bayou on Bay, has fed the headlining bands for free for years. I have to fess up to also borrowing ice and some bar towels here and there,” Payne Johnstone says. “Casey Diggs and the Boundary Bay family have supported Sounds for years. Casey is one of our behind-the-scenes rock stars and I appreciate him so much. They are also our beer garden sponsor. Tana Granack and the crew at the SPARK Museum have been a partner for years—they provide power for the production and offer a private space for our bands and volunteers. Other partners include Best Western Heritage Inn, Wild Buffalo, Groove Merchant Northwest, Cascadia Weekly, and Cascade Radio Group. We are also incredibly grateful for the support we have from the City of Bellingham—Darby Cowles and Tara Sundin with the Planning Department and Clark Williams with Public Works are our gatekeepers.”

As you can see, it takes a lot of logistics to keep us entertained, and this year’s Downtown Sounds will bring big changes and the attendant exhilaration and challenges that go with that.

“We felt the growing pains last year—the garden was very congested every day of the series,” Payne Johnstone says. “It’s a good problem to have! We’ll be expanding the beer garden to almost the entire block of Bay Street, adding tables and chairs for seating, food, additional exit and re-entry points, and two keg trailers to alleviate the lines. The beer and wine garden will feature Boundary Bay beer each evening plus a rotating beer from another brewery—Wander, Structures, Kulshan, Chuckanut, and Aslan—rose, white wine, red wine, and Cider Head cider.”

When the entire block becomes a beer garden, what, then, will happen to the stage? Per usual, Payne Johnstone has all the answers. “We’re moving it to Prospect Street,” she says. “It’s a little hard to visualize, but we think you’re going to like it.”

At the end of the day—a very long day, if we’re talking about the Wednesdays that make up Downtown Sounds—Payne Johnstone says that for her and everyone involved in the concert series, the hard work that goes into making magic is well worth it.

“What started in an alley now takes two blocks to support,” she says. “I love working with bands and members of the community. I love seeing all the happy faces. I know we’ve created something very special.”

Downtown Sounds concerts happen 6pm-9pm every Wednesday from July 6-Aug. 2. Concerts are free and family-friendly, and food, beverages, beer, wine and cider from local vendors will be available for purchase.

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