Now celebrating its 15th Anniversary, Downtown Sounds, is a free outdoor concert series that brings local and nationally touring bands, area food vendors and a beverage garden to Bay Street on five Wednesday nights in July and August.
One of my favorite summer events in Bellingham, it began as a small gathering hosted in an alley but has transformed into one of the most exciting outdoor events in Whatcom County. The whole family can dance and sing along at the little alley concert that now takes up two city blocks in the Downtown Arts District and continues to grow. “It is Whatcom County’s biggest urban music festival,” explains Downtown Bellingham Partnership Events Manager, Lindsey Payne Johnstone. “It is unique to downtown and everyone can attend.”
Payne Johnstone and the team at Downtown Partnership were honored this year with the Washington State Main Street Program Excellence on Main Award for Outstanding Promotional Event. This weekly urban music festival has become downtown’s hottest summer attraction.
A History of Place-Making
The Downtown Bellingham Partnership, a nonprofit established in 2000, works to represent the diverse interests of Bellingham’s downtown businesses and residents while providing leadership in the development of public policy with the City of Bellingham to ensure a healthy, vibrant culture. Downtown Sounds is just one of the entertaining events they coordinate that shows all of the resources and cultural opportunities we have here. The Partnership also organizes Downtown Art Walks, trick-or-treating, Happy Hour Thursday and Wine Walk, to name a few.
“Downtown Sounds began in 2005 and aimed to build a sense of community. We wanted to encourage equitable access to culture and arts and use existing space creatively,” describes Payne Johnstone. “The event started as a way to revitalize underused urban spaces,” she explains. It has now grown to attract more than 2,000 to 4,000 attendees per show.
More Than Music
No tummies will be grumbling at Downtown Sounds. Local food and beer vendors make this event much more than a concert. Haggen Food & Pharmacy are making the Beer & Wine Garden possible, Boundary Bay Brewery generously donated beer that will be served along with a different local guest brewery each week. Yummy wine and cider choices expanded last year thanks to Haggen.
Thanks to Premier Sponsor Whatcom Educational Credit Union (WECU) and supporting sponsor Haggen, the Family Alley will feature the WECU Game Zone, including spike ball, giant “WECU pong,” cornhole and giant Jenga. WECU will also be handing out different summertime treats for attendees, like ice cream sandwiches, La Croix and other beverages. Family Alley allows kids to vent their creativity inspired by the music, and more family-friendly options. Financial support from a range of local business sponsors and partners keep this incredible event free to the public, including Freeland Engineering, SPARK Museum, Best Western Heritage Inn, Wild Buffalo, Bayou on Bay and the City of Bellingham.
A variety of food trucks and vendors keep everyone fed well, offering a range of options from old fashioned hotdogs, ice’s and mini-donuts to kebab’s and Mexican. My favorite Goat Mountain Pizza is within a block. There are plenty of vegetarian and some vegan options as well.
The opening group begins at 5:30 p.m. followed by an intermission that will showcase a local dance or circus performance. The Headliner starts around 8 p.m. Intermission usually includes performances by local dance and music groups.
2019 Summer Season
The music at Downtown Sounds is for everyone and ranges from jazz to country and has everything in between. Often the opening band is made up of locals, and the headliners are those passing through our area on their way between Seattle and Vancouver. That means we get to discover our new favorite bands and hear some big names without the costly ticket price. Quality sound is ensured by Groove Merchant Northwest. All ages are welcome to come and enjoy this incredible adventure.
July 10: An Evening with Polecat and Friends
- Opener and Headliner: Polecat
- Americana / Bluegrass / Reggae / World Music
I wrote about Polecat back in 2017 as I’ve known them for a few years. They are one of my favorite bands that got their start in Bellingham and now they play all over the west. You’ll enjoy the breadth of the music experience they bring. Cayley Schmid’s fiddle has traveled the world performing Irish, Celtic and folk music. Multi-talented Polecat Founder Aaron Guest was also featured in another of my Insider Blogs for his long-time and on-going piano performances at Boundary Bay Brewery. Jeremy Elliott’s guitar spans genres and never disappoints. This close-knit group has been playing together for a decade and I can’t wait to see what they’ll bring this summer.
July 17: Grammy-Award-Winning Rebirth Brass Band with Raincity
- Opener: Raincity
- Funk / Rock
- Headliner: Grammy-Award-Winning Rebirth Brass Band
- New Orleans Brass / Funk
A Vancouver-based Funk-Rock group making waves with their unique sound. Fronted by female leads on saxophone and vocals, their performances are said to be audacious and full of explosive energy. The five members of Raincity combine their eclectic influences including Amy Winehouse, Moon Hooch, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, creating a distinctive sound with no regard for boundaries.
I’m most excited to see these performers ever since I visited New Orleans a couple of years ago. Perhaps you remember them from HBO’s Treme? Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band has become a true New Orleans institution. Formed in 1983 by the Frazier brothers, the band has evolved from playing the streets of the French Quarter to playing festivals and stages all over the world.
While committed to upholding the tradition of brass bands, they’ve also extended themselves into the realms of funk and hip-hop to create their signature sound. “Rebirth can be precise whenever it wants to,” says The New York Times, “but it’s more like a party than a machine. It’s a working model of the New Orleans musical ethos: as long as everybody knows what they’re doing, anyone can cut loose.”
Plan to wear your dancing shoes as this evening will be a let loose dance party from start to finish.
July 24: Orchestra Zarabanda with Bilongo Quintet
- Opener: Bilongo Quintet
- Jazz with Ethiopian and Latin American Influences
- Headliner: Orchestra Zarabanda
- Salsa / Cuban Jazz
I’m excited to show up and practice my salsa moves to this Seattle-based 11-piece Cuban salsa band, Orchestra Zarabanda.
The band’s roots began in 1994 when discovered the passion in Cuban dance music. In the early days of the group, each member traveled to Cuba to study with the masters there. Since then, Zarabanda has become the region’s most sought-after latin dance band, and is known for its deeply-rooted Cuban flavor. Even if you don’t dance, plan to get a good view of the dance floor as Whatcom County has a large salsa dance community that will turn out to share their moves in the evening light.
July 31: Sepiatonic with Analog Brass
- Opener: Analog Brass
- Brass House / Brass Pop
- Headliner: Sepiatonic
- A Vaudeville-inspired Electro-Swing / Brass-House / Funk Dance Party
Bellingham-based Analog Brass is an explosive pop-funk group inspired by groups like The Lucky Chops, Youngblood Brass Band, and one of my favorites, Moon Hooch. Analog Brass formed last year when a group of Western Washington University students found their sound together while pursuing their education. If you can imagine the cool kids playing hip dance tunes on marching band horns, you’ve got Analog Brass. You’ll want to dance and stomp your feet to this upbeat take on modern pop music. They’ll put you in the perfect mood for the genre busting Sepiatonic.
It’s hard to describe Sepiatonic adequately. Based in Portland, OR, Sepiatonic brings vintage class to today’s electronic music. This 3-person group brings high-energy live and electronic dance tunes incorporate vaudeville-inspired balkan beats, hip-hop, funk and electro-swing. Not just music, this act includes theatrical belly dance and burlesque performance by eZel, produced by Karolina Lux. They promise sass and verve in every performance.
You’ll love their energy, swagger, costumes and their connection with the audience. You have to see it to believe it!
August 7: Monophonics with Wildabeast
A hopping mixture of improvisational brass and analog-acoustic instruments backed by original beats, Wildabeast delivers a rich and complex variety of dance music that can range from laid-back and smooth hip-hop to uptempo trap and funky bass music.
This Bay-area-based group “delivers cinematic songs with timeless hooks anchored by Kelly Finnigan’s soulful organ and powerhouse vocals. Their sound is inspired equally by classic soul, heavy funk, psychedelic rock, and classic American songwriting.” You can expect covers with soulful vocals, funky drum-breaks, psychedelic guitar licks and fuzz bass.
Try to see them all or choose your favorites and get them on your calendar. Downtown Sounds is free and all ages so bring the whole family out for this public party full of music, dancing, food and fun.
- Downtown Sounds
- Five Wednesday Nights in July and August
- Beginning at 5:30 p.m.
- At Bay and Holly Streets Bellingham, WA 98225