Three Days of Brass and Beats in the Streets

Published: May 22, 2019
HONK! Fest West returns for its 12th musical invasion of Seattle—specifically South Park, White Center, and Columbia City. by Leilani Polk

In some ways, HONK! Fest West feels like an unintended antidote to the Seattle Freeze.

The free, three-day, community-supported music festival—which is devoted to street band culture and features marching bands, samba lines, drum corps, and anything else acoustic and mobile that makes an organized racket—is meant to engage. Performers encourage audience participation, whether it's by clapping, singing, or shouting along. Everyone is looking up and outward and at each other, watching bands or fellow fans, smiling, laughing, head-bobbing, swaying, or outright getting down to the exuberant sounds. Strangers are interacting and fleeting friendships are blossoming as moments of jubilant musical expression are shared and collectively enjoyed.

This is music that's unbound and unrestricted by the need for mics, amps, or even four walls and a roof—it happens in closed-off streets and public spaces—and there's no real break between acts. "Our intention is to provide pretty nearly continuous music, from festival open to close," HONK! Fest West president Steve Roberts explained in a recent interview. "Our ethos is mobile, acoustic, and enthusiastic."

HONK! first materialized in 2006 in Somerville, Massachusetts, organized by an all-volunteer committee that invited bands from around the region, country, and world to participate in a three-day event showcasing acoustic and ambulatory bands playing free music in public spaces. Since its inception, it has inspired additional HONK! fests in other locales, including the one that sprang up in Seattle in 2008 and has brought its whimsical sounds and engaged charm to different neighborhoods around the city every spring since. There are also HONK! events in Canada, South America, and Australia.

The 12th edition of HONK! Fest West lands in White Center (Sat June 1, 1–6 pm), Columbia City (Sun June 2, 2–6 pm), and a brand-new site in South Park (Fri May 31, 5–9 pm). All feature three stage areas located within close walking distance of each other, and more than 25 Pacific Northwest–area bands are set to appear. They range from the official sports-pro sounds of Seattle Seahawks Blue Thunder Drumline and the 43-member Seattle Sounders FC band Sound Wave, to Eugene's Samba Ja, a 30-member bateria (percussion ensemble) specializing in Afro-Brazilian beats, to Seattle's punk-kicking havoc-raising renegades Chaotic Noise Marching Corps, which Roberts described as a "very interactive mosh pit of musicians and listeners."

The people who have come to love HONK! expound on its exciting way of invading the city for a weekend, the diverse collection of sometimes freaky and always musically adept performers who take part, its accessibility across genres, the palpable energy exchange between the bands and the people who've come out to see them, the impromptu collaborations and performances that spring from HONK! standards—songs that have become as much a part of the fest's fabric as its players, and that often prompt other HONK! players to jump in. For Roberts, it's twofold: "There's something about the music that these bands play that just grabs me right by the soul and gets my booty rocking" and "the incredible warmth and friendliness of the people who are participating in it."

The situation is wide-open—you can bring a cooler, umbrella, blanket, folding chair. Whatever gets you through a several-hour span of near-continuous music. Families are welcome and encouraged to attend, though if you're bringing any little ones, it's probably a good idea to bring some protective headphones for them. It's gonna get loud.

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