A Memory Tour Through Seattle’s Live Music Scene

One aspect of normal life that I didn’t expect to miss was live music, so here we go on a tour of some favourite venues and memories from the last couple of years.

Also: Your local musicians and artists are struggling right now — if you live in the Pacific Northwest you can support local musicians and attend virtual concerts here. Australian readers can help their local music industry workers here

So, so good.

Nectar Lounge

Clinton Fearon’s band appears long before he does, settling into a comfy reggae beat. His bass player is performing in a little two-step, white linen-wearing percussionist is concentrating on his chimes and his keyboardist appears to be in charge of summoning benevolent spirits to the stage. Between chords and solos she undulates her body in a way that appears to summon energy from within her person, and then exhales it with wave-like arm movements. During her bandmates’ solos, her hands create a kind of moving aura around them. 

Mr. Fearon eventually hobbles onto the stage on crutches, causing many in the audience to exchange glances with one another. He lowers himself into a chair, accepts his guitar from a roadie and props his right foot on a cushioned stool out in front of him. 

When he looks up, his eyes glitter at the airy environs of Fremont’s Nectar Lounge. “I got a touch of gout in me old leg, so I won’t be standing too much tonight,” he announces. He’s called Seattle home since the 1980s, I’m told, but still carries his Jamacian accent. “So while I can’t get up and dance with y’all, we’re still gonna show you a damn good time.”

The Tractor Tavern

It’s a chilly November night in Seattle, but many of the software engineers crowded into the Tractor Tavern’s western-themed music hall are wearing broad-brimmed hats all the same. The wide-brim wannabe Stetsons and floppy felt numbers double or even triple the diameter of the wearer’s head — and that sort of breach of live show etiquette is more than enough to provoke mutinous grumbling from the back of the room. 

I like the Tractor. Large canvases showing old timey trucks adorn the bare brick walls, boots hang from the ceiling above the bar and two letter T’s hang above the stage, with a long-horned cow’s skull hung between them. The sound engineers do a good job, too — you tend to get a slightly older crowd in a place that respects its audience’s eardrums. (Geez, I sound like an old timer.)

Vetiver takes the stage. They play slow-sweeping western-tinged pop, the kind of dreamy stuff you listen to in the background of an engrossing road trip conversation — pleasant without really knocking your socks off. The bassist looks like a Canadian roommate I once had, only in a wide-open mustard shirt, rolled-up jeans and a mane of blond hair hanging over his shoulder in a loose braid. The guitarist positively weeps every time he waggles his slide back and forth on the fretboard. And when he and my roommate’s twin close their eyes, open their mouths and lean in to sing harmonies, their fans’ broad-brimmed fashion accessories are forgiven and forgotten.

Relatively subdued here, but always incredible.

The Crocodile

A friend of H’s arrives in Seattle with a friend of her own in tow. We meet them in Belltown, an older brick neighborhood spouting glassy high-rises at the northern end of downtown. H and I have been sipping margaritas in Mama’s Cantina, and after meeting the girls we wobble on into the Crocodile, a no-frills institution — scuffed floor, black walls, big speakers. The girls, fresh off the bus from Portland, are carrying their backpacks and must muscle through the crowd to stash them in a nook by the stage. We then stand around chatting, waiting, chatting, drinking, waiting some more. The band is late. 

At last they file onto the stage, and the horns and keys settle into their very first note of the evening, all is forgiven. How could I have ever been mad at these guys? 

This is the third or fourth time H and I have seen the California Honeydrops and the singer/guitarist/trumpet player — a rangy Polish immigrant who grew up in Oakland, is currently wearing tie-dyed overalls along with his trademark maroon felt cap — always looks surprised to find that people have shown up after all. The competition is stiff for H’s favorite Honeydrop: on the one hand you’ve got the saxophonist, a solid unit of a man who’s always wearing a cap on his head and a tight, sweaty grin on his face as he blows his horn. On the other hand you’ve got the keyboardist, a blazer-clad youngster with a big afro, a shiny winning grin and an angelic voice of his own. 

The singer is sizing up the crowd. “Everybody, look to your left, look to your right, behind and in front,” he says. “Take a moment to introduce yourself to your neighbours here, because we’re gonna get nice and close and well-acquainted with one another.” 

What follows is two hours — possibly three, who knows — of mind melding. That’s the only way to describe what occurs. For many bands, a live show is a recital of old hits and tracks from the new album, each lengthened slightly to accommodate a solo or two from one of the musicians. Not so with the Honeydrops. There are solos, yes — trumpet solos, drum solos, washboard solos, sax solos (my god, the sax solos) — but there are also extended bouts of what can only be called group solos. They’re all going nuts at the same time, in totally different directions, and yet moving as one in some kind of freaky hive mind trance. The band deconstructs their own songs, melds them together and will often throw in a cover of some old funk master — Betty Wright, for instance — for good measure. The singer will then split the crowd into four groups, and have us harmonize with one another as backing vocals. 

I gave up on organised religion long ago, but every time I see the California Honeydrops — usually as I’m wiggling my ungainly booty and participating in another round of call-and-response, taking time out of my life with a hundred or so strangers to surrender myself to a raucous party masquerading as a music performance — I feel like I’m in church. 

The Showbox – Thievery Corporation

Sexual energy pervades the room. Perhaps it was the opener, a group called Brazilian Girls fronted by a curvy singer in a perm and a full-body leopard-print leotard who tossed glitter as she sang the refrain, “Pussy pussy pussy marijuanaaaa.” Maybe it’s the Showbox itself, a cavernous space held together by columns that bloom near the ceilings in a throbbing red light. Or maybe it’s the way in which Thievery Corporation’s bassist — a tall, olive-skinned man wearing a blue jumpsuit, no shoes and black hair down to his waist — moves across the stage in a weird, elongated strut, a smooth and somehow sensual version of John Cleese’s silly walk. Thievery Corporation has a rotating cast of singers — an Iranian in a low-cut jumpsuit of her own, a soulful crooner from the Virgin Islands, a petit Argentine bolera, a smoking hot Jamacian reggae singer in hot pants, a dreadlocked MC from D.C. To the sound of thrumming beats and twangy sitars, the bassist stalks each of them across the stage like an animal on the hunt. 

From the same tour. Happy insanity.

The Paramount Theatre

The Paramount Theatre is a venerable Seattle institution, the kind of place one goes to see the latest musical passing through town, or a symphony orchestra. Its floors are wooden and weathered, its ceilings are ornately decorated domes, its curtains are large, its staircases many. 

So when rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard rumble into town, it’s extra fun to have them play the Paramount. The crowd is a mix of piercing-heavy teenagers and a healthy showing of older folks bearing a Seattle signature: asymmetric haircuts dyed pastel blue, pink, purple or green. During the opener I sit in the upper seats next to an eighteen year-old metalhead (“These guys aren’t very heavy, really”) and his mum. She’s a Native American woman in her 50’s, wearing a black t-shirt with a picture of a wolf howling at a full moon and nodding in appreciation at the velour suit and high heels-wearing rockers on the stage. 

King Gizz’s drummers emerge first — there are two — wearing orange jumpsuits. For several minutes they smash their tom-toms in unison: one-two… one-two… one-two… one-two. The rest of the band ambles out, a bunch of pale and angular Melburnians. At last, the drums cut out and lead singer Stu Mackenzie belts out a sludgy guitar riff from their most recent, metal-themed album Infest the Rats’ Nest. It sounds aggressive and angry — not my favourite King Gizz tune but I’m here for the ride, and when I look behind me I only see grinning, happy human faces, all apparently tapping into the same sensation I’m feeling, an energy unlike anything I have ever felt before. The rest of the band joins in and Stu groans out his demented lyrics (“I have gone insane-o/I lust for volcano/Be with molten lava/Give me my Nirvana!”). As the crowd begins to swirl as one and chant the words “auto… cremaaate… self… imm….oh…laaaate”, I hear a hellish voice inside my own head: It begins.

Timbre Room

Midway through their set, Proxima Parada’s singer — a younger guy with olive skin and long, flowing dark hair — points to a pale, heavy-set man in the crowd. He’s standing by the stage, with blurry tattoos on his forearms. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, my Dad is here tonight!” the singer announces. Dad raises his arms to the cheers of the crowd. “I just wanted to thank you, Dad, for being here and being so supportive of this dream.” The singer turns to the rest of the room. “This song is about my Mum. She was a tough lady. She had four boys. And she did it alone.”

And he launches into a soulful song about his Mum bringing him up alone, including the choice line: “Dad’s empty chair at the Thanksgiving table.”

H, our friends and I look at one another: drama! But when we turn back to the stage, we see Dad still standing right beside the stage, arms in the air and his eyes closed, singing every single word right back to his son. 

Out of their natural habitat, but funky as ever.

The Sea Monster Lounge 

Every Friday night, under the green-and-purple lights of the Sea Monster Lounge up on Wallingford’s “funky” 45th Street, something special happens. The band is called Funky 2 Death — an apt name, as I can imagine this mob has funked at least a few to death in its time. Legendary guitarist Jimmy James looks blissed out for much of the set, hanging out up the back by a tall bassist who looks like he’s taking time out from his 90s skater punk band. But once Mr. James gets his teeth (yes, his teeth) stuck into a solo, he may well cause you to overdose on a fatal infusion of the funk. If he doesn’t get you, keyboardists Melissa Montalto and Roc Phizzle may well sneak up and commit a funky assassination  — I have seen Mr. Phizzle sit back and listen to his band for a full five minutes, nodding his head, closing his eyes, grooving in his stool before cracking his fingers, lifting a hand, holding it poised and then, at the exact moment future scholars will someday confirm held the most funky potential, hit his keyboard once and inflect the horns with a single sonic burst. His expression then oozes off his face, a look of indulgent disgust at the sheer filthiness of it all.

I mentioned the brass, and they shouldn’t be looked over. On the best nights there are three of them, and they are the dirtiest horn section I’ve seen. The trombonist usually has a towel over his shoulder, to mop up the sweat literally pouring off him. And then, anchoring the whole ensemble is singer and drummer Woogie D. On a recent evening, Woogie was wearing a tiger-print t-shirt, matching jacket, black beret, leather fingerless gloves and, as always, large sunglasses. His kick drum bears a black-and-white photo of himself as a baby. He can groan and moan with the best of them, all while keeping up a frantic beat and coaxing the crowd — students from the nearby university, yuppies from the nearby neighbourhoods, pilgrims from South Seattle and his own sizeable entourage — to come closer and loosen up. They’ll play for a couple of hours, then cluster outside for a smoke and a drink. Woogie’s well into his middle age by now, but when you walk by and tell him how good they’re sounding tonight, he’ll turn around and say “You’re not going home already?”

Sound quality isn’t great here, but you can still catch their harmonies.

Sunset Tavern 

An old friend is visiting town and I’m insisting we see some live music — any live music — before he leaves. So we head into Ballard on a wintry evening and take seats in the front bar at the Sunset Tavern. The place has a nautical theme, and a circular window behind the bar offers a porthole into the blue-tinged music space behind. 

“It’s like being in the hold of a ship, and the band is playing underwater,” I point out to the table. We’ve been joined by a former Washington state Rodeo Queen and two of her bemused high school friends. The former Rodeo Queen wrinkles her nose a bit, then returns to a monologue on what it’s like to be “a D-list celebrity in Washington state.”

“I get recognised on the street all the time,” she says. 

“Here in Seattle?”

“I hate Seattle,” she says evenly. “I’m just here to visit these two.”

Our estimation of the Rodeo Queen falls even further when we learn that the title is won through public speaking, table decoration, “personality” and looking good in garish gowns. 

“What, no cattle rustling or bareback riding?” my friend quips. 

We excuse ourselves and head into the backroom to see the band, a local act called Moon Palace. They play a sort of blissful electro pop and shyly inform the small crowd that one number was once “KEXP’s song of the day. I mean… what!?” 

I love seeing bands at this early stage when it’s still a privilege to take the stage like this. And they’re nervous. The drummer keeps their eyes down all set and after one particularly rousing song the guitarist — who wears a silver amulet hanging from beneath her buttoned-up collar like a London street thug — puts her guitar down, waves to the crowd and leaves the stage. 

The bassist and singer, who is a bit more collected (and happens to be the guitarist’s twin sister), waits a moment before muttering, “Aaah, that wasn’t our last song.”

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