This month’s Folk Off! blindsided me, as have many other things since moving to Seattle. The strange movement of the seasons — a period that I’ve heard described as “Junuary” (mostly overcast skies and, as always, green, green grass) — the gradual settling in of a daily routine, the ongoing acclimatization process of moving to a city with more people in it than the entire state from which I came, and several other intangibles have thrown off my equilibrium and skewed my perception of time. I feel like Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks on the Tusk tour, minus the touring, and the drugs. Days vanish with hardly a notice, weeks pass in the blink of an eye, and months like four blinks. I must’ve blinked too many times.
When I received the Facebook event invite for the May 27 Off!, I was both excited at the prospect of playing such an intimate, friendly and welcoming setting, as well as a little apprehensive. With the week preceding Off! devoted to self-imposed, compulsive preparation for what unsurprisingly turned out to be the greatest concert of my life (plenty more later), my mind and energies were elsewhere. That, and the day before was booked with more self-imposed, compulsive acts of music, these of the solo-bedroom-production-of-a-long-overdue-album variety (much more on that later), so, unlike last time, plan a minset, I did not (hmmmmmmmmm?). It looked like I’d have to wing this one.
While en route — this time by mountain bike; the venue was too far to comfortably walk (but at least I wasn’t hungry) — I rode north on Fourth Avenue by way of Jackson Street. The sun shown prominently enough to drape the buildings’ shadows over the streets, something common enough toward the end of this Junuary of our discontent (or so I’m told.) As I made my way passed city hall, I saw a group of men and women descending the building’s steep, cement steps — the men wearing matching black tuxedos, the women wearing pink dresses, also matching. There may’ve also been a younger boy holding a pillow. If they were also going to Folk Off!, I thought then I’ll be severely underdressed. But it was too late to go back and change. If necessary, I could ask to borrow one of their coats.
The venue this time was Bedlam Coffee, a punk-rock, retro kitsch cafe in Belltown. Not having been familiar with the coffee shop, I decided to put iPhone-aided navigation skills to the test. I followed its directions to Second and Battery, but as I looked at the surrounding storefronts, I couldn’t find a place befitting of the such a name. Slowly, I walked a block south, eyeing the red pin (the destination) and the emanating blue dot (me) the entire time. When the red pin and blue dot converged, I looked up and to my right, and immediately saw the Awesome Witch of Rad (a.k.a. Rosie). Looks like I’m here, I thought. Turns out I was correct. But where were the suits and dresses?
By 6:20 p.m. or so, Rosie and I were the only musicians to have arrived; Bigger Than Mountains was also there, but behind the counter instead of on the stage, though he would eventually assume that role later in the night. Rosie and I spoke on a number of topics — from observing autistic in a school setting and how to integrate them into a normal classroom (her contributions; I sure hope I’m not butchering that topic), to Roger Waters’ recent The Wall Live performance at Key Arena (my contribution) — when Zachary Warnes arrived, fresh off the ferry from Bremerton, , and Jonny Mills (also a Bedlam employee) soon after him. As we waited for more people to arrive — musicians, spectators, random stragglers — we slowly began to realize there would be no Ghost Train Trio, no James Apollo, no duo playing reverbed Strats. We realized this month would be a more intimate affair. And that was all alright with us.
The Awesome Witch of Rad once again started things off, playing three nice little ukulele ditties. But just like her last Off! mini-set, the songs had a dark side lurking beneath the major chords and cheery melodies, and being an Elliott Smith fan (here’s something for starters), these are qualities I enjoy quite a lot. Her first song told of a romantic tale set in San Francisco, but afterward told us how the story really concluded. It’s a really doozy, to put it lightly. The next two, which I recorded, were also cheery and dark — a winning combo. I especially enjoyed the song about the after life: It reminded me of the Inferno, not Canto XII in which Dante and Virgil pass Phlegethon, the river of boiling blood and fire, but rather of the conversation between Dante and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in Canto X. I’m not sure why this was what popped into my head, but it’s (semi) related at least. But lakes of fire and “dark rainbows” aside, her songs are very clever and well written. Infectious, too. Check out her beguilingly sweet yet ominous songs in C major below.
Keeping in the tradition of the last two Offs!, Jonny Mills followed Rosie. Like last time, his right-arm/vocal endurance put me to shame, but I picked up on other things the second time, mainly how crisp the strings sounded on his black Ibanez acoustic. It was as if he had just installed them (the strings) before he played, only they didn’t go out of tune. Not at all. But more than that, I recognized almost at once the songs he played last month, the second of which is below. Its verses evokes echoes of Bright Eyes’ “Lua“ while the refrains reminds me of the peaceful protest by fire light I’ve always wanted to attend. I also remembered another of his songs from before, this one a D-major anthem about running from the cops, and having just saw The Wall three days earlier, I, too, could identify with the anti-police-state sentiment (though not quite to the point of N.W.A. or Anti-Flag). He also covered a Bigger Than Mountains song, which we would hear again later that night. I would also like to add that each of these songs were stuck in my head at different points during my U-District bike ride the next day.
There was a brief moment of confusion after Jonny’s mini-set as to who should follow him. It was either me or Zach, but because of my indecisiveness (I still hadn’t nailed down the three songs yet), Zach took charge. His first song was a Ryan Adams cover (no, not this guy), followed by the Zach classic — or should I say, “Zachlassic” — “Friendly Ghost.” Yet another fine performance. His third and final song, however, took the Folk Off! cake for me: I don’t know what it’s called (I’ve always refer to it as “the new one in B major”), but it’s powerful, especially when Mariko Rose Ruhle sings harmony. The first time I heard it was at a rehearsal/jam sesh in April, and in the middle of improvising some B-major lead work, I was compelled to stop and listen. Mariko isn’t on this recording, but this performance is still more than worth checking out.
By default, I was the next to perform. Luckily by then I had a rough idea of what I would play, so I didn’t really have to wing it — I was just a little unprepared. Thanks to Rosie, I had an opener: Michael Jackson’s yearnful “Human Nature,” which she had seen me play at the Hopvine back in February, and I hadn’t played it since. The lyrics always tend to confuse me, but I think I actually got them right for once. In recent performances of this song, I’ve added a guitar intro akin to (and at least two-thirds as good as) John Mayer’s version played at M.J.’s memorial concert, as well as an extended pause at the beginning of the fourth verse, which the King of Pop famously did during concerts such as this. Whenever I do this, the audience is more confused than brimming with excitement, and they are often silent, save for the one time at the Hopvine when someone yelled, “That was abrupt!” perhaps thinking I forgot the lyrics. The silence may make some uncomfortable, but not me. Like M.J., I thrive on it, and if I could pause for five minutes, I would. (My pause is 20-30 seconds.)
But I — or Zach, rather — didn’t record that one. Instead, I asked him to document my second and third songs: “What Went On” and “Hey, Mae.” Aside from having a fairly traditional folk structure, I decided to play “What Went On” mainly because it had been almost a year since I played it last. It’s not one of my favorites — its slowness makes it seem plodding at times, and the theme of infidelity hits a little close to home (somewhat for me, but mostly for someone very close to me) — but I figured I’d bring it out of the woodworks if only to see how it’d be received. With “Hey, Mae,” I wanted to play something that was both roots-y (there’s that word again) and to be eventually featured on the upcoming Newsfeed Anxiety album, like “4D Skiffle Skaff“ last month. Unfortunately, I fudged the lyrics to both songs this time, but I’m posting “Hey, Mae” below because there’s no embarrassing mid-20s puberty moment near the end, as there was in “What Went On,” though I still uploaded it to my YouTube channel.
Video note: It was a pretty surreal, confusing moment when two hippy-looking passersby began licking the windows at the beginning of “Hey, Mae.” I would like to think they were just that in to my music, but I think other factors were in play. And thanks, once again, to Jonny for wiping off the windows after the duo left. Weird as the instance was, it was disrespectful and disgusting. Yuck.
Also, the sound is muffled at first, but becomes clear about 15 seconds in. I don’t think I was saying anything important.
It looked as though the truncated Folk Off!: May Edition was coming to an end, but another performer had arrived sometime during the mini sets. She called herself Dogwood, and appeared to be good friends with Jonny and BTM. Her attire seemed either from the Renaissance and/or the movie Hook, and so did her. On her ukulele, she played originals styled as traditional lullabies and lyrical ballads, with familiar characters such as Lancelot, Guinevere, among other medieval characters. She claimed to be sick, but I couldn’t tell. Her voice was spot on, especially the low Gs, which aren’t easy to hit. When her fans requested “Bella Donna,” I thought they were referring to the Stevie Nicks song of the same name; turns out it was an original. I attempted to record one of her tunes, but alas, my iPhone was at maximum capacity with footage I shot from The Wall. What I did get, though, captures some of her old time-y, vaudeville essence.
At this point in the night, Rosie suggested that, because it was still fairly early, each performer should play one more song each. We were all for it.
Rosie started the encores with a sweet, major-key story song about a woman who killed not one, not two, but three of her husbands. Zach followed her, played yet another Zachlassic, “You Haunt Me,” for which I sang backing vocals. My memory of the exact order gets a little hazy after that, but I think I followed Zach with an acoustic-hybrid of Metal Face’s and Charlie Ray’s versions of “Wait ‘Til Tomorrow,” which I think went pretty well. From what I remember, Dogwood joined Jonny for a reprisal of the C-major song he played earlier, with Dogwood adding some fine complementary harmonies.
The stand-out moment in Folk Off! overtime was when Bigger Than Mountains coming out from behind the counter to join Jonny and Dogwood for one of Bigger’s originals about getting out of a dead-end town (which Jonny had played earlier). Although I hail from a fairly urbanized region of Montana, I can totally relate to the lyrics, “Nobody ever gets out of this town alive … but I’m going to try.” That’s how I felt for much of my high school years, and, to a certain extent, when I moved back for four months after graduating college. But for some reason, I don’t think of Billings when I hear this song — I think of dusk in Moses Lake, Wash. Nothing against the town, but when I passed through last November on my way to Missoula, it just seemed like a depressing place, especially the main drag. It seemed very small-town Montana, except worst traffic. Anyway, the three of them sounded great together, but my recording was once again stymied by my limited storage space, so I posted the Jonny-Dogwood reprisal below.
After a brief solo acoustic performance by Bigger, it was time for this month’s Off! to conclude. The sun had mostly set, and streets of Bell Town now teemed with the Sunday-before-Memorial-Day droves. It was around nine o’clock.
Zach and I stuck around for a little bit, grabbing a spot of tea at Rosie’s nearby studio apartment. Once we parted ways, I thought about the Off!, somewhat of my own mini set, but mostly of what I’d heard — Zach’s song in B major, Jonny’s and Dogwood’s duet, Rosie’s gleeful melancholy, the culminating jam. It reminded me of an anecdote she shared before her set: She had a friend during her years of living in Brooklyn, someone she described as “very ambitious.” But this friend, the good musician that he was, couldn’t really gain much traction as a musician (I’m paraphrasing from two-week-old memory here). After a while, she said this friend had a revelation: he gets to play music for his friends.
Such has been the idea at the heart of the last two Folk Offs!
“We get to play music for our friends,” Rosie said before beginning her first song.
A simple message, but a true one, as evidenced that night, the night of April 29, and hopefully many more end-of-the-month Sunday nights to come.