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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Songwriter Chronicles

Seattle Folk Off!: April 2012 Edition

On Sunday, April 29, I had the extreme pleasure of attending/playing at my inaugural Folk Off!. According to its Facebook page, Folk Off! began Feb. 21, 2010, as another outlet for eager and hungry musicians to “expose their innards” in three songs (give or take) to audiences gathered in “living rooms, backyards, and basements.” The description in its entirety warrants a fancy blockquote styling (I’m omitting what I already included to avoid redundancy):

Folk Off! is a concept birthed from the desire to be heard. It is in this spirit that we create a welcoming environment where singer songwriters are celebrated and honored … Traditionally held on the last Sunday of every month Folk Off! is always changing form and every one whom attends can feel that something special is happening … It is my goal to see Folk Off! continue to grow and spread its love all over the country. It started in beautiful Seattle and found its way to New York effing City. Coming soon to a town near you!!!! Building community and support systems is what Folk Off! is all about. Please be our friend and please continue writing songs and wanting to share them. Its what brings us together.

After my experience at Folk Off!, I can say that’s pretty darn accurate assessment, and I didn’t even read the description until a few moments before writing this.

Prior to the Off!, I hadn’t played live in about a month and a half, which is a bit long by my standards, but not even close to my longest dry spell (that title belongs to the dark period of 5/27/02-5/31/03; more at a later date). Still, I was really itching for a performance. I needed my fix, and Folk Off! was my enabler. Or were they my dealer? (I’m very not good with illicit drug analogies.)

It took me about 45 minutes to walk to the Off! site: a two-story house located in northeast Capitol Hill, overlooking Lake Washington with the fogged-covered Cascades barely visible in the distance. I made sure to arrive as close to 6 p.m. as I could so I wouldn’t miss any fellow folksters. Turns out I was a bit over eager: The music didn’t start until a little after 7, and I was the first person to show up with an instrument. But before long, others came up the cement walkway leading to the house, some carrying guitar cases, others stand-up basses, and even a drum set. The more musicians I saw, the more excited I became. After about an hour or so sitting on the gray cement steps by the porch, talking with other musicians to play that night — some I knew, others I didn’t — and moving out of the way of those bringing in their gear, we headed inside to a two-couched, white-walled living room. It was time to start.

Kicking things off was Folk Off! coordinator Awesome Witch of Rad. I had seen her play once at the Wednesday night open mic at the Hopvine Bar. She played a couple of simple, upbeat songs on her ukulele, like the one in the clip below, and a couple more on the guitar. Her good cheer and whimsy lifted me up when I first hear her, and continued to do so the second time around. My buddy and collaborator Zach Warnes (of whom you will hear more later) said she reminded him of Kimya Dawson: lo-fi, upbeat and humorous. Her recorded stuff and other live performances are quite awesome as well. Check her out below and on her YouTube channel.

Next up was Jonny Mills, whom I met while sitting on the grey cement steps in the moments before Folk Off!. He’s also from Montana, so I immediately felt connected with my Big Sky kin. I recorded his first song: a fast-strumming, high-energy ditty in C major. By the end of his mini-set, he played with more right-hand and vocal endurance than I could ever hope for. I felt tired just watching him. Check out his first song below. (Apologies on the vertically challenged recording; I didn’t know how to properly use my iPhone. Sadly, I botched some other recordings the same way, which I’ll denote with “Presented in 5.1 Tilt-A-Vision.” With these and the other recordings, however, the sound turned out all right, so I guess you could leave the audio playing while viewing another tab and you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. Either that, or you could tilt your computer 90 degrees. Once again, sorry about that.)

Following Jonny was the Ghost Train Trio, a self-described “blues+rockabiliy+swamp+surf” local group. They were the ones who brought the amps, drum set and microphone, as they were the only full band to play that night. Despite the additional gear, they filled the living room space quite nicely with more of a muted, acoustic-based performance. Patrick Mckinnon, the band’s frontman and guitarist, had a number of impressive solos, especially since he played them on a resonator guitar with no discernible effects. If he can do that on an acoustic, I’d love to see what he can do on the electric. Check out Ghost Train Trio (in 5.1 Tilt-A-Vision!) below.

After a brief recess — during which I learned the intended pun behind the event’s name (much to my surprise and dismay) — the lamplit second half of the Off! resumed with Bigger Than Mountains, whom I had also met briefly beforehand. Like Jonny Mills, Bigger Than Mountains had more of punk/hardcore sound than most acoustic artists in my regular listening rotation. And also like Jonny, BTM’s vocal and strumming endurance were formidable; I would tank after playing half a song at that force, let alone three. Check out the clip below to see that intensity in action.

A little background on the next performer: I’ve known Zach Warnes for many years, perhaps since elementary school, maybe earlier. We both grew up in Billings, Mont., and attended the same Catholic school system. He was a year ahead of me, so we didn’t run with the same crowd most of the time. But toward the latter half of high school, I heard him play at a poolside Halloween party (the pool was indoors) and was really struck by his his clear tenor voice and natural stage presence. I also played at that pool party — much louder than Zach, and wearing an old man mask — and we were so impressed by the each other’s styles that we decided to collaborate by starting Weezer cover band. Seven and a half years later, when we both found ourselves Seattle, the dream finally came true, but with far less Weezer than originally intended.

Zach’s miniset consisted of three songs I’m pretty familiar with: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” Sufjan Stevens’ beautiful ode to the scariest real-life clown in history (hear Zach’s version) and two originals, “Friendly Ghost” and “Be Kind.” Both were short and sweet, and will probably be stuck in your head for a week. The imagery in his lyrics is very rich and evocative, which encourages many further listenings. Check out “Friendly Ghost” and “Be Kind” below.

At this point in the night, I was hungry — both in the sense that I was inspired by the excellent musicianship and was eager to play, and I hadn’t eaten since the afternoon. Sometimes that can be a combo for success. I was about to find out.

When preparing for my first Off!, I wanted to focus on songs with a more lighthearted, rootsier vibe. (I don’t think “rootsier” is a word, but it describes the sound I wanted.) So I picked two that were obviously folk — a newer one called “This Doesn’t Need to be Anything (“TDN2BA” for short) and a slight oldie called “4D Skiffle Skaff” — and one that could pass for folk but is more rootsy than anything, a work-in-progress called “Yes!,” which wasn’t recorded because it’s a secret. I’m not going to talk too much about the songs now; that’ll come in later posts. But I will say that I thought they turned out all right — no big screw ups, guitar stayed in tune, vocals mostly in-pitch — which, as far as my solo singer-songwriter performances are concerned, is good enough. I’ll let you judge by the videos below. (Note: Sorry to the fellow whose name I forgot. I’m glad that was recorded, though, so I can improve in that area. Speaking of recording, I would like to send a special thanks to friend Peter McCuskey for stepping in as camera man. What a guy! The first video is presented in Puddle-of-Mudd-A-Vision, in that it’s blurry.)

With at least one hungry temporarily satisfied, I was thinking of making the 45-minute walk back to solve the other hunger. But when I someone bring a standup bass to the front of the room, I was compelled to stick around. Am I sure glad I did.

The group was two-sevenths of local band James Apollo and the Sweet Unknown, and a crucial two-sevenths they were: just a singer/guitarist and the bassist, but that’s all they needed. I didn’t record their first song because I was worried I was approaching maximum capacity on my iPhone (again, my newness betrayed me), but one of Zach’s and Peter’s friend recommended that I record the following song, which is below. The B-minor melody still stays with me all these days later; sometimes, I still find myself humming it while at work. If that’s what two-sevenths of the band can do, I can only imagine how good they’d sound with the remaining 71.4 percent of the band.

Had I left then, it would’ve been a fitting end to the night. But when I saw fellow-Hopvine regular and recent jamming buddy Marika Rose Rohle take out her new guitar, Cora, I once again felt compelled to stay (hunger be damned!), and once again, I’m glad I did. Her voice reminds me of a cross between Dolores O’Riordan’s timbre and Sharon Van Etten’s haunting tone, mixed with a little of Stevie Nicks’ soulfulness. In other words, it can quiet a room, command your attention, and stays with you after the final song. That’s how I felt when watching the first of her two songs — all seven minutes of it. I knew her second fairly well, as Zach and I have played it a couple of times with her. It’s called “Human Nature,” which immediately calls to mind the Michael Jackson song of the same name. Hers is more subdued and minor- key oriented than M.J.’s, but it’s still quite good. It’s not the one I recorded, though. That will have to wait for another post. Check her out in Tilt-A-Vision below. Video note: I’m the one who mistakes the Last of the Mohicans reference (“Cora, the dark-haired one”) for something from Finding Nemo. I’m sure that happens to everyone from time to time.

I would’ve liked to have stayed following Mariko’s set, but I had a two-mile walk in front of me, and I had never actually solved the hunger problem. As I stood on the darkened porch, I looked through the large into the living room where someone played a Fender Stratocaster, with a phaser/reverb setting evocative of the Real Estate’s Days album. It sounded good from what I could hear. All of it.

There’s alway next month.