Moondoggies, Jesse Sykes, Star Anna & the Laughing Dogs – Showbox at the Market – Seattle, WA – Nov. 28, 2009
I could say there’s something about Seattle which breeds broodiness. Could claim it’s the winter-long cravings for sun breaks balanced by many-month stretches of summertime charm, when one forgets there ever was such a thing as darkness; the dysfunctional love affair one has with their sense of “home” when they make up their mind to stay here for the long haul. I could claim such a thing is what inspires so many dark, layered, emotional songs to emerge from the local well-read, emotion-focused, classic country-infused music scene. That could almost be a convincing argument for how stirring a night of music went down this weekend at the Showbox in Seattle when three local bands converged for a packed night of roots music.
But then there’s Star Anna, who grew up and is still based in Ellensburg, Wash., where the sun shines at least as frequently as it doesn’t in Seattle, if not moreso. Maybe it’s the desert. Maybe it’s something else altogether. Does it even really matter what it is? The propensity and desire to understand what drives such complicated passion flies out the window when Star and her band, the Laughing Dogs, take the stage.
They have, after all, been working relentlessly over the past few years to claw their way up and through the din of local and regional roots artists – those who might leap at naming artists like Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and the Eagles as chief influences – and it’s working. This spring, with the release of their sophomore full-length, the band pulled the reins back from the indie label which had released their debut, releasing the disc on their own accord. The result was a collection of songs which were simply and honestly stated. There’s little missing from the album which can’t be adequately communicated in their live show, and vice versa. And yet, there’s hardly a moment onstage when the band doesn’t deliver beyond the means of what they were capable of in the studio.
On this night, in front of a fairly packed Showbox, the Laughing Dogs shared reliably flooring versions of songs from both of their full-length albums. But it was the new songs which piqued the most interest, and which indicated that, whenever the third album gets recorded, it will only continue the ascent of the band’s tightness and creativity. Star has that rare gift for writing songs that are at once transcendent of style and genre (which is to say, probably palatable to the mainstream), while retaining their integrity and honest ties to her “roots,” whatever that is. That songs can be universal without trying is always a remarkable thing, especially for a writer still solidly in the first half of their 20s. It was a solid set, from old standards like “Space Beneath the Door” to more recent mainstays like “Through the Winter.” The band was tight – rhythm section at full throttle and guitarist Justin Davis’ tasteful and artful guitar solos at peak form. They set a fitting bar for what became quite a night for local roots music.
Next up was Jesse Sykes. Stylistically, Sykes was a tremendous departure. The words “psychadelic” and “country” get thrown around in Sykes’ general direction, but there’s something greater than that going on. It’s been some time since they released their last album, and there’s been quite a bit of buzz around the project which lies ahead. As local media begins to speculate on the album Sykes refers to on her website, which has no release date as of yet, she brought many of the new songs onto the Showbox stage. As I alluded to in the intro, there was quite a bit of moodiness – multi-faceted arrangements, driven in no small part by the Hammond B3 organ, distorted guitar, and her own poetic, rhythmic lyricism. The songs were complicated and emotional, pulling the audience further than a typical Saturday night might require. But few seemed to mind. The remarkable response she drew from the crowd was topped only by the night’s headliner.
I’m just going to say it. Moondoggies are the next Seattle band you folks not living in Seattle will come to know and love. They’re a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. They represent well the remarkable fusion of styles pervading all music in this town right now. (See other soon-to-be-breakouts like Grand Hallway, Maldives, and Widower – all of whom, it’s no small coincidence, share members.) It’s that CSN&Y/The Band/Eagles thing. Throw in a little Elton John, a little Radiohead, a little mashup of random other things. They are more proof that there’s some magical something happening – a convergence of people whose influences and interests lie in the same places, who have come to the same place at the same time to do the same thing.
Powered by all these things, the quartet unleashed a 90-minute set which quite literally, and physically, moved the packed house. There was a sense leading into this night that the local music community was proud and excited for the Moondoggies. After all, many of this audience watched the band grow from their early days at the Blue Moon – the diviest dive in town. Recent months in Moondoggie emergence have seen the band ascending quickly and evenly past so many of their roots-influenced peers.
Perhaps it’s the band’s insistence on drawing from beyond the darkness and moodiness of Seattle weather and impulse. After all, they spent a time developing in Bellingham and the boondocks of Alaska, before returning to Seattle and pushing full force. It kind of cramps the claim that Seattle’s weather breeds the best creativity. Whatever it is, the Moondoggies brought it. On the Showbox stage – a venue whose 1100-person capacity far outdoes the tiny dive bar atmosphere of the Blue Moon, from whence they started – the Moondoggies played with a level of confidence and intimacy which belied that Seattle-ish, rainy thing.
Whatever it is which drives these folks – the weather, the dark moodiness, or some other thing, some unnameable truth – this single Saturday night was full of great music, simple as that.