On Sera Cahoone, Betsy Olson, Kristen Ward, Matt Bishop, and more to love about Seattle’s Americana scene
Though “secret shows” occasionally happen in Seattle, they hardly take place with the frequency of a town like New York City. Larger towns seem to have a “secret show” cult following. There are certain circles who always seem privy to these things, and follow the unexpectedly intimate performances about town. They know where Joan Jett might show up for a small impromptu club show in New York, for example.
Seattle, not so much. We’re good at other things.
Now and then, though, a local artist who’s managed to rise to some semblance of stardom might show up at the Tractor Tavern or Triple Door. This particular night in question saw a hugely buzzed-about “secret” reunion show from seminal grunge band Soundgarden. A day or two ahead of time, the blogosphere lit up with news of a performance by some suspicious group called Nudedragons. By the end of the day, everyone knew it was Soundgarden. By the next morning, enterprising music fans had figured out ways to get tickets and parcel them out to less on-the-ball fans. It seems the entire world was headed to the Showbox that night.
It was unfortunate for Sera Cahoone and Betsy Olson, who had set up shop for the night at an out-of-the-way bar near Seattle University called Watertown. The turnout was light, but it didn’t hurt the show a bit.
Olson – who typically shreds electric, Zeppelin-style blues atop Cahoone’s remarkably precise, intuitive drumming – showed up this night intent on playing mostly solo acoustic. At her usual shows, she champions the electric rock blues with a certain grit and intensity that exists almost nowhere else in Seattle. Though it pains me to make this distinction, it’s also an area infrequently championed by women in general. (I’m not one to say someone plays the blues “remarkably well, for a girl,” or some other such statement; but, let’s face it, when’s the last time you saw a woman kill Hendrix’s “Red House”?)
Acoustic, Olson is a different animal, though still head and shoulders above whatever blues scene does or doesn’t exist in this town. There’s a certain percussion inherent in picking an acoustic guitar a certain way, for example, and she honed in on that early in the set, easily compensating for the absence of Cahoone’s drumming. She pulled mostly from her debut CD, Lonely Woman Blues, though there were a couple newer, heart-hammering sad songs. This is the blues, after all.
Keeping with the stripped-down nature of this intimate night, Cahoone played her set backed only by J. Kardong on pedal steel. Her selection was evenly peeled from both her solo CDs, with particularly notable turns on crowd favorites like “Couch Song” and “You Might As Well.” There was also a cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run” and a new, less-than-serious tune I can only guess was called “I Like to Fuck.” She delivered the latter with a firm tongue planted in a solid cheek, trading verses with Kardong like a musical conversation. It was, they noted, originally a joke song intended for nobody outside of the band to hear. The fact that it was catchy as heck had a hand in pulling it out for at least this show. It was enough of a moment to make folks at this show brag to the too-many-people who went elsewhere that night that they missed something. There was another new song – an excellent tune which somehow married the sound of PJ Harvey with that of Emmylou Harris, if that makes any sense at all – which would be more at home on one of her recordings.
A few days later, I headed to the Triple Door for an entirely different affair. One of my variant other jobs has me writing occasional features for CityArts magazine – a local rag (actually still in print – remember that?) dedicated to all manner of The Arts in and around Puget Sound. Quarterly, CityArts presents an evening titled the Song Show. Curated by Executive Editor Mark Baumgarten, the Song Show welcomes four local songwriters and pairs them with CityArts reporters, who interview them about songwriting and then move aside so the artists can play a few of their songs. This night, the bill was an interesting juxtaposition of introspective singer-songwriters and bad-boy rocker/hip-hoppers. I was teamed for the occasion with Kristen Ward, whose latest album Charles is probably the saddest collection of sad songs I’ve heard in some time. They’re beautiful songs, don’t get me wrong, but remarkably sad.
Ward delivered a beautiful set, including two tunes from Charles and a turn on the title track of the album she put aside momentarily to make it (“Last Night on Division”). She also talked about the difference between being overtly sad in songs and being particularly emotive, and told the story of how she came to write “How to Love Me” at Nancy Wilson’s cabin one particularly unproductive weekend.
Later in the show, Matt Bishop from Hey Marseilles performed an exquisite set of thoughtful tunes, including a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” which his band covered for a special love songs compilation released by Starbucks. What happened next is something I’m somewhat sorry I missed, and you can read all about it on Baumgarten’s blog.
But, I’m not here to talk about the antics of “bad boy rockers.” I’m here to enter another chapter into my ongoing insistence that we have one of the finest Americana scenes in the country here in Seattle. The four artists mentioned here pretty much cover all the bases and are among the best in town – from shoegazey twang-pop to contemporary folksingers; lofi, lyrics-driven roots artists and balls-to-the-wall blues shredders. It’s a pleasure to be surrounded by such talent.