Ballard is easily one of the nicest places in Seattle–this in a city rife with them.
The quiet neighborhood, born from roots in a once-flourishing Scandinavian seafaring tradition, is dotted with cute shops, great restaurants, and several active music clubs and venues. The most distinctive of the lot, the Tractor Tavern, has made a national reputation as Seattle’s premier purveyor of Americana, Alt-Country, rockabilly and roots music. Three especially strong, representative acts–Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands, Lindsay Fuller and The Cheap Dates, and Rusty Willoughby–graced the stage for a terrific night of music on July 2.
Willoughby, the first on the bill, has been part of the Seattle music scene since the mid-1980’s. He fronted Pure Joy, an underrated post-punk band influenced by British psychedelic acts like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes; one of Seattle’s greatest power-pop bands, Flop; and more recently, the rock outfit Llama. Willoughby’s one of this town’s greatest unsung talents, and his solo set did not disappoint. His tenor voice has stayed incredibly clear and sweet over the years, and his newest material–acoustic pop tinged by Beatles-esque songcraft and blues and country influences–is fully informed by an eloquent, sometimes sardonically witty lyrical touch.
He was backed by an all-star cast of great local musicians–bassist Barrett Martin once pounded skins with the Screaming Trees, keyboardist Johnny Sangster’s produced everyone from The Posies to The Murder City Devils, and Rachel Flotard (lead singer/guitarist/spitfire for Seattle power-pop titans Visqueen) provided gorgeous vocal harmonies.
The evening also served as a CD release party for Lindsay Fuller and the Cheap Dates, a tight combo whose sound combined Gillian Welch’s folk eloquence with some country twang and a dose of somber Nick Cave-style darkness. Fuller’s voice–a burnished, soulful trill that sounds like the frame of a beautiful old church that’s about to collapse on itself–is one heck of a singular instrument.
Some of Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands’ music fits neatly into the roots music/country mold, but Pickerel also croons eerie ballads that sound like Chris Isaak with a death wish, or like a new-romantic version of Charlie Rich. Like Willoughby, Pickerel’s Praying Hands sported plenty of impressive musical names: Drummer Mike Musburger used to play in The Posies and the Fastbacks, Johnny Sangster joined Pickerel with some smoking and nuanced guitar work, and Jimmy Sangster (ex-Young Fresh Fellows) played bass.
Pickerel and the Hands wound down the evening with an hour-plus set that frequently rocked. “Cody’s Dream” sounded like Leonard Cohen fronting Adam and the Ants, and the band proved they could kick up some rockabilly dust throughout the uptempo workouts. The slower numbers, meantime, burned just as intensely: “Let Me Down Easy” rolled and smouldered like Bryan Ferry gone country samba, and “Burn the Shrine” added some spikily sensual post-punk guitar chords to Pickerel’s narcotic croon–perfect accompaniment for a moody Seattle night.
(additional photos from the show can be viewed at Pop Culture Petri Dish)