Before the coronavirus pandemic brought live arts to an unceremonious, abrupt halt in March 2020, Brandon Rountree would often work shows as a stagehand at Benaroya Hall, then walk to Capitol Hill to run security at Barboza with his brother.
“The whole year was just me on standby,” Rountree said Thursday night at Neumos, Barboza’s sister club upstairs, as the club filled with concertgoers for the first time in more than 15 months on the day after most pandemic restrictions were lifted statewide. On the bill for this first notable comeback Capitol Hill nightclub show: catharsis, and an album release for Spirit Award with support from Antonioni and Black Ends.
“We spent all this time away from people and now all of a sudden we’re like, OK, gotta turn that thing back on,” Rountree said as folks meandered into the club and over to the merch tables in the corner, or to the bars or bathroom.
His mask colored in blue light, Rountree acknowledged the shock of going from a year of isolation to a packed room of bare faces. The return of steady work trumped that discomfort, though. The security guard had high hopes for the show.
“How can it not be a good night?” he said, smiling with his eyes. “I think everyone is just going to be, if anything, a little more humble. People are still setting their foot in the water, so to speak.”
Outside, security was checking IDs along with patrons’ vaccination status. The queue moved a bit more slowly than usual, but once inside with a black stamp on your wrist, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was the first show since a pandemic, save for a mask or two. Folks leaned against the stage with crossed arms or stood in little circles spread across the club floor the way they always have. The speakers blared, friends hugged, drinks spilled. People kept fluttering in, eyes on the stage.
Then, at 9 p.m., the crowd whooped as Black Ends grabbed their instruments and launched right into their set. Frontwoman Nicolle Swims summed it up perfectly: “It’s really good to be here and see all your faces.”
The band’s 30 minutes of distorted “gunk pop” elicited raucous applause after every song. The floor creaked as the crowd hopped, bobbed and danced; a five-person mosh pit even popped up toward the end of the set.
Swims led her bandmates backstage as the smokers filed out to the street. The line nearly stretched from 10th Avenue to Broadway. It was 9:30 p.m., fully light out, and it smelled like only Capitol Hill can: tobacco, other people, weed, and grilled onions destined for Seattle Dogs — less a combination of smells than a series of scents jockeying for nasal dominance.
Indie rockers Antonioni was on at 9:45, kicking off its comeback set with a killer cover of “My Own Worst Enemy.”
“This is so unbelievably different from what life has been like [during the pandemic],” said a grinning Sarah Pasillas, Antonioni’s lead singer, to the crowd after the opener.
After half a dozen or so more songs, thanks to the crowd and the venue, and reminders to tip well, Antonioni was off the stage, the bartenders were busy again and the smokers were back outside. There was a minute-long wait for the unisex bathroom upstairs, just enough time to appreciate a badly missed moment in the quintessential nightlife experience: A girl stepped out of the stall and immediately began hyping up a stranger’s outfit, who was equally effusive in her thanks and offered the explanation, “The whole outfit cost $14.” Truly, nature is healing.
With members of the opening bands now mixed in with the regular joes in the crowd — having a smoke, working the merch booth, bunny-hopping in the pit — synthy psych rockers Spirit Award closed out the night.
“Seattle!” said singer and guitarist Daniel Lyon, emphasizing the surreal sight of a crowd of hundreds with a few four-letter words. “I can’t describe this feeling. Shout out to everyone in Neumos and Barboza making this happen. Tip your bartenders [expletive] well because a lot of them didn’t have jobs for the last year and a half.”
Celebrating the release of their new LP “Lunatic House,” the band worked through tracks including the groovy “Cocaine Glasses” and “Mantra.” Before the latter, Lyon spoke to the crowd like old friends.
“Everybody had a hard [expletive] year, huh,” Lyon said, underselling it. “This song is about those people that got you through it. I know there’s a lot of people who got me through it. These guys,” he said, pointing to his bandmates, “got me through it.”
The Seattle indie rock family reunion vibes continued as Spirit Award finished its set, working the crowd into a frenzied but notably polite mosh pit by bringing out Jessica Dobson of Deep Sea Diver on guitar and William Goldsmith (formerly of Sunny Day Real Estate and Foo Fighters, now of Assertion) on a second drum kit. While soloing, Lyon dropped to his knees, danced across the stage and then into the crowd with his guitar, the audience parting for him like the Red Sea.
Lyon spoke what was on everyone’s lips when he said, “I’m so glad that we get to sweat with you all.”
After the show, the room cleared out into the street, now dark and cool as it neared midnight. Another chorus of lighter flicks, another symphony of smells and a collective debrief of what we’d all just seen. A stone’s throw in either direction, Comet Tavern and Runaway bar were packed with people and thumping with bass.
The crowd gradually thinned at Neumos and drifted across the street to Hawk Dogs. There, at the unofficial reopening show after-party, a trio of buskers — Whitney Sherree and the Big Yikes — were playing folk jams as people got their post-show grub. The traveling musicians got into Seattle in June; they didn’t know it was the first real night out in Washington since the pandemic. It was the band’s first time playing together since March 2020.
Joking with the crowd and asking for payment in any form — cash in Sherree’s guitar case, cigarettes, Seattle Dogs — the band kept playing after the lights went out at the hot dog stand.
Haq Asfour, owner of Hawk Dogs, also didn’t necessarily realize the occasion when he set up his stand on East Pike Street.
“Today was kind of busy; we didn’t expect it to be this busy,” he said. “There were a lot of people for a Thursday night, so we’re glad we’re back in business.”
Out of operation since the early days of the pandemic, Asfour started popping up on Capitol Hill again last month. He said lines have been getting longer and estimated that he sold about 100 dogs Thursday night, keeping the grill on until he only had meatless franks remaining, and then until he ran out of onions.
Among the crowd at Hawk Dogs were friends and Portage Bay co-workers Kelsey Hopkins and Stephanie Jones, who went to the show at Neumos with other members and friends of Jones’ band Bad Optics. Some of the group missed the opening set but they were happy to see the turnout nonetheless.
“It was cool that there were so many people who came out to see the show that there was such a long line,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins and Jones also felt that emotional clash — between apprehension over the return to pre-COVID-19 social habits and the joy of live music and late nights on Capitol Hill being back. Lingering pandemic fatigue aside, for one night, a group of people were able to come together and forget everything outside the four walls of Neumos. It was a special kind of release.
Friend of the band Heather Bergstrom said it best: “I myself have not been to a show in four years, so this to me was a huge experience: finally, to get in line to go see a show.”
After more than a year without live music, life and performance returned to Capitol Hill without missing a beat. The best part: In Seattle, this kind of thing is supposed to happen year-round. It’s good to be back.