Seattle artists haven’t stopped creating or livestreaming, but in a lot of ways 2020 can be summed up in two words: indefinitely postponed. For the foreseeable future of live music, normality might be a thing of the past, though some local traditions, both nascent and ingrained, have managed to keep rolling. Albeit with pandemic adjustments.
An annual benefit show for Seattle Musicians Access to Sustainable Healthcare (SMASH) was starting to find its footing in the local concert landscape when COVID dimmed the prospects for its third annual fundraiser. The all-star tribute concert tapping Seattle megastars, scene vets and rising talents is the primary revenue driver for the young nonprofit that connects working musicians with free or subsidized health services. This year’s (virtual) concert airs at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, on Amazon Music’s Facebook and Twitch channels.
“This community has a long history of supporting our own,” says Ben London, guitarist with Seattle power poppers Stag, who’s helped curate the first three SMASH shows. “Nobody said no for anything other than scheduling.”
The organization co-founded by singer-songwriter Ian Moore, musician Steph Fairweather and others made a splash when its inaugural 2018 show turned into a semi-surprise Mother Love Bone reunion. Initially billed as a tribute to the grunge-era legends, SMASH quickly sold out the Tractor Tavern and slid to the Neptune, roughly doubling capacity. The rest of the tickets didn’t last long either.
After the house band and rotating singers ran through Mother Love Bone favorites, Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament joined their fellow Love Bone alums Greg Gilmore and Bruce Fairweather (Steph’s partner) on stage for the first time in years, with the honey-voiced Shawn Smith and other singers filling in for the late Andrew Wood.
“I thought our band did a pretty good job representing” the Love Bone songs, says London, who played in the house band alongside SMASH music director Mike Musberger of the Posies. “But then you hear them actually do it and you’re like ‘Oh. Yep, there it is.’ ”
After last year’s tribute saw local stars like Dave Matthews, Kim Thayil, David Bazan and others playing their favorite Neil Young tunes, the 2020 edition pairs some of Seattle’s hometown stars with local standouts and up-and-comers to cover various “songs of hope,” an appropriate theme for the year of the doomscroll. Rather than go the typical band-and-a-cam livestream route, artists recorded their tracks and production company All is Well shot narrative music videos working with local directors. Now settling into the Sunday before Thanksgiving, SMASH joins other local fixtures like MoPOP’s Founders Award (Dec. 1) and SMooCH (Dec. 5) on the holiday benefit show circuit.
While their song choices are largely under wraps, the lineup features Dave Matthews with singer-songwriter Tomo Nakayama, Mike McCready with blues-punk faves The Black Tones, Duff McKagan with Shaina Shepherd of BEARAXE, Allen Stone with Whitney Mongé and The Head and the Heart’s Charity Rose Thielen and Matty Gervais, and more. (Billboard-charting rocker Ayron Jones, King Youngblood’s Cameron Lavi-Jones and Wild Powwers’ taco-slinging drum lord Lupe Flores might be the most powerful power trio ever assembled.) The songs were mixed and mastered at London Bridge Studios, co-owned by Eric Lilavois, who also performs with his new Copper Trees duo with artist-turned-musician Kate Neckel.
Some of the pairings were natural fits. Nakayama, an accomplished artist in his own right, apparently charmed Matthews after joking about having to follow the amphitheater filler last year and The Black Tones put out a 7-inch on McCready’s HockeyTalkter Records in March.
Beyond its signature event going virtual, it’s been a pivotal year for the nascent nonprofit serving working musicians — gig workers unlikely to have affordable health insurance through an employer. When the pandemic hit, a number of services SMASH funds — such as audiology tests, dentistry and preventive doctor’s visits — were put on hold, and mental health services were added ahead of schedule.
“It’s been a great resource to be able to offer something while people are losing their minds and they don’t know what to do,” says Denise Burnside, SMASH’s executive director and co-owner of the Clock-Out Lounge, who started at SMASH weeks before concert venues shut down.
Since the beginning of the year, SMASH has tripled the number of musicians signing up for its services, though the spike likely has more to do with increased outreach than pandemic turmoil, Burnside says. The Seattle music biz vet hopes this year’s virtual concert will raise more awareness for the fledgling organization while raising enough cash to maintain, if not increase, services next year.
Aside from working on the SMASH concert, this year London awarded $50,000 in artist grants through his Black Fret Seattle, the local chapter of a Texas-based nonprofit supporting local musicians. Several grant recipients including Chong the Nomad, Naked Giants and Stephanie Anne Johnson are also on the SMASH bill.
“If we value our music community and we want Seattle to continue to be a music-forward city, or the Seattle area,” London says, “we have to do more than just going to people’s shows to make that happen.”