Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the state’s broad COVID-19 restrictions are set to lift by June 30, and possibly sooner if enough people get vaccinated before then.
Live music is back, baby! At least kind of a little.
The vast majority of clubs around town remain dark and most local luminaries are biding their time until full-capacity crowds can congregate once more starting June 30. But since Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the “Footloose”-esque moratorium on live music back in February, opportunities to catch a formal concert have increased.
At least a handful of venues between Everett and Tacoma have cracked their doors open to limited audiences, with current guidelines allowing for 25-50% capacity, depending on the county. Several promoters are throwing by-the-books outdoor shows (and others not so by-the-books). Acclaimed singer-songwriter Damien Jurado kicks off a whopping 10-show run at Ballard Homestead May 12-16 and Heart’s Nancy Wilson has a summer date with the Seattle Symphony July 9, marking the highest profile Seattle shows since the pandemic hit.
But any sort of return to concerts as we knew them are still about a month away and, for now, the local scene remains stuck in an awkward, in-between state of purgatory. Nevertheless, there are ways to get your live music fix while vaccinations continue.
Over the past few months, I’ve attended several types of shows currently happening on a regular basis: the reduced-capacity club gig, an outdoor concert following strict pandemic protocol and a semidiscreet outdoor rave. This is what it was like.
Outdoors and socially distanced
The bands had their work cut out for them. It was colder than the bottom of a beer tub and the 150 or so attendees who passed temperature checks before entering the Museum of Flight were gathered in an unlikely location for a rock show — an open-air hangar at Boeing Field.
The rust was evident, but not among the musicians who took the small stage backdropped by a Boeing 747. Like many comeback concerts across the country, spectators were seated in “pods” of up to four people, socially distanced in compliance with state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The late-March show with local blues-punks The Black Tones was what one of the organizers described as “Seattle’s first in-person show in over a year.” Creative and well organized as it was, it definitely wasn’t the first. By that point, several venues had been open for more than a month. (Best we can tell, that distinction belongs to Green Lake country bar the Little Red Hen, though really, concerts have been happening in limited ways throughout the pandemic.)
The crowd was eager but stiff, a combination of the Smartwool weather, the time since their last show and the unnatural habitat of an aviation museum during a pandemic. No concessions were sold during this trial gig and everyone except some of the performers was masked up at all times. The piercing whoosh of planes taking off cut the relative quiet during set break.
As The Black Tones roared through a set I’ve probably seen a dozen times in the past, with all the thunder of one of the nearby military jets, the usual kinetic exchange between band and crowd was off a beat. Or at the very least, it was difficult to sustain among the diffuse and somewhat reticent audience. For a second, I actually missed the beer-spilling jerk who plows his way to the front of the sweaty rock clubs The Black Tones typically inhabit.
“That’s kinda your part, too,” singer/guitarist Eva Walker explained when the crowd failed to pick up a call-and-response portion of fan favorite “Mr. Pink.” It’s an explanation the charismatic frontwoman hadn’t needed to give during a hometown headliner in a while.
During her opening set, former “Voice” contestant Payge Turner admirably broke the ice, coaxing people to stand up and (gasp) even dance a little within their marked folding-chair zones. Even Turner seemed slightly unsure if standing was permissible. After all, rock ’n’ roll didn’t used to have so many rules.
Much of the evening was a tug of war between the bands doing their damnedest to keep the crowd engaged and fans pulling back to an understandably rigid posture. It was an unpredictable battle, but never bet against The Black Tones.
“Oh my God, I missed doing this!” shouted an off-mic Cedric Walker, the drummer standing at the front of the stage, raising his arms to cue the crowd in a more successful crowd participation bit.
Me too. But that night felt more like an approximation of something I’ve treasured since before I could drive — a third-quarter stopgap when we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I might have felt differently had it been more sit-down, singer-songwriter fare or if my internal organs hadn’t frozen solid. Hats off to the community-minded organizers with Safe & Sound Seattle, who have their third such show at the museum set for May 29 with the Marshall Law Band and Tres Leches. I’d happily do it again, but it didn’t so much scratch an itch as it did make me miss going to shows even more.
The outdoor minirave
I knew I was in the right place. If the stream of bodies slowly disappearing into the trees wasn’t a giveaway, the pulsating bass the second I cracked my car window certainly was.
Emerging on the other side of an illuminated path, kaleidoscopic lights danced across the trees encircling a grassy dance floor. A massive light show sprawled across on an otherwise bland building behind the DJ tent, where the hoodie-clad party conductor pumped out one throbbing cut after another. Despite the iridescent eye candy, it was dark enough that anyone more than 6 feet away was a slightly anonymous shadow, not that social distancing seemed to be a huge concern.
“That’s a whole-ass dog right here, dude!” exclaimed one man, startled by a pup independently working the crowd for scratches.
It was barely an hour past sunset and this low-key outdoor rave held last month in North Seattle was just getting warmed up. None of the 50 or so revelers — maybe one-third of whom were wearing masks — seemed to be sweating through their outer layers, and there was little movement aside from a twirling neon hula hoop and a tie-dye athlete who joined an impromptu jump rope game without spilling his tallboy. King.
Still, the night was young and promoters advertised this presumably unsanctioned party as “definitely going past midnight.”
“I feel like I’m at the Gorge right now,” another man told his friends as a train of people walked by me.
Maybe not the Gorge, but at least the most elaborate campground afterparty hiding in plain sight.
Despite the lack of enforceable COVID-era protocol, keeping a distance from the central herd in front of the DJ tent was no harder than finding a spot on a busy Seattle park beach last summer. Some spread out on blankets in the back, clutching koozie-wrapped White Claws that would later be deposited in the trash bins organizers provided. (Though as the crowd thickened, I retreated to my dad-mobile to bathe in hand sanitizer, and bounced.)
For a nonticketed pop-up party, it was a relatively tame and tidy affair (at least in those early hours). While I never personally felt unsafe lurking around the perimeter, it was too lax for my then-half-vaccinated comfort.
The small-crowd club gig
I slid into the last open table, practically behind the band. From my corner two-top, comfortably spaced from other tables, I surveyed the bizarrely mundane scene of (maskless) people drinking beer in a bar. Now that he’s fully vaxxed, keyboarding piano man Eric Verlinde was back at the helm of the Owl N’ Thistle’s Tuesday night jazz jam, a long-running tradition featuring a rotating cast of Seattle all-stars playing free and casual sets.
“Wow, what a trip sitting in this room,” remarked musician Cole Schuster while setting up. That night in May would be the first time in a year the ace guitarist had played with his 200 Trio.
The dimly lit Irish pub in Pioneer Square was aglow with modest “stage” lights, hints of bar neon and Schuster’s warm leads that vacillated between smooth, happy-dream-state lullabies and spicy fretboard calisthenics. The Mariners game was on the TV above the bar and the occasional group of fans wandered in. The seat-yourself barroom felt full and alive, but not overwhelmingly so, during the first set — at least since I was fully vaccinated by then.
Still, my anxiety over being in close quarters with a few dozen randos was currently leading the race with locked-and-loaded tears of joy, but it was close. I took a healthy slug of beer to push down the growing lump in my throat. Based on the smiling, chattering faces around the bar, I appeared to be the only one having some sort of emotional reckoning while the freewheeling band, which was set up on the floor, got hot. Forgive me, it’s been a minute.
Save for the plexiglass dividers dangling above the bar, it was an almost unfathomably “normal” situation. Somehow the fact that the bass player was wearing a surgical mask was the least unusual part.
As the band of the hour really started cooking, a woman seated in front clasped her hands on her heart, tilting her head back as a euphoric smile washed over her face. Her eyes were closed, aimed skyward as if locked in telepathic conversation with some supreme being. (Coltrane? That you?) She was lost in the music in the way one only can be while sharing the moment and space with the people making it.
“Owwwww-ooooooo!” she shouted with jubilation and gratitude as bassist Michael Barnett wrapped a buoyant solo, the drummer sprinting off with the baton. It’s a feeling that could never be livestreamed.
Ah, hell. Where’s my damn beer?
Over the past year, I’ve often fantasized about my first “real” show on the other side of this thing. Feeling the kick drum in my chest, the enveloping roar of a sellout crowd surrounding me. The dopey grin that hits my face when a band’s locked in, in all the right ways. I’m still waiting for my “we’re back” moment, and after the handful of halfway-there shows I’ve attended this spring, I’m not sure it’s going to feel the way I’ve been imagining it for 12 months.
But I can’t wait to find out.