It’s the eve of Treefort and I am way overdue for a Casual Ramble column. Sometimes my ideas of mine just develop into something else entirely, and I’m left wondering what the hell to do.
Then, a lightning bolt hit me.
Last September, during Treefort 9 I met Skyler Locatelli, one of the co-founders of Freakout Records from Seattle and a member of the stalwart independent radio station, KEXP. After our conversation, he invited me to Freakout Festival in Ballard.
That November, cold, dark and inclement and everything else you could expect from the thick of fall in the Pacific Northwest, I took Locatelli up on the offer to see the micro-scale of an independent festival. I was there for three out of four days. Leaving on a Friday afternoon to drop off luggage at my cousins’ place in Bellevue.
There was no main stage, no real singular hub. It was housed in the various bars, hotels and restaurants of downtown Ballard—a guerilla festival for Sandinista rock and rollers, country swooners, hip-hop heads and soul aficionados. The closest thing to a nerve center was a small admissions tent next to The Salmon Bay Eagles Club. From there, attendees could spread out to the Hotel Albatross, the Tractor Tavern, Conor Byrne, Cloudburst and Caffe Umbria.
At most, one could fit 200 people in the lofty Salmon Bay High before the fire marshall would have something to say about it. But don’t let this small-scale scare off anyone who ought to be there; this is how music is made. This is where your favourite artist starts making their breaks.
(Side note: Salmon Bay High might have had one of the best swirling, kaleidoscopic plasma visualizers I have ever seen. Low-budget, but awesomely cost-effective.)
Without festivals like Freakout in Ballard, Fisherman’s Village in Everett or Offbeat in Reno, artists can’t work the farm system that is the independent music industry. Moreover, without these smaller events, where are you going to find the hidden gems for your rhinestone coat of a music collection?
Artists like Acid Tongue, Shaina Shepherd, Smokey Brights, The Shivas, Spoon Benders, Beverly Crusher, Petite Amie, Levitation Room, Jango, Sugar Candy Mountain, Los Espliffs, Pearl Charles, and Thee Sacred Souls who fill out the niches in your magic technicolor coat. They who fit those crooked nooks and crannies like an opal seam.
And yes I did just list the bands that I enjoyed while at Freakout. Even better, plenty of them will be at Treefort Festival this year. Here are a couple recommendations to look out for:
Freakout Record’s erstwhile flagship headliner, I’ve written about Acid Tongue before, but it bears repeating: this is a must-see live act. Duo Ian Cunningham and Guy Keltner belted it out in Ballard. These slippery garage rockers’ recent Aboretum is a treat of new wave-infused garage psychedelia and introduced the world to the fire-breathing set capper: “The World is Gonna Fuck You.”
Keltner already hits notes made only for banshees and Mick Jagger, but on that song, him and Ian Cunningham become absolute demons. You know how in the old days of The Who, you would see Pete Townsend and Keith Moon destroy their gear? Well, Acid Tongue just about damn well did it at the Salmon Bay Eagle’s Club loft. I imagine the only thing stopping them was a sponsorship.
My meaning: somebody please sponsor them so they can smash some free gear for the complete aesthetic. Find Acid Tongue at the Main Stage on Wednesday at 4:20 PM.
Shaina Shepherd is a soul aficionado and a powerhouse voice. I said Guy Kelter may hit notes only meant for banshees and Mick Jagger, but Shepherd strikes notes that were only made for her and her alone. She’s recently been featured on KEXP, where listeners got an up-close and personal taste of her sometimes classic, sometimes grungey take on soul and blues rock.
You won’t find another voice like hers today. She’s been featured on Acid Tongue’s latest, proving her talents on the stunning “Suffering for You.” Her own catalogue goes even further to show just how svelte and beautiful a cadence she owns. “Never Be Another You” is every bit the classic cabaret soul performance you never knew you needed and “The Virus” is an afrobeat-infused soul rock storm. When you can go from Aretha to Fela in the kitchen, you know you’ve got something cooking.
Shepherd will be touting her talents at the El Korah Shrine on Saturday from 6:50 PM and The Hideout on Sunday at 9:00 PM.
Beverly Crusher are here to have a good time. Not a long one. Named after a fan favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation character, that’s about the only thing they really share in common. Well, that and the fact that they will literally crush you in a mosh-pit frenzy of haunted surf punk.
It’s frenetic, it’s panicked, it’s wiry and it’s fiery. I’m still waiting for the full-length follow-up to their 2016 EP, Pills, Pills, Pills. For fans of Bloc Party, this is Seattle’s insurgent riposte. Cozell Wilson’s voice rides the magmatic wave of brothers Max and Sam Stile’s metal-infused bass and drums.
They’ll be pounding the Shredder at 10:20 PM on Thursday, but the real show will take place at Skatefort on Saturday at 4pm
Look, as a Portlander at heart, I gotta say fuck Seattle for no particular reason other than they always got the attention when I was growing up. They had all the bands and all the notoriety until the 2010s. Now it’s been Portland’s turn to grow up and show the world what we got. And what we got is Spoon Benders, a groovy quartet combination of psych, punk and hard rock.
I suspect there’s a funk gene somewhere in those bones because their LP Dura Mater has got some flavor to it. Think if the Osees listened to a diet of AC/DC, Black Sabbath and, crucially, MC5. This band only knows one mode live: kick out the jams. And goddamn jam they will.
Catch some of Portland’s finest at the Neurolux on Saturday at 1 AM, then again on Saturday at Sonic Temple Blue starting 9:40 PM. Then, if you’re still not satisfied, catch ‘em again at the El Korah Shrine at 7:30 PM.
I first met Jango at the Neurolux in Treefort. He saw me with a camera and then vastly overestimated my abilities as a fledgling photographer and asked me to shoot part of his show. I said I would only have 15 to 20 minutes before I needed to head to a different locale. He said he would only need 15 minutes.
He was not wrong. Outside of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Kendrick Lamarr, I have never seen someone rev a crowd into a frenzy faster. And then he did it again at Conor Byrne during Freakout Fest. He’s a five-foot-four energizer bunny who sweats profusely the moment he starts spitting into the mic and duckwalking around the stage.
Catch him tossing thunderbolts from his tongue at the Reef on Friday at 10:30 PM or delivering 1200 megawatts of condensed power at Skatefort on Saturday at 1:50 PM.
Before I go, I would like to publicly thank Skyler for inviting me out to Freakout Fest in Ballard and for the Treefort team inviting Sophie and I back to Treefort 10. Festivals like these are what make the music industry work. These are the curators, the muckrakers, the ones with a musical sensory gene that goes beyond what most people retain.
Without them, your next indie obsession might not exist. For that reason alone they are as important to support in the aftermath of a public health crisis as the artists themselves. They work directly with those still making their breaks and often only break even.
So the next time you see an independent festival starting up or looking for attendees, throw them the dollars. You might never find a better bang for your buck.