It has been raining for somewhere between forever and two weeks in the Mighty Pacific Northwest. The days are short, the nights long, and most people walk around with a blank expression that is 50% desperation and 50% caffeine. It is times like this that we all need something to look forward to, and for me, last Sunday was a milepost shining out there in the darkness: Jay Farrar was playing at the Tractor in Ballard.
Haven’t heard of Jay Farrar? Son Volt? Uncle Tupelo? Okay, it doesn’t matter because this concert review isn’t really about Jay Farrar, it is about five drunk guys.
Ballard is one of a handful of interesting neighborhoods in Seattle. In the 1900’s Ballard was known as the neighborhood for old Norwegians and lutefisk. These days Ballard is cool. (Not that old Norwegians aren’t cool. I don’t need any comments comparing me to Donald Trump.) In the industrial area, which used to be dedicated to the Seattle fishing fleet, some great microbreweries have popped up in abandoned warehouses and the old town part of Ballard has been turned into a Disney street for hipsters looking for a wild west experience.
My friend and I were looking for an entertaining evening and a great concert, and that was exactly what we got.
The Tractor is a small venue modeled after some bar in Missoula, Montana, I guess, at least, that’s my guess. A couple animal skulls, a big tire screwed to the brick wall, a porcelain trough urinal, and lots of visible pipes and wires make the bar seem like the owners told the interior designer, “Make this place look like we didn’t spend a dime.”
The designer: “That’s gonna cost extra.”
Owners: “Yeah, we want to spend lots of money, just make it look like we did it ourselves. We’re going to call it The Tractor.”
The designer: “Cool. Want me to put a tractor in that corner?”
Owners: “Won’t that bring in dirt?”
The designer: “I’ll wash it in organic water.”
Owners: “Can’t we just call it the tractor?”
The designer: “I guess.”
My friend and I arrived in Ballard and right away I knew we made a mistake. I wasn’t wearing flannel and neither one of us had on a knit hat. It is fashion errors like this that make me feel a bit awkward, but we recovered and made our way into the bar like the punk rock rebels we were in 1980. (Where I grew up, punk rock meant wearing Sperry Topsiders.)
The opening act (an unnamed guy with a guitar) was sitting on a stool bent over his guitar like he had really bad gas pains. He started his set by telling a story. This might be a good way to liven up a crowd if the story was something funny, or uplifting, or inspirational, but it wasn’t. “I was in Paris playing a gig a few days ago…yeah. It was intense…” Dead silence. Then he began singing. His voice wasn’t great, but hey, Bob Dylan’s voice isn’t great, Neil Young’s voice isn’t great, my singing in the car voice isn’t great, but that doesn’t stop me from really belting it out, and unfortunately, it didn’t stop this opening act either. Guys who can’t sing have to work extra hard to write great lyrics or spend lots of time growing out their hair so they can join a screamo band.
Unfortantly, the opeing act guy’s lyrics included gems like, “I went to Safeway.” This made me turn to my friend and ask, “Who is this guy?” My friend got out his phone and did an extensive search but found nothing. Between songs were long storytelling breaks that were just plain weird. Maybe, just maybe, his voice was worn out after all the traveling he had done recently because all of his stories started with “a few days ago I was in ____________.” For somebody with no singing voice and no lyrical talent, this guy got around. The stories always included lines like, “My dad used to live with Joni Mitchell. He trimmed her trees and lived with her.” Or, “David Carradine went up to the casket and grabbed the dead guy by the lapels and broke his body in half.” Or, “Alex Chilton was sitting on the couch with Charles Manson.”
Then the five drunk guys arrived.
Usually, I don’t appreciate the human animal in its most drunken state, but these guys were the right kind of drunk: happy drunk. Well, one of them was sit-down-on-a-bench and refuse-to-drink-anymore drunk, but the rest of them were drunk enough to shout the things I was thinking. They were an odd collection of dudes, one had a cribbage board sticking out of his pocket, two of the guys looked like they just robbed a Goodwill and were wearing their ill-gotten gains, one guy looked like he just got off work from the forest service, and then there was the ring-leader who looked like he thought 1970s porn star was a fine fashion choice. How did I know he was the ring-leader? He was the one who was passing out hugs and was the first to shout at the opening act.
The opening act guy told a long rambling story ending with, “That story got no reaction in LA but Portland loved it.” This spurred drunk porn star guy to shout, “Portland sucks.” Which sent me into hysterics. He then began flipping off the guy on stage and shouting, “You suck,” multiple times. We were standing far enough from the stage that I doubt the opening act heard drunk porn star guy, but I could not stop laughing. The drunk guy noticed my friend and I laughing and began asking for confirmation, “You guys know it. He sucks doesn’t he?” What can one say when confronted with scientific fact? It was true, I couldn’t deny it. He then turned back to the stage, “We want Son Volt. You suck.” I took off my glasses to wipe the tears from my eyes…maybe you had to be there.
When the opening act finally stopped telling stories and left the stage, I was a little worried that the drunk guys were going to be as obnoxious when Jay Farrar took the stage, but that wasn’t the case.
Mr. Farrar told no stories, he didn’t even say, “Hey, Seattle,” which I thought was required stage behavior, he played music and sang in his rich, deep, twangy way. Man, it was beautiful. It turned out the drunk guys were drunk because they LOVED Jay Farrar. They put their arms around each other, swayed to the music, and sang along with Jay. Every so often they would try to get sit-down-on-the-bench drunk guy to join them, but the best he could manage was raising his hand toward the stage and moving his index finger to the beat. Knowing your limitations comes with age; it’s called wisdom. Drunk bench guy wasn’t wise enough to pass up the flask when it was passed around, but we all have our weaknesses. Judging the narrow edge of pleasure and pain is what life is all about in my opinion.
We left The Tractor bar and walked through the rainy night to the car when it was all over. My ears were still ringing when we arrived at the ferry, but why have hearing at all if you aren’t going to damage it occasionally. It was 90 minutes of great music, great memories, and another milepost closer to long summer nights with clear skies.