Music — May 12, 2015 12:07 — 0 Comments

Kris Orlowski’s Songwriter Sessions

While there’s no shortage of eclectic shows in Seattle, an entire night of solo performances is a bit harder to find. If there’s a trend in the culture, it’s bent toward maximalism – big vocal harmonies, horn sections, extra toms played by back-up singers, etc. – and this leaves a little less room for the intimate experience of the solo performer. So I was intrigued when I saw the promo for Kris Orlowski’s Songwriter Sessions. It helped that the bill was unannounced – my curiosity was further piqued – and I decided to check it out.

On my way to the show, I got an email with the list of performers from my editor. I recognized a few of the songwriters – Bryan John Appleby, Maiah Manser, Tomo Nakayama – and started to get excited. The immediacy of a solo act is, well, singularly appealing. There’s an inimitable truth, good or bad, that accompanies the nakedness of one instrument and one human voice.

As I entered Barboza, my first thought was that the crowd was pretty good for a Monday night. The show, sponsored by Jack Daniels, was free. This seemed a favorable thing at first, but my feelings would soon become mixed, and, ultimately, I’d find myself wishing that there’d been a cover. I would’ve much preferred to pay five bucks and see the show with the people who really wanted to be there. About two-thirds of the people in the room – to call them part of the audience would be wrong – were only there for the bargain Jack and the allure of the opposite sex.

Before I moved from a booth in the middle of the room to the front, I spent as much time curmudgeonly observing the disengaged revelers as I did listening to the music. I spotted the archetypal dude with the baseball cap tipped up and askew, holding two Coors bottles in one hand, signifying his chill party vibe. At one point, a sexily dressed young woman turned from her male counterpart and began rubbing her bottom against his rear with all the artistry of a dog scooching across a carpet in an attempt to relieve a particularly pesky anal itch. They were certainly having a good time, though it had nothing to do with the music.

Orlowski graciously introduced the evening and the first act, including a very gentle suggestion that people listen to the music and don’t “just get drunk.” It was Orlowski’s birthday, and the welcoming warmth coming from the stage wouldn’t be cooled, no matter how loud things got at the back of the room. The birthday boy lauded the forthcoming musicians and spoke fondly of the town: “I really believe in what’s going on in Seattle music these days.”

Maiah Manser sat down at the keyboard, and before touching a single key, let loose a soaring vocal phrase: “I want to shout at the top of my lungs.” Her cadence and emphasis leaned in unexpected directions, making it hard, at first, to decipher the exact words. Her voice moved with invitations of lust over trebly organ tones that evoked sere fabric in late sun and a soft breeze: “Suck your own thumb, the night is still young.” The weirdness of the command and the insinuation for the night made for a perfect opener.

The next songwriter, Erik Walters, strummed an acoustic guitar and sang with an urgency measured in weariness. Springsteen came to mind, and later, when he sang “I’m tired and aimless…nowhere to go,” I thought of Dylan’s Tambourine Man: “and there is no place I’m going to…” His voice fell indistinguishably into the mid-range of the barroom chatter. I wanted to know the words that came with the melancholic longing. His third and final song was haunted by the melodies of Nick Drake and made me think of languorous tea time and a book about faerie spells – “faerie” decidedly spelled the old way.

Naomi Wachira took the stage in a vibrant red headdress and big hooped earrings. She, too, played an acoustic guitar. Her songs rang out in tones of defiance and sadness and hope. Occasionally, words would come clear, “poverty,” “Africa.” I flashed on Tracy Chapman. Half-formed thoughts about race, artistic credibility, and the tricky nature of socially-conscious lyrics bobbed in my head and disappeared.

Half-way through the next set, I finally left the booth and headed toward the front, feeling stupid for having sat there as long as I did. A smattering of applause rippled through the crowd as Austin Crane finished his first song. A bit Johnny Deppish in appearance, and brandishing the first electric guitar of the night, Crane gave a lush and lazy sway to the room. With a nasal twang reminiscent of Tallest Man on Earth, and a guttural trill from the Bolan/Banhart school of ululation, his litany of images swirled with his singing of the phrase “circles in the sky.”

Easily the most animated of the night’s acts, Tomo Nakayama opened his set with a cover, leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Orlowski sat in a theatrical pose, arm on crossed leg, hand under chin, and basked in the moment. Nakayama did another cover song, an Oasis tune. At one point in the set, his guitar suddenly cut out – he’d accidentally yanked the cord from his guitar. In good humor, he joked with the crowd, “How many people out there are going ‘What the fuck am I watching?!’ But you can’t complain, hey, the show is free!”

As Bryan John Appleby set up, Orlowski made another very polite, entirely futile suggestion toward the back of the room for a little consideration for the performers. My heart went out to him. There was an obvious “oh well” in his voice as he made the valiant effort on behalf of the singers. Appleby, looking like a hippie greaser, was unfazed – and his set was gorgeous. Notes rang out from his hollow body electric and his own body like chimes and bells, enchanted shadows and dapples of light lifting and falling. At times, his lyrics took the shape and weight of timeless, apocryphal hymns: “Lord, I was knocking…but no one was home.” At one point, feeling silly for trying to capture the essence of the moment in words, I scribbled in my notebook, “He done sing real pretty. He done sing real pretty. He done sing real pretty.” His set concluded with a sentimental line, “Peace like a river flows,” and I felt that pang of disbelief. But as he finished the phrase, his voice moved into something like aria, giving new breath and body to the departing meaning of the words, letting them go, leaving melody to say what words never can.

Matt Bishop of Hey Marseilles closed out the show, and led the crowd in singing another version of “Happy Birthday.” Orlowski was presented with a cake, and blew out the candles. The two took turns taking pulls from a bottle of Jack. A warm familiarity was obvious. When Orlowski asked him what the whiskey tasted like, Bishop replied: “Songs.”

Speaking of songs, Bishop’s were some of the most intimate of the night, and I felt bad for him. Whiskey may taste like songs, but they didn’t seem to taste like listening to songs. The crowd to the back was thoroughly soaked, and just rude and loud. I was glad, then, when at the start of his second song, Bishop stopped suddenly, and scolded the incessant yakkers. He added a chagrin, resigned note, “But you’re all drunk,” and then closed out the show. Orlowski seemed happy, and that made me happy.

I hope to see more of these Songwriter Sessions. Maybe future shows could be staged at some place like the Sunset Tavern, where those who want to drink and talk can hang out in the bar, and those that want to listen to the music can simply listen to the music.


Caleb Thompson is a co-founding editor of the Monarch Review

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney