mobile polaroid of Bryan John Appleby House Show ::: courtesy of Hayley Young
I had just unpacked my room in a maelstrom of clothes and knick knacks and new IKEA purchases and where is my passport? And, “no no, I’ll buy the toilet paper first,” and I hadn’t really had time to you know…do anything outside my brand new house. When my roommate, Diane, leaned against the doorjamb as I was trying to play Tetris with my (one time only) nicely folded clothes, and suggested I get out for a night and go to a house show, I lifted my eyes to the world and thought, Oh right, I’m in Seattle now. And I went.
When I visited Seattle in January I caught Bryan John Appleby playing with Damien Jurado and The Head and the Heart at the Porterhouse in West Seattle. To get to that show I had decided to take a cab from the train station. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t know exactly how far west this “West Seattle” was. Man, if those tunes weren’t good, I probably wouldn’t have moved at all after that.
Luckily, (though I suspect it isn’t luck at all) Appleby’s classically stanza’d, expansive singer/songwriter fare stood out from the sensitive, sweater wearing blur that associated with that genre. I had made it a priority to see him as soon as possible, except only after figuring out where my jackets could feasibly fit in my closet. Diane told me this house show would not only feature Appleby, but was also being held at his house. So, quelling the fifth grader inside of me yelling What if they’re MEAN TO ME?? I left the unpacking for the morning and, just a little late, entered my first Seattle house show.
Now, be gentle with my memory. I had committed to not taking my phone out every five seconds as a nice digital barrier between me and the brave new world I had forced myself into, so all my judgements are through a haze of blinding social anxiety. But what better time to actually listen to music? I think it should be more common than it is to attend shows alone. The music is a respite, the only conversation you have, instead of your drunk friend rambling in your ear during the set.
I perched on a chair much too conspicuously high for my liking, and watched as a room of friends sat on every available surface and splayed like a quilt of almost exclusively plaid on the hardwood floor. Candles were lit, which made me think they had to have bought them just for the show. A house full of boys buying candles and lighting them “just because”? Come on. This is America.
I did miss a couple of the first perfomers. The first person I saw was a very recent Seattle transplant named Matt Kinder. He started by announcing he hadn’t gotten to share his songs yet. His soft voice held its Southern honey drip through his careful songs, and the room was quiet, reverent, as though the notes were made of glass. His music felt naked, but innocent. All warm, sad melodies modestly telling stories everyone knows. He left with a gentlemanly nod to rousing applause.
And then, a study in contrast, the next guy introduced himself. I can’t recall his name, but boy howdy, do I remember him. [editor's note: the performer was Johnny Panlener] If Matt’s notes were glass, and his presence one of tentative optimism toward Seattle and the dreams he had moved with him across the country, then Johnny played guitar like the world was going down in flames, and talked about the dismal attendance at his shows over the years with a stark bruised voice, speaking to his career like a romantic tryst got awry. Rather than pure negativity, though, it felt like a little bit of healing, a confession, however jaded and hesitant.
I really couldn’t decide which one I liked better. Both honest, both affected by the hard position of being an artist, having something to say, giving up some amount of safety for it, and wondering if anyone wants to hear it, or if anyone wants to hear it five dollars worth. Both guys were great musicians, with songs that held the room. It was a heart on the sleeve type of line up, and with those, you never know how that heart has been handled before, especially since musicians often offer their hearts for public consumption, and most of the public isn’t too conscientious of where they put out their cigarettes. But, despite opposing general attitudes, both those guys thanked Bryan with effusive gratitude for giving them the chance to play.
Then it was Bryan’s turn. Just as I had hoped, his songs were delivered with unwavering prettiness, all raw and glowing, a polished performance with no veneer. (Sidenote: Did you notice that Appleby’s EP, Shoes for Men and Beasts, has almost no percussion, but has just flawless rhythm? Exceptional. It translates live, too.)
The night was lit by candles. I was on the periphery of a home full of friends all crowded close and familiar around a single wooden chair. It was almost too warm, these fuzzy feelings and hearty claps and Rainier-fueled cheers for every performance like Bob Dylan had just regained his functional musical talent and had played Highway 61 Revisited front to back like it was 1966. It felt alien, but not disingenuous. It felt like summer camp, or youth group experiences, but… did everyone just believe in rock and roll? Does Don McLean know about this??
I also knew that I was outside of it. I felt outside of it, but at the same time, I could feel both Matt’s and Guitar Apocalypse’s points of view coming back to me. Seattle is known for music. In towns like this people can chase big dreams right alongside friends and roommates doing the exact same thing. In an industry where there’s almost no money for the people and bands that are categorically successful, it takes a special kind of glorious madness to really go for it. I was curious about the people doing it. And here was a cross section.
This was a community that clearly held its arms open and its breath when something beautiful entered. And outside this house was a whole Seattle music culture that would have facets; darker ones, and flickering warm ones, and probably plaid ones. I wondered which ones I would see. I wondered who in that room I would meet later, if anyone. I wondered if anyone noticed me, visibly sweating with the effort to not look at my phone.
I really wondered how the hell Bryan John Appleby got that sense of rhythm. In my typical, “I’m a writer, I make everything a metaphor” stereotype, I reflected on how I could find my own “rhythm” in Seattle in the same seemingly effortless way. If I could have my drippy, starting-a-new-life melody over some confident social bass notes. But of course, to take the romance out of it, a couple of weeks ago my friend told me Bryan has that rhythm because he was a drummer first. Goodbye metaphor. Still, though, take note singer/songwriters. Take note.