American Girls at Slack Fest 2011 ::: Photo by Abbey Simmons
How do you get a eight of Seattle’s best rock bands all on the same bill on the same day? You take them to Stanwood. Stanwood? Yes, Stanwood. Far enough from anywhere to trigger a proximity clause problems, but close enough to where it can still be just a day trip.
It’s long after midnight as I stare into a bonfire I’d seen brought to life by an honest-to-god flamethrower. To my right, two fellows are vigorously debating the veracity of ones claim of the largest number of unidentified flying objects to have been seen at a time. “Fifteen?” “Fifteen.” “Fifteen?” “I’m telling you! Fifteen!” Off to my left in the beer garden, the kegs are finally being retired though the music on stage has been done for hours. Just behind me, Moondoggie Jon Pontrello has started up the music again by the bonfire, quietly passing the guitar and banjo around. As he finishes a song, he changes position and loses balance, tumbling backwards into a bed of discarded Rainier cans. Righting himself, he doesn’t miss a beat and immediately begins another song. Now that “Stripper Pole Chris” has given up on his megaphone-led version “Flea Fly Flow Mosquito!” and self-promotional public service announcements about an upcoming race at the mud track, quiet is finally setting in at the Slime Dog Raceway, home to the 5th semi-annual Slack Fest.
The day kicked off at the center of the raceway under sunny skies with part-time Seattlite Jack Wilson sounding as good as I’ve ever heard him. Lately Jack’s been pursuing his craft in Austin, and the town Willie calls home has obviously been sinking in. The Golden Blondes, made up of no actual blondes, launched us into the electric portion of the Fest with some hangover humor, a fitting topic for a Rainier-fueled afternoon. Joined by their band dog, Whalebones stepped on the flatbed stage just as the heat of the day was beginning to make me regret my choice of a black t-shirt (worn in solidarity with Don Slack who seems to have a different black band t-shirt for every day of the year) and making others head for the swimming nook in the shade right alongside the Stilaguamish River. Joseph Giant, now seven men strong, found frontman Joe Syverson at the helm of a group no longer just playing songs, but making music that stands outside of anything else being done in the Northwest. This kind of a mature take on pop that’s both inventive and works simply is hard to find anywhere right now (though Stephen Merritt might have you thinking otherwise).
Wait, let me back up. Yes, you heard me right. Swimming nook. And going back to your tent as you please. Instead of legions of perimeter security with orders to only say “No” to every question, adults were treated as adults. Much like sibling festival Doe Bay Fest (who is put on by the same people, Artist Home Booking), Slack Fest attendees were allowed to come and go as they pleased to a directly adjacent camping area where we had setup a tent less than 100 yards from the stage. With most people were half the distance we were, to take a youngster (or yourself) back for a nap or spot of shade was as trivial as it should always be for an all day event like this. Though we are a sun-starved people in the Northwest, a full day in unsheltered sun is still probably more than most people want or are prepared to endure and the close and open campsite offered much needed shade and respite for Rainier naps.
Though every band played hard, My Goodness was unquestionably the band that turned the most heads. “How can this be just two people?” was the oft repeated question. Still making a name for themselves, Slack Fest was an unusual opportunity for them (and every other band) to do just that in front of some of our area’s current most notable bands, as well as the music fans die-hard enough to make the short trek north. Earlier this year for City Arts Best new Bands Poll, where they were tied for #3 with Ravenna Woods, behind the Head and the Heart (#1) and Campfire OK (#2), I wrote that My Goodness has “become the standard against which I’m measuring everyone else doing rock in Seattle.” Six months into 2011, a stellar debut release, and Slack Fest to influence me has done nothing to change my feeling on that. They’ve set a new pace and are keeping it.
As the light begins to turn golden, American Girls are the next best thing to Tom Petty himself. Overlooking the flatbed truck stage an American Flag unfurls with the wind. Two bald eagles soared overhead. Everything about it screamed ALL-AMERICAN. Surely, Tom Petty songs were made for exactly this moment.
If anywhere was the place to draw out your solo’s Slack Fest is that place, and headliners The Maldives and The Moondoggies obliged that sentiment mightily. Though they’ve got a whole new record practically in the bag, The Maldives pulled out just about every old long-burner they had. “The Time Is Right Now,” “Blood Relations,” and “Blood on the Highway” all got the Slack treatment. The Moondoggies capped the night with a foot-stompin’ dance-party at the foot of the flatbed that would eventually overflow over the fence of the beer garden. As headliners they had the freedom to do as Moondoggies do and play until they get shut down, and starting out with a slew of new songs built with an augmented lineup, they did just that from sunset into the moonlight, the race track and stage lit only by the blinking of the kid controlled stoplight overlooking the starting line. With the aforementioned Pontrello now a capable second on rhythm guitar, birthday boy Kevin Murphy is free to do what he does best. Instead of sneaking in hooks where he has the time, he’s now weaving hook into hook into hook.
It’s not a stretch to say that actually embodied in the laid-back, hard rocking spirit of Slack Fest is it’s namesake, inspiration and MC, Don Slack himself. Aside from his duties at KEXP, Don is a die-hard supporter of local music, so much so that you will see him out until the sun comes up night-after-night. He lives his support for his favorite bands, often making appearances at multiple shows a night to spread his love. Not because he’s obligated to be there by any of the band’s he loves so much, but because among the action is where he wants to be. These are those bands. A band is a moment, and Don Slack lives to appreciate each moment. Slack Fest was the living, breathing, head-banging, dancing, whiskey swilling incarnation of that moment for us all. It might make the next morning a little rough, but it made for one hell of a party.
Slack and his Truck with the Moondoggies ::: Photo by Josh Lovseth
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