by Dan Ray
(This article was originally published on Dan’s Tunes and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Sunday night, March 28, was cold. The wind was whipping at 40–50 mph, and the rainstorm from earlier in the day had given the air that true kind of PNW-Seattle cold that nips right down to your bones. By 8 p.m., even though I was wrapped in a wool coat and a wool blanket, my toes had gone completely numb. But it didn’t matter because — for the first time in just over a year — I was at a real-life concert.
Cleared for Takeoff, the project of Safe & Sound Seattle — a new, music-oriented organization created specifically to host COVID-safe shows — was the first large-scale in-person concert since Cytrus’s July attempt to make drive-in concerts feasible (this dream was squashed a mere five days later when new state restrictions came down) and the first concert since March where audience members were, well, actually a part of the same audience. Held on the pavilion at the Museum of Flight, the sold-out show brought together 200 starved music fans to see Payge Turner and The Black Tones perform.
I walked into the museum at 5:30 p.m., an hour before doors and two hours before showtime, armed with my coat and blanket (each of the four emails I had been sent prior to the show stressed that it would be cold: “Bring your respect, bring your mask, bring your jacket, bring your blanket, bring your hearts for music”). After I filled out a health screening and had my temperature taken, I was ushered through the museum (they have a new VR exhibit, if you haven’t seen it) and out onto the pavilion. The stage was set up in front of a massive 747 — an enticing but accidental backdrop (the original layout had to be flipped due to the high winds bringing in sideways rain). There were eight rows of socially distanced seating pods lined up, with two to four chairs in each pod. An indication of “the new normal,” if I’ve ever seen one.
As I waited for the show to start, I milled about, talking with my photographer, Danny, members of the Safe & Sound crew, and Turner and her band, who I had met only two weeks earlier when they played the DT podcast. At this point — still daylight, empty seats, bands soundchecking — it didn’t feel much different than the shows I had been (blessedly) privy to all quarantine through hosting both the Work From Home Seattle Livestream and my podcast. One of the pre-show emails I received specified no outside food or drink was allowed, which had made me think there would be refreshments. Each pod was equipped with a bottle of hand sanitizer (courtesy of R90 Lighting) and a bottle of water for each seat, but I was keeping my eye out for some kind of bar. What’s a return to live music without a glass to clink with a friend? Alas, there was no bar to be found (although, later, I was offered a swig of whiskey from a pint an undisclosed source produced from their jacket).
While I pondered what kind of bottle to bring to tailgate with next time, the first inkling of a crowd started to trickle in (in true live music fashion — even a year later — a solid 30 minutes after doors). The sun was waning, the fog machine had come on, and the stage lights were starting to twinkle against the white aluminum of the surrounding planes. It was starting to feel, dare I say, like a real show.
The crowd — bundled in various states of winter gear, socially distant, and, presumably, in a public setting for the first time in a year — was calm and quiet, no doubt taking cues from the Safe & Sound crew. The event staff, wearing matching sweatshirts for easy identification and led by Safe & Sound President and COVID-19 Compliance Officer Jonathan Evergreen and COVID-19 Compliance Officer Dr. Laurel Berge, had a peacefully confident and welcoming demeanor that made the whole event seem — as much as I hate to use this word — normal. Or at least, highly in line with the new normal. It felt safe, respectful, natural. People tittered about within their pods, waiting patiently for the show to start.
When Payge Turner walked down the staircase from the 747 behind the stage, the crowd let out a tentative cheer, excited to get the show going but unsure of how to behave after a year of avoiding public human interaction. With Turner and crew behind her on stage, Berge gave an opening speech about the guidelines for the show (stay masked, stay distant, no reentry) and the sanctity of the entire project. It served, she said, as a reminder of the formerly mundane things we once took for granted, like standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd or hugging a stranger. Then, after six months of planning, seven days of set up, and, for me, two-and-a-quarter hours at the venue, she welcomed us to the show.
Formerly a contestant on Season 19 of NBC’s The Voice, Turner has been performing fairly regularly throughout quarantine, but nothing like this. She and her band — guitarist Jerett Samples, bassist Ben Jahn, and drummer Jordan Weigert — immediately ripped into their set with “Garden,” a slow-burn unreleased track from her upcoming album. A tentative exuberance emanated from the stage as Turner and crew settled into their opening slot, gently reaching a (socially distanced) hand out to the audience, inviting us to do the same.
Turner is a soulful but driving songwriter, and her set ran the gamut of emotions. Before a wistfully heartfelt performance of breakup track “Aftermath,” she asked us to close our eyes and get into our feels (I chose, instead, to zone out on the trippy orange lights circling on the rear wing of the plane next to me). But before the final track (and my personal favorite) “Matter,” she had the audience stand up, then absolutely slayed some guitar work alongside Samples. Samples’s fingers danced across his bright blue Reverend Airsonic, its sparkles gleaming under the stage lights, a palpable energy flowing from one set of steel strings to the other.
As the crowd (and the musicians) got more comfortable, Turner’s set grew from a preliminary dip into a forgotten world to a fully-fledged opening act, the last glimmers of the daylight sun disappearing behind the 747. She peppered her set with reminders of the Before Times, but also with encouragement that we can learn how to be together again: She taught us how to clap on beat (“I know you’re out of practice,” she said), joked that she needed two minutes to get some air because she doesn’t have her show stamina back yet, and, each time the crowd cheered, she asked us to get louder. It was like being guided out of a fugue state into a seemingly new yet intimately well known universe, a place you’d been before but couldn’t quite remember — a place with live music, booming speakers, and your friends yelling at you even though they’re standing right next to you.
By the time intermission rolled around, the temperature had dropped three degrees, and both mine and Danny’s toes had gone completely numb. After a representative from Mary’s Place, a Washington State nonprofit that provides shelter for women and children experiencing homelessness and a partner of the show, came on stage to ask for donations to their upcoming Dream Big Luncheon (Amazon is matching all donations, up to $1 million, until the event on May 5; donate here), Evergreen pointed us to the bathrooms and released us for a 20–30 minute intermission. Almost no one got up, and the 20–30 minutes ended up being more like 15 as concertgoers huddled within their pods to stay warm as we awaited the main act, The Black Tones.
Like Turner, The Black Tones (TBT) have been busy in quarantine. Frontwoman Eva Walker DJs Audioasis on KEXP, Eva and her twin brother (and drummer of TBT), Cedric Walker, have hosted several Keep Music Live WA livestreams, and the band most recently partnered with the Seattle Sounders to help launch the team’s new Jimi Hendrix-inspired jerseys. The Black Tones are seemingly everywhere in Seattle — and that’s why a crowd of 200 chose to sit through the bitter cold to see them play for the first time in a year.
This time, when Eva, Cedric, bassist Ezekiel Lords, and the Walkers’ mom (who played tambourine) walked down the staircase from the Boeing 747, there was no hesitation. The crowd erupted (at least, as loudly as a Seattle crowd can erupt with their hands too cold to clap and their mouths covered by face masks). There was something inherently disarming about Eva as she walked on stage talking about how she had a history-making outfit ready for this history-making event, but she couldn’t wear it in the cold, so we got her in her sound check outfit. It was real, tangible — a reminder of the honest kind of performance only live music can bring.
As TBT launched into their first song, “Ghetto Spaceship,” the crowd started to get up and dance — partly because of the groove, partly out of necessity to stay warm, but completely in the moment. Eva Walker is an impeccable frontwoman; she has this innate ability to tap into both her humanity and the humanity of her audience. After about three songs, mid intro to the fourth, she stopped and told us there were five more songs after this one. She said she knew we were cold, and this way we could count down to the end of the show. Her set was filled with these kinds of little reminders of our collective humanity, and it made me feel like I was just as much a part of the process as she was, a fact I had forgotten after a year without live audiences.
The entire TBT set felt like a slice of life from the Before Times, but the last song turned the show into a joyful celebration of the Now Times. When it rolled around, as I told Payge Turner guitarist Jerett Samples, who was standing next to me, my heart was sad but my toes were glad. By this time, the entire crowd was up and dancing, energized by the knowledge that they’d soon be warm in their cars, I’m sure.
The band closed with “Plaid Pants,” a song about the Walkers’ grandparents, that they invited Payge Turner to join them on. Eva opened the tune with the story of how her family ended up in Seattle. Her grandfather, an aerospace engineer trying to find work in Mississippi, was explicitly told “n*****s can’t be engineers.” Well, at least not at that time in the south. Shortly after, her grandfather was recruited by Boeing and became the first Black engineer for the lunar rover at the company’s Kent plant. Standing under a Boeing 747, she dedicated the song to the Museum of Flight and the recruiter who saw her grandfather for his skills rather than his skin color.
Everyone has been talking about going back to normal, and I’ve been afraid that once things open up, we’ll all forget everything we learned this year. But it was then — watching Turner walk up on stage to sing a song about Eva’s grandparents with her, my toes frozen, huddled in a wool blanket, trying my best to dance on beat despite my popsicle legs — that it hit me: This is normal. I’m never happier than when I’m watching live music, and it didn’t matter that I had to take a shower immediately when I got home to warm up, or that I was legitimately concerned I got frostbite (but not COVID!) when I had stood in steaming hot water for seven minutes and my third and fourth toes were still purple, or that the show didn’t have a bar, or even that I couldn’t accept that pint of whiskey because I’m not vaccinated yet.
What mattered was that I had just seen a historic show that, upon hearing Eva’s story, tied up more loose ends from this past year than I could have even imagined. As we all danced to “Plaid Pants,” I felt a newness brewing, a forward motion that can only be captured by performance, song, and dance (sorry for the cheese, but it’s true). A capstone to a story, but also a path to “normalcy” not inhibited by preconceptions of what we’ve been before but born from our collective experiences this past year.
After The Black Tone left the stage, the crowd immediately cleared out (row by row for COVID safety), ready to get warm, but the joy still hung in the air. Danny and I hung around for a bit, waiting for the audience to leave and hoping for our toes to come back to life. Sometimes, walking out of shows, I feel emptier than when I came in — not because the show wasn’t great, but precisely because it was, and the lack of that energy leaves me wiped. Sunday night, the walk back to my car was, truly, somewhat painful on my frozen feet, but every step felt like an assurance: The world is different now than it was, and it’s going to be different again as it starts to open. We can bridge our old normal with our new. But, most of all, we’re going to be okay because, as Safe & Sound said, we’ll always bring our hearts for music — and, hopefully, they’ll bring heat lamps.
Dan Ray is a freelance journalist and the founder and CEO of Dan’s Tunes. Ray got her BA in English and music at the University of Michigan. She moved to Seattle in 2017. Ray is passionate about food and education around the American food system. She loves cats, especially her own, who is named Macaulay Culkin.
Featured Image: From left to right — The Walkers’s mom on tambourine, bassist Ezekiel Lords, drummer Cedric Walker, frontwoman Eva Walker, and keyboardist Jake Uitti. (Photo: Danny Ngan)
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