Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Back to the future with Little Bill

• During his 44 year career in music, Northwest rock pioneer Bill Engelhart has constantly reinvented himself.

By Steve Stav, for The Enterprise Newspapers, Lynnwood, 2001.

Although Bill Engelhart -- known since childhood as "Little Bill" -- is one of the pioneers (many say the pioneer) of Northwest rock 'n' roll, the Mountlake Terrace-based singer, bassist, and author doesn't live in the past much -- he can't afford to.

"I've never taken anything for granted... several times, I've thought, 'If it ended right now, I couldn't say that I haven't gotten enough [recognition],'" the slight, 62-year-old musician said from a chair in his plaque-and-record-adorned den. As Engelhart calmed his attention-starved Boston Terrier puppy, he continued, "I've always been grateful for anything that I get... so when people come up to me after a gig -- and thank God that they do -- and say something like, 'I first saw you 30 years ago, and I want to see you again -- I really enjoyed it,' that means a lot to me. You see, I don't play the same stuff I did 30 years ago -- I can't, I have to grow -- and to hear that they weren't disappointed, that's really something."

During his 44 year career in music, Little Bill Engelhart has constantly reinvented himself -- from teenaged R&B bandleader (he formed little Bill & the Bluenotes in 1956) to young pop crooner (his only hit, 1959's "I Love An Angel," led to tours with the like of Roy Orbison, The Ventures and Ricky Nelson), to down-and-dirty, dive-bar bluesman in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though some critics have opined that his gravelly, hard-times-echoing voice is most suited for the blues, the 21st century incarnation of Little Bill is a diversified performer who doesn't stick to any one particular genre.

"I don't do 'all-blues' anymore... actual blues, 12-bar blues, I might play a couple during a set," he stated, "I don't want to be labeled -- I never wanted to be tagged as a rock 'n' roll singer, I never wanted to tagged as a blues man -- I just want to sing. So well do anything from the traditional -- 'Stormy Monday Blues' to 'Bye Bye Blackbird' or 'Johnny B. Goode.' It depends on the audience -- I want them to have a good time."

The self-effacing singer has another method to keeping his audience -- and his band -- on their toes, a method he learned from watching B.B. King during a five-night opening gig years ago at Seattle's long-gone Trojan Horse.

Engelhart explained that "No one in the band but me knows what the next song is -- and I don't either, until just before I call it.

"B.B. told me, 'Watch the crowd, you'll know what to play,'" continued Englhart, who, along with fellow Bluenote and lifelong friend Buck Ormsby, first met King at Olympia's Evergreen Ballroom in 1957. "Heck, the guys in the band don't know who's going to solo next until I look at them. It might sound like I'm a control freak, but that's not my reasoning -- I want to keep our sets interesting for the audience."

The Bluenotes' current lineup have enabled Engelhart to produce his finest body of work -- his most recent CD, "Naked Blues." Stripping away the usual horn section, Engelhart reduced the band to an trio -- himself, drummer Tommy Morgan (who's played with Little Bill since 1962) and master guitarist Mark Riley, a Bluenote veteran of six years. The result is a gritty, acoustic sound that is unbelievably authentic -- full of bottlenecked axe, brushed skins and Engelhart's road-worn yet powerful voice. Ironically, "Naked Blues" is sort of an accident -- it was recorded live in the studio, during a casual day's session to make a demo disc.

"I really believe it's the best record I've made since 'I Love An Angel,' and it's the most accepted, in terms of sales," Engelhart said. After pausing a moment, he added, "I don't think I'll record again. Without sounding too dramatic, I feel in my heart that It's the kind of recording that I've tried to make for years. It like my book (Engelhart's riveting autobiography, Next Stop, Bakersfield, now out of print) -- people ask me, Vhen are you going to write another book?' I'm not... I've said everything I wanted to say."

Oh, Little Bill Engelhart lives in the present and looks to the future, all right -- he plays around 150 gigs a year to audiences that are simultaneously getting older and younger. However, he's not yet tired of telling a tale or two when prodded; the Northwest legend, naturally, has a lot of stories bouncing about upstairs.

From his wheelchair onstage (victimized by polio as a child, he finds a chair the most comfortable means of performing), Engelhart might tell you the story of how he and Ormsby “discovered” another Northwest legend, the late "Rockin'" Robin Roberts, singing on a park bench at the Puyallup Fair. Backstage, packing the treasured bass that Riley once handcrafted for him, the singer might relate the tale of how Ormsby, then with the Wailers, found out that Engelhart had recorded, "Louie, Louie" -- and rushed to release his band's version before Engelhart did. Fishing a puppy treat from his pocket, he'll tell you how he wound up playing billionaire Paul Allen's super-secret birthday cruise in Alaska almost 40 years later.

Perhaps his best -- and most enlightening -- anecdote is this one, told from his Mountlake Terrace home, many miles (and seeming light years) from his boyhood home in a town whose famed "Tacoma sound" he helped create decades ago.

"In the old days -- when I was in my early 20s -- we used to go down to what was called 'Lower Broadway' in Tacoma and play music -- it was the 'black area' of town," Little Bill recalled with a grin. "It was like going to school... the bars, the pool halls and restaurants -- I loved everything about it, and the fact that I was accepted there..."

Years later, while on a trip to Seattle (he had moved all about the Southwest), Engelhart had an inspiration. "I decided to pull off the freeway and revisit Lower Broadway -- except it wasn't there anymore.

"The pool halls, the juke joints -- the buildings themselves were all gone," he explained, concluding, "I think about what good times those were... but then I think, 'Nothing lasts forever.' Things change -- that's part of life."

Originally published in The Enterprise Newspapers, Lynnwood, 2001.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav


Saturday, September 1, 2001

The Second Coming of Second Coming

• With two years of litigation now behind them, local hard rock heroes Yanni Bacolas and Travis Bracht get a few things off their chests.

by Steve Stav, for Rock Paper Scissors, Seattle, 2001.

To tell the truth, in the music business, every silver lining has a dark cloud lurking nearby – and the difference between a band succeeding and folding up their tent and going home comes down to how they weather the storm.

In 1998, Seattle’s Second Coming got the industry’s attention with their sludgy-yet-bombastic brand of hard rock – a revved-up, intense echo of this town almost ten years before. A bidding war ensued, and before Travis Bracht (vocals, guitar), James Bergstrom (drums), Dudley Taft (guitar) and Yanni "Johnny" Bacolas (bass) knew it, they were signed to one of the most prestigious labels in the world – Capitol Records.

Their self-titled major-label debut garnered critical acclaim and won over thousands of listeners; Second Coming had a slot on the "X Games" tour, the V.A.S.T. tour, the ’99 Marilyn Manson tour, and even had a song ("Unknown Rider") on the Sixth Sense soundtrack. Then, nothing. No one has heard a peep out of the band for awhile – rumor had it that the band was caught up in litigation with Capitol, and that their follow-up CD was on indefinite hold.

Perhaps emboldened by last month’s local shows with Queensryche (whose guitarist/producer, Kelly Gray, co-produced the Second Coming disc) and a wild solo gig at the Catwalk, Bracht and Bacolas decided earlier this week – in an often-heated, often-hilarious, obscenity-laced torrent of words – to spill the beans. In the following interview, they reveal the details of their battle with Capitol, of their as-yet-untitled forthcoming album (again co-produced by Gray), and of the "amicable" departure of Taft, well-known in Seattle for his previous involvement in Sweetwater.

SS: Actually, I didn’t know anything about Second Coming before today – I had heard the name tossed around a few times when I was writing for the Rocket, but that’s about it…

Bracht: At least you’re not blowin’ smoke, dude – "You guys are fucking great!" - it’s nice not to hear that, for a change.

SS: Anyway, I made a few calls, and everyone I talked to asked me what the hell happened to you guys. So, what the hell happened? Did Capitol do a number on your band, or what?

Bracht: Well, it’s the big "surprise, surprise’ story that you hear all the time – the changing of the guard. We got picked up by Capitol, by Gary Gersh, who was their President at the time. He had come out over a Passover weekend for our CD release party, and then they fought their asses off against Columbia to sign us.

We went with them because we liked Gary – we liked his style, he had a good track record, he had a really good team with him. He was a really well-trusted guy, one of the most down-to-earth guys in the business – we found that out after meeting a bunch of ‘em.

Anyway, after about six months after we got signed – we got a really good deal – there was a mutual split between him and Seagram’s(?), who I believe still owns Capitol. Once Gary left the office, his people followed him, so to speak – so it was definitely a changing of the guard. Out with the good, in with the bad was basically our situation – you get these replacements who haven’t heard of your band, and who couldn’t care less about you. We slipped through the cracks…all I know is that we toured for two years, busting our ass…

Bacolas: We were playing six nights a week.

Bracht: We upheld our part of the bargain, and Capitol dropped the ball. A new President came in – Roy Lott – and basically flushed us down the toilet. (Note: EMI executive Lott was filling in as interim Capitol President; Andy Slater is now Capitol’s President/CEO.)

SS: When did Capitol finally pull the plug?

Bacolas: They really didn’t pull the plug…

Bracht: We pulled the plug on them. I’m not going to get into the details, but they breached our contract…the bottom line is that we came out with clothes on our backs. We walked away with some money…

Bacolas: We settled with them.

Bracht: We came out on top. We got the right to our music back…everything in the building (Capitol’s offices in L.A.) with the name ‘Second Coming’ on it went back to us.

SS: Well, that’s good.

Bracht: Yeah, I don’t feel like this was a failure at all – I feel very fortunate. This shit happens all the time. We’ve seen the good side of the business, and the shitty side of the business, and we’re smarter now. We’re pickin’ up the ball and running with it again. It took a long time, because all of that legal shit – all of that red tape, is fuckin’ sick. ‘Forget about being a musician for the next two years’ is what we should have told ourselves in the beginning.

Bacolas: They had us in a legal vacuum for about two years. $30,000-plus in attorney fees later…

Bracht: I went into this thing without a lick of legal knowledge – I didn’t even know what a paralegal was. I’m fuckin’ Perry Mason now, I could go in and get O.J. off. (This elicits about 30 seconds of hysterical laughter from Bacolas and I SS). You really learn a lot…we finally settled this thing with Capitol, and we’ve been cleanin’ house. It’s like baseball or any other sport – if your players aren’t performing, you get rid of ‘em and find some players who can. It’s the same thing…after the Series, whoever wasn’t a contender has to look at their staff and make changes. We’re building all over again, and we’ve done it before. Just like Lou Piniella – he had the knowledge, he just needed the tools. We’re in the same kind of position – it’s just a matter of time before we get our fuckin’ Ichiro.

Bacolas: (chuckling) That would be in the form of a (label) president.

SS: I read an article on how you blew away Jon Crosby on the V.A.S.T. tour. How did you get that weird gig?

Bracht: This was when things were starting to change. You could feel the repercussions from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast, where we were trapped. We went from playing gigs with bands that it made sense to play with to headlining for some fuckin’ local bands in Toledo on a Sunday night. Then there was the V.A.S.T. thing…

SS: Do you have your second album in the can?

Bacolas: Half of it. Half of it has been recorded and mixed, the other half is in pre-production.

SS: Is Dudley Taft on the first half?

Bracht: No, absolutely not. Dudley’s not on any of it.

SS: When did you start recording?

Bacolas: We started recording in May. We were in pre-production before that; prior to that, we were dealing with a new guitar player, on top of all this legal bullshit.

SS: Initially, you paid for your first record’s production. Are you paying for the second CD as well?

Bacolas: That’s correct. This is all coming out of our pockets.

Bracht: The only difference now is that we don’t have to play in a cover band at night to pay for it. (The members of Second Coming once moonlighted as a cover band called FTA  — Funding The Album — to pay for the disc that would later be reissued by Capitol)

SS: Tell me about your new guitarist, Eric Snyder.

Bracht: Eric’s a stud. I can’t say enough about the guy. Eric’s more my kind of guitar player than Dudley is. Dudley wasn’t in the game for the Super Bowl…he was set, financially, and he wasn’t hungry like we were. Unfortunately, we didn’t find this out until the very end, when I had my hands around his fuckin’ neck.

SS: How did you recruit Snyder?

Bacolas: I came across a demo, by chance, of a local band that Eric was in. I played it for Travis one afternoon, and didn’t tell him who it was, because I knew Travis used to know him. He listened to the song and said, ‘Great song, killer guitarist – who is it?’ I told him, and Travis remembered him. We called Eric the same day. The rest is history.

Bracht: Yanni was getting threats over the phone from Eric’s old band…

Bacolas: They were pissed.

Bracht: Eric’s style is great – less is more. And he’s as hungry as we are.

SS: Where is your headquarters now?

Bracht: Our office and rehearsal space is in the basement of James’ parents’ house. The band’s been jamming down there forever, even before I came around.

Bacolas: It’s a comfortable environment – we have a pool, a sound-proofed room, an office – it’s nice.

Bracht: It’s huge. After we got signed, we thought of going somewhere else, but this place is free, it’s old-school, and we like it.

SS: How is the new album going to sound, compared to your last one?

Bracht: A lot harder.

Bacolas: A lot heavier. The guitars are really brought up in the mix.

SS: Second Coming made such a big impression on the industry – and you’ve said that you made some friends in the business. Is one of these ‘friends’ going to help you get this next record out?

Bacolas: We have a lot of contacts at various labels. A lot of labels have inquired as to what’s going on…we’ve been silent until we had the music where we wanted it. We’re getting ready to shop the band now…there’s still a lot of people around – here and elsewhere – who believe in us.

Bracht: And that’s really cool. Getting props from your hometown is the ultimate compliment. When we first started, we thought the town was pretty jaded – there was a lot of alternative bands – a lot of ‘Harvey Dangers’. We didn’t fit that mold, the ‘107.7’ crowd…we were kind of shuffled over to the KISW crowd, and that was kind of fading out.

Seattle was a tough town after the grunge thing went down, but now it’s very culturally diverse. We played a lot of great towns while we were on the road for so long, but we kept thinking, ‘There’s no place like home.’ Now that we’re making a comeback, it’s so good to know that we still have fans here.

Originally published in Rock Paper Scissors, Seattle, Sept. 2001.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Friday, June 1, 2001

Checking out the Congress Hotel

• Will Wakefield’s band finds a solid niche in the Seattle music scene

by Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2001.

"At first, I got all my friends to show up; but now, I'm starting to see people in the audience that I don't know." After a late rehearsal last week, bleary-eyed singer-songwriter Will Wakefield was re-living a watershed event in his band's career: Will Wakefield and the Congress Hotel recently opened for local rock powerhouses Left Hand Smoke at the Showbox.

"We wound up having two to three hundred people showing up for a nine o'ciock slot on a Friday night, which is usually pretty tough," he said.

"Will told me that the band could draw quite a few people, but I was amazed at just how many actually showed. He hasn't gotten any press to speak of," Left Hand Smoke manager John Shoemaker had marveled after the concert.

Wakefield recalled that "it was also a terrible, rainy night; I don't know why anyone showed up. Maybe we were lucky."

Every musician's success has an element of good juju involved, but in 26 year old Will Wakefield's case, not much luck is needed. A talented storyteller, Wakefield has 14 years of music-career training — the book-and-lecture variety as well as hardscrabble club-gigging — behind him.

Growing up in the Highway 2 hamlet of Sultan (where his parents continue to operate the landmark Dutch Cup restaurant) and neighboring Monroe (then a rural prison town), the aspiring musician was entranced by the vibrant Emerald City music scene at a young age.

Playing guitar in a hard-rock band, Wakefield began playing Seattle venues while in high school; he then immersed himself in a completely different environment — the eye-opening East Coast — while attending Boston's Berklee College of Music.

Wakefield looks back upon the experience with fondness. "As opposed to other big schools like Juillard, where they try people out and get the best of the best," he said, "Berklee uses the 'shotgun method,' where just about anyone can enter, they'll take your money. It's tough for those who aren't suited for a university-type of education. A lot of people drop out after the first semester, but it's a great school."

The singer/guitarist stayed two and a half years, then returned to Seattle and took general classes at the University of Washington, earning a degree in music business from Berklee. Wakefield then got a job with Sub Pop records, which he received a hands-on education in the touring and financial aspects of the music industry.

While at Sub-Pop, he recorded a solo debut, 2nd & Hayes, and began playing small acoustic gigs around the Jet City. However, Wakefield soon realized that he wanted to play in a band, and not just any band. He had long admired groups like U2 and Van Morrison's band — groups with a great sound that didn't overshadow the lyrics and emotion of the song. About a year and a half ago, Wakefield discovered a band heading in that direction, albeit lacking a frontman/songwriter.

That group now bills itself as "Will Wakefield and the Congress Hotel."

"I brought my mellow-rock stuff to these guys, and they built this big rock sound around them," the songwriter says of the trio, which is made up of veteran drummer Kevin Hartsock, bassist Mike Stewart, and lead guitarist (and Wakefield's cousin) Chuck Edwards.

Developing an approach that is as intricate as it is rock-raucous (imagine early Steely Dan and a late-'70s Lou Reed), Wakefield & the Congress Hotel soon began their word-of-mouth campaign, culminating in that dazzling night at the Showbox.

Wakefield and company are wrapping up production of an EP of fan favorites (two of which, "Battery Street Tunnel" and "Frankie the Drifter," have "heavy rotation" written all over them). According to Wakefield, the disc will hopefully spark a West-Coast tour and grab the attention of major labels — though he's too experienced to begin counting chickens.

"I'm getting happier and happier with the band's sound, and I'm getting more confident in my storytelling," said the affable frontman. "I think our goal now is to just get as many people in front of us as possible. If they don't like our stuff, that's Ok. I just want them to give us a listen.

"We started out with our friends and our families as our audience," he concluded with a chuckle, "and now there's people coming to shows now that aren't obligated to be there — which is a nice step in that direction."

Originally published in the Ballard New Tribune, Seattle, 2001.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Ex-President plays the name game

 • Dave Dederer talks about making music with Duff McKagan, Jason Finn and Jeff Wood

Unlike-some other former chart toppers, Dave Dederer's picture won't ever be found under a tabloid headline like "Bloated, broke, rock-star has-been jailed for..." Like his friends Chris Ballew and Jason Finn, Dederer has weathered the descent from The Presidents' mid-'90s stratospheric heights remarkably well.

They've all continued to play music in the town where it all started — Seattle, of course. Ballew with his Giraffes, Tycoons and the Chris and Tad Show; Finn has drummed in more bands than Hal Blaine, including a brief return to his first well-known gig, Love Battery; and Dederer (who recently became the father of a baby girl) has dabbled in several sonic excursions, the most adventurous being a trial alliance with Ballew and fellow Seattle icon Sir Mix-A-Lot in Subset.

The soft-spoken, highly intelligent guitarist's latest venture has had more names than a dummy corporation. Initially an acoustic duo experiment with another old Jet City acquaintance — former Guns 'N' Roses bassist (and current college freshman) Duff McKagan -- Dederer's brainchild has (at least temporarily) mutated into something a bit more meaty.

I spoke to the rocker/family man last week to discuss recent changes in the group's formula.

SS: I've found very little information on the Gentlemen...

Dederer: There is very little information available... to start with, there is a band in Boston called the Gentlemen, made up of members of the Figs and some Boston indie rock legend, and they've told us in no uncertain terms that we're not to use that name anymore. So I think that we're going to go with "The Gents."

SS: Not the "Capo Brothers"?

Dederer: The Capo Brothers is out, it's received unanimous disapproval from everyone that's not me and Duff.

SS: At first, you were the Uptights.

Dederer: Well, the Uptights were a different band, a band that I had that Duff wasn't in. But Jeff Wood, who is playing with us in the Gents, was in the Uptights.

SS: Are you playing a six-string guitar? [Dederer is noted for playing a three-string "guitbass" during his Presidents tenure.]

Dederer: Oh, yeah. I play a little acoustic guitar with a pickup in it, and Duff plays an actual electric guitar -- he's a rocker.

SS: So when did the Uptights end and the Gentlemen begin?

Dederer: Well, the Gentlemen began this fall, for NXNW. I was talking to a guy, Ron Sievers, who runs a little record company called Orange Recordings. My old bandmate Chris Ballew has put out a couple of records with him; Jason Trachtenburg has as well. I was talking to [Sievers] about putting out an Uptights record, and he [Orange] had a showcase at NXNW. The Uptights really wasn't happening -- I wasn't very excited about it -- so I agreed to do the showcase myself, just me and an acoustic guitar. The Giraffes -- one of Chris' bands -- and Trachtenburg was playing, so it was going to be a bunch of friends playing there.

I had been hanging out with Duff over the past few years, and he has all these songs that I like that I felt should be played in a quiet, acoustic environment. I managed to twist his arm... I had been trying to get him to do this for about a year and a half -- just the two of us, we'd learn to do some songs on guitar and play them, it would be really mellow, we'd be sitting down.

So this was a goal to work towards -- I said, "I've already got this gig booked, let's do, it." So we did it together. It was really fun, we had a good time and the songs sounded great. We had a good response from the audience, and we were asked to play SXSW, which we did. We've played seven, eight times in the last five months, we've really enjoyed it.

SS: So this a strange modern-day version of the Everly Brothers...

Dederer: [Chuckling] Oh boy, I wish. I wish our harmonies were that fabulous. For me, this was born out of a desire to hear some of Duff's songs in an acoustic environment, so we do half his songs and half my songs in a set. We played five or six gigs with two guitars, sitting down you know, real quiet. Duff's a punk rocker at heart -- he was the original drummer in the Fastbacks, as any Seattle rock-trivia buff would know -- and he wanted to hear more noise onstage, so we've got Finn back there now tiddling away on drums, and Jeff Wood is playing keys and bass.

SS: What is Wood's pedigree?

Dederer: Jeff was in Gerald Collier's band. Gerald had a really good band for about nine months and Jeff was in that group. He's in Acetelyne and one other band I can't remember -- he's just a great musician, a nice guy.

SS: With your songwriting style alongside Duff's, what is the onstage result like?

Dederer: A lot of my songs are not in the "Presidents" vein -- they're darker and more melancholy. And his songs are quite brooding, most of them. He's a sober guy, and has been for six or seven years and went through a lot to be sober. I think a lot of his songs are about that transformation.

You know what I want it to sound like, I want it to sound like some of those really good Gordon Lightfoot records that Lenny Waronker produced -- for example, "If You Could Read My Mind," that whole record is great sounding. To me, that's what I want it to sound like. It's fairly spare, it's not very loud, we do one rave-up at the end. It's pretty mellow, especially compared to the other band that Duff and I are working with now, which is scary and aggressive...

SS: Which is what?

Dederer: It's called Loaded. We're just finishing up a record that will be released in Japan this summer. Then" hopefully in Europe, Australia... we'll see if it comes out in the U.S. or not.

SS: I wasn't a big fan of the Presidents, though I thought that your last record was great...

Dederer: The one that we put out last fall? ["Freaked Out And Small."] I think that that was our best record.

SS: But from a spectator's point of view, the Presidents' career was one of the most interesting in modern rock history. Coming out of nowhere, taking off like a rocket -- you were on top of the world -- and then this gentle landing, with all of you still in music... though keeping a much lower profile. You're all very normal; you didn't develop any rock-star egos.

Dederer: I think it's because the Presidents was one of these little things that we had been doing since we were teenagers. We were just continuing to do what we had been ding all along; it just so happened that one of those things -- the Presidents -- became huge. Because we found the magic with that one combination, it became incredibly successful. We had the right thing at the right time and at the right place -- it had a life of its own. It was certainly nothing that we tried to create -- we didn't have a manager until record labels started approaching us; we didn't have a demo tape.

It was just another one of those "Hey, let's start a band" deals. Three months after "let's start a band" we were playing the Crocodile on a Friday night -- and there were like 800 people in there, with another 500 or so outside trying to get in. It was one of those magical things that you could never try to create -- or re-create... and I don't ever expect that to happen again with any other band that I'm in. As far as what we're doing now, it's just like what we were doing with the Presidents, and before the Presidents -- we're just playing music with people we like, and enjoying ourselves.

[Dederer and McKagan eventually named the band Loaded -- ed.] 

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav

Sunday, April 1, 2001

Players emerge from underground

• The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players have become the talk of the Seattle music scene, and beyond.

By Steve Stav, for The Tablet, Seattle, April 2001.

Working-class poet. Eccentric writer of memorably eccentric songs. Vaudeville genius. These descriptions have followed Jason Trachtenburg around for years, as his act worked its way deeper and deeper into the Jet City's underground music/open-mic scene. But recent developments have been bringing him quickly towards the surface: an addictive debut CD, a brilliantly bizarre slide presentation, and a six-year-old daughter who plays the drums are all suddenly the talk of the town.

"When I went on the road with Beck, I thought, 'Oh, this has already been done, his name is Jason Trachtenburg," says former President (and current Giraffes guitarist) Chris Ballew of his old friend. "We met 9 or 10 years ago, when I saw him at the Owl & Thistle, and I was just blown away.

“Some of the songs on this new CD he was playing back then," he continues, "and the lyrics were so excellent, I was having hallucinatory experiences listening to them. I went up and introduced myself to him, because he was the kind of person I wanted to hang out with. We became fast friends. I was living with my parents at the time, and he would come over and we would do some four-tracking. I went on to play with Beck, and then was in the Presidents, and I didn't see him as much. He did open for the Presidents a lot in the early days, because he was such a great choice for it, he totally disarms the audience and screws with their expectations of what it's like to watch a performer."

Trachtenburg wound up in Seattle after unsatisfactory visits to Austin and San Francisco and upon receiving a degree from New York's School of Hard Knocks. He looks back to his college years spent in the Lower East Side (he had graduated from a Philly high school in 1987) with fondness. The starry-eyed singer learned much more outside the classroom than in.

"I was totally drawn towards being a musician," Trachtenburg recalls, the words spilling out of his mouth in a torrent. "I thought at the time, 'I'm going to make it in New York, overnight. I'm going to be at an open mic, and somebody's going to discover me.' I definitely started from scratch there. I learned a lot about songwriting, performance art, and life. I met my wife (Tina, who now runs the slide projector while she's not cooking her well-known Mexican dishes) in New York City. We first met at an open mic at the Speakeasy, on Bleeker and MacDougal Streets."

As soon as the pair arrived in the Jet City, Jason hit the open-mic circuit immediately. The couple formed a somewhat unique company, a dog-walking service called "The Dog Squad," in order to pay the bills. Though the singer quickly became known for his hilarious, social-commentary ditties (and the ancient, hand-painted Casio keyboard that he performs them with), Trachtenburg was shunned from anything resembling the mainstream. That is until last spring, when Ballew and local legend Conrad Uno recorded his anti-establishment epic, Revolutions Per Minute (Orange Records).

Ballew recalls, "We had a great time making that record, Conrad was very generous, basically let us use his studio and talents for nothing. We recorded it in two days. I played drums on that album, which was crazy, that was a learning experience. I remember while I was touring in Europe, I took my drum sticks with me and practiced every day on the tour bus, getting ready to make that record with him. I sort of pulled it off."

When it came time to play the album tracks before a live audience, six-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg eagerly took over for the equally inexperienced Ballew. The precocious child, under the tutelage of Steve Smith at Seattle Drum School, quickly proved that she was a percussive prodigy and the star of the show. "She's the best drummer I've ever worked mwith, but she's also the most demanding," Trachtenburg says of his attention-getting daughter, who's remarkably self-composed in front of an audience. Rachel explained her technique for overcoming any stage fright.

"If I look at my mommy, I don't get nervous," she says. Her father interjects, "She had this one thing, I think she's gotten over it, where she was itching on stage, I think it was a nervous thing." "No, they were bug bites," Rachel corrected him.

About the same time that Rachel was learning to play Ballew's hi-hat, Tina Trachtenburg found a slide projector and some old slides at estate sales - and everything came together literally overnight. During a whirlwind skull session, Jason wrote the instant classic, "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959" for an accompanying presentation of vintage slides of the Pacific Northwest, juxtaposed with slides of an execution conducted in the land of the Rising Sun (the manic showman stops the music in order to point out the principals in the macabre affair).

After composing and correlating more songs and slides, Trachtenburg debuted his new creation at the Annex Theater to wild applause. The Slideshow Players garnered rave reviews opening for Dave Dederer and Duff Makagan at NXNW in Portland (where Rachel stole some hearts as well as the show), and proceeded to wow crowds at local venues such as the Sunset and the Tractor (the latter gig was performed sans percussion; the well-underage Rachel was somehow forbidden to perform by management) as well as a stunning CD release party earlier this month at the Breakroom, where Tina served 300 tamales to astonished guests.

Chris Ballew thinks this is just the beginning for Jason Trachtenburg, that the slides are a minor catalyst for his genius. "One of the things that's interesting about Jason, one of the most intriguing dichotomies of his personality, is the difference between his performance of a song and the song that is in his head," the guitarist observes. "His brain is way ahead of his hands. Like when we sit down and record songs, we just recorded a couple of songs in my house. They're beautiful songs, he played piano, and we added violin and delicate sounds, harmonies. He's going for something gorgeous, with that warbling falsetto that's very human. Then he gets up and plays the songs live, and totally deconstructs them, tears them apart, which is the appeal of his live show.

“What's going to happen, is his keyboard stand going to fall apart?" Ballew continues, "I look around at the audience and think, what's going on in their minds? Every time I see him live, I mentally fill in the blanks. Oh, this is where that luscious harmony goes. I'm hearing what I know he hears in his head. There's been a debate, 'Where does he go from here, deeper into vaudeville, or develop a full band and get more serious?' There might not be an answer. For now, it's great to watch him and wonder."

Originally published in The Tablet, Seattle, April 2001.

 copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav