Seattle's Rockrgrl Music Conference 2000: Out and About in Caffeine City, Dodging Starbucks and Ducking Low-Flying Fish
or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Walking Uphill
Rockrgrl Conference Photo Gallery
Dateline: Seattle, Washington. Downtown Seattle is cunningly designed. From the bottom of each street's Hillary Step, cranking skyward at a slope of 70 degrees or so, the next avenue up looks like the top of the local cliff. It isn't. Once you clamber to the summit there's another one of those beyond, and another, and another. Remember that song your Mom sang when you were a kid about the bear going over the mountain? That song was written about Seattle. The locals have gears on their shoes. Note to self: next time bring crampons. Note to city founders: next time, build city in flat place.
Tutti Colori: New York's Rachael Sage (left) and Drama of L.A.'s Switchblade Kittens (right)
Contrary to expectation, it's a bright sunny day when TWA deposits your Mr. Cyrano in the far norths and wests, and it stays pretty much pleasant for the whole of this debut Rockrgrl Music Conference. (Remind me some day to tell you my West Coast theory: I'm convinced that Seattle is beautiful year-round, and that rain footage is filmed on a soundstage to keep New Yorkers from moving out there. And if you believe that "it never rains in Southern California" business, I've got a President to sell you. You can even have a choice of flavors.) Rockrgrl turns out to be a big hit on just about all counts; Seattle, once my feet have snapped off at the ankles and scabbed over, proves to be a great host city with what appears to be a lively and funky club scene, and is studded with ridiculously friendly and helpful people at every turn.
It must be said that Downtown looks like a survey team wandered through saying, "Hey, that would be a cool place to put a Starbucks" every block, and then someone did. The cranks talk really loud instead of muttering unintelligibly like our local New York breed, which I put down to the caffeine in the air -- just what the homeless need, more coffee. But they have adorable bike racks on the fronts of the city busses, and you have to love a place where you can wander in to the Pike Street Market, buy a bag of fresh hot donuts for two bucks, and spend a really entertaining half hour watching guys holler and throw fish at each other. Which they do, in a kind of piscivorous vaudevillian ballet. Don't miss this. Mr. Cyrano nearly got creamed by a low-flying halibut.
One Heart Beats as Two: Ann Wilson, R2K's Woman of Valor
Rockrgrl Power: Seattle's new conference is the brainchild of Rockrgrl Magazine founder and editor Carla DeSantis ("No Beauty Tips or Guilt Trips"). The (excellent) magazine is very much about discovery and empowerment, and looking for joy in out-of-the-way places. The conference, which emerged full-blown with impressive organization and a distinctly attentive personality, is dedicated to much the same principles. Complete with an awards dinner honoring ur-rockrgrls Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart -- only Ann was able to attend -- and with keynote stars Ronnie Spector (who broke primordial rock ground leading The Ronettes) and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls (and a brilliant surprise appearance by Courtney Love on the last day), Rockrgrl 2000 scratches the celeb itch with graceful and gracious speakers, stokes the heart's fires with the people who built our rock 'n' roll dreams, and takes the chance to listen hard to what's eating women and girls who are just starting out down the yellow-brick road. In her several rounds of introductory remarks, Rockrgrl's Carla urges her audience to nurture other artists and to build a community of support and shared knowledge. She means it, and it informs most of what goes on in the conference halls.
Which is not to say that it's all pumpkins and rainbows out there. Ann Wilson, with the kind of fierce good humor you'll build up over a lifetime of being a girl in a guy's world, says in dead-serious fun during her Women of Valor acceptance speech that part of being a rocker and a girl is saying a hearty "fuck you" to the "old boys' club" in music. "If I hear one of you backing down a single inch," she warns her appreciative audience, "I will personally come and take you apart." In her own way, she means it as well.
Cool Hand Carla: Rockrgrl Founder Carla DeSantis, Warming the Crowd
There's Music in Them Thar Hills: With fifty bucks' worth of dinner, fame, and laid-back pomp safely tucked away, it's out into the crisp evening city to tackle the showcases. Rockrgrl 2K packs a gorgeous array of music into its three bustling nights, and every hemidemisemiquaver and thwack of it centers on grrls in all their glory. There's pop and punk and rockabilly and rock, soul and trance and dance and more. There are artists from New York, from Europe, from Texas and Chicago and all points between. Intense indie resource promoter Crew and your Mr. Cyrano are wringing sense out of the night's program when affable rangy Tyler materializes with a wealth of local info and -- oooo -- a van. He offers, we accept, and it's off to Starbucks for the first strains of the night. Starbucks again. Resistance is futile. I know why they were Sleepless in that movie. It wasn't just love: they were drinking too many damn lattes.
Put a Tigress in Your Tank: Kathleen LaGue at Graceland
We start off close to home with Brooklyn transplant Carla Hall, who is keeping a pocket crowd rapt and whispering with her sentimental songs of determination and love. (Catch a picture of Carla at the Rockrgrl 2000 Picture Gallery over at the Home Office Records Web site -- all the photos that wouldn't fit here are waiting for you over there.) Carla is settled in the comfortable back of the Starbucks comfort center with guitarist Bill Fiorella in what looks and feels like the epicenter of a circle of friends; there's an amp and a PA set up, but she's chosen to sing unplugged to the room. It's a good call. The quality of silence during her set is evocative, and her voice is full and naturally rich.
We're tempted to just stay here for the rest of the night, chunking down caffeine and froth until midnight -- we'll be tempted to just stay nearly everyplace we end up, that's how good the booking is. But we've got Long Tom on the cell phone and he's someplace vastly distant watching a parade of Indiegrrl performers work their craft, so after Carla's musing closing rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" we head off, in precisely the wrong direction, for the Experience Music Project and points beyond, to listen and meet and reune.
We've got momentum now, Crew and I, and we're glad to be moving. We're also in that contented "oh whatever" place, as in: What do you want to see next? Oh, I don't know, whatever. Wanna stay and wait for the next band, or move on? Oh, whatever. "Whatever" ends up being very pleasant company, serenaded by Seattle's acoustic duo Hand to Mouth, spunky Lisa Richards from Austin, Texas, and the glittery clingy crumpy rockabilly of Santa Barbara's Cadillac Angels, who are amplified a bit out of proportion in the lofty sterile Sky Church atrium at EMP.
With a Name Like Drama: The Switchblade Kittens, Live
We find ourselves in dark roomy Graceland, where the bar is draped in leopardskin cloth and there's an unexplained motorcycle sitting in the corner of the main room. Um, whatever. There's an edgy quirky set going on by Miami's Amanda Green, who affects a little girl squeak while she works her guitar in distinctly grown-up fashion, dressed the while in a strange plait of pigtail chintz. I'm tempted to order a macchiato from the bartender, but I know from sad experience that tourists aren't near as funny as they think they are at times like this, so I behave myself with a signal vodka tonic (which is semaphore for "There's no good beer here").
Kathleen LaGue is up next, clad in feline and leather, and she plunges into a terrific solo set, digging in her spurs with total commitment and seasoned style. It sucks being the solo act right after the band, but Kathleen takes it right in long-legged stride. She's just had a couple of weeks on the road, so she's warmed all the way up -- she hails from Nashville, but I've seen her in New York, in Philadelphia, in Austin, and now here. That kind of road warrior schedule turns you firm and facile on stage, and Kathleen is poised and at ease with her stripped-down strong-tempo rock and her clear, supple voice.
Right Said Fred: But Durst Not
It's Always Something: Long Tom appears at last, but now our friend Abba doesn't have ID and can't get in. So off we go, hoofing toward tonight's climax with L.A.'s Switchblade Kittens at I-Spy. Abba can't get in there either, but in the end a guy's gotta do. Mr. Cyrano met Drama of the Kittens early at registration, recognizing her hair from the S.K. Web site. "Switchblade Kittens!" I cried, joyful. "Yes!" she said, with that panicked uh-oh-who's-this look. We've been buddies ever since, for just, oh, hours.
The SKittens do a crispy pop-punk favoring pastels and clever camp. Their Ramones-pummel cover of "My Heart Will Go On" (Love Theme from "Titanic") is making radio waves here and abroad, and their live show is yearning for a mosh pit. We're way too tired for that. Of note: this is a punk band with no guitars; the one boy member, Pep, plays the "Bassorama," a signal-processed bass that furnishes the guitarlike sounds. "But much chunkier than guitar," Pep confides. While we stagger about, thinking of impending sleep, Drama literally bounces off walls, shouts, keens, cavorts, writhes, and rolls and slithers on the stage and the venue floor. "There was nothing to climb on," she complains after the set. Whew. Home to bed. Mr. Cyrano's favorite Kitten moment: toward the end of the show some guy in the back bellows, "Do more drugs!" "Um," Drama answers, considering. "We're a straight-edge punk band. We kind of can't."
Rockrgrl Conference Photo Gallery
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