Seattle's Guerrilla Concert Series Starts Off With A Bang

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Well, we did it.

Our Summer Guerrilla Concert Season got off to a rousing start yesterday, Sunday, June 1st. We converged on the Harbor Steps and entertained visitors for a good half hour before we were ordered to stop. We even got a guy in a business suit dancing. Thus Jason Webley's new outdoor performance project has had a good beginning, proving that good guerrilla music events can happen even in too-polite downtown Seattle. We had a blast jamming in little clusters all over the Steps, and later in the middle of a sort of underpass below the Federal Building just off Post Alley. My fiddle and I got a good workout in the bright sunshine, and I've got the pink face to prove it. Hope the fiddle is still in one piece from being heated by the sun for so long. Now Jason, Pastor Kaleb and all the rest of us have our momentum up and running; hopefully we can keep it going the rest of the summer in one public art display after another.

I didn't know what to expect when I got to the Harbor Steps with my fiddle at approximately 12:50 pm yesterday. The previous evening, I had checked out all three instruments that I have stashed in my studio apartment room (well, four, counting the avocado-shaped rattle). I got them all tuned up and did some playing on each. I finally decided that, since I was quite out of practice on the violin, and since it hadn't seen a whole lot of action lately, that was the instrument to bring to the Harbor Steps. It was much lighter to drag around than the guitar, anyway.

I worried that I'd be the only one there, or that I'd be admonished by someone for being unfashionably early. Or perhaps the security guards had been tipped off somehow, and would be posted a dozen or more strong to prevent us from getting anywhere near the Steps. Oh my God, what if I started playing on the wrong set of steps? But the Seattle Art Museum was not that far from the center of downtown Seattle, and I figured that, hopefully, I would not be the first person to get there. When I turned right onto the steps from First Avenue, the first thing that caught my eye was Jason's left elbow. I recognized it somehow. Perhaps it just happens to be the best-tanned elbow in all of Seattle, or maybe I just remember the shape of it from watching Jason playing his accordion and guitar. At any rate, it was a well-tanned accordion guy's elbow, and I made a beeline for it at once.

Jason was sitting off to the side of a middle section of the Harbor Steps with a handful of other young musicians, with a somewhat worried expression on his face. This event, known as "Bring Your Instrument to the Harbor Steps Day", had been Jason's idea, his pet proposal for the first of our Summer 2001 Guerrilla Concert Season, which he launched from the stage of the Paradox Theatre near the end of his grand Birthday Concert exactly a month before. He looked a bit concerned that none of the 1000 people on his email lists would show up, and that his supporters at the first planning meeting would be unable to arouse much interest in their circles of friends, either. I could have told him not to worry; Seattleites tend to straggle into events at the last minute, no matter what it is, and to keep straggling in over the first half hour, depending on where they can find parking space. I sat down behind him and tuned up the fiddle again, and tried to keep it from getting too baked in the sun. I didn't want my hands coated with varnish when the playing started.

Sure enough, more people began trickling down the stairs not long after I arrived, bearing homemade didgeridoos, djembes, ashikos, guitars, recorders, a French horn or two, and various other forms of percussion. One woman simply brought her voice and feet. There was already a young horn player on the other side of the steps, and he was not even part of our group. Jason and Kaleb requested that he wait to begin playing until the signal was sounded for the rest of us, but the guy was rather drunk, and sort of amiably uncooperative. He later tried to play with me during the performance itself, but I was not in tune with him, so he went away eventually.

Jason decided to wait an extra ten minutes or so to begin, so that more people would have a chance to arrive and set up (the original plan had been to start at exactly 1:05). By the time the whistle finally blew, the Harbor Steps were thronged with musicians sitting in small clusters in between the tourists, locals and other visitors, some of whom applauded, snapped us with cameras and even videotaped the crowd of players that had taken over the "private property" where we allegedly were not supposed to perform music without a permit. And did I not mention that there was a juggler as well, in the same corner as the trashed horn player?

There was no one piece or song that everyone was playing; it was every cluster for itself. Some clusters were primarily drum circles, others had jamming guitars, horns and recorders besides. The chanting woman wailed and swayed, and there were other dancing women with small percussion instruments near the bottom of the stairs. Jason himself walked back and forth with drumsticks and a whistle, beating on steps, garbage cans and any other surface that would produce a noise. His signature grin broke out time and again; he was clearly quite pleased with the way we had all begun playing together at once. The rhythm kept changing and evolving and varying from its opening theme, and I followed the rhythm with my hands and bow, listening for rhythm changes and finding melodies to fit the beat (can you feel the Beet?). I played swinging versions of Irish reels, Indian ghazal tunes and instrumental themes from the bluegrass musical, The Robber Bridegroom , all of which took on lives of their own and molded themselves into each new rhythmic variation coming from the drumming around me. I knew that I was going to get sunburned, but I forgot all about that while we were playing.

Soon enough, of course, some apartment dweller called in a complaint, and two or three security officers came around to do the formality of requesting us to leave the Steps, though they seemed to be enjoying the music themselves while it lasted. Instead of the whistle signaling us to stop, one of the didgeridoo players jumped up and played conductor with his arms, and we all ceased playing together, on cue. Since we were just getting warmed up, however, Jason suggested that we all follow him to an underpass that he knew of just a block or so away, opposite the Federal Building and just off Post Alley. Let's go there together, he requested, adding, "We're a group now!" So off we trooped behind him down the alley and into the unused underpass, where, as one guy observed, "there's no shortage of human excrement down here." However, we all set up and resumed playing on the cleanest surfaces we could find, on the ground and on various raised areas. There were people watching us from the adjacent garage, but no one attempted to stop us this time. I was standing and playing on a kind of concrete platform a couple of feet above the paved ground surface, again listening for the rhythm and fitting melodies into it. Several drummers were pounding on trash cans and other metal containers, and a few other people tried chanting through rubber traffic cones, though I wondered if that was the most hygienic way to chant. Jason alternated between drumming on trash cans with a pair of sticks, pounding another metal container with both feet, and attempting to sing "Lean On Me" through one of the cones. I was scraping chords and triplets in the offbeats of his foot-pounding, and finished by doing a bit of Yemenite-style dancing on the platform just before I put the fiddle away and headed off to grab lunch. The rest of the group wound down and dispersed not long after I left.

Yes, I think we'll have to do this again sometime, though not right away, and not too often, lest the novelty wear thin after a while. Today, there are lots of drum circles and other musical jam sessions around town, but this is one of the few outdoor performances that dared to be a little naughty and just a wee bit "on the wrong side of the law." Our purpose was severalfold: to have fun, to create a fun time for bored young musicians with nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon, to challenge the policy of no playing on the Harbor Steps without a permit, and to vindicate Kaleb who was kicked off the Steps a while back by a "not-so-polite security guard", as Jason described him to the email crowd. During our next planning meeting/potluck that evening, we discussed many other things that could be done to shake up the complacent weekend crowds at the Pike Place Market, at various parks and at Pioneer Square. However, the summer season is just getting started, and we don't have to put all our plans into effect right away. Whatever we decide on, let it be spread underground, by word of mouth and other subtle means, and above all, let it be fun. Amen.

2001 by Karen I. Olsen


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