Live Review: The 1 Uppers notch it up at The Royal Room

The 1 Uppers at the Royal Room – 5000 Rainier Avenue South – March 15th           

Columbia City is an interesting place. Recently cited as being the zip code with the most diverse inhabitants (98118) in the country, it’s quite surprising that the main “business district” is only about four blocks long on Rainier Avenue South.

However, along those four blocks and surrounding side-streets, you can pop into Solom Ethiopian Restaurant for some Doro Begommen, have a lingering brunch in Lottie’s Lounge, wolf down a gigantic Rueben sandwich or Knockout Nachos at Rookies Sports Bar and Grill, experience the magi c of brunch surrounded by screaming children at Geraldine’s Counter (a MUST when you’re hung-over), spend half of your paycheck for dinner at La Medusa, or have a light lunch at Tuta Bella’s by ordering a large pizza (serves one!).

I’d also like to recommend Bookworm Exchange if you’re in the market for a delightfully musty copy of Atlas Shrugged, and the Columbia City Gallery which always has a large selection of nifty and affordable glass art available.

But my trip to Columbia City involved no visits to these fine establishments; I was there to see The 1 Uppers at The Royal Room.

The Royal Room is a relatively new addition to the Columbia City scene, and is owned and operated by the same folks who brought you the Rendezvous Lounge in Belltown. It’s a somewhat strange venue in that it’s such a clean establishment that caters to non-scenesters, which is actually refreshing if one is tired of pork-pie hats and mismatched socks.

This isn’t a venue made for standing, say like the Tractor or The Sunset Tavern in Ballard. The Royal Room has ample table seating directly in front of the stage, on the elevated section that lines the large windows looking out onto Rainier Avenue South, tucked into the corner west of the bar, and plenty of comfortable stools at the bar or along the island that separates the bar from the main dining area. I guess you could stand if you want to, but there’s no need.

The menu includes a catfish sandwich, the Royal Burger (bacon $1.00 extra), and yam chips served in a plastic basket just like A & W!

The walls are an odd shade of brown, which I thought I’d mention because I don’t recall seeing brown walls in a bar/restaurant before. Exposed and ancient wood beams cross the high ceilings, and there’s even an old rod-iron fence mounted on the wall above the bar whose walls are painted baby blue.

The wonderful thing about the Royal Room is that there’s no cover charge when there’s live music, though there are envelopes scattered around the joint for patrons to contribute to the musicians. There’s also no drink minimum, which is especially nice if one only plans to have five or six cocktails.

However, this piece isn’t about the Royal Room, Columbia City, or the difficulty of finding parking; it’s about them 1 Uppers. So what about them 1 Uppers?

Well, imagine you’ve been banging your head against the wall for years trying to make it as a rock star in Seattle, and the callouses on your brow have people asking if you’re the new GEICO caveman. Now imagine if Jon Hyde contacts you and says, “Hey Scarface. We’ve all been trying to grab that brass ring for thirty years, why don’t we have a little fun instead? I know we all enjoy playing songs by The Wipers and The Heats, but we all like old-school country too. How’d ya like to join me in a twangy band that focuses on classic country artists like Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, and The Smiths?”

Thankfully, the posse agreed that playing twangy music would be an enjoyable diversion, and the 1 Uppers were born.

So just who are these 1 Uppers? Well, the band was formed by Jon Hyde (whose 2000 disc “Yellow Light” received lots of KEXP airplay, and which featured several selections were included on some nationally-released compilations, and whose popularity garnished him a spot at that year’s Bumbershoot festival) plays pedal steel, sings a few tunes, and writes a few tunes (oh, and he’s played on a couple of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter records). And then there’s the primary singer David Russell who dons a lovely, tobacco sunburst Gibson acoustic, Kris Geren who masters the Telecaster as well as a wonderfully pin-striped orange Gretsch, John Hendow (of the Dudley Manlove Quartet) who shocked the audience by whipping out his double-neck, baritone Gretsch guitar, Eric Eagle (who has also played with Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter) who keeps rigorous time on his trap kit, and the stoic Caben Buswell on the Fender bass.

The band stormed the stage at exactly 8:00 p.m. as promised, in their matching steel-gray suits, some members sporting cowboy hats and bolo ties, to an ecstatic audience of twangy pre-teens who happened to be there for an early evening chicken-strip fest. Granted, there were a few adults there as well, and they appeared to be fans of the band.

From the first song, “Punch It In” (written by Jon), it was obvious that Bakersfield meant a lot to these lads. The band played with quiet confidence, exchanging wry smiles over the smooth pedal steel and tight rhythm section.

David led off the next selection with a helpful, “Here’s a song to help you digest” as the band rolled into a lovely and sleepy song named “Ophelia” that he’d written, and which (naturally) was inspired by Shakespeare’s tale, though oddly David never sang, “Get thee to a nunnery!” Regardless, David has a smooth voice that at times reminded me of Gram Parsons.

I won’t list every track that the 1 Uppers played, but here are a few that stood out:

Geren had a chance to show off his ability to unleash tasty riffs on “It’s Late, I’m Tired” (written by Jon), a song about a guy who’s gal wants to go out and see the bright lights of town, while he just wants to stay at home and have a different kind of fun.

“Semi-Truck”, a cover that the 1 Uppers borrowed from Commander Cody, featured John Hendow’s prowess on the baritone guitar. At times John mimicked the bass lines, and then he’d switch to mimicking the lead guitar lines, and then he’d switch to his own lines. It was confusing, but quite impressive.

Another Geren song, “Costa Brava” summoned-up The Ventures, and Kris’ rockabilly riffage provided a direct current deep into the surf of Columbia City.

“Halfway Home”, a song by David Russell, was one of my favorites of the evening. Essentially a two-step that Patsy Cline would have loved to have sung, with sweet harmony vocals by Jon Hyde.

The 1 Uppers mixed it up a bit with a Larry Kingston song sung by Kris called “Bottle Bottle” that had touching lyrics like “My only regret is that you empty too fast”. Honestly, that brought a tear to my eye.

“The Rest” (a group composition) had the crowd up and dancing, and rightfully so. David chewed through the lyrics like he had a hunk of buffalo jerky stuck in his molars, and Jon’s pedal steel soared and locked-in with Eric’s tight back beat and Buswell’s steady bass.

However, the kicker of the set had to be a cover of The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?” If you don’t think that a country-western band can turn this tormented lament into a dusty gem, think again. The 1 Uppers made it their own, complete with Jon’s pedal steel handling the Johnny Marr guitar part effortlessly, and David’s laid-back vocals didn’t even try to elicit Morrissey, but instead conjured a playful longing that only cemented the sincerity of the lyric.

Synopsis: If you’re a fan of country-western, and find it hard to find authentic players in the Seattle area, do yourself a favor and frequent the next 1 Uppers show at the Royal Room on Thursday April 19th at 8:00 p.m. Bring your boots, SKOAL, and an appetite for some good vittles, and some seriously talented fellas who know how to set the dial to “twang” will provide the entertainment.

Brent is a native Washingtonian who spent seventeen years playing in rock bands in NYC in the eighties and nineties. Highlights include sharing the bill at CBGB's with Smithereens, Vernon Reid's Living Color, Modern English, Green River, and hundreds of other awesome bands. I now live in South Seattle and spend my days herding commuters.