A horseshoe of folding chairs and low benches, the grounding flicker of candlelight, and a hushed crowd watching solo artists sing and play guitar – the June sixth Seattle Secret Show capped off a day of sunshine with what felt like a campfire concert somewhere deep in the woods.
The performance was held at a SoDo art gallery called simply The Piranha Shop. The space changes with varying stage arrangements and the music each band brings to the table, but the stainless steel-topped bar in the back is always there – for comfort if not a beer or good, stiff drink. As for the ambience, think low light, high ceilings and a mix of industrial, artistic and functional décor.
Playing select tracks from his debut record The Ballad of Willy Robbins, Pennsylvania native and Portland local Vikesh Kapoor opened the night with music about love, loss, and America’s race/class struggles. Kapoor’s old-school American folk sound is heavily influenced by musician and activist Pete Seeger (musical precursor to Bob Dylan and all the stars of the Fifties and Sixties folk boom). One can hear this influence in the rolling strum and picking patterns Kapoor uses to lift up his thoughtful lyrics. In fact, the second song he played was a borrowed and expanded version of a Seeger solo track. The piece started with an even progression of open guitar chords, followed shortly by Kapoor’s clear and distinctive voice chronicling a farewell to old times and old lovers. He once played the song for Seeger himself, who has since died. One could sense the dedication in the verses, each spaced with lyric strains from a neck-mounted harmonica a-la Dylan and strengthening the illusion of a fireside gathering.
This was true of all Kapoor’s songs. They varied deeply in tone and emotion, but each was played with an intensity that pinioned listeners in a state of reverie. Through the set, we all watched him approach the mic with his million-mile gaze, almost tasting his words as he marked their impact craters somewhere off in the distance.
After a brief break, it was time for Sean Hayes. By this time the mixed crowd had enjoyed a few drinks, but this only went so far in preparing them for his act. Hayes’ 20-plus year career seems to have loosened him into a liquid state made entirely of music and offhanded humor. He ambled up on stage, made us all laugh with his quirky and obsessive self-introduction, and launched into his first song all as part of the same motion.
Hayes has toured with artists like Beats Antique, Ani DiFranco and the Cold War Kids, most recently playing Seattle at Ballard’s Tractor Tavern last year for a sold-out show. As such, his first two songs were a special treat – relatively new and unrecorded music. “Found My Love” (played second) followed his journey as a youth from North Carolina to San Francisco. Alternately spanked and smoothed chords were woven so gently between wandering lyrics that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.
His trademark bluesy rhythm guitar style works well for a solo performance, but Hayes also brought his “band,” a drum sequencer with color coded buttons – one per song. The difference a few digitized snares, claps, and kick drum hits made was amazing. They drew out a lanky cassanova, singing – at times almost rapping – about sweet, sweet lovin’. Interestingly (and addictingly), his explorations of the human condition and life’s deep-seated curiosities went hand-in-hand with proclamations like “I wanna do you…right.” It made for a performance that had the previously reflective audience grooving smoothly in their seats with big grins on their faces.
By the end of the night, the concert guests had decided for a fact that both Kapoor and Hayes’ performances were stunning. There’s always the chance they’ll play for Seattle Living Room Shows again, but until then we’ll have to get by on their recorded music or wait for the next time they roll through the Emerald City.