Throwaway Style: On Civic Pride and the Sonics Performing in Tacoma

Throwaway Style, Local Music, Live Reviews
Martin Douglas
All (poorly taken) photos by Martin Douglas

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

It’s pernicious to think about what could have been instead of what is.

What if the Sonics became superstars on the heels of Beatlemania, providing a reckless, caustic alternative to the output the Fab Four was producing when speed was their drug of choice instead of acid? What if the legendary Tacoma band hadn’t cashed in their chips too early, sticking it out for another decade or two instead of taking a forty-year hiatus? What if a little punk band called Nirvana – a band very familiar with Tacoma – took one of their all-time favorite bands on tour with them after Nevermind broke the box office?

The Sonics are one of a handful of rock ‘n roll bands around that doesn’t make the term “rock ‘n roll” sound corny. From their days blaring from the stages of dance clubs and music halls in the sixties – including Carpenters Hall, a building to which they would return (albeit in a slightly different iteration) this past Sunday night – they embraced the teenage danger of the genre. Lennon and McCartney harmonized in hopes of holding your hand while Gerry Rosalie hollered about drinking strychnine.

In the nearly twenty years I’ve lived here, I’ve always borne witness to Tacoma as a proud city. Before artists, craftspersons, and otherwise affluent white people from Seattle started getting priced out of the city and continued the city’s gentrification frontier, I’d often hear the city described as “beleaguered,” “depressingly working class,” even “despondent.” I roundly disagree, feeling there has rather always been an independent spirit pumping through the veins of Tacoma’s winding streets, a lot of grit and elbow grease in its joints. The Sonics are the ideal audio representation of the community’s character, at least prior to the artisanal candle shops and two-person bicycles popping up with frightening regularity.

There is a retrofuturist vibe to Alma Mater, the building once known as Carpenters Hall. The interior design melds monolithic wooden paneling -- looking straight from the trunks of trees lining Point Defiance – with state of the art lighting (or maybe just fancy LED lights; I wasn’t intrusive enough to run my hands along the walls), extending from the swanky Matriarch Lounge to the spacious Fawcett Hall.

Acid Tongue’s slanted and enchanted version of lightly psychedelic garage rock was appropriately loose and unencumbered. Only instead of singing about Geddy Lee, the band offered long and winding songs about late-adolescent love, the kind where most of its preoccupations are based on perception. They love me, they love me not. The band played some very charming and sparkling numbers, mostly derived from their 2017 album Babies, which grew more ferocious as the set carried on; their effects pedals summoning a chiming throughout their bright and romantic songs making way for a light touch of aggression truly fitting for a band with the dream slot of opening for the Sonics in their hometown.

Eleven Eleven hoodies dotted the increasingly growing crowd, the (admittedly pretty cool) spot showing a pretty heavy constituency of aging hipsters and retired punks. As much as its look, feel, and location – Hilltop, which wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to refer to as the Williamsburg of Tacoma – is carefully conditioned to resemble the adult-contemporary version of a roadside dive bar, I can’t knock its hustle too much, having visited a couple times myself.

Opening with the trailer from the documentary BOOM: A Film About the Sonics (which will close out this year’s Tacoma Film Festival on October 11th), the band took the stage, all clad in black suits, to rapturous applause. Dusty Watson on drums. Jake Cavaliere on keyboards. Don Wilhelm on bass. Evan Foster on guitar. And the band’s remaining original member – the “OG Sonic,” if you will – Rob Lind on saxophone. Before launching into their set, Lind spoke about BOOM, beaming with pride (and a slight touch of relief) that after ten years in the making, the documentary was finally complete.

The band, playing what could be accurately and lovingly described as a “greatest hits” set, ran through classic originals and covers from the mid-60s – as well as the forty-years-removed, “don’t fix what ain’t broke” follow-up This is the Sonics. Songs from the latter such as “Little Sister” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” hold up extraordinarily well alongside cocksure favorites like “Have Love Will Travel.” “Sugaree,” helmed on vocals here by Foster, stand among the group’s very best songs.

I marveled as the band’s newer members muscled their way through the set, playing the Sonics’ thunderous version of the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and a Cavaliere-penned number called “Please Get Back in the Car” with verve and enthusiasm. As the set pounded on, I realized it wasn’t so much an unimaginable feat so much as it was a bunch of talented dudes having fun. Because how could you be a rock musician and not have the absolute time of your life playing as part of the Goddamn Sonics? Who on earth wouldn't want that job?

Throughout the night, Lind spoke of covering the Wailers in Europe, visibly affected by the pride of being able to represent Tacoma all over the world. He spoke of the band recording their truly exceptional 60s output – covered by the Cramps, revered by the White Stripes, spiritually succeeded by King Khan and the Shrines – on a modest setup, on display just outside the doors to Fawcett Hall. He blew through the holes of a harmonica, he brought out Freddie Dennis an enormously well-received turn on vocals.

A machine gun rattle opens “The Witch.” It’s so unmistakable I almost jumped out of my seat the first time I heard Pusha T’s “Santeria,” the same machine gun rattle being sampled by Kanye West in the song's second movement. To say my ears perked up as the opening rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of “The Witch” rang throughout Fawcett Hall would be to say I wasn’t already letting the music wash over me for the lion's share of two hours. But the song made me dance just a little harder, sing along just a little louder. I closed my eyes and saw a big Cadillac, as black as the night sky with no stars in it, coasting down 38th Street; long jet black hair flapping out of the driver’s side window. It’s fitting the Sonics would close out their set with their peerless debut single.

I’m not sure if there’s a way to accurately describe the gratification captured from the quintessential Tacoma band playing a far too infrequent hometown show. The band and the venue they’re playing in refurbished out of necessity, playing to a mixed crowd of those who don't want their town’s legacy erased and people just happy to be here in this moment. It may not have had the widespread magnitude of the Beatles playing Liverpool’s Cavern Club, but best believe Sunday night marked a massively significant moment for both the Sonics and the people of Tacoma.

To think, we share a city with this band.




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