Jason Webley's myth occasionally obscures his music. In a series of annual concerts that have gained him a huge local following, the accordion-wielding Webley has died no less than four times: by drowning, by a falling knife, by being carried away by balloons, and, um, by tomato. He has come back from the dead three times. He's been banned from Bumbershoot (a group of ecstatic fans put him on top of the Seattle Center Fountain) and toured repeatedly in Russia and across the U.S. and Canada. It's entirely possible that more people have heard of him than have heard him.
It doesn't help that his songs defy any sort of easy categorization. He describes his sound as "punk accordion," a raucous blend of drinking songs, East European folk music, and the occasional ballad, with lyrics about devils, skeletons, and dancing at the end of the world reminiscent of the Pogues and Tom Waits. The gravel-voiced persona of his early years was best appreciated in a crowd, and it fueled his first two albums, 1998's Viaje and 1999's Against the Night. But on 2002's Counterpoint," Webley's songwriting got subtler and his orchestration more elaborate.
And the new Only Just Beginning—purportedly Webley's final release, out on April 30, at his annual "Birthday Concert"—is an exquisitely varied album that references his earlier music, while showcasing his move toward an entirely new sound.
Webley's skill on keyboards and with a guitar get a real workout here, particularly in the Russian-style guitar fingering on "Icarus," inspired by the folk balladeer Vladimir Vysotsky. His voice has grown tremendously as well, so that even a foot-stomping, orgiastic revel like "May Day" shows a range and complexity lacking in his earlier songs, which over-relied on Webley's Tom Waits–ish growl. And believe it or not, the lush "Music That Brings Everything Together," which begins with an endearing metronomic tick before falling into full strings, even has airplay potential.
None of this is particularly mainstream, or even mainstream-alternative, though. But that uniqueness is intrinsic to Webley's appeal, and if Only Just Beginning leaves behind his raucous roots, it introduces something so new it just might make his fans as excited about the CD as they are about his concerts.
Jason Webley plays Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., 206-628-0888, at 8 p.m. Fri., April 30. $9.