Signs of Life From Seattle’s Many Schools of Rock

The city hasn't always been kind to its musicians, but things are looking pretty damn good at the moment.

Almost exactly one year ago, I paid a visit to New Orleans to get a sense of how its music community was holding up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Though there were plenty of signs of hope and rebirth, there were also terribly disturbing obstacles that no amount of blood, sweat, or tears would remove. NOLA journalist Alison Fensterstock and promoter Lefty Parke were particularly concerned about the disaster's impact on young people, most specifically within the shrinking ranks of local high-school marching bands. "Marching bands are the training grounds for so many local musicians," Fensterstock said. "And there just aren't enough kids here anymore." Seattle has an undeniable history of conflict with its musicians, and there have been plenty of worrisome developments for nightclubs during Mayor Greg Nickels' tenure, but the current landscape for promising young musicians in the Northwest is pretty damn sunny. If NOLA teens had access to some of the opportunities and institutions that Seattle-area teens do, people like Fensterstock and Parke would probably be feeling much more optimistic about their next generation of musicians. Tacoma has its nationally renowned School of the Arts, a thriving public school that embraces the performing arts on a practical level, offering coursework in everything from running a 24-track studio to learning the ropes of the perpetually evolving music industry. The Vera Project is an outright triumph of grassroots, civic-minded ambition, providing young people with a safe, sonically enviable venue that is peer-driven and community-supported. The School of Rock recently opened in North Seattle, and is off to an excellent start, offering instructional programs that give kids real-world experience with live performance while simultaneously challenging their technical and creative abilities. Last Saturday I helped judge the first round of the Experience Music Project's Sound Off! semifinals. The annual competition (now in its seventh year) is a battle of the bands for musicians under 21. The sold-out showcase was ample evidence that not only are the aforementioned institutions being used by young people, they are effective. While every one of the four bands on the docket showed the expected degree of idolatry (winners New Faces have probably spent a little too much time alone with their Franz Ferdinand records), they also showed a caliber of musicianship that honestly floored me. Kids are becoming better players at increasingly younger ages, and that's something we all should be grateful for. Later that night at Shim's record release party at the Tractor (also sold out), the 21-plus audience was equally amped up, fighting for center-stage viewpoints in a disorienting haze of smoke-machine fog and a relentless, arena-ready light show. Shim have been recommended to me for months now, often with the caveat that their live shows are better than their recorded output. I can see why many make that assertion: They've got a gripping, Aerosmith-emulating energy onstage, and the riffs fly at you like machetes. Presence like that isn't easy to bottle, though engineer Brian Brown did a solid job of doing just that on their sophomore release, Feel Like a King. The next chance to catch Shim will be at King Cobra on Friday, March 7, with the Valley and Thor. As enjoyable as Shim were, it was the closing set by Slender Means that ultimately won my heart. Sticking almost entirely to new material, the band showed off the richness of their smart songwriting, gracefully unveiling a fresh collection of watertight pop songs that would make both Morrissey and Paul Westerberg envious. They had a very tough act to follow in the wake of Shim's flamboyant spectacle, and it was impressive how much of the crowd stuck around to watch. I can't wait to hear what they cook up when they enter the studio with Martin Feveyear later this year. Also at the top of my hurry-up-and-get-out-of-the-studio list are the colorful characters who make up hard-rocking Americana crooners the Maldives. I dashed out of the Tractor and up the street to the Sunset to catch the last of their performance and was very glad I did. For a band that seems to play out every friggin' weekend, they are still a hell of a draw, and the Sunset crowd was hanging on every note till the bitter end (it was nearly 2 a.m. when they left the stage). Local singer/songwriter/producer Tim Seely is helping them wrap up their latest recording, which hopefully will hit record store shelves early this fall. Go see what all the fuss is about this weekend when they play the Tractor on Sunday, Feb. 16.

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