Rocket Queen: Rock ’n’ Roll Love Affair

The Unnatural Helpers and the Lights have a mutual crush, and No Depression announces its first music festival.

Though I still find myself wildly disoriented and somewhat melancholy whenever I walk into the shiny new space that occupies the old Crocodile Cafe address, I try to take comfort in the details. The design element I probably appreciate the most are the familiar, meticulously restored stained-glass windows that line the back wall of Via Tribunali, the adjunct restaurant now residing in the club's former back bar.On a blustery Friday evening, as I weave through the white-collar, happy-hour crowd, I suddenly realize that the stained glass is familiar for more reasons than simple history. The strip-club office that served as The Sopranos' scintillating, sociopathic clubhouse had almost the exact same bank of windows lining its walls. The new Crocodile's deeply dimpled, high-backed leather booths could certainly be perceived as Mafiaesque, and the magnums of Italian red wine lining the bar certainly further the perception that I'm on a mission to meet up with the mob.It's a mob, to be sure, but one of obscenely talented musicians, not racketeers. Kimberly Morrison and Dean Whitmore of the perpetually evolving, art-punk super group Unnatural Helpers and Jeff Albertson, PJ Rogalski, and Craig Chambers of the equally discordant and guitar-oriented local band the Lights are tightly packed into a back booth, trading jokes and insults like a pack of deviant honor students. Both bands are at particularly fruitful points in their careers. The Lights have just finished recording their second album for the revered Montana-based label Wantage Records with white-hot local producer Erik Blood, and the Helpers have just signed with Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art Records. "Dean sucked a lot of dicks," interjects Morrison in brazen mockery of Dean's role as a sales director at Sub Pop. "And apparently I'm good at it!" says Whitmore, proudly. Possible nefarious nepotism aside, signing the Helpers is a shrewd move for Hardly Art, a label thus far associated primarily with elegant, vintage-sounding pop and Americana.As the evening progresses, it's amusing to note that the telltale signs of a mutual crush among musicians are essentially the same as those of puppy love in a schoolyard: Both bands are basically pulling each others' ponytails the entire time we're having cocktails. "A shitty Lights show is better than a really good Helpers show!" says bassist Albertson, grabbing my tape recorder and oozing sarcasm while Morrison talks about knifeplay.In addition to their like-minded love for artfully arranged, noisy guitars and poorly disguised affection for each other, the musicians have plenty of collective history. Lights drummer Rogalski has periodically held a percussive role in the Helpers, and the bands have shared a stage countless times, both on joint bills and in jam-session orgies of cross-pollination. "There was this four-band bill with Kinski, the Lights, Welcome, and us, and we all sort of intermingled with each others' bands," recalls Whitmore—"and it ended with a 14-piece ensemble of us doing Flipper covers at the end," says Albertson, finishing the train of thought. Their easy, playful collaboration will undoubtedly make for an unforgettable show this Saturday, May 16 at Neumos, when both bands open for former Drive Like Jehu frontman Rick Froberg's new project, Obits. The Lights will continue down the West Coast on tour with the Obits, while the Helpers will head into Egg Studio later this month with Kurt Bloch to begin recording material for their Hardly Art debut, tentatively slotted for an early 2010 release.It's still several months away, but another landmark show to look forward to will be the just-announced No Depression Festival, produced by the alt-country bible's co-founder Kyla Fairchild in collaboration with the Seattle Theater Group, the Lakeside Group, and Live Nation. The all-day festival will take place Saturday, July 11 at Marymoor Park, and will feature Gillian Welch, Iron and Wine, Patterson Hood and the Screwtopians, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Justin Townes Earle, Jessica Lea Mayfield, and a Seattle roots-music all-star revue."I ran the idea by [local guitar player] Jeff Fielder and he loved it and jumped right on board to organize the backing band," says Fairchild of the planned ensemble. With Eric Eagle from Jesse Sykes on drums, Rebecca Young from North Twin on bass, Ty Bailie on keyboards, and Fielder on guitar, a stellar selection of locals including Star Anna, Sera Cahoone, Ian Moore, and Mark Pickerel will each play one song that says No Depression to them. "I really wanted a way to involve the local music community, as there are so many fantastic up-and-coming roots acts on the scene," explains Fairchild."There was only one slot for a local act, and I wanted a way to involve more people, help put the spotlight on them, and introduce them to a larger audience."

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