Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs, Tractor Tavern, Ballard (Seattle), 30 December 2010
You’ve been to enough concerts, seen enough live bands to know, sometimes they’re strong from start to finish, sometimes they start slow and build, sometimes they just never quite sync. And sometimes, you can identify the exact moment when it all comes together, and the experience goes from something enjoyable to something profound.
I’ll tell you about that moment in the show Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs put on at the Tractor in Ballard (Seattle) December 30, but first I’ll set the stage a bit. Those of you who’ve been to the Tractor many times can skip this part. The Tractor Tavern’s been around forever, and it’s essentially a bar that features live music, or maybe a live music venue with a conveniently attached bar, depending on how you want to look at it. There’s about a dozen places to sit in the whole place, including the bar stools, and the bartenders are brisk and efficient and not prone to chatting, even if you could hear them over the music. There’s a big open floor in front of the stage; the place has a slightly rundown country feeling, with a large dose of humor. Boots hang from a rope strung high across the room, but they’re not all cowboy boots, like you might expect; the stage is backed by a large longhorn steer skull (and at holiday time, three sparkly snowflakes); and in the center of the high open ceiling, a disco ball, looking entirely too small for the room not to mention out of place in a venue that features alternative country, rock, sometimes bluegrass or blues, roots music, they like to call it, but the walls here haven’t heard disco, well, maybe ever.
It’s the kind of place people go to hear music but also to meet, hookup, talk, have a drink or two or three; they aren’t a rapt audience, let’s say, except for the serious fans who crowd the front of the stage. If a song has a moment of silence for drama, you’re likely to hear someone next to you shouting at his friend about after-show plans or how much he hates his job. The crowd is a real mix of ages and it’s nice not to be the oldest in the bunch, although most are young enough to take the hours standing (or dancing) on the joint-punishing concrete floor in stride.
Time for a nod to Kasey Anderson, who opened with a set of great rock with a strong hit of blues in some tunes, borrowing Star Anna’s keyboardist for a few, showing off the grit in his voice, and giving the crowd a nice taste of his talented crew.
Now the moment. About five or six songs into Star and the Dogs’ set. Up until then, they were playing great, rocking hard, having fun, playing favorites and entertaining us all well, but the floor was still buzzing with conversations and cell phones and texts and people getting drinks for themselves and their pals and a few bumps and excuse me’s. Then they launch into a song from the album they’re working on now. I don’t know it’s name and I couldn’t quote the lyrics. I can only tell you what happened. Star pulls something out of the depths, something comes into her voice that wasn’t there before, and this song…well, imagine a cross between soul, rock, and blues, a song that is half joy, half longing, half praise, half pain; imagine a lead guitar full of whine and growl and distortion; imagine a drum beat and bass line that echo the Mississippi delta and the rock arena at the same time, somehow, and drive right into the ancient part of your brain, where you recognize it instantly even though you’ve never heard it before; and then throw in a voice that is melodic, howling, operatic, and dirty all at once, and this is the moment, the moment the crowd becomes a crowd, not a collection of people all in their own spaces doing their own thing but an actual crowd, we are all caught up in this moment together and respond as one, even the young couple who’d been using the occasion to engage in some rather intense and public making out leave each other alone during this song, because there’s nothing any of us can do but listen and be overwhelmed.
I admit I’m biased. My brother’s an old friend of Star’s family. But I don’t think I’m making too much of their talent. This is a band you must hear live if you can, and for sure, if you love that territory where rock and country and soul and blues meet and hang out and make each other reach heights and depths they can’t by themselves, this is a band whose albums you need to listen to. And watch as they get better over the years to come.