What does it take these days to make it in music? What does “making it” look like if you’re super talented and dedicated to your craft? I ask myself questions like these, especially when I receive PR materials for artists like Hannah Georgas, in this case about her new record (available only on CD right now, though a limited edition colored vinyl LP will come out later this month), her second full release, called “Hannah Georgas,” and her winter tour. I listened to her new record and instantly liked it a lot, especially the opening track, “Elephant.” Stylish, moody, atmospheric, with smart lyrics and a smart lead singer. A band packed with talent.
I see in the press release that Georgas would be appearing at the Tractor Tavern, in the Ballard district of Seattle. Another cold, dark, raining night in the traditional Scandinavian fishing community turned into a hip housing and pub scene in the northwestern corner of Seattle. Why venture out? Then, I saw it: Husky would be headlining and Georgas was touring with them as their opening act! I was stunned. I had “just” seen Husky last summer when they swept up the West Coast with Shearwater. Two Sub Pop artists teaming up to do the hard work of playing small clubs in support of new records. Husky released their amazing new record, “Forever So,” last July. One of the hardest working bands on tour right now, Husky are true “road dogs” who, last I heard (on Facebook), were touring their home Australia, having covered the UK and Europe, along with the West Coast of the US. Lots of long flights and hotels. I loved their show at the Crocodile in Seattle last summer. And here they were again, back on the West Coast, taking their work out to find new fans. And Hannah Georgas, too! Clearly, part of “making it” today is about making friends with the road.
I got to the venue early, and it was pouring. Perfect. We’re a rain-gear people, we’re a mossy people; I went prepared. The Tractor Tavern doesn’t open its doors until 8, so I ducked under a doorway away from the small line of devoted fans waiting at the main entrance. A perfect spot to take in Hannah and her band while they were doing their sound check. Yes, I’m that obsessive about bands I care about. It was really cool to listen to them talking and running through a few songs, setting the levels. Hannah’s voice is that special live that even a sound check is cool.
The doors opened and a handful of people dashed in, grabbed drinks, and found seats. There are thousands of new records released each year these days, coming from thousands of bands, new and established (exact stats are hard to find, even with the Internet). Some of those bands are extremely hard working because they want to stake a claim to a lasting slot for themselves. The music industry, still sorting itself out, has made “who knows?” the new “normal.” There are hundreds of small venues like the Tractor Tavern for live shows, small bars that retooled over the past 20 years to accommodate bands that love the road. The days of the mega-venues and large crowds is fast fading from view. So places like the Tractor become a breadwinner venue for some. You can see some amazing talent on their stage, a personal thrill, seeing bands like Husky in a small venue. To make it in music these days means you hit a lot of places like the Tractor, and you talk to people while you play. After you tear down your gear, yourself, you might even mingle with fans and sign LPs. Some nights you see a lot of faces, other nights you don’t.
This night, at the Tractor, there were probably 30 people when Hannah and her band came on stage. Any space feels cavernous when it isn’t full, and 30 people don’t fill the Tractor. I wondered how they’d handle a slow night and a small crowd. Georgas and her band came out and started playing like the room was packed! In fact, they brought so much focus and feeling to their set that I wondered if I was seeing artists in their true form: playing with so much heart because that’s who they are. It didn’t matter if the audience was 30 or 300. They were playing their music, even if no one showed up. It didn’t matter.
The band’s cover of “Elephant” was full of feeling. But the real gem of the night was Hannah’s “Ode to Mom.” If she writes more songs like this one, she’ll be a star. Exposed and honest and risky, and it totally works. All art is confessional, and the best art is a heart confession. Georgas mentioned that her father passed away and she wrote this song for her mother. Amazing and honest and a little sad. A daughter’s tribute to the mystery of being a daughter. As a songwriter, her work has a tenderness to it, and a vulnerability, which allows her to say things, I think, that more attitude might prevent. This is a band to watch. I even got to meet Georgas after her set, at the merchandise table, which was very cool (her first record, “This Is Good” (2010), is still in print on vinyl, which she signed for me). That’s another aspect of these small live shows. You can meet the people you listen to, the artists you love. You can talk to them, tell them what you think.
Then, Husky came onstage and played a selection of songs from their new record, “Forever So.” They played versions of “Tidal Wave,” “History’s Door,” “How Do You Feel,” “Forever So,” among others, and “Don’t Tell Your Mother,” which was a song called out for (loudly) several times by one devoted fan. Husky Gawenda (lead vocals and guitar), Gideon Preiss (keyboard), Evan Tweedie (bass), and Luke Collins (drums) seem to have a lot of fun doing what they do, making them a fun band to watch.
Husky’s sound is a kind of world sound as much as an Indie sound, more sophisticated to my thinking, more worldly than merely Indie or alternative. At the end of the evening Luke Collins (the drummer) moved out from behind his drum kit and Gawenda handed him his acoustic guitar so Collins could accompany the rest of the band in a cover of the Leonard Cohen song “Lover Lover Lover” from Cohen’s 1974 record “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.” A powerful song, even now, about a kind of peacemaking with music, maybe, or a prayer for how we might use music. Gawenda, Preiss, and Tweedie sang without instruments, taking turns on verses. Pure musicianship. It was a sweet and gentle way to end the evening at the Tractor.
I think artists can learn a lot about themselves and their work from the road. It can open artists up to new material, and can provide a deeper awareness to their existing catalog of songs and how those songs want to be played. Seeing two bands with this level of talent in their artistic exploration was like seeing two headliners, side by side. Both Hannah Georgas and Husky have a lot more music to create. They’ll be on the road for years. They have records inside them, so they’ll be back again. And they won’t be the same, they’ll be more of what their music wants them to be: alive, experimenting, and new.