Saturday, April 10, 2010

Neon Brown Presents: "The End of Neon Brown Presents"

Aphid Tea (13 megs)
Under the Tent (3 megs)

(WARNING: This post was either going to be super short and sweet or embarrassingly epic ... I think it'll quickly become obvious where it went.)

As it was actually happening, it was hard to get much perspective on the closing of the venue that was my every-other-weekly gig from Summer Solstice of 2002 to January of 2010, Mr. Spot's Chai House. Over time, I've learned to run less from these sorts of things, but I still tend to look at these types of events with my eye mostly on the doors that they open up (and here, as always, I see many new opportunities) ... only later getting much sense of the losses involved.

Lodged at a jaunty angle into the aorta of Ballard, the Chai House was not only the original home of the now-wildly-popular Morning Glory Chai, but became the root venue for 'neon brown'. Adrian and I (neon brown) played at the Chai House's new-location-opening-party on that June evening of 2002 ... and before that, under other band-names at their previous location just down the road. In addition to hosting and/or launching countless other unique musical projects, the Chai House was employment and/or social-center for a large, passionate, witty, diverse, and open-hearted clan of baristas, artists, students, and other assorted freaks and luminaries.

As an audience, the crowd there regularly applied perhaps the broadest ears I've seen in my playing so far, embracing our wildest lunatic moments and then asking for more. For instance, on the 4th Thursday of May, 2003 ("heenD for dummies"), we invited all of the guest musicians who had joined us over the first year and sang hEEnd lyrics over huge walls of improvised-madness. It was actually somewhat frightening at times, but the recordings from that evening -- and throughout our run there -- proved surprisingly listenable -- if you were into that kind of thing... ;)) The results were a continual reminder that risk/vulnerability are vital to getting to a meaningful place with improv. This recurring realization eventually resulted in the generation of structured-improv tools that were specifically designed to maximize not safety but risk. These tools, as we continue to refine them at other venues in the future, will owe their specific shapes in large part to the formative processes of the Chai House ... just as our lineups will owe their constituents to musical connections forged there.

Starting very near the beginning with Victor Trey, a tradition developed: We were never quite organized enough to get the Chai House our list of guest-musicians or a theme in time for the printing of the monthly schedule, so someone there would just invent a title for each show. As Adrian and I eventually phased out our opening set of written material, these short morsels were often so ripe with layered potential, that for many years most of my singing on any given evening focused solely on unpacking various interpretations and free-associations from the show's title. For instance, Neon Brown Presents:

"Kung Fu Biter"
"Chili Cheesecake"
"Can't Brain Today"
"Felonious Monkey"
"The Metal Years"
"Burning the Man"
"Mo, the Barking Arachnid"
"Gnawing on Kneecaps for 200, Chuck"
"Czech is in the Male"
"Vampy the Dental Wizard"
"Elmo and Grover Attack"
"A Wii for Fido"
"Neon Brown Beats the Rainbows out of Kittens in a Burlap Sack"
"A Pandemic of Extra-Firm Tofu"
"Killer Gerbil Wheels"
"Pretty Boys in Outer Space"
"An Evening with Butter"
"Unilateral Carp Tarp"

...just to name a few.

So I guess perspective on the closing of the Chai House is coming in small waves. Certainly more now as I've begun to notice and really mourn the hole in my creative flow and my social life. Especially in recent years, as Adrian left for Portland and I took over sole responsibility for our slot there (eventually introducing and attempting to evolve two distinct improv formats each month -- the Woodland Acoustic Orchestra and the Juggler's Challenge Revival Series), planning, booking, and anylizing/documenting our work there was a substantial and often emotional piece of my creative life. And it was a piece of such unique flavor that despite working in a fairly creative profession and living in an amazingly creative family, the scene there stimulated specific artistic aspects of me that probably don't get enough stimulation.

In looking on this experience with gratitude, I first need to thank Adrian. In addition to growing up (truly as friends) together, Adrian and I played music somewhat religiously together from 1993-2005. At the time, even though it's occasionally discussed, it's hard to fully appreciate the musical telepathy that develops over all of those years. This telepathy, now established, seems to defy decay, as every rare opportunity that we find to play together is marked throughout by surprising discoveries that bubble up from an inevitable chemistry. Nonetheless, it is indeed a sad situation that I don't get to play with him more often these days, and it's not clear how the demise of the Chai House will help this situation.

One of the audio-clips way back up there at the top of this post is "Aphid Tea", a track from our 2004 CD, "Nice Feathers". Aphid Tea (and several other tracks on that CD) was recorded live at the Chai House in December of 2003. We spent a couple of hours before the show setting up all of our recording gear and then played some of the tunes we wanted on the CD with full abandon -- repeating sections when they became too loose rather than holding back for the recording. We had a great crowd that night. You can hear them joining in on the chanted "Chai" refrain at the end. This particular track was recorded in one take and then condensed (still pretty hefty ... I should go back and look at the un-cut length one of these days). As with the other tracks recorded that night, the sound is pristine, with hardly a clue that we were playing to a room full of people and an espresso machine. least until the "Chai's". The written structure of this tune consisted of a bass-line and a short vocal-chorus, so hopefully lots of room to explore that telepathy that I was talking about.

The second clip is a partial mix of a tune I'm calling "Under the Tent". Not only is this a long-distance collaboration with L.A.'s 5-Track, who sat in with Adrian and I for the first time during that very same Solstice-of-2002 show, but I realized the other day that I may have been subconsciously writing the lyrics about the "Neon Brown Presents" experience. More info on this piece will probably be added HERE, when I put together a final mix.

But back to the present: I want to sincerely thank all of the musicians who sat in with us over the years -- both those we knew from before and the far greater number who I met and learned to love in the heat of the music. There's no way I could possibly list them all here, but you know who you are! Thank you for your particular voice, and the bravery and humility required to share it in the context of 'Neon Brown Presents'.

Sincere love and thanks also to all the super-baristas (Erin, Chloe, Sarah, (Tom from the old days!), and all the rest!) -- genuinely warm and vibrant souls one and all. You guys really set the tone ... Even on occasions where I would arrive in Ballard disheartened from some frustration at my day-job or zombified by the Bellevue-to-Ballard commute, your infectious presence would always dislodge the cruft and set my mind right for play. And it made the ongoing series immeasurably more gratifying that you all seemed to actually enjoy listening to and interacting with our music!

Sincere thanks to both the original (Jessica) and the new owners (Chris) of Mr. Spot's for embracing the clan that lived there. I think many of us were a little worried that something would be lost when the new owners came in, but I think we were all very pleasantly surprised with the respect that was shown for the unique organic character of the place.

Thanks to all of the listeners (and -- in later years -- explicit participants). The Mr. Spot's crowd was certainly one of the most interactive around. But even when you weren't directly messing with us, it really isn't bullshit when I say that your energy often drives the music as much as that of the guys with the guitars around their necks! If the music is to be open, it has to be open to all of that, and the listeners there often brought the magic.

And while on the topic of listeners, a special thanks is certainly due to Jim Varnum, probably our most loyal fan, unofficial benefactor of the project, genuinely great guy, and -- I gradually discovered -- builder of quite a few strange and beautiful instruments (the latest of which I need to bug him for details on, as it was just getting underway when we played our last show in January).

I don't know what else to say. (...not that this isn't already long and incomprehensible enough for any newcomers to this blog! ;) Maybe this will be the last of it. Or maybe I'll be still be adding comments with newly recalled memories to this posting mid-century. Or maybe the Chai House will miraculously spring up again in a new even-more amazing location and I'll look back on this attempt to create some sense of closure and chuckle... who knows.


robert said...

Really well put, yeah a lot of good memories from the Chai House. I raise a glass of chai in memoriam.

5-Track said...


rustymclellan said...

I think this is a very heart felt goodbye to one of the great little gems of Ballard. You and the other musicians contributed a great service to the community that you helped build over the years. I will miss seeing you there!