The Westerlies’ homecoming festival included an unforgettable night of art and politics
The progressive jazz ensemble (and 501[c] nonprofit) the Westerlies returned to their native Seattle this weekend for the first ever Westerlies Fest. It was a four-day celebration of the brass quartet that included concerts and workshops across King County. I caught night three’s concert, at First Free Methodist Church (across the street from Seattle Pacific University) on Saturday night. What I witnessed on Saturday night made me wish I was able to catch the entire festival.
The concert I attended featured the Westerlies along with pop singer-songwriter Kate Davis and GRAMMY-nominated vocalist Theo Bleckmann. Davis was up first, playing mostly solo with an electric guitar, and joined by the Westerlies, who provided their first-rate horn section on two of her three final songs.
First, let me note the venue. First Free Methodist Church was a fantastic venue for this event, with its lush acoustics and gorgeous architecture. It would be hard not to be taken with beauty of the space and feel a power that is unlike most other music venues, even for an unbeliever like myself.
Davis is, like the Westerlies, a Pacific Northwest native who now lives in New York. She noted that she’s a music school classmate of Westerlies’ Willem de Koch. She’s also a multi-instrumentalist who has performed with the Postmodern Jukebox, and given a TEDx Talk. For about fifty minutes, she entertained the crowd with her indie pop songs. She has a voice that can be deep or playful, depending on what the song calls for. You can also sense both humor and heartbreak in her voice and songwriting. In that regard, she reminded me of when Amy Winehouse was at her best.
One of the more playful and fun moments of her set was when she performed a song called “Dirty Teenager” that she said was about de Koch. (To de Koch’s defense, there may be other inspirations.) When the Westerlies played later in the evening, he said it was something that she would do, playing a song about him called “Dirty Teenager” in front of his grandmothers (“Grannies for the Westerlies” was noted as a major sponsor of the festival). She closed the set with a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
The main event, though, was the world premiere performance of the Westerlies collaboration with jazz vocalist Theo Bleckmann, called “Songs of Refuge and Resistance.” It was a truly special event.
I’m usually dubious of the word “resistance” being thrown around, because the group of people who call themselves “#TheResistance” on Twitter include numerous shameless grifters, useful idiots, tinfoil hat-wearers, hapless buffoons, and right-wing assholes. But this wasn’t an impotent shaking of an angry fist at the White House, it was a close-to-perfect lesson of how art can reflect its era.
So, to sum up: #TheResistance: bad; “Songs for Refuge and Resistance”: good.
The Westerlies are two trumpet players (Willem de Koch and Chloe Rowlands, the newest member of the group) and two trombone players (Riley Mulherkar and Andy Clausen). Bleckmann is simply one of the greatest singers I’ve ever seen perform. “Songs of Refuge and Resistance” came from a residency earlier in the summer in Vermont. It is a concert-length suite of songs that include familiar names like Joni Mitchell and Woody Guthrie, as well as some original compositions, and a few that had pieces of music written to complement some powerful poems.
The musicianship was first-rate, with a lot of the emotional core of this suite coming from Bleckmann’s harmonies. Listening to Bleckmann, you’ll hear he uses his voice as something significantly more than providing a path for a song to follow and move the plot along, but as more of an instrument interwoven with the fabric of the group. I was mesmerized by how he was able to shift between baritone and falsetto harmonies in the same line with such ease. It’s impossible for me to imagine what Radiohead would sound like with a singer other than Thom Yorke, and Theo Bleckmann is equally as integral to his success of this collection of songs.
Part of what made hearing Bleckmann sing that was so absorbing was hearing how his voice grew as the show progressed. Opening with Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum,” you heard a technically perfect vocalist channeling a legend as well as anyone could be expected to, but there’s still only one Joni Mitchell.
There were a couple of instrumental interludes, including the Westerlies playing the harmonies Woody Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker.” The highlight, if forced to choose one, would almost certainly be “Another Holiday,” an original composition that the Westerlies and Bleckmann wrote together. Saying it was inspired by the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, it’s a hauntingly beautiful song (I think) about missing a loved one who is abruptly removed from your life without having a chance to say goodbye. It’s such a somber work, and one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever seen performed. I tried (unsuccessfully) to fight off tears when Bleckmann sang “I want just one holiday.” Just watch the video here:
Another emotional highlight for me was the performance of “Das Bitten der Kinder,” (translates as “Ask the Children”) a poem by Bertolt Brecht with musical arrangements from Paul Dessau. It’s a song Bleckmann has performed live in the past.
I found it moving seeing pieces of Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb’s “Smokestack Arias” — a piece about the Everett Massacre, a labor uprising in 1916 — lead (indirectly, there were a few other songs in between) to “Thoughts and Prayers,” a piece composer Phil Kline wrote for the Westerlies and Theo Bleckmann. Kline provided the music to give melody to the words of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez’ incredibly powerful speech at the March for Our Lives rally. It was the closing number, and it should not surprise anyone that it, combined with everything we witnessed in the preceding hour, received a standing ovation.
The history and reference to contemporary events, like closing with a speech about the Parkland shooting, was apt, but never felt heavy-handed. Part of that is because it doesn’t need to be (if I was into stereotyping, I’d say this was an audience of NPR listeners, not people who wear red MAGA hats), but also, I think, because choosing the pieces for this suite were political in nature and they let the music speak for itself. Or maybe its confirmation bias because the politics put through in these songs (action through labor uprising, anti-capitalism, and protesting gun violence and the craven politicians who are indifferent to the bloodshed) reflects my own left-wing politics better than anything else I’ve seen in recent memory.
According to Nate Chinen, the brilliant jazz critic, “Songs of Refuge and Resistance” will be recorded and released (and toured to support) in 2019/2020. It will be a great thing when more people can experience this special and unique performance.