Features | Concerts


By Christopher Alexander | 5 August 2005

I'm always uncomfortable writing about Olympia. This hasn't stopped me, of course, nor has it stayed my usual smug and sarcastic manner, or prevented me from playing off prevalent preexisting stereotypes and punchlines involving Slim Moon. The jokes are all in good fun, and more importantly they're easy to write, which perfectly circumvents the extant problem I have. Writing honestly about Olympia is difficult because after two years here there's still a lot of things I don't know about it. I don't mean like the great view of a downtown sunset that Madison Scenic Park gives you, which I only discovered last night. I mean the tone and timbre of the place; I mean that I haven't haven't been able to put my finger on the pulse of this city yet, and it's been eluding me for some time. So every word I've written about it is a joke, because if I tell the truth, I think I am going to get it wrong.

I was thinking hard about this as I sat in the dark balcony of the Capitol Theater, watching Seattle rockabilly-revival act Ruby Dee and the Snake Handlers. I arrived late to the last day of Olympia Ladyfest, bereft of a notebook and mad at missing Sarah Dougher's set for what feels like the hundredth time this month. I'd seen her open for Sleater-Kinney back in February, and I was anxious to see if she'd abandoned the electronic experiments that fettered otherwise affecting songwriting comprised of equal parts Jeff Buckley and Billy Bragg. Instead I slept til 2 PM, so I caught Ruby Dee in media res and brooded in the empty balcony.

Ladyfest began life here in the summer of 2000. A grassroots and passionate alternative to the corporate-sponsored and politically shallow Lilith Fair, Ladyfest has since become something of an international force. The Ladyfest website lists twenty-three different Ladyfests in places as disparate as Johannesburg and Zurich. There's also one during the first week of October in Columbus, Ohio. The "a" in "Ladyfest" is circled, which explains both the festivals' ubiquity and the DIY ethos which steers them. One doesn't need Levy's or MTV or Perry Farrel, just time, passion and a community. It's an idea that's made Olympia famous in indie circles; first in 1991 with the International Pop Underground Convention, and later with events such as Yo-Yo a Go-Go, Yeah! Fest and Homo a Go-Go.

Ladyfest 2000 was headlined by erstwhile Evergreen State College graduates Sleater-Kinney, as well as Cat Power, Bratmobile and Neko Case. Most of it was comprised of explicitly radical feminist workshops and seminars (Hip Mama, a popular zine made by and for punk single mothers, had a popular workshop) and local artists and musicians. It was wildly successful, which evidently caught everyone off guard. "All the organizers of the first Ladyfest were worried because they only sold seven full passes," my friend Kate Robinson, who'd been working for the last eight months on this year's festival, told me the weekend before. "I figure that, hey, we've already sold ten, we'll be in great shape."

This year's festival had a decidedly more diverse bill, with Texas blues legend Barbara Lynn and "first lady of rockabilly" Wanda Jackson giving headlining sets for the weekend, and the aptly named Dada Swing appeared from Italy. But the bulk of the performers came from the Northwest, and the majority of them come (or at one point came) from town: Olympia bands The Blow, C.O.C.O., Lyrebird, Your Heart Breaks, Romanteek, The Strangers, Encyclopedia of Fun, Robin Cutler, Emma Zunz, Mind Your Pig Latoya, and Spider & The Webs are listed as the major performers alongside The Gossip, Shoplifting, Mary Timony, Kimya Dawson, Sarah Dougher and Mirah. The roster reflects the community-minded spirit of DIY, but the price tag was a decidedly DIY un-friendly $60-75 for a full pass. This shouldn't be read as an accusation of greed, or that the festival didn't deserve my money. It's just that, like many of my friends, I didn't have that kind of money, so I had to pick wisely: I chose Mirah.

When the lights came up after Ruby Dee's perfectly amiable (though unmemorable) set, I came down to the floor level. Capitol Theater was maybe a quarter full on this hot Sunday afternoon, though attendance was beginning to swell during Lyrebird's hypnotic set. Lyrebird are the first band I ever saw in Olympia, and have remained one of my favorites even if they're in a different incarnation every time I see them. The band is a vehicle for local musician Kanako Wynkoop, and often reminds me of Sigur Rós backing Moon Pix-era Cat Power. Former bandmate Heather Dunn (The Raincoats, Dub Narcotic Sound System) drummed on the first song before Wynkoop took the reigns, using an elaborate system of delay pedals and triggers to drum behind her piano, guitar and violin playing.

Mirah took the stage after a speech by Nancy Armstrong, who runs a local reproductive health clinic that was firebombed in January. She opened with "Jerusalem" by herself on her poorly wired guitar, a tradition at her shows. Mirah's records exhibit the kind of empathy that only headphones can create, aided by Phil Elverum's supersonic production (most notably "Cold Cold Water"). Live, she usually sings in a barely audible whisper, bringing the tenderness and strength of her songs into sharper relief. They're the kind of songs your lover would shyly perform for you, self-conscious of the sentiment but confident enough to play them anyway.

This is why what happened during her short and technically plagued set was so thrilling. Ditching the buzzy electric for her nylon string acoustic, Mirah was beset by a subterranean but incessant hum of monitor feedback. With no remedy forthcoming and a half-empty house, she walked out to the lip of the stage, sat down, and performed a new song with no amplification. The house was quiet enough to hear a chair creak, which no one dared do since it would probably drown out the lilliputian sound her voice and guitar made. Structurally, the song was reminiscent of Phil Ochs' "Crucifixion": it was lengthy, built on multiple choruses and a circular chord structure. I had no means to take notes, but even if I could I wouldn't, less I break the spell.

Mirah featured heavily in a piece I wrote about K Records for Evergreen's student paper. It's joke heavy, poorly written, and would probably be the subject of a successful lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Michael Azerrad. My chief offense was that I stole his thesis from Our Band Could Be Your Life outright: the K ethos is punk rock because it means that if Beat Happening can make records, anyone can. Calvin Johnson himself gently reminded me that K is now home to talented and prolific musicians such as Mirah, Elverum, and Dawson (to say nothing of his own Dub Narcotic Sound System). Still, the charge is still there: if nothing is happening, then it's up to you to make something happen. Life is not something that happens to you, but it's something that you participate in.

Walking around Capitol Lake after the show, I realized that this was what I was didn't "get" about Olympia. I was a critic, a spectator; what I do necessitates reacting to stimuli, not providing it (at least not initially). My (unpaid) job is to go to the Ladyfests of the world and validate or invalidate them to a community that hasn't seen five solid months of rain, or the way the sun sets behind the capitol building, or the violet smog ringing the base of Mt. Ranier in the gloaming hours. My discomfort may have nothing to do with the regional differences of my native New Jersey and everything to do with the cognitive dissonance between the action that I see and my base mode of reaction. I know that there's nothing stopping me from getting involved in my community; and yet I just don't. No wonder the secret eludes me.

Thus emboldened, I sulked around Capitol Lake for an hour until my girlfriend picked me up and took me home.