Attempting to Capture Lightning: Casey Ruff and the Mayors of Ballard

Pomp and CircumstanceCasey Ruff – Pomp and Circumstance
(2014, self-released)

You know Casey Ruff before you know him. The honest bartender, the dude who looks the same at 2 AM as 11 AM, who will speak freely, and humorously, at any time.  And he does some badass posing—somehow balancing ’80s awesome with self-knowledge.

When I first saw him hold court at Sunset Tavern three years ago, I was blown away. Ruff has presence, the ability to perform and move a crowd, that few have. It’s that unique form of charisma where when the person gets up on stage, you know it’s performance time, you know it means something. The other local artist with the same charisma, and this will seem strange as she performs completely different styles of music, is Shana Cleveland.

Since I saw those shows at the Sunset, I’ve invited him on every bill I had an opening on. Every show, he has engaged the audience.

It turns out, Casey Ruff is a student of live performance. For almost a decade he has worked at the Tractor Tavern—he’s had the crow’s nest view of the preponderance of mid-range country-tinged acts to hit the US.  The more I study musicians, the more I discover that what we see as talent is usually extremely hard-earned. For example, when you read Elvis biographies, you find out how insanely the man studied soul and gospel from the time he was a toddler. I don’t want to echo Malcolm Gladwell, so I’ll stop with saying the thousands of hours studying live performance have served as a kind of battery for Casey Ruff—when he hits the stage, it discharges. It is electric. Continue reading

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No Longer Local: Virgin of the Birds Ready for the Big Stage with Winter Seeds

Virgin of the Birds - Winter SeedsVirgin of the Birds – Winter Seeds
(2014, Abandoned Love Records/Song, By Toad)

We were watching a Ball of Wax show, arms folded and quiet, like proper Seattle concertgoers, and there had been some high level musicianship from someone who looked vaguely like us but more attractive, then there was some obvious confusion on stage. I believe there was an apology. There was an uncomfortable looking guitar player, and a much larger dude who looked nothing like us at all (no pretense, for example, and no facial hair) strumming with only downstrokes on a Fender electric, a pick extremely precariously held in his hand, I think crookedly, and then “Don’t tell me that you were never in Spain. . . . Cause I saw you there./ You were standing where/ the sunshine scours every noble hour you were in Spain.”

My thought, on hearing the first verse, wasn’t “There’s a kindred spirit.” My thought was “That’s the guy who understands how songwriting works better than anyone I’ve ever heard.” (I’m paraphrasing my thought process, because I’m doubtful I think in complete sentences.) Continue reading

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April 1st: Two Ball of Wax Deadlines

In an unprecedented move, I am currently accepting submissions for the next two volumes of Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly at the same time! Why, do you ask? I’ll tell you: Because Volume 36 (Spring 2014) will be the usual CD of assorted music from Seattle and beyond, which I can pretty much turn around in no time. This summer’s installment, however, will be much more involved and requires a longer lead time (details below). Hence two deadlines on the same day. Send in music for one or both, but do please send us your music!

Ball of Wax 36: No theme, just good sounds. Feel free to send whatever you’ve got cooking for our review for potential inclusion in the next volume. Easy peasy.

Ball of Wax 37: Songs and pictures about animals (for kids). This summer we will produce a kid-targeted (or at least kid-friendly) installment of BoW, with the theme of songs about animals. This is a joint book/CD project, funded by 4culture. Each song will have an accompanying illustration made by a different artist. We’re looking for musicians and visual artists for this one.

Submission guidelines here. Deadline for both is April 1st. I look forward to hearing your sounds.

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: John Vecchiarelli – “iPhone Wedding Song (for Marc & Ali)”

Ball of Wax 35 closes with one last low-fi ukulele recording. Portland’s John Vecchiarelli, an old friend last heard from way back on Ball of Wax Volume 2, sent me an email out of the blue with this little beauty attached. “Would this little uke song be worth taking the time to record properly and pass along?” he asked. I listened once and said I’d be honored to skip that “record properly” nonsense and include this very recording, and that’s what I did. John claims this is the only “lovey dovey” song he’s ever written, but I hope it’s not the last. The words are sweet and simple, one lover talking to another about his wishes for a life together, but combined with the minor key, softly plucked ukulele, and John’s soft, yearning voice captured through the humble iPhone microphone, the result feels more profound and intimate than any old “lovey dovey” song. I’m so thrilled to be able to share another song from this wonderful songwriter. Thanks for reaching out, John. I hope Marc and Ali appreciate their song as much as I do.

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: The Pornadoes – “Makes My Heart Sway”

Local surfy instrumentalists The Pornadoes take their tongues out of their cheeks and bring the volume and tempo down for this very sweet love theme. If we’re talking Northwest guitar heroes, “Makes My Heart Sway” is less The Ventures and more a late night, minimalist Bill Frisell with no looper, no effects, no horns or strings; just softly brushed drums and rooted bass supporting a lovely guitar melody. I’m really happy that we ended up with three wordless love songs on this volume – and that they all, while sounding very different from each other, work so well as love songs. Love and music, two universal languages joining forces to make hearts sway worldwide!

If you’d like more Pornadoes in your life – and why wouldn’t you? – check out their newly released In Space, an early front-runner for best local cinematic-country-surf-jazz-rock album of 2014. (But seriously, it’s really good.)

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: Robb Benson and the Shelk – “Twin Peaks”

I can’t claim to know the inspiration behind Robb Benson‘s spirit animal, the shelk (an elk with a shark’s head, obviously), but at least half of it makes perfect sense. Robb is one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve ever known; like the head half of a shelk, he doesn’t stop moving for a second. This January he self-released Seen Too Much, his second solo album under the name Robb Benson and the Shelk, mere months after the first. In addition to writing and releasing two solo albums in less than a year, he is also active in Stereo Embers, The Glass Notes, and The Great Um. And that’s just what he’s up to right now, never mind the prolific and impressive 15-odd years he’s been making music in our fair city.

“Twin Peaks” is that ever risky thing, a song about itself; a beautifully apologetic ode to a lover who (sort of) regrets time spent on other commitments (see above list of bands) and love songs unwritten. Robb sings “I’m sorry my music takes up so much time that I ignore what really should be your new love song; instead I come home and I complain, when I should just be happy to be back home with you again,” and partnered musicians across the globe nod and shake their heads in recognition. “Please know,” he sings for us all, “my heart still revolves around you.” Robb won’t be able to join us at the Ball of Wax 35 release show tomorrow at LoFi (I think one of his seventeen other bands has a gig elsewhere), but I might just get a boom box and hold it up over my head on stage to play this song for my wife everyone there, Dobler-style.

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: Peter Colclasure – “Cynic”

Peter Colclasure is a former member of the Foghorns whose contribution to Ball of Wax 35 is a surreal kiss-off in waltz time. “Cynic” contrasts Colclasure’s derisive lyrics (“you got yourself seen at all the right places / all the hip parties and happening show”) against a darkly whimsical boardwalk carnival arrangement of strummed guitar, bass and synth strings. The song is marked by odd combinations, like the harsh put-downs sung by Colclasure’s clear, guileless tenor. A creepy monophonic solo (maybe a suitcase organ?) in the middle played atop canned audience laughter and applause sets a bizarre tone of nostalgia and dread. Colclasure scores extra points for having a song that, as an (anti) love song in 3/4 time, works for both volume 34 and volume 35.

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: Werebearcat! – “My Heart”

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since Werebearcat! graced us with one of their minimalist drum-and-voice jams, but indeed it has. They made their first Ball of Wax appearance on our “No Guitars” volume, and unlike some of the artists on that collection, these guys were not trying on the guitarless look for one song. Werebearcat! does a lot with very little, marrying live drum kit and droning synth with Holly Small’s Rihanna-worthy hooks for a delightfully sweet/savory pop confection that will have you singing along by the second chorus. (And OK, there is a little sweet guitar action at the very end of the song, but they obviously do just fine without it.) We have yet to be graced with a live Werebearcat! performance at a Ball of Wax show, but here’s hoping for next time.

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: Bandolier – “Steady Love”

Bandolier gets things off on the right foot with the iconic pum—pum-pum-thwack! of the indestructible “Be My Baby” drum beat. Almost immediately gritty synth organ and a tinny melodic figure (a guitar with tremolo?) emerge below reedy vocals singing “[I] turned to see her leave / I thought she looked at me.” Already we’re eyeballs deep in a classic boy/girl pop predicament, perfect for the love theme of volume 35.  As the song builds steam, the drummer sheds the Spector beat for straight fours and the singer reaches for an octave he can’t totally handle to deliver a chorus hook that’ll be lodged in my skull for days. This is great, amber-tinged power pop for fans of Big Star, Okkervil River and the Left Banke. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I was unaware of Bandolier before hearing “Steady Love,” but this song plus the fact that they cite the Aisler Set in their influences has me totally on board and excited to share the stage with them at the Ball of Wax Volume 35 release show – In Love with Love Valentine’s Day at the Lo Fi. You should totally come.

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Ball of Wax 35 Songs: James Smith – “Every Time I Fall in Love It Turns Out Bad”

Webelos front man James Smith brings us a lo-fi, poppy little sad sack of a tune with a fairly self-explanatory title. It might not be the kind of song that first comes to mind when one thinks of love songs, but the “unlucky in love” genre is certainly a rich lyrical vein to mine, and you can’t say it’s not about love. The upbeat, slapback-reverbed guitar and oohs and ahhs provide the perfect counterpoint to Smith’s cleverly phrased catalog of amorous woes. While on the one hand you feel bad for the guy, you kind of want his hard times to continue so he’ll keep writing gems like this one.

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