Seattle breeze

Three cool bands from the Emerald City of the Pacific Northwest blow into town and bring the chill

CAPTAIN DOWNER<br>Joel R.L. Phelps leans back on the band and lets it soar.

Joel R.L. Phelps leans back on the band and lets it soar.

Photo By Tom Angel

Joel R.L. Phelps & the Downer Trio Mines Treasure State Riff Raff Rock Bar Thursday, Aug. 14

Not many folks are out on this Thursday night in Chico. School’s just around the corner, and you get the feeling that there’s an undertow pulling at our quiet stability from beneath the sidewalk and we might just be a little too relaxed in this calm before the storm.

The Riff Raff is open despite the thin crowds, but maybe not for long. While writing this I receive word that the club is ceasing its live music operations. [See Newslines.]

On Thursday, Aug. 14, the music was still clinging to the lip of the stage, and the night’s openers, Seattle’s Treasure State, brought in an amazing soundtrack for the dog days of summer.

“Soundtrack” is definitely how I saw it at the time. The music shifted and blended in changing colors and moods that brought out varying degrees of attention (or tension) and relaxation that were constantly changing within the songs themselves and not just from song to song. This was all fairly subtle manipulation; so subtle that on further retrospection the intent seemed less cinematic and more intimate and conversational. The cool and sparkling jazz tone of lead singer/guitarist Robert Mercer’s Fender Telecaster stopped and started gently, like a polite conversationalist, allowing the voices of his band mates’ bass and drums to patter in and out of the dialogue while Mercer sang, changing the topic from song to song in slightly disconnected twists of thought: “Go on, we need more than I think we realize.”

Second up was another Seattle flavor, but Mines had a more difficult time keeping a tight connection with the audience. I loved the opening song, “Solo Machine,” which is also opens the band’s The Way the Wind Whips the Water CD. The spastic, busy melody of guitarist Ron Lewis was crazy and fun to watch, but the switching of players from song to song sucked some of the focus out of performance, though that would have barely been apparent were it not for the powerful opener and closer the band was sandwiched between.

Playing the same beautiful Telecaster as Treasure State’s Mercer (who also played bass for this Downer Trio), Joel R.L. Phelps plugged into an old Vox AC30 amplifier (think Beatles or Byrds), and with a few jabs to the strings Phelps was off hammering away at his tight and jerky compositions while Mercer and drummer William Herzog looped along.

The emotional push of the music is true to Phelps’ conviction without being obvious. There’s an engaging personality in each player’s part of the arrangement—when Herzog is tapping out fast, loose fills on the snare at full volume, it’s at odds with the sparse, sustained bass notes Mercer issues.

And Phelps feeds off the dynamic he helped create. With the microphone raised almost out of his reach, he stood on his tiptoes for the whole night and launched his heart through the roof. It’s been a couple of years since Phelps last played live, and the old songs I was familiar with didn’t make their way into the set. But it didn’t matter. With a melodic approach that is unstructured and brings to mind ex-American Music Club vocalist/songwriter Mark Eitzel, Phelps was able to bend and push notes to meet his emotional demands. I may not have known the words, but the meaning or emotional intentions came through in a big way.