This week we celebrate the 15th year of one of Seattle’s favorite hometown labels: Barsuk Records! Since its birth in 1998, Barsuk has helped create a platform for dozens of great bands, from the Pacific northwest and otherwise, to get off the ground and put forth incredible music. Even in the decade and a half of growth, one thing that Barsuk has never lost is its family-style sentiment, and to celebrate its birthday, Barsuk planned out an incredible weekend of music, getting the whole gang back together for a hodgepodge of new and old Barsuk goodness. Each night, the label is tackling another neighborhood and bringing a full card of musical genius.
For Barsuk’s journey to Ballard, things got folksy. I mean, all you really needed to hear to buy a fifteen dollar ticket to this Tractor Tavern show was that Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter would be playing the 2002 masterpiece Reckless Burning. But with an undercard packed with sets from Ben Gibbard, Rocky Votolato, and Laura Gibson, you have a recipe for a great night at a screaming deal of a price. The Tractor packed out before Gibson hit her first note, and from beginning to end, night #4 of Barsuk’s 15th anniversary celebration was a delight for all.
Laura Gibson opened the night in the most divine way possible. She may be more of a newcomer to Barsuk than most playing this weekend, but Gibson is without a doubt a welcome one. Her spinster songwriting technique and her more than angelic voice silenced the room within two strums of the guitar. After each song, no matter how beautiful, she would just silently nod and smile down at her shoes and start in on the next one. Gibson was a soft-spoken wonder, and for an evening of celebration for the best of Barsuk’s folk music, we couldn’t have seen a better opening.
Entering the stage next were Rocky Votolato and his brother Cody. Rocky manned the microphone, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica, while Cody added layering on the electric guitar. As usual, Votolato’s songs were sprawling and magnificent. With Cody’s accompaniment, Votolato’s size and impact doubled on stage, as his songs of passion and conviction soared to the back of the room. He even switched things up slightly and played a brand new song, for which he’d only played for his wife and dog previously. Altogether, Rocky kept the energy moving forward with a wondrous set of his Barsuk material.
When Votolato announced at the end of his set that Ben Gibbard was up next, the crowd did a slight double take. Sure, Gibbard had been watching Gibson and Votolato from the sidelines in the hour previous, but as a surprise guest before Jesse Sykes closed the night out with a bang, Gibbard put a smile on everyone’s face. The set pulled predominantly from Gibbard’s Barsuk solo LP Former Lives, but also included “These Roads Don’t Move” from his Jay Ferraro collaboration One Fast Move and I’m Gone and “You Remind Me of Home” from the Home compilations. But the most pleasant surprise of all was a revisitation of a Death Cab classic: “Sleep Spent” from Something About Airplanes. The old as dirt track sounded divine in its refurbished acoustic setting. Another hit surprise act, Gibbard finished up his Barsuk 15 contributions in excellent fashion.
As Jesse Sykes told the story on KEXP just last week, her introduction to Barsuk was not the most straightforward one. She got her record in Barsuk hands as a temporary neighbor of Chris Walla, but as far as the scene goes, didn’t really felt like she fit in. The blossoming indie rock sweaters and danceable melancholy didn’t blend with her brooding country ballads. But anyone who’s ever heard Reckless Burning knows there is a great reason that Sykes found her way onto Barsuk, and that’s because her songs are absolutely priceless. Hearing Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter play this timeless record in its entirety tonight was a wordless treat. As can be expected, Sykes played the part of the wandering muse, guiding each tune forward with pained grace. Each track more perfect than the one before, Sykes closed out the Barsuk night 4 well-loved and well-thanked.
Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter: