Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Mourning God's Favorite Beefcake

Drew and Joe of God's Favorite Beefcake

I've been away from the blog for a long time, busy with other endeavors. I was beginning to wonder what would bring me back to writing and now I've found out. It is the violent deaths that have shaken us in Seattle in the past month, particularly those of the musicians, among the 5 gunned down, at our lovely musical haven, Cafe Racer.

There is interconnectedness in our community. Symphony musicians play chamber music with freelancers. Improvisers become composers and bring classically trained performers on board for one-off events. Former students grow up and become colleagues. Someone lays down tracks for a CD and the collaboration spawns a huge live event drawing in hundreds of listeners. And after a while, we all become aware of each other's work and can appreciate the web of artistry that exists here in Seattle.

God's Favorite Beefcake is a Seattle band. They are connected to the new vaudeville/burlesque scene playing as house band at the Moisture Festival, a kind of homespun scene where you'd see kooky jugglers, comedians, aerialists, magicians and some uncategorizeable acts like the zipcode guy, who has memorized every zipcode in America and can recite details about local coffee shops and one-of-a-kind theaters. They were also involved in the creation of the now closed Circus Contraption, a slightly risque and downscale Cirque du Soleil...think duct tape, old bed sheets and balls-to-the-walls moxie rather than Vegas-style slickery...

My family first heard Drew (aka Schmootzi the Clod) and Joe (aka Meshuguna Joe) of GFB at the Moisture Festival. Their music was down and dirty and hilarious and beautiful. Once you'd seen these guys, you wouldn't soon forget them. We used to run into Joe or Drew near the Whole Foods, and strike up a conversation, just because we're fans. They were friendly, but they were just busy leading their lives, on and off stage. We were always just a little extra delighted when we'd go out to an event and discover that their band was part of the line-up.

Drew was also the idea man behind the Racer Sessions at Cafe Racer. The cafe is a hang-out spot near said Whole Foods, in the Roosevelt neighborhood. Very chill and welcoming vibe, featuring the OBAMA room (Official Bad Art Museum of Art). One semester long ago, when I used to run a chamber music program at the Seattle Conservatory, we had a very talented high school-aged cellist, David Balatero, play a Martinu trio that I coached. We lost touch, of course, but when I started putting together our improvising orchestra Scrape, with Jim Knapp and Eyvind Kang, someone mentioned that David was around - now in addition to being a cellist, he'd been playing electric bass, creating a few bands, writing music and improvising. David played on our inaugural Scrape concert in September 2010.

David and some other 20-something musicians also knew Drew and hung out at Cafe Racer and started curating the weekly jams known as the Racer Sessions. Some of the folks who play there are proteges of trumpeter/composer/jazz professor Cuong Vu, a longtime collaborator with Pat Metheny. I know Cuong through his wife, Cristina Valdes, a pianist who toured with the Bang On a Can Allstars and with whom I have been privileged to play a number of concerts.

The Racer Sessions invite musical commentary and community participation. The curator either proposes a theme or creates a composition or improvises something, and whoever has brought an instrument can comment or reflect musically on what they've just heard. The session begins promptly at 8 pm and ends at 10. There are high school students, said 20-somethings, folks with grey hair and everyone in between. The few times that I made it over there, I saw Drew. I hear that he sometimes jammed at the Racer Sessions.  If you absolutely had to characterize the genre, you'd be forced to call it free jazz, but there's so much spillover into a realm that is now defining contemporary classical music. You hear guitars, saxophones, keyboards, percussion, cello and bass, singers, violins and electronics...ukuleles and clarinets...

Racer Sessions was written up in a big feature article in the New York Times over a year ago, recognizing the beautiful, welcoming, intense musical incubator it is. It feels very uniquely Seattle, very local.

Cafe Racer is still closed post-tragedy, but Racer Sessions decided to go forward with its Sunday jam, meeting in the alley behind the building. There were so many hundreds of people there: people sat on the ground and stood elbow to elbow - not a familiar experience for Seattleites accustomed to a generous personal space bubble. The 45 minute improvisation the musicians spun out was by turns somber, angry, keening, transporting. A low drone very slowly gave way to fragments that were not quite riffs, rhythmic energies that were not quite grooves, but that might have wanted to be, under different circumstances.  Crescendoes were on a epic scale, both in duration and sheer volume, but the musicians seemed to have a collective understanding that healing was not going to take place only at a fevered pitch. There were troughs of peaceful quiet, and the 12 or so musicians would take time out to listen to their friends play for a spell in smaller combinations. Each performer seemed to exist both in the realm of their own musical decision-making and in a realm governed by a larger consciousness. Everyone looked emotionally drained by the end.

I heard a story that a woman who does body work and lives nearby was having trouble working the day of the shooting, because there was a "thickness" in the air. She said that the victims had died so suddenly and violently that their souls were in shock and confused and lingering at the site. She performed a Native American ritual that she knew and said she felt their souls knew afterward to move on.

It felt like the barrier between the here and the hereafter, usually so definite, became very nearly transparent in that alley last Sunday. We are all connected. Life connects to itself.

Please listen to God's Favorite Beefcake here: Follow Yer Dreams

And immortalized here playing Momma Set the House on Fire.

Love you guys.

Link to NPR's audio postcard of Sunday's Racer Session.

Here is a link to the ChipIn site for donations benefiting the victims' families.


  1. Thanks Heather. During the 'alley sound celebration,' was celebrating my Dad in NH, with siblings and friends. But at least he died at 85 last month. I used to go with my daughter, in her stroller, for coffee at the Racer, when I first moved to Seattle about 6 years ago. Love to you, love to the Seattle music scene, love to the whole hurting world. --best--tv

  2. Thank you, Tom. Cafe Racer lives on. See you in Seattle. H

  3. Thank. Heather, for making this scene so vivid, for sharing its importance to Seattle and to the local communities of musicians. Like most of us, I was shocked by the events, but the media did little to enlighten us about Cafe Racer as a community of musicians and the circles around them.

    1. Thanks, Ron. I thought there were some good articles in the Stranger last week, and also from one of the Racer Sessions guys in the Seattle Times. Sad times. Thanks for commenting