- Report: Green Pajamas Live in Seattle
In a creative frenzy whose sheer volume almost rivals the Beatles at their most prolific, the Green Pajamas have been on a roll that might be the envy of any Las Vegas crapshooter. Over the past year, the GPJs, still Seattle's best-kept secret, have released no fewer than four albums of new and vintage material, all on the Green Monkey label. Plenty of studio action available but, as the current cliché goes, when it comes to live shows-not so much.
For a band that's played so few engagements over its almost 30-year lifespan, I guess I've seen quite a few of them, in places as unlikely as Portland's Millennium Records, San Francisco's Custer Stages, the 1998 site of Terrastock II and the West Seattle basements of two of the band's members: bassist Joe Ross and alternate lead vocalist/guitarist Laura Weller. And then there was the time in 1999 when the Pajamas and I flew over to London together, so they could play Terrastock III at London University, a festival that featured such storied artists as Man, the Bevis Frond, the Green Ray and Abunai!
Surely no one's ever gone this far into a Green Pajamas account without mentioning the group's creative dynamo, the thoughtful, bespectacled, genius-songwriter Jeff Kelly who, much like Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, records almost all the Pajamas' original material by himself before teaching it to the band. "I don't have anything against playing with people. It's fun," Kelly told me recently. "Even though he has a really good time doing it," Weller adds, "it's hard to get Jeff to play live."
And so it came to pass that my wife and I decided to take Amtrak's Coast Starlite, a 24-hour voyage from San Jose, Calif. to Seattle to see the GPJs play their record-release party for the new album, Death By Misadventure (Green Monkey; reviewed on BLURT). Even though we arrived at the San Jose station an hour and a half early, we almost missed the train, thanks to faulty directions from a misguided Amtrak employee. We'd booked what they call a "roomette," with a bunk bed, so we didn't have to sleep sitting up in a chair. Wouldn't have made much difference, as it turned out.
They got the "ette" part of roomette right, but the "room" was more like a broom closet. To climb up and swing into the upper berth required a bronze-medal gymnastic move, and once you'd made it you got to spend the night on what felt like a concrete slab. About one hour sleep that night meant you were good and ready for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day, all included in the price for "sleepers."
The parlor car was very cozy, armchairs with huge windows to watch the forests, lakes, cliffs, rivers and white egrets of Oregon and Washington roll by. The food in the dining car, served on real tablecloths, was very good, considering it must have been nuked. And they used the European method of restaurant seating, two couples per table, facing each other, a good way to meet interesting people.
We stayed with the Kellys in Seattle's U-district, near the University of Washington. They'd arranged a cocktail party Friday night with all the band members dropping by for a 13-year "class reunion" of the London traveling party. The booze flowed, mostly out on the spacious deck in the hosts' backyard. Jeff brought out his acoustic and sang a couple of Kinks faves from Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, "A Long Way From Home," and "Apeman."
He also played a pair of songs I'd requested for the gig tomorrow, that, for one reason or another, would not be on the set list. The first was "Mike Brown," from the Pajamas' 1984 debut longplayer, Summer Of Lust. It could be taken as a starry-eyed homage to a kid who's really got it all together, a la "David Watts," the Kinks' gem (covered by the Jam). Except, Kelly insists, his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek when he sang: "I wish I could be Mike Brown/Take a pretty girl out on the town." Brown, it seems, was hustling Kelly's girlfriend at the time, and was sentenced to death by song lyric, the deadliest form of rock 'n' roll revenge. The other request trilled by Kelly was "Who's That Calling," a song that summons up the finest Angelo Badalamenti's soundtrack music from Twin Peaks, David Lynch's legendary TV exposé of the dark underbelly of the Great Pacific Northwest.
A special note should be inserted here, commending the Pajamas' new album, which might be the best of their storied career. The ghost of Bob Dylan howls outside the window of this fine work. If you'd like a quick taste, try the sampler plate of "Supervirgin," which feels like what Dylan might be doing today, or the Gothic Bossa Nova of "The Spell."
Saturday morning, Kelly and I motored over to the West Seattle home of Weller and drummer Scott Vanderpool for a two hour-dress rehearsal of tonight's album-release gig at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard. The plan is to open and close with "I Wish That It Was Christmas," the best thing I've ever heard them play live. Ross helps fine-tune the arrangement by suggesting that both Vanderpool and keyboard man Eric Lichter play that familiar American Indian drum pattern on the floor toms only, no snare. It's as insinuating a move as Quicksilver Messenger Service riding herd on the Bo Diddley beat more than 40 years ago.
"It's one of our oldest, and most popular songs when we perform it live," says Kelly. The number, which oddly enough has never appeared on any of the Pajamas' more than 30 legit albums, is so exciting you can make up verse after verse of your own Dylan-style lyrics to sprinkle your personal low-octane gasoline on the fire. On another song, Weller, Lichter and Vanderpool all try counting "1, 2, 3, 4!" at different volumes to signify a repeat of the chorus after a false ending. "If I don't shout it loud enough, they'll already be clapping," Weller warns the others.
"You've gotta remember when to go to F. Otherwise I look like an idiot," says Kelly, already musing aloud over what kind of makeup to wear for tonight's show. "Maybe you should try the full Pagliacci look," someone mutters, a remark Kelly ignores.
Kind of like Ringo, "all nervous and out of tune," Ross then steps forward to sing his own country composition, "Honky Tonk Girls," a highlight of the GPJs' recent longplayer Green Pajama Country. He's not George Jones, but much like Ringo's "Act Naturally," the song really works. "Whatever we do tonight," says Ross, "they're gonna like it." And that turns out to be nothing but the truth.
Ballard on Saturday night is nothing like I remember it from my only previous visit in 1993 for NRBQ and the Picketts at the Backstage. The joint is jumping. It looks like a cast call for Night Of The Living Dead, with zombies staggering everywhere, looking for parking places that don't exist in front of dozens and dozens of dive bars and diners. "It's everyone for himself," shrugs Vanderpool loading-in while double-parked in front of the Sunset.
Tonight's venue turns out to be a pizza parlor with a fairly large stage at the back and what sounds like a decent PA. The only sour note is dozens of black and white "starving artist" portraits of rock stars for sale that line the walls like a rogues' gallery. If you like that portrait of Tom Petty or Bob Marley, I've got five more just like it at home, they seem to say.
One of the highlights tonight is a rocking "Fairy Queen" from recent GPJ albumPoison In The Russian Room, a folk-rocker with the potential to snap heads back in admiration. And the band taps old friend Charley Rowan to add accordion on two parts of a song-cycle from the new LP. "Get ready for the dying that will come/Before the rising of the sun," croons Kelly on "The Queen's Last Tango," with just a hint of "Hernando's Hideaway" from Broadway staple Damn Yankees. More leisurely, "The Queen Bee Is Dead" is a sinister waltz that cuts straight to the chase. "They've filleted her and fried her in batter like fish/Fed to the crows on her own golden dish," sings Kelly with Weller's tight harmony line dogging his every step.
It's a fine show by a band with more staying power than any of its contemporaries. Even R.E.M. has finally called it a day. And that's probably because the Pajamas, long ago, gave up dreams of "making it" in the music business, usually the kiss of death for any young outfit. Instead, they are content to have fun playing live on St. Swithin's Day, National Cat Rescue Day and sometimes on Guy Fawkes Day. And to keep releasing albums, singles and their own bootlegs, all loaded up with the musical brilliance of one Jeffrey "Hawkeye" Kelly.