Pickwick, Seattle’s princes of garage soul, played their first local show of 2014 at Neumo’s on May 8th. The night was a pink and purple-themed party to celebrate the announcement of Bumbershoot Festival’s music lineup. And while I was eager to hear what bands would be gracing the Seattle Center Labor Day weekend, I was most excited to see one of my favorite Seattle acts back in the saddle.
From the outset, it became clear that Pickwick is continuing on their path towards a dirtier, more aggressive sound. There seems to be more energy on stage each time they play. While this band has roots in sweetly crooned soul ballads, and even further back in folky alt-country numbers, the Pickwick of 2014 is verging on straight up rock band territory.
Don’t get me wrong, lead singer Galen Disston’s high and powerful voice is still just as dulcet and as strong as ever, but he is also developing some mean growls and screams to augment the more rocking turn the band has taken. Still, one of my favorite sweet songs “Lady Luck” from their first full length Can’t Talk Medicine was nearly note perfect. This is not an easy song to sing, and Disston seemed nonplussed as he belted out this gorgeous cover of a song originally by Richard Swift.
Confidence seems to be a factor in the growth of this band. Gone are some of their shyer on-stage affectations. I noted that Galen Disston’s fingers stayed largely quiet as he sang, whereas in shows past they would make frantic and almost palsied jerks as he hit tougher notes. I took this to mean he is becoming more comfortable as a singer and performer, but perhaps I read too much into this minor detail. Gone too is Disston’s seemingly signature afro of curly hair, his mane now flowing down his shoulders. This cosmetic detail was commented on by several of those in the audience around me. But looks aside, Pickwick showed they are stronger than ever.
The night featured a host of new material, much of which has not yet been recorded. From the sound of it, the band is continuing to move away from soul and R&B sounds, and more into danceable indie pop rock. Perhaps these labels aren’t very helpful. Suffice to say, the new material is very, very promising and I look forward to LP2 being recorded, possibly this fall. The band plans to stay in the area throughout the summer, working in their basement studio on the new album. They will also play a short set with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at Benaroya Hall on June 6th. The night will also feature Sir-Mix-A-Lot, of all people.
Amidst fast tempo rockets, it was another somewhat slower song, “Brother Roland”, which became a highlight of the night for me. Disston really loses himself in the singing of this powerful number, guiding his voice through incredible twists and turns as he belts out, “I go to die, you’re telling me lies”. He has a stunning range, and the apparent vocal control that is necessary to keep from damaging his pipes with a dynamic performance like this.
Pickwick had a local hit in 2011 with “Hacienda Motel”, which got heavy airplay on KEXP. This has been a crowd favorite since then, and audiences usually throw their hands into the air in unison at the appropriate points in the song. But at this Neumo’s show I noticed that well less than half the crowd threw up their hands, and there were not as many people dancing with wild abandon as I have come to expect. Perhaps Pickwick is going to have to train a newer Seattle audience to dance along, or perhaps this town has tired somewhat of their first hit. Nevertheless, I am confident the new material will continue to turn people on to their sound. The band is well loved outside of Seattle as well, selling out many of their shows on their last cross-country tours.
If I am allowed a nitpicky critique of the night, it is that Pickwick can be relied on to almost always close with the same songs. Yes, “Window Sill” is a super fun, shout and dance along party number. Yes, it makes for a great closing track. But I don’t think I’ve seen any shows where they don’t end with this song. And “The Ostrich” is similarly a great encore. It is funny and wild, and it is also a classic move to encore with a cover song (this was originally a Lou Reed novelty tune from his pre-Velvet Underground days). I’m not complaining about the songs themselves, I love them, but I would love for Pickwick to find a new way to wrap up their future shows.
Naomi Wachira opened up the night. She is a beautiful singer and songwriter, but she had difficulty commanding the loud and chatty Neumo’s crowd. I think her sets are better suited for a room more prepared to shut up and listen. Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings played MC for the night and hosted a music-themed quiz show in between sets called Bumperdy, which featured three audience members vying for Bumbershoot platinum passes. Jennings was surprisingly funny on stage, and had great banter. It was a cute moment.
This piece is meant to serve as a review specifically of Pickwick’s show, but I would be remiss were I not to mention the fabulous Bumbershoot lineup this year, which for many was the reason for attending the pink and purple party in the first place. Program Director Chris Porter has once again put together a killer lineup of diverse talent, including The Replacements and Wu Tang Clan reunion tours, Elvis Costello, a rare Bobby Womack show, funk god Bootsy Collins, melodramatic emo favorites Panic at the Disco, rising southern folk stars Hurray for the Riff Raff, metal powerhouse Red Fang, and a huge list of northwest favorites including breakout success story The Head and the Heart. Pickwick and Naomi Wachira will also perform. Head to bumbershoot.com for a complete lineup. Once again, Bumbershoot will be a great place to both enjoy classics and to discover your next favorite band. I can’t wait until Labor Day weekend!
Photos by George Bentley