Opening in a rough-around-the-edges Ballard (can you imagine?) during Seattle's 1990s music-explosion heyday, the Tractor Tavern did something a little different by catering to the
Americana, roots, folk, bluegrass, singer-songwriter, and alt-country scenes. Situated on the now hoppin' Ballard Avenue, the old girl has managed to maintain a fairly sweaty, boot-stompin' atmosphere—a dusty oasis in the midst of an increasingly artisanified neighborhood.
In anticipation of the upcoming milestone, I chatted with Greg Garcia—the Tractor's booker since 2008—about craft cocktails. Just kidding, we talked about sleazy fishermen and that time King Khan and the Shrines drank two gallons of Jameson.
What are your memories of the Tractor and Ballard before you started booking there? I have always been a fan of the Tractor for as long as I could get into bars—I'm 36 now. I played some of my first shows as a musician here and would frequent shows for bands like Willis and the Clumsy Lovers back in the day.
Ballard was really the closest thing you could get to a drunken fisherman village. Blue-collar guys coming off the boats from Alaska with pockets full of money, just wantin' to score chicks and drink, and that was pretty much it [laughs]. An old Norwegian fishing village. My mom worked at the old Shilshole Broiler restaurant on Market from the time I was in fourth grade until it closed in the mid '90s. Lots of drunken fishermen came in, who are still here, and even Mudhoney. I remember my mom telling me about the time she served Mudhoney at the restaurant and told them that I played drums, and they said, "Tell him not to get into music" [laughs]. She would also take me to see all the old fishing boats or to see Duffy Bishop play at the Ballard Seafood Fest. I guess Ballard has always been in my blood. Now when my mom comes over to the neighborhood, we always have to stop into the Smoke Shop so she can see Darlene, who's still tending bar there—she's a Ballard legend.
Now, of course, Ballard has changed. A little more upscale, a little more craft cocktail going on. Yeah, craft cocktails [laughs]. But a lot of the old Norwegian people are still here, and it's still a pretty diverse place—the downtown Ballard area is definitely condos and people in their mid to late 20s and 30s who have a little bit of money. We had a band here the other night, and they were talking about the first time they played the Tractor and how there were about three places to go get a drink before the show. Now you have about 50-plus. Obviously there has been a lot of growth here, and lots of change.
Has that changed the way the Tractor operates at all? That's the whole thing for me—I definitely have always tried to preserve the history here, but at the same time, we're a business. And I think it's the same model with many live-music venues. You gotta stick with what put you guys on the map, but you gotta cater to your neighborhood, too.
The Tractor is known to have more of a country-and-western bent with shows—are there goals in mind when it comes to the shows it books? This place really got put on the map because of the alt-country movement of the mid to late '90s, when bands like Whiskeytown started to come out, and that's how this place really got its street cred—being a part of that movement. The Tractor has always championed a lot of the alt-country, Americana, bluegrass, and folk movements from the early 2000s. I've tried to take what has been successful here, but also branch out into other genres such as rock, indie, and even some hiphop shows. We have also been a big supporter to developing local bands.
What were some of the first shows you put on? Or memorable shows in your years of booking? One of the more memorable national shows I booked was the first year I started, in July of 2008. King Khan and the Shrines. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. They showed up almost two hours late and drank themselves silly—just got fucking hammered—and did enough blow for everyone here. I remember someone asked them, "Oh, is there anything else you guys need?" And they were like, "Oh yeah, can you get us some blow?" Totally nonchalantly. I think they drank like two gallons of Jameson that night. It was madness. It was really fun—for a Sunday night in Ballard, it was pretty weird. They did a KEXP on-air the following morning, and I think showed up there at like 7 a.m. and might have been asked to leave because they were still partying.
And Evan Dando is kind of a notorious one. One time he just didn't show up, didn't show up for a gig, so the last few times we've booked him, we've been a little hesitant. And one of the times we booked him, I think he shit his pants onstage. No joke. Literally crapped his pants onstage. Another time, his band was here, and they were like, "Yeah... Evan's still in LA." It was four hours before the show, and he was just getting on a plane. So you never know what you're going to get from him. He's an interesting guy.
So what about smaller bands coming through that blew up? Another show in October of 2008 was some little English folk band called Mumford & Sons. They played for the door with Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn. I think we had about 150 people here. The next time I saw them was at a sold-out Paramount show years later, and they actually asked the crowd that night if anyone had seen them at the Tractor Tavern. It's always great to see bands later that remember their roots and pay respect to that.
The Head and the Heart played here a few times. The last time they played here, the buzz was getting pretty big, and you could just tell—we're never gonna see this band here again. James Blake was another one. He played his first Seattle show here. The agent told me he really wanted to play here, and I think I had just got on a short flight that day, when we put the tickets on sale, and like an hour and a half later, I called the office, and the show had sold out in 45 minutes. Bastille was another one—they played here a few months ago, and their next show is at Showbox Sodo and I think it's sold out. Some other notables that I really was excited about were Citizen Cope, Heartless Bastards, Old 97s, Trampled by Turtles, X (Eddie Vedder joined them onstage), Split Lip Rayfield, Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Graveyard.
Tell us a little bit about the Tractor anniversary shows coming up. We wanted to put some shows together that feature bands that did some of their early shows here, as well as bands we are excited about. We just want people to drop in and share their memories. Doing two nights with the Maldives, then Mudhoney (Feb 15), Moondoggies (Feb 14), Sera Cahoone (Feb 8), and new bands like Fruition from Portland (Feb 7). The Moondoggies have played here for years and years, and the Maldives I think are the closest thing you can get to the Tractor house band. Those guys have probably played here more than anybody.