All hail Hazel, Saturday October 2 at 6pm on the KEXP Mainstage at Macefield Music Festival in Ballard.
All hail Hazel, Sat Oct 2 at 6pm on the KEXP Mainstage at Macefield Music Festival in scenic Ballard.

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This year's Macefield schedule includes several tons of major talent, including reigning Stranger Genius Erik Blood, 2014 Stranger Geniuses Industrial Revelation, Thee Sgt Major III, Absolute Monarchs, Gazebos, Mommy Long Legs, Nail Polish, Zola Jesus, visiting art-punk giants Psychic TV, and the astonishing DoNormaal, among many others.

Good as all those bands are, when I look at the lineup, one name jumps out in the boldest type: Hazel, a band that exemplifies the very best of the music and feeling of the 1990s Northwest that time and prosperity has sought to erase.

The songs on their two Sub Pop LPs—Toreador of Love (1993) and Are You Going to Eat That? (1995)—were impeccable pop, girded spiritually and sonically by punk and what used to be called college rock, and set alight by the vocal interplay of guitarist Pete Krebs and drummer Jody Bleyle—both of whom went on, both during and after Hazel's glory years, to brilliant work in other bands (Golden Delicious and Team Dresch).

But their work in Hazel sounded like equal parts collaboration and conflict, harmony and dialogue. In a punk scene defined by the struggle to be real about gender and queer equality, Bleyle blazed the trail by sheer force of incandescent star power. What better way? In any other band, Krebs (who remains one of the most underrated singer/writer/guitarists NW rock music has ever produced) would have been the undisputed focal point and figurehead. In Hazel, he was half of a push-and-pull dynamic with Bleyle that made the band volatile and thrilling.

Their shows were events—occasionally disastrous, frequently dangerous, reliably hilarious, and, more often than you would think to predict, miraculous.

That was because the Jody-Pete dynamic wasn't even the best bit. The best bit was that in addition to their beautiful tension (brilliantly enabled by the imperturbable bass playing of Brady Smith), the band had a fourth member, Fred Nemo, whose role it was to give a purely physical dimension to the music. His dancing ranged between jerky violence and astonishing grace, sometimes enacting the songs, sometimes channeling them, sometimes commenting on them, sometimes disrupting and even derailing them, and sometimes indisputably lifting them into glory.

His very existence as an integral member of the group was the element that elevated Hazel from being one of the many very good rock bands in Portland and Seattle between 1992 and 1999 into a gorgeous, ludicrous marriage of art, performance, deconstruction, and creative mischief... which happened to also feature songs that could break your heart, get stuck in your head for years, and make you smash yourself against the wall, sometimes all at once. It was also the thing that made a lot of people check out after mistaking him for a novelty gesture. Such was the risk and reward of building a band out of people and pieces that required not only eyes and ears, but intuition and imagination to appreciate.

But if you couldn't see that Fred, as an idea and a performer, was a literal manifestation of what made pre-boom Portland (and by extension Seattle) beautiful and necessary, never fear. There will always be more of you than there are of us. Hopefully not at Macefield, though.

I saw Hazel many, many times in those years (and was honored to share the stage with them at several of their late-period shows). I saw them utterly slay on a par with the best rock band you could name. I saw them fall apart. I saw them quarrel and nearly break up on stage apparently, they actually did that once or twice). I saw them allow a bit of between-song banter to unspool into an I-swear-to-god 10-minute monologue—in addition to everything else, Bleyle's acrobatic verbal improvisations alongside Krebs and Smith's dueling deadpans made Hazel the funniest band I've ever seen.

But one image has always stayed with me: During an extended instrumental section of their slow-burning, incantatory masterpiece "Truly," while Pete played a nimble guitar melody that took a bit of time to resolve, Fred went up to Brady, who was holding down the bassline, and leaned up against him so they were back-to-back. Brady then began to lean back into Fred, never losing concentration, never looking back, and never letting the tension of the song falter. Gradually, Fred contrived to bend his knees so that Brady was at a 45-degree angle to the stage. Then he bent even lower, so the angle of Brady's tilt became even more perilous as the song began to crescendo, the anxiety of knowing that he was unmistakably about to fall flat on his back suddenly making everything even more dramatic than the impeccable music already was.

And then, as Pete hit the distortion to rev the song up into its all-consuming chorus, Fred rose, still crouching, to lift Brady two feet off the ground, where he remained for the whole end section, never missing a beat, a living out a tableau of how the best rock music makes you feel when it reaches for something massive, and a literal illustration of the trust and support required to make something beautiful, unexpected, and lasting.

A live recording of a 1993 Hazel show at Portland's legendary X-Ray Cafe, entitled Hazel Live in Portland, was recently released in a limited pressing by Voodoo Doughnut and Cavity Search Records as a benefit for the Portland homeless youth shelter Outside In.