On Saturday night, the curtain rose at the Neptune Theatre for the first time in 480 days. The century-old former cinema is one of Seattle Theatre Group’s trio of historic venues alongside the Moore and the Paramount, where for a good chunk of last year’s pandemic-induced slumber, the marquee read “This Is Just Intermission.” Every time I wandered down Pine Street in spring 2020 in between bouts of convulsing on my couch convinced that the world had ended, that marquee was a reminder that somebody somewhere had steelier nerves than me and could see the long view.
Those somebodies were Josh LaBelle and Nate Dwyer, the head honchos at the venerable performing arts non-profit, who weathered one hell of a storm to steer their fleet to safe harbor. “Let’s kick Covid’s ass” (or maybe it was “we kicked Covid’s ass”—there was a lot of cheering) they intoned as they thanked the mostly maskless audience for doing their part to make Seattle the country’s Most Vaccinated Major City (™).
Stas THEE Boss, a former KEXP Street Sounds host turned Brooklynite, kicked off the first live in-person show under the STG banner with a smooth set of ’90s hip-hop and r&b slow jams. Soulful singer-songwriter JusMoni made a surprise appearance to round out the warm-up set with a duet of “No Service.” At this early point in the night, I spied Shabazz Palace’s frontman Ishmael Butler taking in the scene. (Twitter confirms Ish and Stas cruising Lake Washington on a boat last week.)
Rapper Dave B, a 2013 winner of the (then) EMP SoundOff! competition, returned to the stage where he celebrated the release of “Pearl” in 2018. “I’m a little fatter and a little slower, so just bear with me,” he said with self-deprecating humor at the beginning of the set. Accompanied by a lone guitarist and laptop, Dave B pranced around the stage in happy-go-lucky strides, at one point leading the crowd in a line dance, in a vivid illustration of a live performer simply having fun.
Headliner Sango, playing his biggest hometown show since he sold out The Showbox in January 2017, treated the reopening festivities with minimal fanfare. “We’re back,” he slipped onto the mic, as though picking up where he left off. Except where he left off is in a much more varied place, having catapulted from a talented beatsmith who reinvented an entire genre of overseas music (Brazilian baile funk) from his studio in South Seattle to a sought after producer making beats for Frank Ocean.
Sango, who has previously resisted being pigeonholed into his infectious Brazilian-inflected beats, gave the audience a tour of the African diaspora on Saturday night. He made audio pitstops in New Orleans bounce, Detroit hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, and South African house before finally dropping some of his baile funk classics (“Agorinha,” “Na Hora”) after the 30-minute mark. With a tight club DJ style, he upped the energy as he cycled through tracks with more mainstream-friendly hooks, like deconstructed remixes of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and Future’s “March Madness.” The near-capacity crowd responded in hip-shaking earnest, blurring the lines between live show and nightclub.
As the audience swelled the nearly 900-capacity theatre, I was struck that it feels like a minor miracle Seattle survived the pandemic without losing a live music venue, to the best of my knowledge, despite some of the most severe public health restrictions in the U.S.—dancing was actually illegal for much of the last year and a half!—and the disastrous rollout of federal assistance for cultural venues. Re-bar had pre-pandemic plans to close its doors after Pride 2020, but in fact we gained a nightclub and there is a reincarnated Cafe Racer on the way. As stages and DJ booths turn the lights back on, local musicians and DJs will be providing the soundtrack until touring ramps up in earnest by the time Day In Day Out festival rolls around on Labor Day weekend.
Miracles, meanwhile, beget pilgrims. Even after a decade of growth convulsions that have left artists and musicians swimming upstream, we are still home to an admirable roster of talent. This summer’s smorgasbord of local music may never be repeated, so dig in while you can.