One summer night in 2004, I squeezed into the crowded and dusty backroom theater of the Rendezvous to see a seven-member performance-art band called "Awesome." The phrase "seven-member performance-art band" would send most sane people running in the opposite direction, and the folks I recognized in the crowd (most of them theater artists) had that tolerant, we're-privately-skeptical-but-here-to-be-supportive smile endemic to theater lobbies, local-music clubs, and elementary-school recital halls across the country. The seven members of "Awesome" walked onstage wearing suits, some of them ill-fitting. They weren't the kind of guys who normally wear suits.
They made a few self-effacing jokes, picked up their instruments—guitar, trumpet, bass, drums, clarinet, accordion, other stuff—and proceeded to send the room into a state of shock. "Awesome" weren't just tolerable, or even just good. They were fucking great. Their songs married complexity, playfulness, and melancholy in a way that felt like a rare expression of life itself.
Because "Awesome" was made up of longtime theater and sketch-comedy nerds, they also knew how to be hilarious—and how to read and work a crowd. Watching them play off each other, musically and comically, was a master class in improvisation. Best of all, the music was surprisingly daring. The songs—largely written by violin and guitar player John Osebold, who would win a Stranger Genius Award seven years later—were sophisticatedly crisp and architectural while staying warm and invitingly poppy. One song was about a man with a bullhorn who couldn't get people's attention. Another song featured complex harmonies and rhythms that wove together, then flew apart, using only numbers as lyrics. For a haunting cover of "Oar" by Optiganally Yours—a hypnotic song about drowning—the band used a vat of water as the central percussive instrument, with one of them sitting downstage, solemnly slapping the surface and getting himself soaked. That soaking was, for me, the ur-"Awesome" moment: marvelously deadpan shtick about death, serious-faced unseriousness about a serious subject. It was comic pathos in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin; the room, as I remember it, was in a quiet, collective thrall.
"Awesome" went on to higher-profile shows and venues, from impressionistic concept-musicals about mermaids, bees, the Eastern Seaboard, and manifest destiny (full disclosure: I was a minor collaborator in Delaware, their 2005 show at Re-bar) to gigs at rock clubs and music festivals. Throughout it all, they kept up their subversive, anarchic humor. (In one YouTube clip from their set at the Sasquatch! music festival, drummer Kirk Anderson tells the crowd they can all go to the front gate and redeem their ticket stubs for a free Xbox. Only some in the crowd seem to realize he's joking.) West, their ambitious but polarizing 2010 show at On the Boards, looked like the end of "Awesome"—it was their most serious work and seemed to divide both their audience and the band.
But last Sunday, they found themselves at a recording studio in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle, rehearsing for the first time in nearly half a decade. They were learning new material—and plowing through a few of their old songs—for an unexpected reunion concert this weekend at Nordo's Culinarium in Pioneer Square. The seven musicians seemed as pleasantly surprised to find themselves in the same room, and to find things going so well, as they had at the Rendezvous 11 years ago.
Some of the new songs were grandly ridiculous in the old "Awesome" mode. Toward the end of the rehearsal, David Nixon held up his phone to play a short banjo-funk song he'd written a couple of nights earlier about someone getting stoned, losing his shoes, and posting about it on Facebook. "Were you high when you wrote that?" Anderson asked. Nixon smiled sheepishly. Anderson and Basil Harris (bass) cackled and agreed it was the worst song they'd ever heard. Then everybody got to work learning it: John Ackermann (keys) tried to find the right Seinfeld/Stevie-Wonder-playing-"Superstition" synthesizer tones while Osebold, Nixon, and Evan Mosher (trumpet) struggled to harmonize an astonishingly fast and complicated lyric about the Facebook post: "I'm sorry to hijack your thread, I mean I was really into what you guys were talking about, but I suddenly remembered that I don't know where my—never mind, I found them."
But most of the songs that afternoon were, by "Awesome" standards, surprisingly earnest. The band always had a gift for scrambling the divide between the banal and the profound—a single "Awesome" song could give equal emotional weight to grieving the loss of a loved one and the lint in a longshoreman's pockets. Many critics have been wrecked on the shoals of trying to describe "Awesome" by using the dreadful adjective "whimsical," which totally misses the point. The band might be frisky at times, but their songs aren't frivolous—and the new material has even more emotional ballast than their older work. They sing about alienation ("I don't want to go to war with you/but if you insist, I will sound the siren"), deceit ("I'm like an unreliable narrator/I lie as part of my character"), and struggling with midlife dread ("I just don't wanna fret how I'm gonna do all this/when the secret of life and eternal bliss/is contained in one meaningful kiss/and maybe some money, too"). And their always-gorgeous harmonies are less jittery than in their past work—less like sonic hopscotch and more like waves converging and washing over one another.
"Awesome" has matured, and that's a good thing. "Some of the earlier songs had a cleverness, an emotional distance," Mosher said after the rehearsal. The new songs aren't any less clever, but they're more willing to openly confront pain and regret. At one point during rehearsal, Osebold closed his eyes and sang a slow, chantey-type song with the lyric "You could fit all of us on the head of a pin/it just makes me want to begin again."
"Is that too melodramatic?" he asked afterward. "No," Mosher said, "I like it. It's pretty." But they all agreed the show needed some moments of levity between the lulls of sincerity. Osebold began to riff into the microphone, impersonating the tone of an old Catskills comedian: "Ya gotta lighten it up before it gets sincere, see? Everybody's got 14 dicks!" Mosher picked up the patter: "My dick has 14 dicks!"
They carried on like that for a while before somebody got serious and said it was time to learn another song.