The Honky Tonkers play in saftey. 

Image: Stefan Milne

“It’s like a sneeze guard,” the young, ponytailed guy says. He has not yet finished the tallboy of Seattle Cider in front of him, and is engaging in something like a live music tradition: bantering with the band. The band is indeed behind a something like a sneeze guard, a plexiglass wall at the edge of the stage, but it makes the musicians look less like a salad bar spread and more like a museum exhibit, something walled off and protected from the sticky intimacies of public life—the breath, the touch, the droplet.

In this exhibit: two men with guitars and the Honky Tonkers spelled out behind them on a cutup of license plates that recalls a ransom note. The singer, Ricky Gene Powell, wearing a cowboy hat and a red western shirt covered in tiny horses, croons country tune after country tune.

This is the first indoor concert I’ve been to since February of 2020. I am now considered fully vaccinated, so I am alone on a Thursday night, seated at a table on the dance floor of Greenlake’s Little Red Hen. The bar was, so far as I can tell, the first music venue to start holding indoor concerts in the city, after the county went into Phase 2 of reopening back in February. We’re now in Phase 3, but other indoor concerts remain rare and liminal. Pioneer Square’s Owl N’ Thistle is again holding Tuesday night jazz jams. I saw Marshall Law Band playing in a parking lot in Fremont a couple weeks ago. The Black Tones played at the Museum of Flight and did a residence in Gary Simmons's The Engine Room at Henry Art Gallery; Ishmael Butler will take up that role in June. Damien Jurado did a stint of small shows in Ballard recently, that were a little closer to normal (no glass wall). But Neumos, the Tractor Tavern, the Moore, the Clock-Out Lounge? All lie quiet.

Image: Stefan Milne

It is little surprise that the Little Red Hen returned first; it is a twanging anomaly in the neighborhood, a country bar in an indie city, a squat and aging building across the street from a new mixed-use compound that contains, among other things, a day spa, a Pure Barre studio, a PCC, and a farm-to-table restaurant. At the Hen, the special scrawled on a board is a pound of rib-eye for $19.99—with either fries or salad. Previously its dance floor hosted boot-shod line dances nightly, the city’s oldest honky tonk. Tonight the floor is dancerless, a vacant space given over to a few tables—me at one, the ponytailed guy and the woman with him at another. Nearby a sheet of paper stuck to a post declares: “No Dancing.” Around the room sit other customers, mostly lone men scattered about. A few groups in booths. A couple more guys in back, watching baseball on TV. The place smells less like a deep fryer than I’d expect, more like cleaning products.

The musicians are capable; guitar solos pleasantly amble. That’s plenty for a woman to my right, in a pink floral shirt, who claps profusely. Others applauded too, but the space can’t escape a lonely bar vibe. I’d expected, before coming, to find a venue that had carried on unworried—the venue started holding live shows back in February, after all. I assumed people might break regulations and dance. But, at least on this night, I’m wrong. The longer I sit listening, the more eerily apt this scene feels. 

The country music I like best is lonely. Here—with the band behind glass, and the other customers distant and scattered—all the music feels this way. Before I finish my pint of Manny’s, the band trots through a song with the chorus “my life begins where the pavement ends.” It’s jaunty, and vaunts a wayward Western individualism (“he’s a backwoods Romeo son of a gun”). But coming after more than a year of so many of us feeling perplexingly individual—discrete entities trapped in our chambers of safety—it leaves me yearning only for the properly communal, so I rise and mask and go.

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