Strange Country

A Surreal Night at Seattle's First Music Venue to Reopen

I visited the Little Red Hen, the first music venue to reopen in the first big city to shut down.

By Stefan Milne May 28, 2021

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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