"Is this your drum set?"
The intense, slight dark haired man was one I'd seen many a time, but this time he was speaking to me.
"No, Mark, it isn't. I don't know whose it is."
Show time soon at the El Corazon. A handful of bands were playing that darkened hard rock club, full of the stale smell of proletarian beer and the weight of age. Someone had medical bills. Zeke was headlining.
The legendary guitarist and singer Blind Marky Felchtone looked quizzically at me, as only artists were supposed to be around at that time. He went off angrily to see who it was whose drum set was in the way. I wandered outside. It was midsummer, and the cloudless cooling blue of the Seattle skyline was fading away to oranges and the encroaching blackness.
I saw the van pull up with the trailer behind, recognising the unmistakable haircut and face of Donny Paycheck, drummer for about five different bands, Zeke being the most famous. He pulled in and got out slowly, his large frame and slow gait belying the furious energy he kicks out behind the drums. The painfully thin rhythm guitarist, Jeff, was wearing a Budgie shirt and his gentle, kind smile. Both ambled to the back of the trailer and began unloading gear. Donny's all business, so I caught him when he was turning to bring the trademark black drums into the side door of El Corazon.
"Need a hand?"
He recognised me from a few shows, but we weren't quite friends yet, so he politely declined, the three of them being rapidly joined by their tall, thicker built bassist. I left them to their precision unloading.
The guy who sells their merch recognized me, his two-toned hair and neck tattoos standing him out even from this rock and roll crowd. I was headed far from Seattle soon, for good I thought, so I told him to save me one of everything. He smiled, but then when he realised I was serious was more than happy to.
After the unloading, Jeff disappeared into the back of the club, and Marky disappeared completely. As was his wont, Donny hung out in the front of the bar keeping up a steady stream of text messaging on his cellphone. Noone bothered him. I didn't recognise their bassist anywhere. Donny was playing drums for the first act, a singer/songwriter whose hand-burned CD I purchased for $5 in support of local acts. I had my one and only beer of the night as they took the stage.
Zeke have been around since the early 90s - most people know of them. They've been careful not to overplay the Seattle area, and their shows are always well attended. They've been name checked by some up and coming bands, and their last two albums are frankly masterpieces.
Though the other bands were alright, I screwed my foam ear protectors into my ears and awaited the main event. There was the usual expectant hush, followed by cheers of recognition as they took their places. Then a small moment of very eerie calm.
They wasted no time and started right in, with Marky's trademark "ONE TWO ONETWOTHREEFOUR" punctuating the momentary pauses between songs. As usual, his eyes were closed, his lungs powering a screeching, whiskey soaked vocal (that suggests that he'd had Jack Daniels in his infant formula and started smoking unfiltereds at five) mates with the music perfectly, his guitar slung low, his hands working furiously at the frets.
Donny was riding the drums, his eyes half closed, his mouth slightly open in an ecstatic grimace of total concentration, the incessant hammering of the beat lock-tight and a solid anchor. You could feel the bass drum in your chest, and the sound was unmistakably his.
Jeff was off to the side of the stage and slightly back, his face more laid back, but with no less energy, a conduit for some force from somewhere flowing through him, him making it look so easy, unless you watched his hands flying over the frets, riffing out mercilessly. The bassist stood firm and raised the headstock to the sky, the bass bottoming out the pure wall of noise emanating from the stage.
It's hard to convey music in words, but as they played under the lights, it was the very best of punk, metal and classic rock distilled and hurled into an appreciative audience, who crowded the stage and waved and cheered their approval. Songs would pause just enough for the music's absence to be felt viscerally, then "ONE TWO ONETWOTHREEFOUR" or, sometimes not even that, a barely perceptible comma between songs before they launched from one to the next. Some of them triphammer fast, like "The Hammer", some of them slower but no less heavy, like "Little Queen". Marky Felchtone finally had the Hammer, he was going back to Chinatown, the songs just kept coming and coming and coming, tight, taut and relentless.
But you could see, even though the crowd was into it and they were playing lock-step, so tight you couldn't have fit a greased pin between any two sounds in the onslaught, Marky's face showed it was good, it was great, but it wasn't really and truly jelling to his satisfaction. Dear God, they're perfectionists on top of it all.
The next forty minutes blazed by in high octane style, punctuated by a brief Paycheck solo on his rather minimal kit (tom, floor tom, snare, bass drum) and Marky digressing to play a portion of Freebird while collecting his thoughts.
They left the stage like a prize fighter who'd beaten the snot out of a contender in fifteen seconds but was annoyed it hadn't taken eight.
I haven't missed a local show since.