Jason Webley Notsuoh Wednesday, March 12
Better Than: Standing in line at SXSW
Download: Free mp3s on Jason Webley's Web site
"Tomatoes are nice... Actually, I don't eat a lot of tomatoes. I drive a tomato."
Or, more accurately, a red Corolla with the word "Toyota" broken and reshaped into "Tomato." The car has its own mythology (involving a stolen green stem), as do the many aspects of Jason Webley. He is a songwriter, a performer formerly of the busker tradition, and, above all, a storyteller.
Originally from Seattle, Webley has gained a sort of cult following, fueled in part by the yearly rituals he used to practice: publicly "dying" every Halloween, only to be born again sometime around May Day. While the events fostered a mystique around Webley, in person he is open and approachable -- normal, in the best sense of the word, like an offbeat college classmate who makes an interesting lunch partner.
His music is both folksy and bold. He accompanies himself on the accordion but with enough theatricality to draw a street crowd. The dark undertones of his songs sound like a Dia de los Muertos festival transplanted to the Czech Republic. In short, Webley is one-of-a-kind.
Downtown at Frank's, Jason is munching on a slice of veggie pizza. He is wearing a maroon collared shirt, brown slacks and a burgundy fedora, from which his hair extends past his shoulders. The hat is something of a trademark, it seems; its role during performances is to fall over Jason's eyes and migrate around his head without ever falling off. (Well, almost never.) This is no small feat in light of Webley's activity level as he sings and self-accompanies.
"What I like about the accordion is it makes you dance," he explains, and observes that there is both "a cerebral and visceral aspect to music. I want to be in touch with the visceral aspects."
As a theatre and music major at the University of Washington, Webley first wrote music without instruments. He lost interest in forcing songs out of a computer via beeps and squawks, so he took up the keyboard (the non-computer kind). The guitar was the first instrument he used for performance, but his signature skill is the accordion -- along with simultaneous stomping, dancing, and shaking of makeshift percussion tools, such as a plastic liquor bottle full of change.
The influence of street performing is clear. Webley's commanding voice doesn't need a mike to draw a crowd, and he frequently engages the audience in participation. At his request, attendees at Notsuoh on Wednesday night provide the string section to a song through a collective "la-la-la." For the finale, Jason invites everyone to sing a drinking song and promises he has the means to get the entire room "wasted." This involves standing, pointing one's right index finger in the air, gazing at the "erect finger" intently, and spinning around 12 times. It works. The audience is soon swaying back and forth, arms around each other, and singing like drunks.
The scene is indicative of the collaborative ventures Webley pursues with other artists. He has recorded several albums, self-produced on his Eleven Records label, with a varied array of friends, including guitarist Reverend Peyton, songwriter Andru Bemis, poet Jay Thompson and "twin" Amanda Palmer.
In the same vein, he has begun a new tradition of writing one song after each performance with any audience members who wish to join. So far, he and his fans have written about 15 songs. The idea grew out of what Webley calls "this weird, leftover social energy" that lingers after each show.
"If the room empties, I feel empty," he says, so the choice to encourage a post-concert collaboration "fuels people. It fuels me."
Each song receives a bit of choreography, instrumental contributions from whomever and whatever is readily available, and a video recording session on Jason’s Macbook. As he puts it, "You write 'em, you play 'em, you get it right the first time, you upload it onto YouTube." Half-joking, he adds, "Hopefully one becomes an Internet sensation."
After the Notsuoh concert, a handful of college students stay to write a song with Webley. The group sets up shop for about an hour and a half in a space above the venue that is full of bizarre clutter. They find inspiration in a giant plaster sculpture that looks like a frosted Cheerio, a cardboard robot and one student's school assignment on ethnomusicology. Thus, a song is born:
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Personal Bias: I am a follower of the Webley-Palmer Evelyn Evelyn project. It almost defies explanation, so check it out here.
By the Way: In the "Robot and Cheerio" YouTube video, yours truly is animating the robot. – Linda Leseman