The Paradox Theater, 5510 University Way N.E., 524-7677, $8 6 p.m. Sat., Oct. 27
JASON WEBLEY has been thinking about how he's going to top last year's Halloween show, and he's been running into some trouble.
You see, last year he killed himself.
From the Pearl coffee shop in the U District, Webley led a procession of his audience to a secluded spot on the university campus, tossed his signature black hat and other clothes into a bonfire, was ritually shaved, then was placed in a hearse and driven off.
Friends say that Webley had grown tired of his performer persona and thought that this was a good way of "clearing the air," but it was such a tremendously inventive touch that it soon became local legend, and debate raged among his fans as to whether they'd ever see him again (there were also a few rumors that he was either unbalanced or a dangerous cult leader, a thought that brings a mischievous gleam to his eyes.)
Webley, a local singer/songwriter/ performer who's been playing around town for about three years, has graduated from typical rock evenings to theatrical events, while building a sizable—and cooperative—following. At a recent all-ages show in September, the large house not only knew all his lyrics but also cheerfully took part in a preshow experiment where everyone was asked to take a carrot from offered trays, visualize their vegetable with eyes closed, and take a simultaneous bite. At the end of the evening, chocolate pudding was distributed to the crowd from huge tureens as a mass comfort food.
This was a relatively low-key Jason Webley show. Past evenings featured audience members throwing vegetables at a giant onstage clock as part of an effort to "Kill Time" (until a FedEx package from God arrived berating them for doing so) and following the performer into a park as he dangled a carrot on a stick, only to receive a brief lecture on their uncritical tendency to follow leaders.
On June 1 ("my birthday," he cheerfully admits), Webley staged another show in which he "came back to life," complete with a new costume, new prop (a big shovel), new music, and a much livelier persona. He gave enigmatic gifts out to the audience, burst open a giant tomato pi� (vegetables have become an odd totem for the performer), and cut slices from a gigantic tomato cake for everyone present. The show ended with Mr. Rogers' "It's Such a Good Feeling to Know You're Alive." Webley says it was his favorite event so far.
ALL OF THESE enigmatic theatrics sometimes obscure the fact that the surprisingly youthful Webley is a truly fine musician and songwriter. He jokingly claims that "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille" is the single greatest influence on his music, but it's hard not to hear a whole host of other more likely figures in his eclectic compositions. He can swing like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, growl like Tom Waits (the accordion helps tremendously), and even accompany himself on the piano in a sad and sweet love song like Randy Newman. His two past CDs, Viaje and Against the Night, feature songs whose lyrics are filled with pirate ships, dancing devils, and absinthe; they're reminiscent of the Pogues and old Irish ballads, but Webley's vocal sincerity makes the material entirely his own.
Webley's all-ages following is truly unlike that of any other local performer. Sixteen-year-old Goths, parents with little kids, aging hippies, and fellow musicians-all can be seen at his concerts. His style is tremendously populist, and he and his fellow performers (who have included Michael McQuilken and John Osebold from Player King, as well as bassist Ishan) teasingly riff into popular songs every once in a while to the delight of the crowd. And hey, who doesn't like at least some vegetables?
The quality of his music, not to mention the enthusiastic support from his performances both here and in his tours (which have included jaunts to Australia, Canada, and, just recently, along the West Coast), suggests that he's an artist who's on the verge of a very big breakthrough. But this raises the question: what can he possibly be planning for an encore?
"I've been toying with the idea of blinding myself on stage," says Webley, with a disturbing lack of inflection. "Really, the shows have all been pretty anticlimactic up to now . . . neither time nor my heart has stopped. With luck, I will move onto bigger and grander anticlimaxes."