I'm a tourist in Seattle's rockabilly scene, but what a great place to go on vacation. As a coat checker at Ballard's Tractor Tavern two years ago, I worked the 17th annual Shake the Shack Rockabilly Ball, collecting enormous leopard-print coats and bejeweled cardigans from the night's arrestingly fashionable patrons. "It's definitely a scene. They've got their outfits and their lifestyle," says Tractor promoter Ryan Ellis of one of the club's core crowds. He says the three-day event—the 19th annual ball is being held this weekend—almost always sells out, and the bar does a brisk business in PBR and whiskey.
Shake the Shack Rockabilly Ball With Knut Bell and the Blue Collars, Lustre Kings, Eddie Angel, Dragstrip Riot, the Neanderthals, Betsy-Dawn Williams, Thirteen Stars, the Black Crabs, Johnny Mercury, Jeff Potter, Marti Brom, and Crazy Joe and the Mad River Outlaws. Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-789-3599, www.tractortavern.citysearch.com. 8 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 21–Sat., Sept. 23. $15 each night/$40 pass.
In addition to the Rockabilly's playful energy, my greatest discovery that night was the top-notch people- watching. I couldn't imagine the indie-rock scene celebrating a chance to dress up, give or take the occasional Punk Rock Prom. But here, the term "fashionably late" took on new meaning. First to arrive were the ladies with crystal earrings, crinoline-lined skirts, and elegant cocktail dresses; later, the skintight satin dresses and tattooed calves of the psychobilly set. The style spectrum was eye-popping.
Designer Tess de Luna owns the Velouria boutique around the corner from the Tractor. While she feels the rockabilly scene used to be bigger in Ballard, she still gets customers looking to complement their edgy style with recycled leather purses and baubly earrings. "They're gonna go for that girly accessory, but they still want to have their black skirt and tights," she says.
As the ball filled up, I noticed that the men, by and large, were in greaser uniform. With that tell-tale rectangle rolled up in their shirtsleeves, bandanas in their back pockets, and meticulous pompadours, three dudes casually leaned against a railing, clutching cigarettes joint-style, and surveying the scene. Though calculated, there was something genuinely romantic about their Outsiders stance, and they barely broke character until the headliners, the Twisted Tarantulas, blew the roof off.
"The music reflects a lot of trends in the '50s, and the style just goes along with it," says Shake the Shack DJ Leon Berman, who's hosted the KEXP show since 1986. "It's the culture of rockabilly, and that's what makes it so fun," he says, noting that many musicians use vintage equipment and instruments onstage. He's excited to have top singer Marti Brom at the ball for her first Seattle appearance, as well as Crazy Joe and the Mad River Outlaws, Dragstrip Riot, and the other local and national acts.
The 20th anniversary of Shake the Shack is coming up in November. What has Berman enjoyed most about the scene over the years? "Seeing all the new people discover it, and seeing the old people keep coming back," he says. Not dressed to the nines? Don't worry: "You can still come and have just as good a time."