The room is dark, and at half capacity—about 20 inhabitants, all dotted with red and green lights that have sprung from a central point above the bar. It's mostly regulars tonight, a neighborhood crowd at their neighborhood bar, who have come to take in the live music and absorb the vibe that Stepping Stone owner Robbie Becker calls "analog."
THE STEPPING STONE 5903 24th Ave. N.W., 420-3723, ballard steppingstone.com. 5 p.m.-close, Tues.-Sun.
Partially illuminated by candles and a lava lamp, the walls are adorned with paintings from local artists and a handful of record jackets (Santana, Marley, Hendrix, McLean, Cash, Tull, Pickett) that reflect a certain moment in time that you get caught in as soon as you walk through the door.
The house band, Afrocop, has picked up a fourth member, brilliant improv guitarist Colin Higgins, for the night, and is jamming on a wild shock of ambient funk. A young man wielding a melodica sits in for a song, then wanders back into the crowd and becomes another one of the observant spectators content to exist in unison.
For those in the know, The Stepping Stone has become a hip, one-bar scene. Five blocks northwest of the buzzing Ballard Avenue strip of folk and rock venues and artisan cocktail bars, the Stepping Stone's decor—Northwest old growth and salvaged timber and stone—sets it apart from most of the less thoughtfully constructed haunts in the area. One-of-kind details, like the stone bar facing that was pulled from a quarry on Vancouver Island and the wood milled from a 300-year-old, 42-foot beam that was part of an old Ballard warehouse, are part of the bar's allure.
"The real product of The Stepping Stone is the experience," says Becker, who handled most of the woodworking himself, "which combines music, the elements of Northwest wood and stone, the lighting, and that cozy feeling like you just came home."
Thanks to bands like Afrocop and the two professional-grade record players behind the bar, music is also an indispensable part of the mixture. "That endearing thing, when you walk in and the record is spinning, you can see that's a true amplification of a groove, it's pretty amazing," says Becker. "The whole bar's analog."
As the designated house band, Afrocop holds a spot at the back of the bar many Saturday nights—although, like their style, their schedule is mainly improvised. Over the past two and a half years, the group has grown from accenting to defining the tavern's freakishly organic '60s feel.
It's no surprise that this funk outfit jives so well with the bar. After all, the band formed within its walls.
Bandleader Noel Brass, Jr. caught a train to Seattle from his native Chicago three years ago with little more than his keyboard. He had been in town only a few days when, hearing music on the sidewalk outside The Stepping Stone, he followed it in and struck up a conversation with Becker. Over the next few months the two grew close, and Becker asked Brass to play a regular night with whatever band he could pull together. Brass happily obliged.
Describing his early tactics for picking bandmates, Brass says he was "a headhunter like Miles [Davis], looking for the best players. I wanted to play with the best." Though the lineup (drums and bass) has turned over once since its inception—it now includes drummer Andy Sells and bassist Carlos Tulloss—the sound is now better than ever. Afrocop's entirely improvisational style may catch more casual patrons off guard, however; although they have an album's worth of songs recorded and nearly ready for release, not a note they play live has been rehearsed. Becker says this approach was another natural fit: "The sound that Noel has, he's so instinctual, and has a natural feel that's coming from him. [Afrocop] goes so well with the Stepping Stone experience."
"For me, it's a chance to come down and let everything out, do stuff I can't do in other bands," says Sells, a member for a year and a half.
"It's improv, but in a compositional, on-the-fly sense," explains Tulloss. "You can confine it to certain parameters, and within those parameters, you can write these short little pieces, and they only live for a second, then they're gone. I don't think we've ever repeated anything."
The Stepping Stone maintains a similarly sporadic existence, mixing vinyl-only DJ nights, singer/songwriter showcases, and bring-your-own-records nights on a frequent yet loosely planned basis. As with Afrocop, though, surprise is half the fun.
Says Brass: "I'd rather hit an off note than play the same thing twice."