One of the great joys of the annual Sound Off! under age battle of the bands put on by the Museum of Popular Culture in Seattle is the surprises. Still.
Things have changed a lot since the competition got its start 16 years ago. For one thing, the bands that played that first competition might have had a demo or two in their pockets, but they didn’t have a Bandcamp page. That is to say that it was difficult, if not impossible, to find their music. Now, anyone attending one of the three semi-final nights, or the finals, which were held this past Saturday night at MoPop’s Sky Church, can prepare for the show by searching a bandname and clicking play. That might be the smart thing to do. But I still think the best way to experience Sound Off! is to go in blank, without any expectations.
It is only in this state that one can experience that greatest of things: unexpected transcendence. I witnessed it once before, while serving as a judge for the finals of the 2013 competition, when a young rapper named Dave B and his backing band put on an incendiary performance, one that in my memory had the audience levitating and won him first place.
Another happened just last month during the first round of semi-finals in this year’s competition. Not a judge this time, I was in the audience with friends and family when a scruffy, skinny guy with a bemused look on his face took the stage, alone, with an acoustic guitar. His name was Jason McCue and how he was going to fill up such a large room with just that guitar and his voice was beyond me. And then he began.
He played guitar with a studied restraint that somehow seemed always on the verge of collapse, picking out otherwise pristine figures that were ragged at the edges, at times pushing and pulling at the tempo of the song to make a moment hang in the air, and delivering lyrics that devastated in both their dark humor and their tragic beauty. He was juxtaposition personified, a balladeer and a jester at once who could skewer religion one minute and then build a cathedral of desire the next. Within his short, 30-minute performance, he embodied at least a half-dozen different personas. He crooned for his paramour and mean-mugged his enemies, which included, in a turn worthy of the late, great Phil Ochs, our current commander-in-chief and his supporters. He was, in the most literal sense of the word, playing music. When it was all done, he had filled up the entirety of the Sky Church with a banquet of characters and emotions and, I believe, the soft buzz that emanates from a group of people trying to hold onto a moment. It was overwhelming. And it was surprising.
Jason McCue won first place that night, earning a chance to win it all. Then, at the finals on Saturday, he took the stage between sets by three other talented acts and he did it again. I was one of a handful of judges on that night, curious if the others would hear what I had heard a month prior. Apparently they did, because McCue walked away with the evening’s top prize. I was again impressed by the show. The above performance of “Relativity,” recorded by the MoPop crew, was, in particular, a searing expression of a beautiful humanity. But he didn’t surprise me this time. And he probably never will again. That’s the way surprises go. Once you know, you know. And now, we know.