The Soul of Everett – Everett Music Initiative

by Davin Stedman

Ryan Crowther Ryan Crowther

It’s always been a company town. All that money. Old barons like Rockefeller & James J. Hill once gambled on the city of Everett, brought heavy track that still runs straight through town—down to Port Gardner Bay. Today, before the freight (and soon endless coal) trains reach the Puget sound, they buzz the Anchor Tavern, an establishment built in 1906, where a group called the Everett Music Initiative organized their first concerts 106 years later. As the trains have for a century, the cars rumble so close to the building the whole place resonates like the inside of an acoustic guitar.

The Anchor is closed for business now, but it will live again. New ownership is on track to give the old saloon new life before the ink dries on this magazine’s print edition. There will again be music in the air. But for now all you can see through the industrial-style garage doors and smudged glass on the east end, where musicians load in, is a thousand band names signed in multi-coloured chalk along the brick that served as a backdrop to the stage. It’s here at the Anchor, by these garage doors, that I first encountered Ryan Crowther and inquired how the heck he did it. How did he and his Everett Music Initiative convince some of Seattle’s most critically acclaimed “indie” acts like Fly Moon Royalty, Day Dream Vacation, and Ravenna Woods to play this funky little bar at end of Hewitt for sometimes as little as a $5 cover?

Ryan Crowther

Ryan Crowther

The story of the Everett Music Initiative really begins with its founder, Ryan Crowther. Sure, Ryan remembered Everett from when he visited a couple times as a kid. When he re-encountered the town as an adult he discovered something absolutely charming at it’s very center; he saw its potential. He laid down roots.

“I remember the first day I really met Downtown Everett. Walking a few blocks back to my car after an event, I recall looking up at the lighted, historic brick buildings and I could smell the saltwater breeze. The sidewalks were clean, the air was clean and it perfectly blended the feel of a small town with the outskirts of a big city. I couldn’t figure out why I had just walked six blocks without seeing more than a couple people. It’s refreshing to know that a lot has changed since then and clearly a lot of people have picked up on that same feeling I had.”

From my own recollections as a boy visiting Everett with my father in the late ‘80s, the health of the downtown has greatly improved. The dusty stamp shops that brought us to that part of the city have long since vanished. In spite of the millions that have been wisely invested, very little can be done to brace a town from the heartbreak of the recent closing of the Scott Paper mill and the slow vacuum of suburban sprawl that’s been sucking tax revenue towards a struggling Everett Mall since the 1970s. For the owners that have been forced to sell their stake in bars along main drags like Hewitt Avenue, hosting live music was an adventurous risk and a personal passion. The closest bar to downtown that seems to be thriving isn’t a venue, but rather a gamer/geek mecca that instantly blossomed after it took over a failed sushi joint a couple years back.

Everett Music InitiativeFurther north on Rucker, showrooms like Tony V’s Garage, the Anchor Tavern, and the Historic Everett Theater are wishing and praying for the downtown revival to finally arrive. The state of the art Comcast arena and its parade of country stars, greying rock gods, and popular schedule of Silvertip minor league hockey games is certainly turning a tide. But for the streets at night to come alive with legitimate commerce and for trendy restaurants to flourish, as Ryan Crowther imagines when he walks to his office on Wetmore and Hewitt, the sparks must fly across smaller, more organic tinder. As it once did in Seattle, it can start with the smallest show.

Mike Olson is director of the Historic Everett Theater, a 113-year-old opera house run by an astonishingly dedicated nonprofit called the Everett Theater Society. The “Historic,” as many of its patrons fondly call it, is located at the corner of two main streets named after the city fathers, Henry Hewitt Jr. and Charles L. Colby. Few theaters in America have been operating as long, and for a handful of folks like Mike, keeping the Historic open for business these last few years has been a labour of love. The first thing you might notice when you enter the front doors is a display of first-generation Simplex brand silent movie projectors in the theatre’s lobby. If you take a few steps closer you’ll discover a collection of photos, including a 1937 snapshot of a boyish music director named Nat King Cole posing outside the theater with members of the production, Shuffle Along. It’s right here in the lobby with a mix of hope, and the specter of winter’s utility bills that lie ahead, that Olsen explains:
“The Historic Theater is committed as ever to continuing to bring great programming to the community and making our venue available to local bands. But we have a lot of seats to fill in an 800-seat opera house. Drawing more music and fans back downtown would mean so much to this theater. But I feel a sea change happening with groups like the Everett Music Initiative stepping forward.”

The Everett Music Initiative did indeed step forward in a quite spectacular way. In addition to its self-appointed duty to produce multiple shows each month, the collective stuck out its neck to produce its most ambitious effort yet. The EMI put together a bill at the Historic on May 17,2013 of such quality, the same names could threaten to sell out even the iconic 1,100-capacity Showbox in Seattle. The evening, which marked the organization’s first anniversary, included a welcome homecoming from Everett’s own Moondoggies. The Moondoggies have yet to follow mellower, arguably soft rock bands like the Head and the Heart and Fleet Foxes to stardom, but they’ve made some truly amazing records along the way. And below two more buzzed-about Seattle acts was another true local (and now sadly defunct) band called River Giant. The show wasn’t nearly an official sellout, but selling 450 tickets and moving that many microbrews in one night gave Mike Olson and the theater an injection of hope and revenue the Historic sorely needed. “The joint was clearly jumpin’,” said Ryan.

Everett Music Initiative“Every city has two lives. One during the day, and one at night. We knew this show was going to determine a lot for the Everett Music Initiative and whether we were going to make a difference creating a fun nightlife here in Everett. Choosing the right bands was vital in order to fill up that theater. We did. And it was literally one of the best nights of my life.”

One of my keener observations about the Everett Music Initiative is that it’s made of tougher stuff than the downright cute-and-cuddly-as-a-wool sweater pop music they often present.

I’ll never forget watching their crew professionally scramble amidst actual lightning strikes, on their own Bulushi-esque “mission from God”. Their mission, born of legitimate concern for public safety, was to move the second half of a free outdoor show at Wetmore Theater Plaza featuring Fly Moon Royalty into an already-packed restaurant called the Prohibition Grill. The EMI staff did the best they could to inform customers of their intentions while keeping volume at a comically low level until BBC America’s television hit Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares wrapped up its final round of interviews. What could have been a thoroughly awkward situation gradually gave way to magic as the customers discovered Fly Moon Royalty frontwoman Adra Boo’s authentic soul vocals. No disrespect to Prohibition Grill, but the best dessert on the menu that evening was Fly Moon Royalty.

Now, to be honest, given my own taste and the rich ethnic diversity I see every day as I take my daily stroll through the lush 197 acres of Forest Park, I hope that an organization named something as broad as the Everett Music Initiative will continue to evolve in a way that matches the wider musical interests and make-up of the community. But this is a game of re-branding, and in terms of putting on great shows and getting internationally influential musical institutions like KEXP to recognize their efforts, the Everett Music Initiative is absolutely winning. There are, however, greater forces at play.

This town simply needs more music, whether it’s to stave off the inner city blues if yet more Boeing jobs fly south, or even if it just adds up to a modest but successful effort to keep disposable income local, and kickstart tourism. But thanks to some recent efforts, whether this town goes boom or bust, live music and its culture will still be at the center of Everett’s downtown revival. Or sadly, its very survival. This is the good fight for Everett’s soul. And it’s been inspiring to see a relatively small group of people take the lead and make a difference.

For you Canadian music fans planning a trip to Seattle, I can tell you that if you don’t spend your first night in Everett, you might be missing a pretty amazing show. And I hope I get to meet you at the Anchor. I’ll buy you a beer. When the train is rumbling by, they still only cost $1.

By Davin Stedman

For more information on the Everett Music Initiative and their upcoming events, visit  everettmusicinitiative.org and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.