A Sense of Place

Quin Nelson

Over Thanksgiving break, I got to listen to a lot of Seattle music. On Wednesday, I went to see the Seattleite rapper Sol along with a bunch of other local rappers. On Friday, I saw Pearl Jam in Spokane in their penultimate show before they ended their tour in Seattle, where they started out decades ago.

Seeing the two shows so close together was interesting for a couple reasons. First, it provided a glimpse into the life cycle of music. Here was Sol, a young rapper many have dubbed as the next Seattle rapper to break out, playing his biggest local show to date. In contrast, Pearl Jam arrived back in the Northwest as prodigal sons, veterans of worldwide success whose careers are starting to wind down into that awkward aging rock star phase. Meanwhile, Seattle duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are at their popular apex, recently receiving seven Grammy nominations. Each Seattle artist represents a different point on the life cycle, with Sol poised to break out and Pearl Jam returning home.

But this sort of begs the question, what is Seattle music? Globalization has done wonders for the music world in making all kinds of music very accessible, but it has also muddled music’s sense of place. New Yorker A$AP Rocky sounds like he’s from Houston, Englishmen Mumford and Sons sound like they’re from the heartland, and Kanye West sounds like he’s from another planet. Influences continue to blend and warp together so that sounds are merely floating about homeless, waiting to be taken in by some musician somewhere.

Seattle is primarily known for grunge, as Pearl Jam can attest. However, the sound has since been adopted by other cities and mutilated by many a gravel-throated post-grunge singer, and Seattle has had to keep moving. Now we have Macklemore, a polarizing rapper who has found a startling amount of national success with a catchy, pop-friendly sound. If there is anything to conclude about what Seattle music is, it’s that there isn’t really any particular definition, at least not right now.

The only underlying theme between these Seattle acts is how they receive undying support from their hometown. The Sol show featured plenty of young, obscure rappers who could have easily been dismissed, but the crowd showed them tons of love, and Sol was treated like a king. The Spokane fans absolutely adored Pearl Jam and hung on Eddie Vedder’s every word. These fans were obviously there for the music first and foremost, but there is a special kind of love a crowd has for a hometown act, like a friend that you genuinely want to see succeed.

By the way, both shows were great. Pearl Jam played all their finest jams (see what I did there?), Mike McCready’s solos were very impressive, and Eddie Vedder cut a guy’s dreadlocks onstage. The Sol and Friends show was energetic and solid, with lots of talented performers. Sol is pretty good, a decent technical rapper with an ear for pleasant beats and an interesting “socially conscious stoner” persona. I don’t know if he’ll ever reach the same fame as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. But whether or not he does, he can take comfort in the fact that his city will always welcome him back with open arms.