Secret Shows: Seattle music on the down low

Secret Shows are an exercise in concert trust. You get a date, a location and a musical genre. That's it.
Crosscut archive image.

Vicci Martinez rocking a Seattle Secret Show at the College Club on Lake Union.

Secret Shows are an exercise in concert trust. You get a date, a location and a musical genre. That's it.

On a recent Friday, I went to my first Seattle Secret Shows, a concert experience akin to being blindfolded, tossed in the back of a dark SUV and driven to an undisclosed location. Or maybe it’s a bit more like being blindfolded and led by the hand to a romantic surprise. Either way, you are in the dark and hoping for the best.

As the name indicates, Secret Shows feature a surprise lineup. The promoters announce — to their email list — when the next concert will take place and what the evening’s musical genre will be, but that’s it. You only find out the venue after you buy a ticket and you don’t learn who’s playing until the concert starts. In my case, I arrived at The College Club on Lake Union to discover that Sera Cahoone, Vicci Martinez and Griffin House were headlining Secret Show’s 2nd “Songwriters Edition.”

Crosscut archive image.
The crowd at The College Club. Credit: Mocha Charlie

I was drawn to Secret Shows by the sheer novelty of the format without much expectation for the quality of music. I left with a deeper appreciation of the unique musical experience an intimate show in a small venue can provide — along with a little musical crush on Vicci Martinez (that voice!).

“There's something thrilling about being ‘on the list’ and going to a secret location with surprise performers,” explained Secret Shows co-founder Carrie Watt. “It is different than going to the regular club with the regular crowd. You instantly become part of an underground community filled with people that really care about music.”

Seattle Secret Shows launched in January 2013, a spin off of sisters Carrie and Kristen Watt’s Living Room Concerts series. The Watt sisters had been promoting the Living Room shows since 2008 and wanted to kick off their 5th year with something a little out of left field. Locations for the Living Room shows were already kept secret. The Watts thought it would be fun to take it a step further and keep the identities of the performers hush-hush as well.

The inaugural January show — which featured Mary Lambert, Star Anna, Campfire Ok and Ivan & Alyosha — was such a hit that Carrie and Kristen kept Secret Shows rolling. They’ve now done 10 Secret Shows featuring everything from hip-hop to soul to indie rock to singer-songwriters. Secret Shows' alums include big-name locals and outsiders such as Allen Stone, Damien Jurado, Dave Bazan, Marc Broussard, Kithkin and Tyrone Wells.

The Friday, Oct. 17 concert was at Lake Union's College Club near the University Bridge. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t have to knock thrice on the unmarked door of a back alley speakeasy (though Kristen assured me they have a venue like that in their rotation). But there’s something appropriately Seattle about a secret concert held on an old houseboat-turned-event-space floating on a lake.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a singer-songwriter concert in Seattle, the crowd of 120 people trended older. Maybe two-thirds were in the 40-to-60 range.

Crosscut archive image.Seattle singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone (at left) kicked off the show. (She was the only artist of the three I was familiar with beforehand.). Her clean voice delivered personal lyrics with a little bit of country twang (in the best way). She set the standard for audience interaction and her fellow artists followed suit throughout the night.

All the musicians were practiced at stage banter, but with only 100 people in the room, a performer’s questions actually get answered. The give-and-take lent the performance a warm, congenial vibe that I haven’t experienced at larger shows.

There were a few minor mistakes in each set — Cahoone restarted a song when her harmonica holder kept slipping further and further from her face; Martinez forgot what song she planned to play next because she had no setlist. At a bigger venue those things might feel like blunders. At Secret Shows, with their living room vibe, the missteps just made it all feel more real and homey.

Tacoma’s Vicci Martinez, who followed Cahoone, was the highlight of the show. Martinez was a finalist on the 2011 season of NBC's The Voice. Her powerful, raspy pop diva vocals explain her TV success. The application of that voice to her dark lyrics about heartbreak, love, heavy drinking and life as a teenage runaway was deeply compelling.

Martinez is an example of one unexpected benefit of the Secret Shows secrecy. Contractually, touring artists aren't typically allowed to perform nearby and within a certain time period before and after their booked engagements at bigger venues. Carrie Watt explained that by not identifying performers ahead of time, Secret Shows can circumvent those blackouts. During her set Martinez mentioned that she wouldn’t have been able to play that night were it not for the secret format.

The final performer of the evening, Griffin House, was the only Northwest outsider. The Nashville, Tenn. singer-songwriter was ostensibly the night’s headliner, but his set was the low energy, low point of the evening. (It probably wasn’t a coincidence that 10 or 12 people left while he played). His mellow singing, guitar playing and lyrics weren’t particularly interesting, especially after the rocking Martinez set. But it didn't dim the overall experience.

Seattle’s musicscape is complex and full. From amazing local artists to the biggest names in music, you can enjoy a great show almost every night of the year. But Seattle Secret Shows has carved out a unique place on the music scene with its invitation to take a little gamble and see accomplished artists perform up close in intimate settings.

If you want in on the secret, the next show is Friday, November 7. But you’ll have to get on the mailing list to get in:

Photos courtesy of Mocha Charlie.


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