Robin Holcomb photo by Peter Gannushkin.
Though it wasn’t initially intended for a global pandemic, the Royal Room’s Staycation Festival has since proven well-timed. The festival, meant to showcase music for those staying in the neighborhood for the summer, is now happening online, connecting audiences with local performers and providing performers with paid gigs, all at a time when the doors of the club remain shut.
In March, the Royal Room attempted to stream solo pianists, but technical glitches prevented them from doing so. By the time they presented the first Staycation performer, songwriter and violist Alex Guy, on May 24th, the city was not only on lockdown, but also on curfew due to protests opposing police brutality and advancing the Black Lives Matter movement. Looking out into an empty room, alone on the bare stage, Guy announced to the streaming audience: Although I can’t see you, I believe that you are there,” before opening her set of spare and haunting solos. As Guy attests in her performance, the Royal Room has been “a home away from home” for many local musicians.
In 2011, pianist and composer Wayne Horvitz, along with business owners Tia Matthies and Steve Freeborn, opened the venue in Columbia City, providing a small-to-medium room with a full calendar of performances. In 2016, Horvitz, along with his partners, conceived the South Hudson Music Project, a not-for-profit funding model designed to sustain music-making in the venue and in the neighborhood as a whole, as ticket revenue alone couldn’t pay the bills. (Since 2018, the Washington nonprofit agency Shunpike has sponsored the South Hudson Music Project). Currently, Horvitz says, the Royal Room is at a “crossroads.”
“Since March we have been playing it by ear, but now we are really facing the idea that we may not be open in the normal sense for a year,” he says. For the following week, Horvitz played with his wife, the singer songwriter Robin Holcomb. Opening and closing with a version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” they covered material that included Woodie Guthrie and the Carter Family. “We worked really hard,” Horvitz said about the performance, “And it seemed
like everything we planned felt right given the gravity of the pandemic.”
Staycation includes a Wednesday night stream (via YouTube) to sustain the music community while not gathering in person. Guest curators invite a group of musicians to perform from their homes on a given theme; on August 5th, Allison Preisinger and Kyle Findley-Meier curate a singer-songwriter session that includes songwriters Eden Iris and Dwayne Haggins.
Sundays are streamed live from the Royal Room stage and are presented via Live Concerts Stream with viewing links available on the Royal Room Facebook Page. Upcoming Staycation performances include bassist Abbey Blackwell’s “Rae,” on August 2, longtime local experimenters Diminished Men on August 9, and African percussion group BenGhaTo is also planned to perform in August.
The Royal Room will also celebrate Horvitz’ 65th Birthday on August 28 with a streaming festival that features the ensemble Sweeter than the Day and the Royal We; Holcomb joins on
August 30 with performances featuring Reggie Garrett, Geoff Harper, and Eric Eagle. Jay Thomas’ band will present the release of his latest CD High Crimes and Misdemeanors, September 11.
With the help of their landlords, the Royal Esquire Club, Horvitz and his team hope to minimize expenses and sit tight until opening becomes a safe option. “Just to be clear, this is a work in progress and not even settled,” says Horvitz. “It isn’t really a business plan, it’s a disaster plan.”
Until then, the Royal Room’s priorities remain presenting music and guaranteeing pay for musicians, currently through donations to the South Hudson Music Project.–Ian Gwin
For details visit theroyalroomseattle.com.