by ANDREW MATSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & erched on the bow of a small rowboat next to a hand-crank gramophone, long-haired, wispy-bearded Jason Webley squints back at the camera like Andrew W.K. gone Grizzly Man. He floats into Blair Witch country as the phonograph's bell emits superimposed images of winged, accordion-playing skeletons in black and white woodblock relief.
Rough-hewn, vaguely anachronistic weirdness launched into foreboding wilderness: This is how Jason Webley sees his music entering the world. Headed who-knows-where, Webley leads and the audience follows.
Judging by the picture, he's got a pretty good handle on himself. Listening to Webley's music is definitely a trip.
It's a trip people some are more than willing to take.
Jason Webley has committed followers. As Patrick Kendrick, who booked Webley's upcoming concert at Caterina Winery, told The Inlander, "I've got some guy with a busload of 50 people coming down from like Colville or somewhere."
People have followed Webley crazier places -- he infamously Pied Piper-ed a crowd at Seattle's popular Bumbershoot festival straight into a giant outdoor fountain. Happily grinning, he was arrested on-site and promptly issued a lifetime Bumbershoot ban.
Webley's engaging stage presence was developed during a busking tenure on Seattle's streets. "I don't busk anymore," says Webley via e-mail. But, he writes, "it was good for me, and I felt it was a great way to get started in what I do now -- try to coax people into playing along, into getting a bit more involved than they might normally."
An annual performer at Burning Man, the nouveau-hippie festival where attendees gleefully trade societal commandments (thou shalt wear clothes, use money, etc.) for a more ecstatic union, Jason Webley's mind isn't gone. People just go to his concerts to lose theirs.
Asked about concerts that changed his performing style, Webley recalls the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Seattle Opera House. "It was insane. The whole audience was on their feet dancing and clapping. The energy from the stage was a thick, palpable force. It came out and grabbed you and steadily, persuasively, kept pulling you in farther and farther. I was blown away."
At once out of control and completely focused, Webley establishes the kind of community in concert that is near-religious; his fans are more like followers. JasonWebley.com has an online forum where they unravel the Webley oeuvre, talk about song meanings and post accordion/guitar tablature. People -- grown adults -- draw charcoal Webleys, scan them, e-mail them, comment on them. As Webley creates albums -- nine solo and collaborative records are for sale on his Webley-site -- he creates a universe, and people live in it.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here's vaudeville in Webley's blood. His vivid, imagistic story songs are performed in confessional first person or narrative third. They all tell an entertaining story.
Webley chooses organic-sounding instruments like a set director does props -- solo, he rocks an accordion or acoustic guitar. Ensemble performances follow the acoustic framework: strings, horns, xylophone, drums and a shaken vodka bottle full of foreign coins. It's music for barns, barrooms and coffee shops.
Lyrically, he's a bohemian troubadour waxing poetic on love and life. Laughing in the dark, Webley ruminates on death with the black whimsy of drinking-man's literature.
On "Dance While the Sky Crashes Down" off 1999's Against the Night, Webley does a soft bark over minor-key accordion staccato and stumbling marimba. Spitting breathy poems close to the microphone in under-the-breath, apocalyptic mutterings, Webley paints playtime pictures. "It's raining leprosy and acid," he sings, but instead of confronting imminent doom with dreadful gravity, Webley observes "a ship of maniacs with knives" nonchalantly "playing blackjack with their lives to kill the time until the giant rats attack." There's some Nightmare Before Christmas-style cutesy-gothness in there, but "Dance While the Sky Crashes Down" is a fanciful, well-worded dead ringer for Rain Dogs-era (1985) Tom Waits.
What does Webley think of the comparison?
"Makes sense. I used to be flattered and then annoyed by the comparisons. Now I don't think they happen as often." Webley's pithy, one-line descriptions and vocal range (feather-growl to hearty bellow) mirror Waits' distinctive style, but Waits' outsider character sketches don't have as much in common with Webley's newer, broader material.
Current song "Ways to Love" off 2007 album The Cost of Living (Eleven Records) has Webley in band mode, playing lead accordion over propulsive drums and ebullient strings. An up-tempo, spirited march supports one of Webley's apparent lyrical themes: Life is an uncaring killer, so try and have fun before you're dead. In Webley's words:
Our mother made us into swimmers; She threw us straight into the river. Our minds were sharp, our bodies burning; We threw ourselves into our learning. Dear God, this current's stronger than we thought.
If the song calls out to God, it's only a figure of speech. In Webley's world, there is no divine intervention. People save people, and only temporarily; death for all is one of the few certainties in Webley's stories. That, and an accordion soundtrack.
The Jason Webley Quartet with Ribbons, Led to Sea and Quilken at Caterina Winery on Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 8 pm. $7. Call 328-5069