Nothing screams (or rather, insistently tells you—screaming would just be so rude for Stumptown) “Portland punk” more than the intro to Hazel’s new Tales From The Grease Trap Volume 4 installment on Cavity Search Records—a live document of two typical hometown shows from the band’s 1993 heyday. The first of these—recorded at the legendary-but-tiny X-Ray Cafe, a gig I attended (although I haven’t been able to locate my flannel-and-baseball-capped younger self in the black-and-white cover photo just yet) before splitting for two years in New York City—features an intro from whomever was emceeing that night, imploring the capacity-plus sardine-tight crowd to “respect everyone’s personal space and be good to one another.” Having been born in Long Beach, Calif., and raised on SoCal punk (think—would you expect such sentiment from infamous misanthropes such as Henry Rollins or TSOL’s Jack Grisham?), it took me a while to even consider bands like Hazel, or its running mates Heatmiser, Pond, 30.06, Sprinkler and Crackerbash, even remotely “punk.” They certainly weren’t “grunge.” Mostly what they were was noisy guitar pop, played quickly and loudly in small venues in front of a certain stripe of misfit who hadn’t been a Homecoming King and probably didn’t serve as Student Body President, either. It was all Perfectly Portland and redolent of an era in which record stores were still a hub for fans, radio was still a tool for musical discovery and regional “scenes” like Seattle, Portland, Chapel Hill and Chicago capable of arriving whole-cloth with their own sounds, look and aesthetic. Portland’s was, and to a certain extent remains (even today), “nice.” If perhaps more than a bit left of the dial.
Hazel was one of the standard-bearers of the Portlandia indie-rock scene, back in the day. Leader Pete Krebs had the songwriting chops and all the right relationships (he was tight with the late Elliott Smith but also friendly with just about every other artist instrumental in shaping Portland indie music at the time), openly gay drummer Jody Bleyle was the band’s lifeline to the queercore scene simultaneously brewing in Olympia (she would later go on to join Team Dresch with Donna Dresch and form/lead the Candy Ass label), Brady Smith cut an energetic figure as the band’s bassist, and then there was Fred Nemo, a full band member whose job description (much like Bez from Happy Mondays) was simply “dancer” and who often staked a spot center stage at the band’s gigs, climbing atop equipment, swinging large props around in the air and generally providing non-sequiturs of chaotic activity while the band earnestly pursued its short blasts of jagged pop. Hazel didn’t break up so much as it just stopped playing—an ill-fated European tour saw the band essentially disintegrate on the road—so when Seattle’s Macefield Music Festival (named after the spirit of noted Ballard neighborhood resident Edith Macefield, the Oregon-born real-estate holdout whose tiny home in Seattle formed the basis of the animated feature Up) phoned them to see whether they’d be interested in reforming, all it took was a quick calendar check for all four original members to quickly arrive at “yes.”
Hazel’s first show together in more than two decades came on the second day of the festival, a typically blustery Seattle fall afternoon in which rain came down in buckets for more than half of the group’s outdoor set. But for Hazel’s rabid fans (and new converts) in attendance, the weather could just as easily have been a 110-degree afternoon or a snowstorm for all it mattered. Hazel almost quite literally teleported in from the past—its hourlong set containing songs from both of its Sub Pop albums, Toreador Of Love and Are You Going To Eat That?—with the band betraying little rust or even that any time had passed in the intervening years since sharing a stage together. The group blasted through an ambitious set marked by its double-time pop (“J. Hell,” “Shiva,” “Day Glo,” “Big Fatty,” the baseball-themed “Boog,” “Lazy H” and electric Wipers cover “Tragedy”) and trademark intertwined vocals, with Krebs and Bleyle bouncing off of one another a la John Doe and Exene circa Wild Gift as their songs of relationships, insecurity and resolution resonated just as strongly today as they did back in Portland’s nascent blast-off phase. The band’s core trio sounded lean and tight, while Nemo worked his bizarro-world magic in much the same manner as when I last saw them, balancing full water pitchers atop his head, duct-taping himself to a chair, donning a dress and whipping both mic and landline telephone around like a slightly deranged Roger Daltrey (if Daltrey had been born about a foot taller, with a beard and little sense of rhythm). By the time Hazel wrapped up business with lovely closer “Truly,” its infectious blues had distracted from the fact that the sun was back out, the rain had stopped, and the crowd was totally theirs for the taking.
The band was headed back to Portland for a pair of shows in its hometown, and Krebs is due to be inducted into Oregon’s Music Hall Of Fame (along with Fernando Viciconte and veteran pedal-steel player Paul Brainard) later this month. He has a compilation of his solo work coming out and a new solo record in the hopper as well. I walked away from this show happy to have my old friends back in the fold (if even temporarily) and in such amazingly fine form. Hazel was never one of its era’s most successful bands, but from a purely PDX point of view, it was absolutely one of its best.