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Seattle Dispatch: a Cafe, a Community, and the Moon Above It All

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I moved to the Pacific Northwest and people started giving me tea. But I digress. This is nominally about a café. Or about astral projection. Or about perseverance.

Snoqualmie means "Valley of the Moon" in Lushootseed, and on the drive in from Seattle, the feeling made sense. Southeast of the city, after crossing Lake Washington, which, like any body of water, is never the same twice and which, last Saturday, was a glistening mirror striped with choppy bits, the Douglas Firs blanketed the mountains and the mountains grew in grandeur until Mount Si's deep blue crag arrested the eye between huge slats of fog in that otherworldly, evenly dispelled light that occurs just after sundown.

A late May evening near Rattlesnake ridge, and the band members of Satellite by Night and the Left Coast Gypsies spilled out of a few cars in back of Isadora's Café. There's really only one drag in Snoqualmie, Railroad Avenue, and Isadora's is on it. Larry Murphy gave me my first free tea at the Zen Dog Tea House and Gallery in Ballard, where I met the assorted 20-somethings about to play. Jody Sands, with a ready smile and wavy blonde hair, owner for the last two years of Isadora's, gave me my second. The band was lugging amps onstage, Camelia Jade cradling her baby, the charango made in Bolivia that gives Satellite by Night its folklorica kick and honors her Chilean roots, Mas tuning the san shin through which he channels meditative strums that evoke his native Japan, Gabe minding the bass whose "dub" sound surprises those who'd like to easily categorize the band's sonic identity. Jody saw me sniffling and produced peppermint tea for me without another thought.

Isadora's was in trouble. The night's event was named "Save Isadora's." The recent years' wave of closed doors crossing the country like an eclipse has affected not only places of industrial employ but community hubs and cafes with perhaps the most stringent losses, and the Snoqualmie community was no exception.

Mike Antone (who, like Camelia Jade, plays solo, with Satellite by Night, and with his Snoqualmie band the Left Coast Gypsies) can tell you his grandfather played a handsaw and jumped trains before ending up in Snoqualmie. Mike has more of a right to the hobo schtick than a lot of recent singer-songwriters branded "the next Bob Dylan" but comes with none of the studied detachedness that renders many of them so irritating. In a way it's no surprise that a guy born and raised in Snoqualmie into a musical family of six, who started playing guitar and piano when he was eight and who makes music with street poets and family members alike, would have two songs top-ten on Neil Young's web page. What's surprising is how he has managed to do so much under the radar, and how humble he remains (his day job is helping senior citizens in his community get to their appointments as a public transportation employee, and one of his best recent performances was at a memorial service for one of his clients).

Somewhere in there Mike worked as a line cook, played in something called Ross the Safarian, and met Camelia Jade at the Seattle Art Institute, where he went not to make tons of friends or anything, but to listen and learn how to do recording. His friendship with Camelia Jade would lead to some great collaboration, but all that comes later -- or, last Saturday, there, at Isadora's, where a silent auction went on in back (whose rewards included two hours of pruning and a date with an Isadora's employee) and Jody's kids weaved towheaded with plates of barbecue between the grownups' legs in a pack with their buddies.

First, Mike had a dream last summer that he was singing with Camelia Jade, woke up in the morning, and called her. Their first song was finished by the end of the day. This is a guy who's great-grandfather came into Seattle with a fiddle that the family still uses; of course he'd know from his dreams what collaboration would come next.

And of course dreams would be the name of the game. Satellite By Night, a folk fusion groove band hailing from the Crown Hill area, is formed of three musicians who regularly jammed from midnight to six in the morning as they discovered their sound. They thought about the sleeping people around them, the dream-energy pulsating its way out of the houses surrounding theirs in Greenlake, about the natural satellite winging its way round the earth in the black sky as they played. You can hear it, especially during the instrumental "Yukie", which Mas wrote for his hundred-year-old grandmother. Mas is the calm river; Gabe's the sunball, playing outward to the audience; Camelia Jade's the earth it all spins round. All three musicians play multiple instruments at each show and every song either spellbinds the audience (CJ's slow maple-syrup voice might be to blame) or has them bouncing in their chairs to music that transports the audience to the mountains of South America, the mists of Asia, and the good old Puget Sound. (Seattle has taken notice: Satellite By Night is playing the Capitol Hill Pride Festival next month during the prime slot, 7pm Saturday June 26th.) Mike has been playing with Satellite by Night since January 2010, quietly and inwardly tracing the periphery of the music with a lap steel, as though guiding listeners underwater.

And the dedication of each artist, unwaveringly, is to the people they play for. "I don't like thinking of this as something I can get out of people," Mike says simply. Thing is, he means it. I don't think Lucinda Williams would have cried when she heard his cover of "Blue" if he didn't. (Camelia Jade helped out on that one. They recorded it in a road tunnel in Snoqualmie.)

In Isadora's, there lived a copy of Best American Essays from the 1990s on the bookshelf, local crafts and jewelery, homemade pies, and a knit hat atop a coat rack. Everything was for sale. The Left Coast Gypsies came on last and had everyone on their feet, stomping off the cold and staving off the loss -- loss that ripples out because when communities have no place to gather, it's not just income that's lost.

But I know you know this. What I don't know is how to stem the flood and turn the tide so the shadow across the country recedes, the doors stop closing, and the music continues.