Just Like Heaven

A Madrona supper club will teach you everything you need to know about what makes Seattle music great.

It’s an unseasonably warm Monday evening in late September, and I am making my inaugural journey to St. Clouds in Madrona. I’ve been hearing ravishing endorsements of the homey supper club for quite some time from Jennifer Petersen, who, in addition to her role as one of the driving forces behind local hip-hop label Sportn’ Life Records, is a bartender at St. Clouds. 

My date has wisely reserved us a table; there isn’t an open seat in the house. Mondays are strictly reserved for the residency of Tom Bennett and the Rolling Blackouts, a seasoned honky-tonk band that has played more than five hundred shows at. We are greeted at the door by host Michael Stedman, who seats us just across from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten author Robert Fulghum. In the adjacent open kitchen, sous chef Sharrieff Austin (a former member of influential ’90s hip-hop act DMS) starts work on a fragrant bowl of coconut-bathed local mussels.

This untitled painting by Walter Wilson greets patrons as they enter St. Clouds. Photograph by Andrew Waits for City Arts.

The range of ages and ethnicities in the room is striking and refreshing, but what is more subtly powerful is the tangible sense of community at play here. The energy at St. Clouds provides a prime example of a space becoming larger than its physical dimensions. It also vividly demonstrates that Seattle is not just a city that happens to be overflowing with talented musicians, but a genuine music community.

Petersen may spend much of her time as unofficial den mother to the local hip-hop scene, but she leaves that behind when she works the bar at St. Clouds. “Most of the time I’m here, I’m quiet about [Sportn’ Life] and just enjoy seeing unusual, amazing performances,” she says while grazing on a plate of sautéed calamari at the bar on a day off. “I like that I see performances here that I wouldn’t see at Neumos or the Crocodile. I like seeing eighty-year-olds get up and two-step near the front door or a father and his baby waltzing around the dining room.”

Indeed, the calendar is willfully eclectic. Cuban soul bands get people salsa dancing some nights, jazz singers offer a romantic backdrop of torch songs, and occasionally Jovino Santos Neto, the globe-trotting pianist and Cornish College of the Arts teacher, drops in to tickle the ivories. The club is also very generous to its performers, sharing a portion of bar sales with the evening’s band in addition to encouraging patrons to tip when they are moved by the music.

In addition to his dedication to music, owner John Platt is also committed to providing a place where orphans can come to find a sense of home and family. In keeping with this mission he and his staff and some regulars cook meals for the struggling residents of Tent City, the Downtown Men’s Inn and the YWCA Women and Children’s Center. The club is named after the St. Clouds orphanage in John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules.

It’s precisely those egalitarian, participatory elements that transform a scene into a community, as Sub Pop Records vice president Megan Jasper sees it. “A scene is simply a subculture or movement,” she asserts. “Scenes are wonderful – they’re filled with interesting art, events and gatherings. When they swell, they eventually create cultural shifts that hopefully change the world and how we see it. A community is a group of like-minded people who share ideals and work towards a common goal. The Seattle music community is the most nurturing I know of. To me, it feels like a true ecosystem, and I don’t believe that the delicacy of that system is lost on anyone who’s a part of it.” 

Maverick chef Michael Hebb, founder of the One Pot culinary salons, also understands the importance of tending to that ecosystem and the role that sharing food can play in a community’s sustainability. When he moved here from Portland five years ago, he was initially drawn to a network of chefs who regularly collaborated and communed together, but he soon found himself equally mesmerized by the city’s wealth of performing artists and committed himself to staging opportunities for them to break bread together. 

The result was a semi-regular happening, Songs about Eating and Drinking, an offshoot of One Pot that is founded on the spiritual value of communal dining, but with the added element of asking his dinner guests to share a song at the table. “If I’m going to be successful in reinvigorating the table and getting people to eat together, one of the most compelling rituals at the table is singing eating and drinking songs. Song comes from incantation, which is essentially prayer. And the first prayers were about food and water. There’s a great natural connection. The table is a participatory space; it’s not the stage. It’s actually the inverse of the stage, and that’s part of what makes it valuable. Without those intimate connections and a community gathered around it, a stage becomes less valuable.”

Hebb’s observations speak to precisely what makes the stage at St. Clouds so valuable. St. Clouds is a small space, and all the tables in the front room are oriented to face the stage. Performers are intimately poised, and the walls between the musicians and diners dissolve. It feels like being in someone’s living room. General manager Aaron Wheetman, who grew up backstage at John Denver shows (his father was a touring musician with Denver’s band) and has been at St. Clouds since the doors opened ten years ago, books all the bands. Along with the club’s multiple philanthropic interactions in the neighborhood, Platt conceived his business with a built-in commitment to music as part of his mission.

“John is a big music fan and feels like it does bring the community together,” explains Wheetman. “Music brings people together in a moment, so it’s essential for building community.” •

In addition to writing about music and whatever else catches her attention for City Arts, Hannah Levin is a DJ at KEXP. Her column appears every month.