It just kept going up. Leaving Anacortes, the temperature was touching a comfortable August, in the low 70s, easy. Driving south on I-5, toward Seattle, the temp started to climb. Seattle’s always hotter than Anacortes. Shifting east, then continuing south on I-405, through Bellevue, the heat was touching 80. Heading into the Cascade Mountains on I-90, with the heavy holiday traffic climbing up and over Snoqualmie Pass, even at 3,000 feet, the air continued its warming trend, closing in on 90. Depending on your perspective, I-90 either begins or ends in Seattle or Boston. For me, it felt like I was leaving the good part behind me.
Out in the shadeless, blasted, treeless open ground of the Inland Empire, ancient volcanic rock crumbles in a searing 95-degree scrubland. It gets even hotter. There were signs everywhere warning outsiders not to park cars in dry grass, any hot metal would ignite the ground under a hot car. Few animals stir in the day’s heat if they can help it. Cattle cluster in defeated groups by their galvanized water troughs, nowhere to escape to. This time of year, the hay and straw have all been cut and stored in giant tube-like structures covered in gleaming white tarps, the real cash crop of the region. Dust from empty fields rises up, both sides of the road, into the heat like soft, tan pillars of fire.
I was heading to the Scablands of Spokane, crossing miles of heat-shimmering black road, to see the Anacortes punk band Buffet, a show organized by one of their labels, Resurrection Records. Island punks. Coastal punks. It’s a fitting journey of extremes, land and band. Two kinds of islands. Over a hundred degrees in summer, below freezing and buried in snow in winter. This day in Spokane, winter seemed so far away as to be a fiction. A fitting place to see this, the twelfth live performance by Buffet since forming as a band.
How much land does one man need, measure him from head to toe, dig a hole down in the earth, bury him within the ground…from the song, “Land,” on “All-American” (Resurrection Records, Knw-Yr-Own, All You Can Eat Records, 2019)
Buffet appeared at Berserk, a small, newish club in Spokane. There are dozens of clubs in the city. But most “outsider” bands don’t tour through Spokane. It’s a city full of local music, but it’s also a city that’s…not really on the way to anywhere. Berserk isn’t too far from the river, on the main floor of an old warehouse. At night, it’s far enough away to be a mostly empty part of the city. Concrete walls and floor, it’s a punishing sound box. The lighting is seriously dim, so dim I had to push my camera hard to get anything without using my flash. And I never use my flash. Embrace your grain, a grim thought, as you’re shooting and thinking everything will turn out like crap.
Buffet was loud! Buffet switched out of its headlining position to play second this night (the evening’s music was an hour late starting). They would be following the band S4lt. Even Braydn’s snare had an angry bite in soundcheck. S4lt kicked off a loud 80s dance vibe with shouty punk lyrics. Dark but bouncy, danceable even. Buffet stepped into their usual roaring space and the audience pulled back at first, unsure of where this band was taking the room. Then, after a couple of songs, the onlookers, drinks in hand, pressed in close. The roar intensified. Adding to the difficulty of a dim shoot, the band moved in a frenzy. Harder still to get a lock on shots. My insecurity grew.
There’s a mystery at the heart of Buffet, not easily spotted by the casual fan. In spite of so few live shows, and so few band practices, the band defiantly keeps getting better. This show was the best they’ve ever done. Tight. Fast. Telepathic in their synchronicity. Extending each song into a new personal space. Most bands would slide back with so much down time. Buffet’s punk fire is burning brighter than ever. They belong together as a band, though…I’m not sure they believe that. Their edge remains pure.
As we (the audience — the band would be tearing down their gear for a while), wandered into the 93-degree night heat, I could feel it, this nagging question of whether or not I had seen my final Buffet show, in of all places, a concrete hot-box in Spokane. Their pattern, as I’ve said, is to go for long periods of nothing, followed by fiery reunions like this night.
Who knows. It’s not even clear to me that there won’t be more shows before the end of this year. I’m told there have been invitations, one even coming from Christian Death. Buffet is a journey, not a destination. Buffet can be whatever it wants to be. I have the photos and the memories, but I lack the certainty of what they want to be. Other bands would have to meet at midnight at some crossroads to make deals with demons to get this good. Then again, maybe Buffet’s indifference is what makes them so good. It’s not supposed to work this way, but it does for Buffet.
With no new shows booked, they’re probably getting better even now, as I type these thoughts. By not playing, they’re getting stronger. No one can know the mind of Buffet.