Local singer/songwriter/music promoter Wil Russoul sat behind a small wooden checkerboard, arranging the pieces into a representation of Aberdeen’s growing downtown music scene.
“OK, here’s D&R,” he said, placing a piece near the middle of the board. “Now, here’s Wiitamaki’s and Boomtown,” adding two pieces next to the first. “Then there’s Cortese’s, the Tap Room, CaKecaKes, Scoops, Rediviva, Wine Sellars, Amore …” Soon there were checkers spilling off the side of the board, each one representing a venue that’s part of the local music scene that Russoul refers to as “The Alley.”
The Alley is his vision of a music scene for Aberdeen that connects the dozens of local musicians and artists who need places to play with businesses that would welcome a musical element. The ultimate goal is to create an atmosphere that will draw more traffic to downtown businesses as well as bring attention to the talent that exists across Grays Harbor County.
The name The Alley was derived at first as an homage to the long-closed Ali Baba nightclub, said Russoul. Since the walls of the alley along the south side of the D&R Theater are something of a canvas for local artists to share their work, the name evolved into The Alley.
“The Alley was a little idea I had, since we were trying to start a music district downtown, bringing businesses and musicians together,” said Russoul. “One day I stumbled into Wiitamaki’s and we talked about the John Wayne movie filmed in the Ali Baba. I got to walking around and saw that there actually was an alley with all this art, so I called it The Alley. Just made sense to me.”
Russoul kept walking the downtown streets, usually with his guitar in hand.
“There are a lot of venues in just a couple blocks,” he said. “Here we are, with a bunch of different places to play, and how many artists are out there right now that are not in a band, don’t want to play in a bar? I wanted to have this real mix.”
Russoul found the majority of the businesses in downtown Aberdeen were open to hosting music. The concept grew more or less organically, with Russoul at the helm, working with businesses to determine what acts would work best with the type of establishment they had and talking to those on his list of musicians about playing them.
“At one time we put 26 musicians out in that little area,” he said. “The locals started to realize, hey, sometimes there’s music down there.”
This was the beginning of The Alley’s “First Friday” musical offerings. The first Friday of each month, local musicians would scatter to a variety of different downtown businesses staggered throughout the evening and into the night. The idea was to create a downtown where people can walk from place to place, visiting local businesses, maybe sampling what they have to offer, and listening to music while they do it.
The types of music are as varied as the businesses of downtown. At any given time you may see a harp player in a jewelry store, an acoustic set in a coffee shop, a rock band in a record shop, and maybe something in a tattoo parlor. And it’s no longer confined to just downtown Aberdeen.
Just recently, Russoul has expanded the number of days certain venues are open to music, and what types of music and acts are the focus on those days. An example would be Charlie’s in Montesano, with single, duos and small groups performing originals or covers on Thursdays; another would be an open mic for singers and songwriters the last Friday of each month at the Luna Rana Coffee and Tea Shop in Cosmopolis.
“The Alley is just the heart,” Russoul said. “It’s just a gathering place to have a central area to play.” The Alley branches out to other venues, like Charlie’s in Montesano, Luna Rana Coffee and Tea in Cosmopolis, some venues in Seabrook, and beyond. Recently, bands from the Olympia area have expressed interest in sharing their venues with those of The Alley.
There are three types of shows. There are open mics, for the person who doesn’t have a band but would like to showcase his or her talent and have a place to share some of their own original material. Then there are jams for artists who don’t have a steady band or gig and would like to play with other area musicians. And there are showcases, which feature a top billed act, a more standard concert type setting.
“I like to put maybe eight acts in one venue, performing three songs each,” said Russoul. The reason? Figure a three-song set is about 15 minutes, about the time it takes to drink a coffee or have a beer. The patron of the establishment hears the first set, might even be ready to leave, when the second set starts. That patron may decide to stick around, Russoul said, and perhaps even call a buddy or two to check out the music, which means more exposure for the artist and business for the venue.
As quickly as the scene has grown, it has become difficult for Russoul himself to place all the acts and even to produce a schedule of who, where and when the acts will be playing. To that end, he created a Facebook page, The Alley Music Scene Downtown Aberdeen. That is the best place to keep track of upcoming shows and venues, and is also a good place for artists who want to participate to get involved. Check it out at facebook.com/aberdeenalley.
Recently, Russoul posted to the Facebook page a list of venues and the types of music they feature. The list includes links to the venues’ Facebook pages, and some include the days and times certain types of music will be showcased. He also recently announced a new songwriters forum the third Thursday of each month, starting March 16 at the D&R’s coffee shop. The forum is open to everyone and has a featured artist who will perform and discuss their music. Participants are encouraged to share their techniques and take part in group writing challenges. Think you might have a song in you? This is the place to share it.
Ericka Corban, the local singer/songwriter who will appear on the NBC music competition “The Voice” this season, was and remains a part of The Alley. She is also a good representation of the type of individuals who make up the Aberdeen scene: an immensely talented writer and performer, but also a spouse and parent. In fact, you’ll find more moms, dads and day job working folks at one of The Alley’s venues than you might imagine.
These artists are not here for money or fame. The Alley is home to a group of artists who rely on each other and may or may not even have all the equipment needed to perform a gig on their own. When that happens, the rest of them rally and legitimately do everything they can to encourage their fellow musicians and songwriters. When one finds success outside The Alley, the outpouring of support from the other artists is swift and genuine.
“I’m just trying to create a buzz and create the district and see what happens,” said Russoul in his small office above the marquee at the D&R Theater. “Right now the concept basically is just a message; I hope the community benefits will follow. A lot of people might say, why pick Aberdeen? I think the story is going to be down the road that, if this should work in a town this far away from I-5, in a place where we see areas that are falling down, if you can make it happen here you can replicate it anywhere.”