Theatrics at center stage in ‘Winter Carnival’

Accordion player known for his antics to join forces with bohemian cabaret ensemble, aerialist

By Molly Gilmore Contributing writerFebruary 21, 2014 

Take Portland’s Vagabond Opera, a band that is the epitome of eclectic. Add accordion troubadour Jason Webley and aerialist Sara Sparrow.

What you get is not quite a traditional carnival, but it’s pretty darn close. It’s a concert that the folks at the Olympia Ballroom have dubbed Winter Carnival.

While the outrageous Vagabond Opera is the headliner and circus artist Sparrow the local talent, the draw for many is likely to be Webley, known as much for his silly antics as his accordion skills. The Seattle singer-songwriter hasn’t played in Olympia since 2009.

“It has been quite a while,” Webley said. “I used to play in Olympia once or twice a year, but I guess somehow nothing came together in 2010 or 2011, and then I’ve mostly not been performing since then.”

But if he’s been lying low for the last couple of years, Webley seems to be rising again. Next month, he’ll play and speak at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Vancouver, B.C., and in April, he’s teaming up with other songwriters to play a show inspired by the history of Everett, his hometown.

It’s the first big show in more than two years for the former street performer whose career highlights include being banned from Bumbershoot for leading a group of fans into a fountain.

“After touring around for nearly 15 years, I decided to take a break,” Webley said. “In 2011, I did a big final tour, playing ... shows in most every state and over 30 countries, and finished with a big concert at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on Nov. 11.”

He released his last album, “In This Light: Live at Bear Creek,” that year, too.

There was a poignancy to the tour, Elizabeth McGeown wrote in a review of the Belfast show for the Irish music website goldenplec.com.

“There’s sadness as Webley talks of his sabbatical and possible retirement from gigging, but also hope when he speaks of his motivation to perform, and reluctance to ever completely stop, a reluctance that the audience vocally shares,” she wrote.

And Webley hasn’t stayed away from performing for that long.

“I took a full year off from performing, and since then, I’ve been saying yes to a few things – mostly playing short sets and trying out new material.”

What was he up to while on sabbatical?

“I’ve been working on other things,” he said. “I built my own house and have taken on a bunch of other little building projects I’ve been tinkering away on.”

Lately, though, he’s been building the show he’ll play April 11 at the Everett Theater with Led to Sea, Shenandoah Davis, Lonesome Leash and others.

“It’s an evening of music based on a beautiful scrapbook a friend found in a Dumpster in San Francisco that is woven into the history of Everett,” Webley said. The scrapbook was the work of Margaret Rucker, born in 1907 in Everett.

Webley says he is pleased to be playing with Vagabond Opera.

“I’ve done a few shows with Vagabond Opera over the years, and I’ve also worked with members of the group,” he said.

And then there’s the accordion connection with the band’s founder.

“Eric Stern is a fellow accordion player, and he’s been part of my Monsters of Accordion tour a number of times,” Webley said.

A Winter Carnival with Vagabond Opera, Jason Webley and Sara Sparrow

What: For this all-ages event, accordionist Jason Webley joins aerialist Sara Sparrow and Vagabond Opera, the highly theatrical Portland band that mixes elements of Tom Waits, Edith Piaf and Kurt Weill.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday; doors open at 8:30

Where: Olympia Ballroom, 116 Legion Way, Olympia

Tickets: $15 for adults, $10 for ages 10-16, free admission for ages 9 and younger

More information: brownpapertickets.com and jasonwebley.com

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