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Best of 2020: Finding gold in a sea of dirt

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At the beginning of every year, we here at SCENE take a quick look back at the best of the preceding year. It’s a fun way of recognizing standouts in the local arts and entertainment scene while remembering all the good times we had.

Last year was different though. Live performances with audiences have been banned since March, restaurant and bar service has been limited, art openings have mostly been virtual and all of our big-to-do events just didn’t happen. With that in mind, I wasn’t sure whether the annual best-of feature was even worth it. Would all the entries come from February and January? Would there even be enough?

Turns out there was plenty. Artists and arts organizations found ways to create and share their work. Music venues streamed concerts online. Restaurants and bars pivoted to delivery and takeout. And the big events were replaced with smaller ones that in some cases may endure beyond the pandemic.

Looking back on it all made me feel good. The past 10 months have been hard for everyone, but amid that we found ways as a community to express ourselves, to reach each other and to get by.

With that as a backdrop, I present to you SCENE’s Best of 2020. It is, as always, an inherently subjective list.

Best local album

There was a lot of good new local music that flew under the radar last year, in part because the people who made it couldn’t get up on stage to promote it. Isaac Gambito (of Jayleigh Ann & The Lost Boys) continued his evolution as a musician with the solid songwriter-pop single “Know Yah” (released under the name Isaac Atticus). Mitch Weary, aka M-Status, released several tracks highlighted by his slick cover of The Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Jez Slowe, who played about 100 gigs in 2019, turned his attention back to the studio with one ambitious and way-out-there project after another. And rapper-producer Danny Rincon, aka nthnbttr, was as prolific as ever, dropping worthwhile tracks all year long.

But in terms of honest-to-god local albums, there’s really only one way to go: “Excuses Excuses” by Ellensburg rockers CobraHawk. It’s the long-awaited second album from one of the most consistently rewarding live acts in Central Washington, and it rocks just as hard as you want it to. The whole band is in fine form, and singer Lakyn Bury is as good as ever at her patented Debbie-Harry-but-angrier delivery. You can find it on Spotify or on CD at a handful of Ellensburg retailers.

Best concert

This category was limited by the pandemic, obviously. We lost more than nine months worth of concerts in 2020. But I’m not sure any of them would have surpassed Bart Budwig at Single Hill in January.

The Enterprise, Ore., singer-songwriter was in town for an album-release show for his LP “Another Burn on the Astroturf,” and he had the place packed and fully engaged. In fact, when I think about what I’ve missed most during the long absence of concerts, I think of this show. All of my friends were there (or it seemed like it, anyway), and we were all dancing arm-in-arm and shouting the lyrics along with Budwig. It was a loud, drunken, sweaty evening. And I can’t wait to get back to that. (I bought the record, too; it’s good, but mostly I look forward to hearing it live again.)

Best restaurant

The best single meal I had from a local restaurant in 2020 was takeout from Crafted. What chef Dan Koommoo and team do over there is unparalleled in this town, and that’s saying something; the Yakima fine-dining scene has never been livelier, with places like E.Z Tiger, Cowiche Canyon Kitchen and Provisions also offering imaginative, first-rate menus. And then there are all the hole-in-the-wall taco joints like Tacos El Rey and Los Primos, takeout Indian food from Rocky Mart (which also houses the outstanding Pupuseria Los Palmas), fast-and-delicious spicy chicken from Seoul Teri-House, the mad-scientist lunches from The Lab, and the “I had no idea this place was this good” meals from Mangoz Grill.

Any of those places could hold the “best restaurant” title for 2020. But I’m going with Yakima Thai Cuisine, perhaps the world’s best right-across-from-a-county-jail restaurant. The pad kee mao (drunken noodles) have been a bedrock comfort food for my family during this pandemic, but there’s really no way to go wrong. The curry’s great. The larb is great. The tom yum soup is great. It’s all great. And, considering the giant portion sizes, it’s also very cheap. Go order some right now before you finish this article; you will not get as much enjoyment from reading this as you would from eating some Yakima Thai Cuisine

Best art exhibit

I looked at a lot of art via computer last year, and you know what? While it’s not close to the same experience as seeing it in person, it was inspiring to see not just the quality of local artists’ work during a difficult time but the quantity. Our artists did not disappear when we were all forced indoors. They just kept on creating.

My favorite show of the year, and one I actually did see in person, was Kristen Michael’s “Airborne,” which hung on the walls of Collaboration Coffee in November and December. Michael is known for dealing with the intersection of humanity and the natural world in her work, creating images that straddle the line between whimsical and foreboding. That quality allowed “Airborne,” which used birds to depict isolation and the feeling of being powerless, to serve as a perfect commentary on 2020.

Best music venue

Single Hill Brewing Co. spent the first three months of the year booking the Northwest’s best small-club-level touring acts and, in doing so, became the most reliably rockin’ place in Yakima on any given weekend. Bearded Monkey Music, which came on strong in 2019 as a showcase spot for local music, only became more dedicated to that noble cause in the beginning of 2020. And The Seasons Performance Hall, which over the past decade and a half cemented its place as one of Central Washington’s leading cultural institutions, maintained its 2019 momentum and was poised to have its most artistically daring year yet.

Both Bearded Monkey and The Seasons have continued hosting shows during the lockdown, live-streaming them in lieu of letting an audience in. Both should be commended and supported for that. But my favorite live shows of early 2020, back when “live show” meant actually walking into a place and seeing a band there, were at Single Hill. I tend to like the bands they book, and the place has a casual ambience that fits boisterous and quieter acts alike.

Best livestream series

The Warehouse Theatre Company produced Story Time videos and Living Room Concerts featuring company favorites. The Capitol Theatre, Yakima Symphony Orchestra and Larson Gallery created online content to maintain connections with their audiences. Gallery One in Ellensburg reimagined itself as a primarily online organization, launching several new programs it may keep running even after the pandemic. And plenty of local artists, both musical and visual, reached out directly to fans via social media.

But nobody put more time, effort and money into live-streaming than The Seasons Performance Hall, and it absolutely shows. The venue’s partnership with local video production company Digital Vendetta resulted in clean, engaging presentation of acts as diverse as Blake Noble and the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. That’s enough to earn the venue this best-of distinction. On a more fundamental level, I wanted to highlight The Seasons and Executive Director Pat Strosahl for their dedication to keeping the flame lit through the past year. I remember talking with Strosahl back in March about how the nonprofit venue could, if its board chose to, simply mothball its building and wait for the pandemic to be over. Instead, he wanted to find a way to keep live music going in Yakima. I don’t know how The Seasons’ finances have fared as it has transitioned into a live-stream model, but I never got the sense that it was about money. It was about living up to the venue’s stated mission of presenting the best possible music.

Most-needed Christmas event

The Central Washington State Fair organization succeeded beyond expectations with its Fair Food Fest in September, giving people at least a small taste of the annual fair that was canceled this year. But its greatest contribution to the local community (well, to my family anyway) came a couple of months later with its Holiday Lights Fest, a drive-thru fairgrounds attraction bedecked with about eleventy billion lights. There were live reindeer, too. And Santa.

My wife and I took the kids on one of the busiest nights of the whole run. We waited in line in our car for about three hours. Then we paid $10 to enter. And, buddy, if you’d asked me in 2019 whether there were any circumstances under which I would wait in my car FOR THREE HOURS with my kids to pay money to see Christmas lights, I would have been hard pressed to imagine it. But last year was hard. The kids don’t fully understand the pandemic. They just know we can’t do all the special things we’d usually do for the holidays. So seeing my 4-year-old point out the window at Santa, then look up at me beaming, well, it meant a lot. She and I drive by the fairgrounds four times a week for her preschool, and every time we pass she reminds me that’s where we saw the lights.

Fondest farewell

There was a time when if you wanted fine dining in Yakima, you went to Gasperetti’s Gourmet Restaurant. If the meal had to be special, if you wanted to impress someone, you went to Gasperetti’s. Other options came and went over the years, but for more than a half-century Gasperetti’s was the place. The food was old-guard with a few cheeky flourishes: classic Italian and American fare alongside fried asparagus and onion rings. The ambience was sophisticated (there wasn’t a rule against it, but you didn’t see many baseball caps) without being starchy (owner John Gasperetti would stop by your table with a smile).

With the new wave of fine dining in town over the past six years or so, there were other options and I admit I took Gasperetti’s for granted. It had always been there, and I figured it always would be. Now, as of a November announcement, it’s closed for good. It will live fondly in my memory.

Most-anticipated returns

I don’t know which of the big local events will return in 2021. We’re still a ways off from enough of the population being vaccinated to do any real planning. But I know what I’d most like to have back this year: The Yakima Folklife Festival.

Imagine sitting on a the Franklin Park lawn, surrounded by people, just relaxing and listening to music. You see your friends approach, and you get up to hug them. You buy each other beers, maybe even sharing sips so you can compare them. Then, when it gets dark, you head downtown to see the music in the clubs, not worrying whether it’s safe to be inside around people. You dance, you rub shoulders with strangers, and you marvel at all the simple joys you used to take for granted.

I really hope, when I sit down to the Best of 2021 a year from now, I’ll be writing about a scene just like that.

Reach Pat Muir at pmuir@yakimaherald.com.

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