October 1, 2013
By David Hayes
David Harris is still bookin’ rock ‘n’ roll after 30 years
David Harris’s earliest recollections of Salmon Days are of the festival being more like a town parade that featured the high school band, the Issaquah Indians football team, the National Guard and a fire truck with a guest appearance by JP Patches and Gertrude.
Little did the British expatriate know that in fall 1970, just a year after moving to Issaquah, he’d soon have a hand in shaping the town’s music scene for decades to come.
The 26-year-old had uprooted his wife and two children from southern London to take a job as an engineer with The Boeing Co. in 1965.
“I remember getting on the plane and literally not knowing where we were going,” Harris said.
Something he brought with him across the pond was his passion for music. Having played in his share of garage bands while growing up, Harris was happy to provide a rudimentary PA system for his son’s own band. Steve, an Issaquah Junior High School student at the time, got his first gig at the 1983 Salmon Days, playing on a small stage on a side street that is now Northwest Alder Place.
“Dorothy Knitter, the Salmon Days manager, asked me after that if I’d like to handle booking the entertainment the following year,” Harris said.
Through his efforts, the festival would transform from a single venue with a lone band that played all day, to four stages featuring some of the region’s best talents.
Harris figures he has booked more than 450 bands in the past 30 years for the Front Street Stage and the Mainstage, which came to be known as the Rainier Blvd Stage.
But in the beginning, the task was daunting.
“Those days, I had to get a bit lucky,” Harris said. “There was no Internet, so I had to travel to a lot of bars to find bands and festivals, like the Bite of Seattle, to see who people were listening to.”
After a couple years of building up his Rolodex, suddenly, the “flood came in,” as he put it. Bands began sending in their audition tapes by the boatload, enthusiastically seeking to add Salmon Days to their schedule.
These days, the submissions have tapered off, as word has gotten out that Harris usually picks the bands he wants, knowing what the community likes to hear — a preference he’s learned from trial and error.
“With the help of Fred Hopkins, I’ve actually put on two jazz festivals and two music festivals,” Harris said. “I’ve found jazz doesn’t work. Bluegrass doesn’t work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that type of music. They just don’t draw.”
Harris said he’s learned the Issaquah community likes music they know and music that is upbeat.
“So, we get what they want and certainly what I prefer,” he added.
What he prefers turns out to be twofold — he steers away from tribute bands, as they usually pay homage to rock acts that have a handful of hits and a bushel full of filler. Secondly, he brings in names with recognition, including:
- Mungo Jerry (featuring 1970 hit “In the Summertime”)
- Spencer Davis
- Alan White (drummer for Yes)
- Chris Slade (drummer for AC/DC)
- Jeff Kathan (drummer for Bad Company/Paul Rodgers)
- Lynn Sorensen (base guitarist for Bad Company/Paul Rodgers)
- Roger Fisher (guitarist for Heart)
Harris has turned many of his musician acquaintances into close friendships.
“Alan White and I have become quite close chaps,” Harris said of the Newcastle resident. “He usually sits in every year, whether I want him to or not.”
The booking business, however, hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Harris figures the main stage has moved nine or 10 times over the years, with some of its biggest disasters occurring on what is now Veterans’ Memorial Field:
- In the late 1980s, an overnight windstorm tore through the venue, leaving behind nothing but the stage floor.
- A scheduled National Guard helicopter landing also blew everything over.
- A rainstorm bordering on a monsoon so flooded the field, the last couple of acts had to be canceled for fear of them being electrocuted onstage.
- In 1998, half the headlining band Hit Explosion didn’t show, forcing Harris to cobble together what musicians were still around to ensure the show would go on.
- Then there was the band that wouldn’t stop playing, performing long after the 6 p.m. cutoff. With the band getting more and more vulgar, the crowd shrinking and the police chief making threats, Harris finally pulled the plug on the PA system.
Harris has parleyed his bona fides into other gigs — he’s also booked the Tuesday night Concerts on the Green for 18 years, Newcastle Days and the Mount Si Festival.
Several years back, he began attending the National Association of Music Merchants conference in Anaheim, Calif. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a veritable who’s who of musicians checking out the latest technology in the business, Harris suggested these performers join forces for an all-star jam. Thus was born the Legends Concert the association features at the end of its convention each year.
In his free time, when not working in his booking business HTS Audio LLC, Harris is president and co-founder of the Thundering Angels Motor Cycle Club, has earned his commercial pilot’s license (though it’s been ages since he’s been in a cockpit) and volunteers with Seattle Children’s projects.
So, when his 30th anniversary booking for Salmon Days approached, organizers wanted to honor his long service to the community.
“We were thrilled to honor him,” said Robin Kelley, a longtime volunteer with Salmon Days for more than 22 years and its current director.
The best way, she felt, was to name the main stage after him — The David Harris Rainier Blvd Stage.
“It was just a small token of our appreciation,” Kelley said. “It was our opportunity to expand and give weight to the work he’s done for our community for so long.”
And therein lies the rub — Harris realizes it takes considerable commitment and an insider’s knowledge to fill his shoes. He can’t just hand the job off to anyone. His son Steve has been with him since the beginning as principal sound engineer for just about every band during the 30-year span. But he doesn’t want to take over the mantel, should his father retire.
At age 74, however, Harris is showing no signs of slowing down.
“God willing, I’ll keep going if they want me to as long as it’s practical,” he said. “I’ve already got thoughts about next year’s Salmon Days.”