Whitney Ballen’s inaugural performance was a strange and liberating experience.
Redmond Old Fire House Teen Center (OFH) staff members encouraged the ninth-grader to give it a try, so with acoustic guitar in hand, Ballen took the stage 12 years ago and strummed and sang in front of her friends and other teens.
“It was really fun. I opened for a pretty loud hardcore band — it was totally not right. I guess I was probably really nervous. It ultimately prepared me to play music anywhere,” she said last week. Continuing her reminiscence, Ballen noted that the pairing of noisy and mellow musicianship makes sense to her now.
That’s because all teens — of varying musical tastes and more — are welcome at the OFH, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this weekend with concerts, speakers, art and displays at the teen hot spot, located at 16510 N.E. 79th St.
Redmond High band The Velvet Mornings, Ballen and headliner Rocky Votolato will perform acoustic, lamp-lit sets beginning at 7 p.m. Friday, and LocoMotive, Kung Foo Grip, Triumph of Lethargy and headliner Naked Giants will take the stage full-volume style starting at 7 p.m. Saturday.
While unplugged musicians will reign supreme on Friday, the bands will unleash classic rock and noise rock, hip-hop and pop on Saturday.
The acoustic gig will resemble the old OFH intimate Couch Room shows, said Ballen, adding that the female-led classic rockers LocoMotive would have fit in perfectly with the teen center’s Classic Rock-a-Thon days of yore. One OFH event that is still slamming along strong is the Punk Rock Prom.
MUSICIAN AND ORGANIZER
Redmond High class of 2009 graduate Ballen, now 26, organized the anniversary event and booked the talent while her friend Elaine Lin designed the posters and branding.
The talent, friendships and ideas groove on at the OFH, which is one of the longest-standing teen centers and all-ages venues in Washington. Twenty-six years ago, the City of Redmond held a Youth Summit, where teens expressed a desire for their own place to gather, interact and create.
City of Redmond parks staff member Kate Becker ran the OFH from its inception in 1992 until 2002.
“I’m thrilled. I never thought I’d celebrate 25 years of anything,” Becker said with a laugh. “I’m so proud of the City of Redmond for supporting this for 25 years.”
She hopes the OFH keeps rocking well into the future.
The plethora of bands that have blasted away at the OFH include Mudhoney, Modest Mouse, Tad, Goodness, Seaweed, Jawbreaker and many more.
Ballen described the OFH as a welcoming, inclusive and safe place, one which gives teens a spot to watch cool bands and the confidence to start their own groups.
“I have a soft place in my heart for the Fire House. I’m still very connected with a lot of people who attended shows and the staff,” said Ballen, adding that she’s thankful that current OFH program coordinator Rana Becker and city teens program director Ken Wong thought of her to curate the anniversary shows.
Getting Votolato on board was a no-brainer for Ballen, who’s enjoyed his music with Waxwing and solo tunes since she was a teen.
Votolato is stoked to revisit his old stomping grounds, a place where he and fellow teens bonded, grew, learned, healed and paved their life paths with art and music by their sides. He witnessed many life-changing shows at the OFH, he said.
“There is inherent value in art and music that allows people to heal and work towards a more peaceful world that are overlooked a lot of times in American society. These benefits ripple out into society, and many countries I’ve traveled to in Europe are aware of this and are doing much more to actively encourage and support the arts in their communities,” he said, giving a nod to Kate Becker and the other OFH pioneers.
It will be even more of a throwback for Ballen to share a bill with The Velvet Mornings. The band includes vocalist Joey Boone, who Ballen used to babysit when she was a teen.
“I used to change his diapers. It’s super weird in a random way,” Ballen laughed.
Boone, a Redmond High senior, said it will be “super fun” to play a show with Ballen. The Velvet Mornings formed two years ago and have graced stages at the OFH, Kirkland Teen Union Building, Tractor Tavern and Vera Project with their tunes that give a nod to the Beatles, Buddy Holly, The Strokes and Vampire Weekend.
Prior to playing their first gig at the OFH, Boone and his bandmates checked out the center.
“This is the coolest thing,” he remembers saying. “It’s a great community and all of our friends are able to come. You meet a ton of really cool musicians and it’s a really fun environment.”
Former Redmond mayor Rosemarie Ives played a vital role in the birth of the OFH.
“While campaigning for mayor in late 1991, it was important for me to reach out to as many people as possible. Teens felt like they were disenfranchised — nothing to do and nowhere to go,” she said. Teens asked for her help to locate a hangout spot for them to “make their own,” so they could devise programs that mattered to them.
Ives praised Kate Becker and police officers Nick Lovell and Bill Corson for working closely with the teens in bringing their dream to fruition.
Ives noted that one OFH regular, who was dealing with adversities such as bullying, said that “‘It was like Cheers’ — a place where someone actually knew his name. Staff were interested in him, never gave up on him, and were ready to help him if needed.”
The OFH has touched many lives, Ives added, and many of the teens have notched careers in the music industry, youth work and social services.
Added current Redmond Mayor John Marchione: “The city’s teen programs offer an integral connection with our youth by providing innovative opportunities to support academic success, encourage lifelong learning and enrich teen lives.”
For more information on the anniversary shows, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/165549527351609