First off, I must confess that this was my first show, ever, at the Doug Fir. (So although everyone else in the entire world has been there but me, I'll give my first impressions anyway.) I know, I know, it's P-town's uber-hip musical venue, and people come from all over the place just to listen to and play music here. My reasons for avoiding it are somewhat vague: at first, it was because, as a smoker, I railed against another weeny, health-nut establishment that wouldn't let me smoke and drink at the same time, two things that go together like golden sponge cake and chemical filling in a Twinkie. Since I quit smoking two years ago however, it's been because the Doug Fir is sort of the hipster black-hole: no hipster in Portland can escape its gravity, and they all end up swirling, swirling, like tp down the toilet hole, inextractably drawn to its ultra cool magnetism. Whatever...my irrational disdain towards hipsters (whatever that term means; much more knowledgeable people than I have tried (unsuccessfully) to define it but let's just say PDX is bursting at the seams with them) doesn't really make much sense, given that individually, I'm friends with a number of people who could probably qualify as hipsters yet because I like them I don't see them that way...OK. Enough of my anti-hipster prejudice. I went last Thursday, the 19th, because Sophe Lux was playing, and I personally know the violist/backup singer/keyboardist Mattie Kaiser (aka Foxy Lux.) There's my bias disclaimer.
The Doug Fir Lounge was downstairs. It was dimly lit and staffed by a number of too-cool-for-school-looking although fairly friendly employees. The decor was bland concrete everywhere, perhaps trying to be understated but instead ending up plain old boring. The woodwork struck me as hokey and self-insistent, and the stage was framed by two concrete pillars with all the charm of those cardboard tubes left over when you get to the end of a roll of paper towels. At first I sat at one of the tables off to the side (the only tables were off to the side, and only at the ones farthest from the stage could you hope to see anything like a full-on front view of said stage, and they were already taken even though I got there early.) I eventually settled on sitting on the carpeted stairs so I could see what was going on.
Per Se was the opener. This act consisted entirely of one woman, Grey Anne (the stage name of Portlander Anne Adams.) She took the stage in an old-fashioned flowered dress with a long crinoline underneath and a sad, battered pair of butterfly wings on her back, reminding me of the disembodied spirit of some lost London orphan girl who was run over by a rich man's carriage at the end of the 19th century, come back to haunt the world with electric guitar in hand. And from the first moment she started playing, I was completely entranced, and extremely impressed not only by her songwriting but by her DIY musicality to boot.
Her voice was high, thin and spidery, and yet it seemed to fit perfectly with her songs (later she hinted that she was feeling sick and apologized for her singing, but I thought it was fine.) She used looping pedals consistently and to great effect, on one song tapping out a rhythm on a bodhran and using that throughout her playing, other times layering multi-part vocal harmonies, and even laying down a whistling echo loop at one point. Her songs were wistful, daydreamy, and immediately accessible. Adams has a deliciously silly way of playing with language, such as in her song Flapjack Devilfish: "Isn't it sweet to retreat to a waterworld, isn't it fine to unwind...Bottom feeders closing in, and the flapjack devilfish flies again..." She had another song where the chorus consisted of a varying play on the words 'Paraguay,' 'paramour,' and 'paradise.' Adams is a bit of a raconteur (raconteuse?), joking with the audience and painting verbal scenes in between songs. While her songs are very original, I heard whispers of some of the very best things I love about the softer side of Liz Phair.
Grey Anne was very original and unpretentious, singing, playing guitar, bodhran, ukulele, and accordion, and I love multi-threat musicians. I would have enjoyed a bit more variety in pacing i.e., interspersing the livelier songs more evenly throughout the set, but that's really being nitpicky. I loved her show. Per Se doesn't have a CD yet, but I've already downloaded all of the mp3s available at her website. I especially enjoy The Liking and Flapjack Devilfish. This musician warmly, defiantly wears a childish heart on the ragged edge of her sleeve, and it was great fun to behold.
The next act, Sophe Lux, couldn't have been more different in style and temperament from Per Se, and yet I did notice some commonalities. (More about the subtle string of similarities I noticed in all three acts later.) Fronted by a trio of gorgeous women dressed variously like a naughty nurse (or maybe a 1950's airline stewardess), a feathered masquerade baller, and something that was later described as a spirit from the "Scandinavian forest primeval," Sophe Lux was very much about the spectacle. The bearded drummer sported a viking hat that would do Wagner's Brunhilde proud, and the bass player was some sort of disco dufus.
And that's not to say they didn't shine musically. They had some very catchy tunes, especially Target Market and Marie Antoinette Robot. Some of the tunes were a tad self-important, but maybe that's part of their whole mise-en-scene. They had some great sounding four and five part vocal harmonies, and a set list that displayed a wide variety of styles and themes, from vaguely Pink Floydian spoken word (a la 'how can you have any puddin' if you don't eat your meat?' ) to very pensive numbers with eerie sonic effects, such as the viola being played high up on the bridge for a whiskery, scratchy tonality. Lead songstress Gwynneth Haynes (Mercury Lux) delivered stirring and impassioned vocals, and the entire group displayed solid musicianship, with people switching instruments throughout the set. They even tried to get the audience to participate (although expecting a room full of white hipsters to consistently and accurately clap on the 'and' of 2 and 4 was a bit much to ask....sorry, there I go again). There were a number of problems with the balance throughout the show. Apparently the sound man was filling in at the last minute, but as the set went on some of the problems were corrected with help from Mercury.
They've got two CDs, including their brand new one Waking Mystics that has received rave reviews from Spin Magazine among others. Their Myspace page (link above) has individual tracks available for download at a buck a pop, as well as a cryptic, space-aged manifesto that sheds some light on their aesthetic. For those who want the spectacle back in their pop music, Sophe Lux is a great group, and would need to be seen live to appreciate the full experience.
Finally Rachel Taylor Brown took the stage, along with her band. I liked the way the first song started so that you didn't really realize it had started, sort of a bunch of found sounds overlapping one over the other: telephones ringing, subway sounds, a busy street, etc, and then the music comes in slowly out of nowhere. I plan on saying more about this group when I review their brand new CD Half Hours with the Lower Creatures. (Besides, I was a little bit loaded by the time they took the stage and I'm having a hard time reading my notes. That's the trouble with reviewing concerts in clubs...) A couple of things I would like to mention though: one is that her song Passion is fucking fabulous; it's melancholy, soulful, honest and deeply moving. It is replete with heavily cynical Judeo-Christian iconography (as were a number of other songs,) and is one example I can see of why she's getting so much press lately. I think big things are ahead for her. (Read an interview with her here at Bullz-Eye.) And that wasn't the only wonderful song I heard from this group.
Despite being completely dissimilar stylistically and even from a presentational aspect, there were a few underriding factors that linked these three acts. One was originality and approachability: there was nothing that was difficult to grasp or dreadful to listen to. But just because I heard a preponderance of catchy tunes didn't mean there was no depth; to the contrary, I was struck by how introspective and honest the music felt, albeit from radically different perspectives. Another thing that linked these disparate acts together as a good show was that there were a lot of musician's musicians there, and by that I mean artists who were skilled at multiple instruments, a talent which (since I possess it myself) I value highly in others, and it always bumps up a performance a notch or two in my view when I see this. From the dude with Rachel Brown who whaled away contentedly on an overturned garbage can and then delicately picked up a viola to the self-accompanied talent of Per Se, it's fun to see people with musicality solid enough to allow them to approach music in this way.
So the hipster nightmare I had feared never materialized; as prejudices tend to do, the roaches of my own preconception scattered once exposed to the warm firelight in the courtyard outside the restaurant. I had a lot of great conversations with interesting people, met members of a new band who have just moved to Portland from Boston (I hope they wrote down my blog name and will remind me what they're called since I forgot to write the name of their band down. Curse that delicious alcohol!) and had a great time in general. My first time at the Doug Fir, but definitely not my last.