Menomena, Live at the Wonder Ballroom

Most of the attention around Project Pabst was focused on the shows happening down on the South Waterfront of Portland on Saturday and Sunday, but the festivities actually began with a few select shows around town on Friday night.  Even though it would mean I would be making the trip up I-5 on three straight days, I jumped at the chance to see one of my local favorites play the Wonder Ballroom.  I’ve been a fan of the “experimental” indie rock of Menomena for years, ever since I caught them opening up for Modest Mouse about a decade ago (and in a nice bit of symmetry, Modest Mouse would be headlining the final night of Project Pabst), and have been consistently impressed with their albums and their live show, and Friday was no exception.

Fans who have followed the band over their career are well aware that the original trio has now become a duo, at least in the recording studio.  For the live show, Justin Harris and Danny Seim don’t do as much instrument-switching as they did in the past, with Danny finding a comfortable place behind the drumkit and Justin switching between bass and bari sax, with the occasional guitar thrown in, but sharing vocal duties.  To fill things out, they’re aided by various touring musicians, and for this tour they had help from a pair of them to cover additional keyboard and guitar lines, and with their help all bases were covered and the songs sounded fantastic.

Justin and Danny are setting up for the show.

Justin and Danny are setting up for the show.

The set was a mix of favorites from Friend and Foe on, though “Strongest Man In the World” from their debut I Am The Fun Blame Monster kicked off the show (aside: that title is an anagram for “The First Menomena Album”, a fitting coincidence since the last band we saw was Interpol who just released their own anagramed album, El Pintor).  The guys were loose, enjoying the hometown atmosphere and having fun with the title sponsor–Justin was hoping that anytime he said “Pabst Blue Ribbon” he could get a “cool hundy”, though he would settle for $33.33 for saying any part of the name, while Danny changed up the lyric in “Five Little Rooms” on the fly to “at half-Pabst again”.  Speaking of Danny, over the past decade he has become one of the greatest drummers in indie rock, and it’s always a marvel to watch him capture all the tricky rhythms that comes from a result of their unique songwriting process while also maintaining perfect time.  He alone is worth the price of admission.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hoping to hear a glimpse of a follow-up to the fantastic Moms, but there were no new songs on the agenda last night.  Instead, the audience had to be pleased to watch highlights like “Muscle’n Flo” and “TAOS” nailed with pinpoint precision.  The crowd was captivated as Justin alternated between different instruments and weaving in loops with his feet all the while.  Personally, I always enjoy it when a band utilizes a bari sax, and with Menomena, it’s an integral part of their sound and not a mere gimmick (though I have to say, those bros behind me who kept yelling “TUUUBA” every time they saw the bari sax, you’re exactly as clever as you think you are).

Justin and Danny exploding in light

Justin and Danny exploding in light

The night ended with a fantastic encore, with the epic rocker “The Pelican” thrilling the crowd, followed unexpectedly by the subdued track “Rotten Hell”.  However, the guys tweaked the song a bit from its recording version, with the changes providing the finale with enough of a kick to properly send the crowd off into the night with the right amount of energy to keep raging for the rest of the weekend.  It was as perfect a kickoff for a festival that Portland could ask for.

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