Doug Fir

!!! (Chk Chk Chk), Live at the Doug Fir

If you have never been to a !!! show, then you are truly missing out on one of the best live acts of the past fifteen years, and should take immediate steps to correct this oversight.  Every performance is a blast, and Wednesday night at the Doug Fir was no exception, as !!! turned the basement lounge into a bumping dance club.

With backup singer Meah Pace

With backup singer Meah Pace

The show marked a complete 180 from the last concert we saw at the Doug Fir, as !!! and Low are about as diametrically different as can be, though it was just as excellent.  !!! has always made catchy, hook-filled dance-punk, but the music takes on an added dimension when performed live.  The band does a remarkable job of establishing fun and infectious grooves, providing the groundwork for frontman Nic Offer’s stage antics and wise-cracking vocals to help loosen up the crowd.  By the end of the night, even the notoriously dance-phobic Portland crowd loosens up and shows off a move or two.  After all, when you watch Nic perform some of the corniest moves possible up on the stage, it really takes away all the pressure of trying not to embarrass yourself.

The crowd was glad that backup singer Meah Pace made the trip out west for this string of dates, as her vocals added an extra dimension to a lot of the new material, and the interplay between Pace and Offer was quite entertaining.  The setlist was a mix between old and new, with their latest album As If blending in well with the old standbys.  The show even ended on a new song, a stretched-out version of “I Feel So Free (Citation Needed)”, complete with audience interaction.

The band opened for themselves as a Stereolab tribute band, "Stereolad".

The band opened for themselves as a Stereolab tribute band, “Stereolad”.

Though not everyone was in on the joke at first, !!! opened up for themselves as “Stereolad”, a Stereolab tribute band that included Offer sporting a dress and a ridiculous French accent.  It was a nice segue from the opening act The Lower 48, who kicked off the show with some infectious straight-ahead garage-blues rock.  Hopefully we will see them at more local shows.

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EL VY, Live at the Doug Fir

The show on Tuesday night had the atmosphere of a homecoming, even though it was only EL VY’s second show.  Even the tickets reflected the casual nature of the evening, as it described the group as “a collaboration between The National’s Matt Berninger and Me.”  The “Me” of course refers to local musician Brent Knopf, who has previously delighted Portland music fans with his previous work in Menomena as well as his solo effort as Ramona Falls, and now makes up the other half of this indie rock “supergroup”.  While there were a couple of issues in making the transition from recording project to a functioning live act, they were only minor speed bumps during an otherwise entertaining show.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

The band’s debut album Return to the Moon had only been released on Friday, and I am sure there were many in the crowd that had not been able to listen to it in its entirety before the show (my copy only arrived the afternoon of the show, so I was only able to get through it once).  Nevertheless, the audience remained enthusiastic throughout the night, even if they had no idea what to expect.   The crowd did show their appreciation for the few songs that they did know, with a few even having learned enough of the lyrics to sing along for a bit.  Songs like “Return to the Moon” and “I’m the Man to Be” had an extra pop to them and were highlights of the set, and one could easily see why they were shared in advance of the album.

The tone of the evening was very light and informal, and one could see that Matt enjoyed the break from the usual seriousness associated with his main gig.  Matt had fun with Brent as he spent some time in-between songs trying to diagnose what exactly went wrong for a couple of measures, citing his own inability to remember his cue to sing for one and playfully arguing with Brent about how one of his chords caused him to overshoot on a vocal jump in another (and in the process showing the difference between recording alone to a track and singing with a live group).  But for the most part, everything went as seamless as one could expect from a brand new group playing one of their first shows.

EL VY also enjoyed the opportunity to play with some of their friends, as local musician Ural Thomas joined in to help fill in some of the background vocals he provided on the album, along with opening act Moorea Masa.  But perhaps the best moment of the night was when the group selected an out-of-leftfield cover, the massive Fine Young Cannibals hit “She Drives Me Crazy”.  Matt opted to bring Roland Gift’s falsetto down a couple of octaves, but otherwise the band captured the song perfectly, to the delight of many in the crowd.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

Opening act Hibou were quite impressive, veering from the quiet and languid music that recalled Deerhunter to more epic, bombastic rock that would fit in perfectly fine at an arena and not a basement club.  Moorea Masa has a beautiful voice, and the delicate harmonies that she produced with her fellow vocalists brought to mind a female version of Fleet Foxes.  I am looking forward to seeing both of these acts swing through town again.

Viet Cong, Live at the Doug Fir

Or perhaps, more accurately, either “Formerly Known as Viet Cong” or “HEADLINERS”, Live at the Doug Fir

There may have been a bit of a commotion out on Burnside on Tuesday night, but the basement bar at the Doug Fir was filled with people ready to see one of the most buzzed-about bands of the year in their return to Portland.  The crowd was not disappointed, as Viet Cong performed a frenetic and gripping set that showed that the talent matches the hype.  Though this was the last time that “Viet Cong” played a show in Portland, this show guaranteed that people will line up to see these four guys perform in whatever the next iteration of the band will be.

The band on stage

The band on stage

Like it was with Bully a few nights before, the audience was faced with the prospect of knowing ahead of time what the set list would be, for the most part.  However, though the crowd was for the most part familiar with the band’s self-titled debut, Viet Cong started off the show with a couple of tracks off their self-released EP Cassette.  The band then launched into the familiar frenzied strains of single “Sillhouette”, and the crowd responded with head bobs of recognition as well as loud approval for one of the album’s highlights.  Instead of including some covers in their set, the band opted for the approach of stretching out some of their songs with extended intros and longer vamps, and the tension this created within the audience paid off in spades.

I was surprised to learn that the distorted intro to “March of Progress” was not created through tape manipulation or other studio trickery, but with careful and precise alternating drumrolls.  Mark Wallace’s work behind the kit had impressed me before, and this only added to his credentials.  The band also was able to dazzle in their slower moments, like in the haunting “Continental Shelf”, which featured some intriguing synth flourishes.  The clear-cut highlight was the epic closer “Death”, which had all four members showing off their technical prowess.  Its Swans-like false ending was pushed past the breaking point, as a few members of the crowd had their fill with the extended section of single hits, but most stuck around for the payoff of the frenzied finale.  It was an incredible finish, and left the audience clamoring for an encore, even if they knew it would never come.

Protesters outside the venue

Protesters outside the venue

The band did not mention their name during the performance, opting instead to point out that Monty, Danny, Mike, and Matt were playing tonight, and the signs inside only said “HEADLINER” was performing at 10 pm.  The protesters were armed with signs, pamphlets, and a megaphone, but they otherwise let people in without an issue.  I do want to note that Gang of Four played the same venue a week before without incident, and that nobody seemed to care that the opening act was called “Grave Babies”.  As for Grave Babies themselves, they put on quite the racket, but an enjoyable one if you ask me.

Tokyo Police Club, Live at the Doug Fir

Last night’s Tokyo Police Club show at the Doug Fir captured the vibe of being packed into a basement for a house party, except for the fact that floors were not nearly as sticky and the band was way more professional and polished than whomever Dave could bribe to play for a case of cheap domestic.  The devoted showed up in full force last night, ready to sing along to to tracks that date back to the group’s first EP, and the group complied with an enthusiastic and lively set.

David Monks mid-rock-out maneuver

David Monks mid-rock-out maneuver

The band kicked off the show with a modification to their recent setlist by opening with “Breakneck Speed”, slightly altering the lyrics to say “it’s good to be back in Portland” in a nice bit of showmanship.  “Hot Tonight”, an effervescent highlight from their most recent album Forcefield soon followed, and set the mood for the evening.  The new material mixed in well with the old material, with the group focusing heavily on songs from the Champ era in filling out a twenty song set.

We were even treated to a couple of new songs, with bassist/singer David Monks giving a bit of the backstory for “PCH”, noting that the events of the romance took place on that highway that was, to paraphrase, not that far off from here.  Another highlight was fan-favorite “Bambi”, complete with an extended intro that did a great job in disguising what was to come, as well as early cuts like “Nature of the Experiment” and the infectious “Your English Is Good”.  For the encore, we were even treated to a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, which managed to accomplish the difficult task of captivating this crowd packed with hipsters.

A good look at the friendly fellows

A good look at the friendly fellows

Openers The Domestics did a great job with their pop-rock set, effectively setting the mood for the rest of the night.  The local act kept the audience’s attention with a varied setup, switching between instruments and vocalists, all the while delivering punchy and engaging songs.  They will definitely be a highlight on many bills around town.

Deerhoof, Live at the Doug Fir

It is difficult to capture what makes Deerhoof such a unique and amazing live experience with mere words.  They combine the explosive anarchy of punk with the precise timing and sophisticated musicality of jazz, topping off the combination with the innocently sweet vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki, and it can be a lot to take in at once for the novice.  The effect is a spectacle that is unmatched in music today, and the crowd at the Doug Fir on Thursday night had a blast seeing it live at the best venue in Portland.

A view of the band in the intimate confines of the Doug Fir

A view of the band in the intimate confines of the Doug Fir

The band kicked off their set with a run of songs from their latest album, La Isla Bonita; I often have trouble distinguishing a good portion of their catalog, but was able to pick out the early single “Paradise Girls” and the fiery “Exit Only”, which received a hearty applause.  Though the record was only released a few weeks ago, it seemed that most people in the audience were already familiar with its songs–either that, or they did a really good job of faking like they knew what was going on.  Deerhoof kept the energy up throughout their performance, with Greg Saunier’s insane drumming a definite highlight.  Saunier is able to come up with a variety of sounds and textures using a fairly rudimentary kit, and no matter what insanity was going on around him melodically, the audience could tether themselves to his intricate rhythms to keep bouncing around in perfect time.

Greg Saunier bringing a halt to the set to deliver a trademark rambling talk to the audience

Greg Saunier bringing a halt to the set to deliver a trademark rambling talk to the audience

Deerhoof has a fairly extensive (and consistent) discography at this point in their career, and their setlist reflected that–though La Isla Bonita was represented with numerous selections, the band also selected songs from several of their other releases from this past decade.  A boisterous version of “The Perfect Me” from Friend Opportunity was a personal highlight, which despite the lack of keyboards lost none of its charm; another great moment was when Greg and Satomi traded instruments for a song, though it was preceded by Satomi passing around handmade Deerhoof stickers from a devoted fan while using her newly-acquired drumsticks as chopsticks.  Guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez traded angular and complex guitar parts all night, and Satomi was a constant delight whether she was playing her bass or dancing around with a jam block; her moves varied widely from specific hand gestures that were reminiscent of hula in their apparent hidden meaning to recreating ninja moves with various bouncing kicks.

The show’s encore included a song featuring opener Busdriver, whose incredible delivery and innovative beats made for a compelling opening set in and of itself, but his lightning-quick rapping over a Deerhoof track probably inspired more than a few fans to wonder what a full-length collaboration would sound like.  The finale was the pleasantly ridiculous “Come See the Duck”, and that pretty much summed up the whole night in a nutshell.  Deerhoof is not for everyone, but for those that are willing to step outside of their normal comfort zone, they are as good a live experience as you can find.

Hamilton Leithauser, Live at the Doug Fir

Before heading out on Monday night to the Doug Fir, I thought of a night about ten years ago when I saw The Walkmen perform at the same venue.  To this day, it remains one of my favorite concert memories, as the band tore through a blistering set with such power that it felt like the lounge was ten times bigger than its actual size.  Hamilton would also recall that night fondly, mentioning a couple of times during the set that he remembered having a great time ten years ago.  It turns out we were both a little off in remembering the date (ten years ago I would not have been allowed into the venue–the show actually took place in the fall of 2007), but the performance Monday night was just as brilliant.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years..."

“In my younger and more vulnerable years…”

Hamilton proved once again that the Doug Fir is the best place to catch a show in all of Portland–it’s an intimate space where you can get up close and personal with the artist (there’s not a bad sightline anywhere), and the sound is always fantastic.  There’s never an issue with the mix, and each musical part can be heard with complete clarity–a quality you wouldn’t expect from such a small venue.  Though Hamilton employed a wide range of musicians and instruments on Black Hours, he kept it simple with his live setup–a quartet which featured fellow Walkmen bandmate Paul Maroon on guitar and xylophone, with a bassist and a spare drumset (reminiscent of the type of kit that Matt Barrick favored) filling out the support.  Even with the modest setup, Hamilton and crew captured the sounds of the album and thrilled the crowd.

Hamilton enthralled the crowd from the beginning, kicking things off with the passionate “I Don’t Need Anyone”.  He didn’t hold anything back, as he grabbed the microphone and leaned into the crowd to hit all the high notes with the loudest volume possible, testing the limits of the sound system.  Leithauser seemed to be rejuvenated as a solo artist, eager to fight his way back up through the ranks and prove his talents once again; he had more energy than I had seen in years.

Hamilton had control of the crowd before he hit the first chorus.

Hamilton had control of the crowd before he hit the first chorus.

Black Hours was already one of our favorite albums of the year, and it sounds just as great live, with Hamilton and the band bringing a thunderous energy to the music.  The performance had the added bonus of allowing the audience to see how the different songs and their particular arrangements would capture distinct aspects of Hamilton’s personality.  When Hamilton was just on vocals, it was a more lovelorn, bitter mood and it seemed as if he was baring his soul; when he picked up his acoustic guitar, like with the lead single “Alexandria”, the songs were more uplifting and he added a bit of swagger (with some stage moves that recalled a bit of Elvis, especially with some of the subtle hip thrusts); and finally, Hamilton with an electric guitar signified a more reflective spirit, with an air of contentment.  The variation provided an excellent ebb and flow to the show, which differed from the normal straight run-through of the album.  It also helped that Leithauser included a couple of the bonus tracks from the deluxe edition of the album–a passionate “I’ll Never Love Again” in particular convinced my friend that he needed to purchase the special edition vinyl as quickly as possible.

It was a fantastic performance, and we were talking about the shows for hours afterward.  We had a little bit of fun at the end, as I took a photo for a fan with him and Hamilton, and I hope that he enjoyed the goofy face that Hamilton provided.  It was a neat little detail that capped off one of the best shows of the year.

Sharon Van Etten, Live at the Doug Fir

There’s always something to do in Portland.  One night you can go see Cloud Nothings play at a rundown theater behind a bar, and the next night you can go see Sharon Van Etten play in the cozy basement of the Doug Fir.  In two nights you get to see a couple of the best albums of the year, all within a picturesque town experiencing its finest weather of the year.

(To the outsiders, we’ll keep up the myth of the omnipresent rain (so they won’t move here), but 1). it’s never that much, and it’s usually only part of the day and 2). the summer almost never sees rain, and it’s the perfect temperature.)

They took down the marquee before I could take a picture, so you get this.

They took down the marquee before I could take a picture, so you get this.

The Doug Fir is my favorite venue in Portland: you get all the warmth and energy of a small club, but the sound system is excellent and you can hear all the necessary sonic details in perfect balance.  I have yet to see even a mediocre show at the venue, and it’s been home to some of my favorites over the years, including The Walkmen, British Sea Power, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids, and The Besnard Lakes.  Considering the quality of the acts that they book, my one concern is that I hope that the bands get enough of the gate that it makes their time coming out to Portland worthwhile.  It feels almost selfish that I get to see such great bands play in such a compact club.

The night kicked off with a set from Jana Hunter, touring apart from her regular gig with Lower Dens.  She had a decent set, augmenting 80’s synth-heavy beats (similar to those from the Drive soundtrack) provided by her laptop with heavily processed guitars (think early Jesus and Mary Chain or the most recent Dum Dum Girls record).  It was a perfectly pleasant way to start the evening, with a cover of “Maneater” lifting up the crowd’s spirits in particular.

Though Van Etten’s new album is notably bleak in several places, that didn’t mean that the show was a dour affair.  Sharon was both a spark and a soothing presence on stage, and in between songs she kept the mood light.  There were several fun jokes with the audience, including a discussion of her favorite ice cream (it involved multiple levels of peanut butter).  In other words, she was a complete delight.

Sharon Van Etten, a total delight

Sharon Van Etten, a total delight

Sharon bounced around between several instruments, trading guitars for various keyboard instruments and alternating spots on stage with her backing band.  Each member of the backing band did a great job, most notably the piano player (and Portland native!) who did excellent work in harmonizing with Sharon’s uniquely beautiful voice.  The set was heavy on material from the new album, which is perfectly fine considering how outstanding it is, but it was probably Tramp standout “Serpents” that generated the largest response from the crowd.  The new material sounded even better live, with some of the processed parts sounding more organic in this particular setting.  The show’s climax was the same as the one on Are We There, the heartbreakingly depressing yet beautiful “Your Love Is Killing Me”, and Sharon and her band were able to wrench every bit of emotion possible from that gorgeous lament.

As I mentioned before, the evening wasn’t just one giant downer.  It helped with Sharon’s jokes between songs, like “here’s another total bummer song”, said in a playful manner, or when she debuted a new song, an outtake from Are We There called “I Always Fall Apart”*, she made sure to mention that it didn’t aaalways happen.  The night ended on a cheerful note, as the last song was the light-hearted “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, punctuated by comical pantomimes from Sharon.  Though I wish we could have heard some of my old favorites like “Warsaw” or “Magic Chords”, Sharon did more than enough to entertain the crowd in advance of the holiday weekend, and helped solidify the greatness of her new album with her excellent show.  Also, she succeeded in making me totally want to hang out with her.

*Not sure if this was the exact song title, since my memory is a little faded from last week (and Google is of no help), but it was along those lines.