Sonic Spiritual Rituals with Jazz Boyfriends, Maurice and the Stiff Sisters, and Kool Stuff Katie

I had been wanting to see a full set from Jazz Boyfriends since catching just the tail end of their performance at Noggin Fest this past Fall. They had a sound that was adventurous but also cozy and inviting. That desire was fulfilled on a clear March night at The Liquor Store on Belmont. The group filled the room a warm blanket of sound: sizzling cymbals, smooth but powerful vocals, lilting strings and enveloping upright bass notes. Chibia Ulinwa and June Magnolia, the group’s primary songwriters and former Portland State Symphony members, traded duties on keyboard and various stringed instruments throughout the set, with Ulinwa on violin and Magnolia on Viola and guitar at times. The deft harmonic interplay of the their vocals and lead instruments soared above the skillful and dynamic drumming of veteran percussionist Clancy Hanes Feahr and the rich tones of double bassist Kyle Lissman. They take a great deal of inspiration from jazz, as their name implies, but also seem to draw a lot of influence from acoustic folk, soul and classical music to create a unique sound that doesn’t easily fit into a single genre.

Maurice and the Stiff Sisters displayed an impressive mix of showmanship, humor and earnest commentary by presenting their set as a religious ritual. Band members plodded onto the stage in even-metered steps, draped in ascetic monk’s robes to the soundtrack of a warped, pre-recorded Gregorian chant as front-man Maurice Spencer made a procession through the crowd and up to the stage. He was waving an incense thurible and styled like a hippie Christ, or perhaps a haphazard mash-up of Andrew W.K. and Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class. Once he ascended to the stage and picked up his guitar, the chant cut out and the band launched into the first of many peppy, soul-infused nerd-rock numbers. In addition to an energetic rhythm section of Michael Doherty on bass and Dave Shur on drums, the group featured a tight horn section with Aaron Mattison on tenor saxophone and Bryant Byers on trombone, adding emotive flourishes to the songs’ driving phrases and catchy melodies. About halfway through their performance, Maurice took a moment to deliver the rock club equivalent of a homily while the rest of the band left the stage for a costume change. He described live music performances as a form of ritual and and community in a secular world, explaining the band’s gimmick and also making a compelling statement about the spiritual power of live music. After the good word was shared, the band returned to the stage sans ecclesiastical garb and continued to play more vigorous, danceable power-pop tunes. Kool Stuff Katie is long-standing Portland garage rock duo. Members Shane Blem and Saren Oliver manage to make big pop rock sounds with a drum kit, a guitar, and vocals -and admittedly also a robust array of effects pedals. They finished off the night with a set of straight-forward, but expertly crafted tunes. Their infectious rock riffs, hard-hitting drums and tight vocal harmonies were the perfect accompaniment for both dancing near the stage and relaxing at the back of the bar with a beer. They also included some choice covers, showing equal facility in interpreting Black Sabbath and Bikini Kill. It was a satisfying close to a typically eclectic night of Portland music.

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