All posts by Alison Dennis

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.

Dual Release Party with The Cabin Project and Camp Crush

Two local bands, The Cabin Project and Camp Crush combined forces this past January 31st at Doug Fir Lounge to release a new full-length album and a new EP, respectively (check out Ramune’s review of the Cabin Project’s new album, Decenter, here). Both bands are defined by their strong emotive and melodic songwriting, but each has very different genre hallmarks.

Camp Crush, a synth-pop duo consisting of Jen Deale on keyboards and lead vocals and Chris Spicer on drums, quickly got the room bobbing with tight rhythms and big, anthemic choruses. Their sound combines the icy textures and dance beats of new wave with the bombast of 80s pop and hair metal. I couldn’t help but imagine some of their emphatically belted choruses being delivered by Bonnie Tyler or Foreigner. The duo also brought out bassist Benjy Rickard (Labradora) and guitarist David Ricardo (The Zags, The Cool Whips) for a few enjoyably dramatic songs near the end of their set. Both Rickard and Ricardo played on Camp Crush’s new EP, Run.

The Cabin Project quickly drew in the audience with their ethereal Americana songs that combine the intimacy of folk music with the orchestral flair of indie pop. Frontwoman Katie Sawicki’s warm, reverberant guitar tones blended effortlessly with two part vocal harmonies (from Sawicki and drummer/vocalist Zanny Geffel), melodic basslines from Kelly Clifton, and sweeping, pedal-modified violin phrases from Jean Mastaler. Additionally, Geffel’s dynamic drums perfectly complemented the melodic and emotional swells of the tunes. Sawicki took some time during the set to speak about the meaning and and intention of their new songs as personal reflections of queer women living in a trying and frightening political climate, and many of the attendees were longtime fans who sang along passionately with songs, adding to the intimacy and connectedness of the concert experience.

Melancholic Dance Jams at Miss Rayon’s Album Release

The local, arty post-punk trio Miss Rayon released their new full length album Eclipse on Saturday, November 17th with a celebratory show at popular all-ages punk club, Black Water Bar.

I received some upsetting news as I was waiting for the show to start and suddenly wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the right headspace to enjoy loud music in a crowded club. However, the crowd was more warmly enthusiastic than rowdy, and each of the bands who performed that night had a special way of blending dark, brooding, and even chaotic moods with infectious beats, creating a melancholic dance grooves that felt strangely therapeutic.

WL opened the show with a big, fuzzed out rock songs and a detached stage presence. Singer/bassist Misty Mary’s hyaline dream-pop vocals fluttered above the fat chords and insistent rhythms. Their songs are simple in structure, but have a satisfying textural breadth that manages to be both heavy and hypnotic.

After WL’s set, the 6-member ensemble Conditioner Disco Group hurriedly filled the stage with an eclectic array of gear, including bongos, alto saxophone, and mini synth alongside the typical guitar, drums and bass. They quickly animated the crowd with unique no wave party jams, blending earnest hardcore didacticism with fluttering free-jazz runs and tight Motorik rhythms into a controlled frenzy.

Miss Rayon started strong right out the gate, delivering a Yoko Ono cover with tight parallel vocal harmonies, sizzling drums, and deftly intertwined synth and guitar melodies. The original material that comprised the rest of their set continued to showcase the interplay of beatific vocals over moody, angular instrumental counterpoint between guitarist Eric Sabatino and bassist Jenny Logan, and tight, hi-hat-heavy beats from prolific portland drummer Hannah Blilie. This juxtaposition was used to particularly great effect on their performance of their new album’s title track, “Eclipse,” a mournful ballad with a blues cadence in which Blilie’s gentle voice soared over the somber instrumental riffs.

Putting on a Benefit, Putting on a Costume, Putting on a Show

Halloween tribute nights have become a beloved tradition in many live music scenes. One of the most compelling aspects of the Halloween season is the culturally sanctioned opportunity to try on a different identity. For bands, it’s an excellent opportunity to embody a band that’s inspired them -or at the very least, entertained them. For audiences, it’s a chance to revel in familiar hits and the spectacle of retro costumes and comical wigs. The Trick or Treat! Tribute Night at Turn! Turn! Turn! On Friday, October 26th was no exception. It was a fundraiser for the local non-profit Not OK PDX, a women-run organization that runs training workshops aimed at empowering local businesses and service industry staff to recognize and interrupt sexual violence, and I’m happy to report that the house was packed!

The event featured 6 different local melodic garage pop bands, all of whom are somehow involved in Portland’s Nuggets Night community, masquerading as other bands: The Shriekers performed as The Oberlin Spires, Metropolitan Farms performed as XTC, The Cool Whips performed as The Monkees, Mink Shoals performed as The Bee Gees, The Mean Reds performed as The Go-Gos, and Creature Party performed The B-52s. The event organizers ran a very tight ship, creating a smooth show going experience for such a packed bill: sets were fairly short -probably about 20 minutes, the show started at 8 on the dot, and Rachel Good, a.k.a. DJ Stonebunny kept spirits high with garage rock classics during the brief change-overs between sets. The only drawback to this was that I missed the first set by The Shriekers due to my tardiness. It also meant I had to sketch extra fast, though the pace matched the upbeat nature of most of the music.

I was excited to see Metropolitan Farms play as XTC. I’ve long been a big fan of their charismatic, jangly sound and front-man Josh Mayer’s songwriting, which features intricate melodies and counterpoint, and a wry sense of humor. Many of these qualities are reminiscent of the arty pop rock of XTC, so it seemed like a great fit, and they didn’t disappoint. They powered through tricky arrangements and delivered bright, harmonizing vocals with aplomb. They also made sure to feature some Andy Partridge style glasses, and at least one puritan costume.The Cool Whips’ tight harmonies, jaunty stage presence, and A+ wig (and beanie) game flawlessly channeled the effervescent charm of the iconic made-for-TV pop group, The Monkees. They also gave a tight yet effusive instrumental performance and wore delightfully campy late sixties garb, making for a thoroughly enjoyable set of melodic pop candy.I was really delighted by Mink Shoals’ shimmering performance of Bee Gees tunes, many from the earlier, torchier portion of their catalog. This was an excellent choice, as lead singer Melissa Bell’s smooth vocals were perfectly suited for earnest Robin Gibb style crooning. I also really appreciated the expertly tied white aviator scarves donned by multiple band members, subtly adding to the soft rock aesthetic.Next, The Mean Reds took to the stage in perfectly matching pink leotards, tutus, tiaras, and opera gloves, forming a near perfect recreation of the Go-Go’s Vacation album cover –sans waterskis. They tore through their high energy pop catalog with garage rock gusto as the audience bopped along.The evening concluded with the presence of a very tall beehive wig and a frenetic set of B-52s classics performed by the festive, local monsters in Creature Party. A driving drumbeat and jittery micro-synth immediately got the crowd moving as they opened with the classic “Rock Lobster.” This energy continued all the way through their set, including its twist ending: an original Creature Party song, which turned out to be the perfect novelty garage rock treat!

Sketches from Noggin Festival 2018

I was lucky enough to catch some live music on Saturday, October 20th at Noggin Fest, a two day multi-media, multi-disciplinary festival benefitting local art and science education non-profit NW Noggin. In addition to a stellar music line-up, the festival featured neuroscience lectures, an art auction, science workshops, and raffles. I got a chance to do some sketches of long-standing Portland bands, When We Met and Human Ottoman.

When We Met is a duo that performs effusive, punkish power pop anthems with Melissa Dorres on bass and Brian Casey on guitar. Both members sing and are also accompanied by an arsenal of samples and drum programming, which gives them a surprisingly big sound for such a small group. The two also bounce around stage, creating an engaging and electrifying performance.

Human Ottoman is a band I have seen in a few times and with slightly different instrumental configurations, though they’ve always had the common thread of Grayson Fiske on Vibraphone, Susan Lucia on drums, an inventive, jazz fusion inspired sound, and an affable, humorous stage presence. This evening, they were joined by a new electric bass player who effortlessly created tight jazz/funk grooves with Lucia while Fiske delivered experimental vibraphone sounds that answered the question: what if Lionel Hampton had a sweet, sweet pedal board and was also in outer space?