A Healthy Dose of Country AND Western with Jenny Don’t & the Spurs and Federale

I took advantage of the recent holiday weekend and indulged in one of the Rontom’s back patio Sunday Sessions the evening on May 26th. This particular session featured performances by two seasoned and well-loved local bands that I hadn’t seen live before: the raucous outlaw country balladeers, Jenny Don’t and the Spurs, and the epic, 7-piece spaghetti western orchestra, Federale.

The patio was packed, but I managed to muscle my way to the front and get some sketches of the bands. Jenny Don’t and the Spurs got everyone bopping with upbeat, classic sounding country tunes delivered with rock ‘n’ roll energy and expert musicianship. Frontwoman Jenny Don’t does a great job of blending traditional and more modern country elements, playing a twangy Gretsch guitar and singing with the shimmer and ebullience similar to Patsy Cline as well as a knowing sass reminiscent of an artist like Sarah Shook. She and her band were also decked out in all the appropriate gear -ten gallon hats, a bolo tie, a gingham button-down, a bright red dress with sparkling star and horseshoe appliques- making for a shit-kicking good time!

Afterwards, Federale began setting up a multitude of instruments on the stage. Once they were fully prepared and assembled, the seven members launched into the first of many intense, cinematic, Ennio-Morricone-style ballads. Each song featured multiple dramatic crescendos, memorable pentatonic melodies, and rich, inventive instrumentation. Multiple guitars, keyboards, trumpet, drums, bass, pedal steel, and an arsenal of various percussion instruments flanked the lead vocals and haunting whistling of frontman Collin Hegna as well as backing vocals from multiple other band members and the soaring operatic soprano of Maria Karlin. In fact, the most striking part of the band’s sound may have been the intense and plentiful lyric-less hooks performed by Karlin and trumpeter Sebastian Bibb-Barrett in parallel harmony with each other. All of these instruments and elements combined to create lush emotional and narrative swells, evoking scenes of drama and pathos amid a barren, desert landscape.

Jeni Wren at the Gritty Birds Podcasting Launch

I drew this sketch at an intimate patio gathering at Barrio on Foster, with a mix of humans and canines in attendance. The performance was part of the launch party for Gritty Birds Podcasting, Jeni Wren Stottrup’s new full-service podcast editing and production business.

Jeni Wren has been hosting a podcast called Gritty Birds about the personal and professional stories of musicians from Portland and beyond for the past four years, and has recently started a podcast production company of the same name. Because she is a musician herself, she opened her launch party with a set of mellow, looper-based songs with jazz style vocals and piano and synthesizer sounds. Her live performance was followed by a lively seat from DJ Pacemaker.

Intense Psychedelic Whimsy at Motorcoat’s Single Release Party

Local psych rock trio Motorcoat recently released a new digital single and b-side called Heads & Tails in anticipation of their upcoming full-length album. I’ve long been a fan of their lush, expressive sounds and wild, humorous performances, so I made sure not to miss their release party at Kelly’s Olympian, which also featured performances by the bands Draves and Low Flyer.

Draves opened the show with a rousing set of tightly composed garage rock tunes with unexpected flourishes such as proggy rhythmic interludes, melodic lead lines played on bass, and novel lead guitar pedal effects that sometimes even sounded like synth patches. This was one of the group’s first shows, making their tight and energetic performance all the more impressive.

Draves at Kelly’s Olympian on 3-23-19

The second band, Low Flyer, was another group I hadn’t heard before, but they quickly impressed with solid songwriting, and a well-blended, expansive sound that seemed to be somewhat influenced by 90s/00s neo-psychedelia and post-rock. They excelled at playing slower, elegant ballads with cathartic climaxes, but also deftly delivered energetic rock numbers, making for nice variety of mood and tempo throughout the set.

Low Flyer at Kelly’s Olympian on 3-22-19

Motorcoat headlined with a whirlwind of sound, stage antics, and goofy banter. Alex Fulton and Michael Vincent posed and jumped around in a sparring pantomime, staring each other down and shredding while wielding bass and guitar like swords. Meanwhile drummer Matias Morel played frenetic rhythms while triggering dense keyboard samples on an electronic drum pad without missing a beat. At one point Alex jumped offstage and danced with the audience while continuing to play speedy bass runs, and Matias even spit up fake blood between a couple songs, adding to the comical intensity of the performance. All three members’ ferocious chops combined with the artfully programmed drum pad samples created an enveloping psychedelic sound that morphed in tone from doom-ish heaviness to upbeat blues rock riffs to breezy trip-hop grooves with ease.

Motorcoat at Kelly’s Olympian on 3-22-19

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.

Densmore’s 2019 Kicks off with an Undeniable Hit

Sam Densmore’s new single “Damn the Consequences” puts him squarely in the genre of pop philosopher. The new single has sensibility of Elvis Costello, but with the rich instrumental layering of R.E.M., and a vocal timbre that sounds just a tad like a combination of Michael Stipe and Tom Petty. But the lyrics are what make this song really special. It’s a kind of coming of age song, a song with brilliant lyrics that shine with the wisdom gained from making it to middle age. He rhymes “love, like time, is a construct of the mind” in catchy and insightful opening lines. The chorus, “live like there’s no tomorrow,” and “damn the consequences, and regrets too” could be a calling to pursue the frivolous behavior of youth or to set out on a full on mid-life crisis.

Densmore released the song on Feb 27 with an entertaining video featuring Sam and a naked Portlander riding around town on scooters, which means that it must have been filmed last year when scooters were still legal in Portland.

Check out Sam’s discography, including his 2017 album, Open Marriage, which was also expertly written, on Bandcamp and his website. Follow Sam on FB, and stayed tuned for his upcoming EP, Black Velvet Unicorn, to be released in the fall. His next gig is guaranteed to be awesome. April 13 he is playing a rare all-ages music video festival and concert alongside Skulldiver and Camp Crush at Clinton Street Theater. Congrats to Sam for kicking off 2019 with such a great single and amazing upcoming gigs!

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