Nobody Knows the Bands I’ve Seen
For some time now, I have been reading in various local publications as to the decline of the Portland rock scene—owing to the deterioration in breeding of the clientele at a speciﬁc club. Get real. A scene is not a club or a band or an attitude. It’s you. The person who shells out the bucks to get into the clubs. You are the scene. But, see, you—the scene, keeps changing.
I’ve been watching the local “scene” for a long time now and I can say one thing for sure: things change. The music changes, the clubs turn over, people get older. They quit going to clubs so often. Styles evolve.
A scene is a living organism. It grows and shrinks. It can stagnate, or breed wildly. And it usually does so in (about) three-year cycles. Club life-cycles aside, I can attribute this three-year “scene lifespan” to the bands that help to spawn and perpetuate it. There’s been the QuarterFlash period, the Billy Rancher period, the Nu Shooz period, Crazy 8’s period, Dan Reed Period, and Dharma Bums period. These mini-epochs are loosely named, not to be regarded as literal. But the bands denote the trends developing around them during their era.
What I’m saying here is that a scene is constantly in a state of evolution-like any other very intense interpersonal relationship. Just like any other love affair or friendship, a scene undergoes a lot of varying emotional commitment from its constituents. And the pressures and expectations of society dictate a milieu of anxiety, escape, fashion, freedom and camaraderie: in various combinations to varying degrees.
A scene is not alive or dead because some critic makes that observation. Trees do fall in the woods, whether they make a sound or not. The scene goes on, whether you are there to add to it or not. There will always be someone else to take your place. And their values and attitudes will make that scene.
Now you might well be asking yourself, what’s the dang deal? But I’m raving on because I’m under the impression that there is still a vibrant musical scene thriving in Portland no matter what you say or I say or what Mr. Potato Head says.
In the past couple of years some great bands have appeared in the local soup. Some, say, Love on Ice or Sweaty Nipples have risen to the top. Others, such as Orphan‘s Reason, Sons of Cain, Josephine Ocean, Oily Bloodmen, or Hitting Birth, have developed more slowly, but consistently for the better. There are so many good bands in this town, playing any style you want. l’m constantly amazed at the sustained good quality and rich musical diversity to be found on any night in Portland.
The Mayor’s Ball this year was probably the best of all the seven to demonstrate how fruitful the variety is within our musical community. And I think the great attendance this year was due in part to the strong representation given to all types of music.
I caught most of the bands I intended to see at this year’s ball. There were 29 on my list. I didn’t see Completely Grocery, having gotten caught up in the tidal-wave gridlock in the hallway outside. Swimming in the midst of that maelstrom, I was witness to the ; rapid panic that ensued when the l security forces closed the hallway to the Weyerhauser and Simpson rooms. This left the huge crowd exiting the Main arena with a mighty opposing cross tide in those trying to gain access to the rooms where Grocery and Havuk were playing. It was a very scary situation. The security forces closed a hallway, offering no alternative direction for the denied throng. The kind of panic I saw is like wildfire. Just a little more energy and someone would have been killed. Needlessly.
So many bands need mentioning l won’t limit discussion only to those featured at the Mayor’s Ball. The Sons of Cain have continued to improve over the past few months. Each time I’ve seen them the power in their performance. Making each note count. That is the mark of a quality group. Though theirs was an early slot at the Ball, the Sons played to a large, appreciative crowd a spirited and highly energetic set: capped by a rousing version of Creedance’s “Green River.” Continued growth of this nature will ﬁnd for the Sons a larger following.
Hitting Birth has reﬁned their presentation, honing both the visual and sonic aspects to a ﬁne point. The huge organic jungle rhythm is now supplanted, somewhat, by melodic basswork and some magical synth samples. The Hitting Birth message has been greatly simpliﬁed in the process of reﬁnement–now not so much the poetry of old, but poetic catch-phrases repetitively layered over the intense rhythmic undercurrents. Ordinarily, Hitting Birth might not be the first band to come to mind when thinking of pop. But that’s what they are, a pop band. Theirs is a curious blend of elements taken from rap, world beat, performance art and avant gard. Hitting Birth have sharpened the focus of their unique show. And they have not peaked yet. Look for their new recording soon.
Likewise, Josephine Ocean has deﬁned for themselves a sound and have solidiﬁed their delivery. Lead singer Rod Tucker appears to be coming into his own as a frontman, having acquired a better sense of projection and subtlety of delineation. His voice falls somewhere between Morrison and Bowie. Rod’s growing confidence as a singer affords him a much greater stage presence, lending dynamic impact to the band. Musically the band is more tough than Nero’s Rome, more raw than Love on Ice. But they are another band on the way up.
Completely Grocery have carved a niche for themselves emphasizing, at all times, celebration over cerebration. For what the band lacks in musical adhesion, they certainly offset with party charm and capricious whimsy. Ted Thieman’s strong R&B informed guitar work propels the band, supported by Jeff Cavanaugh’s drums. Recently bassist Ted Smith left the band to be replaced by Julie Avina—late of Mr. Seed. Look for Julie to add a strong sense of rhythm and a ﬂair for fun to the Grocery punch.
Sweaty Nipples were absolutely outrageous at the Mayor’s Ball, breaking every rule and stealing the Dharma Bums’ thunder with a ballsy, booming onslaught of sturm und bluster, shouting out furious frat rap over a cacophony of guitar, tumultuous bass and rowdy drums– articulated by the de rigueur BA’s, highly choreographed hair whirling sequences, PA scaling, crowd baiting, ball and balloon distribution and general invitations to mayhem. They proved themselves to be the most energetic act on the bill that night. A fun show.
In contrast, the Dharma Bums appeared sluggish and unfocused. While the band has fused great strength into their musical presentation, singer Jeremy Wilson seems unsure what he wants to convey visually. Much of this performance is occupied with overt hand gestures intended to wordlessly impart a sense of peace, love and harmony–a noble sentiment certainly. But the power of the band’s message is often lost in the midst of these antics. As a band must develop a sense of dynamics: when not to play, so too, must a performer learn a sense of dynamic- -when to be still, when to draw attention to the tip of your ﬁnger. Jeremy Wilson is a talented performer. Once he masters a sense of visual dynamics, he‘ll be a great one.
Visual focus is not a problem for Beauty Stab. Their Ball show was characterized as being smug and garish, which is true of the band, but when was that a liability in rock and roll? They certainly ﬁlled up the cavernous basement of the Exhibit Hall with a visual and aural image worthy of their name. Cutting glamour. My perception was that the band could handle the demands of a larger hall and crowd, and are deserving of the attention.
Similar sentiments would have to be extended to Little Women who have established themselves as a musical force in Portland since their migration here about a year ago. Killing Field has tightened the stage focus in their act, handling themselves in a comfortably conﬁdent manner, without overemoting.
Sugarboom shows a lot of promise. This young four-piece offers good songwriting, backed with simple, but effective guitar work and decent harmonies. Follkish inﬂuences along the lines of the Connells intermingle in the jangle and drang. Time and a sense of deﬁnition should bode this band well.
Naked Lunch and Tikihead have returned to the scene after brief hiatus. Lunch has nurtured a loyal following of fans for pretty Tina Purdy’s gutsy vocals, backed by a hard rocking guitar band. The band also placed a song in the ﬁnals of the PMA Songwriting Contest, while ﬁrmly establishing themselves at Cisco and Pancho’s, of all places. Tikihead is back in action with a potpourri of cerebral, funky rock, driven by propulsive bass and Peter Rockwell’s idiosyncratic vocal.
The Batz have been around a long time but are worthy of note for their mangled repertoire of 60’s curios, expertly interpreted-with well executed vocal and instrumental interplay and unique arrangements. Some nights the basic three-piece is joined by various members of the musical community. joining in the expcrimerriment of making the old seem new again. The Batz succeed more often than not.
Cascade is an appealing band that exalts, with charming authenticity, Western folk music. Cynthia Gano sings with a plaintive moan, songs from by-gone days. Cynthia is sister to Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, and there is a certain nasal similarity between their singing voices, but Cynthia is a vocal talent unto her own. John Andrews provides deft banjo counterpart to acoustic guitars and bass. An interesting departure from rock.
M-99 have been around for a while now. The product of guitarist Rob Landoll, late of the Obituaries, this band rocks a little harder than did his former mates. Lead singer Heidi Hellbender is a riveting front ﬁgure, laying siege to the audience with amazingly pliable ﬂame-throwing vocal cords. Landoll supplies exemplary speed metal runs with exacting efficiency, often working in tandem with the bass player.
M-99 are stronger than the Obits in the respect that this band is comprised of somewhat better musicians. Hellbender does not remind of Monica Nelson, nor do the songs recall the Obits. The energy is similar, but that’s really where the comparisons end. M-99 are more driven, less angst ridden—more accurate, maybe less theatrical. A very good band, deserving of more attention from you, the scene. They’re solid, smart and edgy: which makes for a show full of great gusto and energy.
Speaking of Monica Nelson. l received a letter from her last month. She’s been living and working in New York City—and by now, she has probably given birth to her first child. Monica seems very determined not to come back to Portland until she has succeeded in the music business in New York. That time may not be far off. She voiced concern about what the people back home will think of her music-whether they will respect it or not. She mentioned that she‘s not wild about NYC, but she acknowledged that it is the artistic hub in the U.S., and that’s where she‘ll stay: with her lover and her baby, until she has reached her goals. She seems quite happy and contended.
And one thing about Monica, though she doesn’t know this—she is really talented. When she does ﬁnally come home to Portland, she’s going to be a star. There are bands I acknowledge a lot in my columns. Bands such as Dead Moon and Snobud/Beach are deserving of the column inches—members of those bands have survived all the local eras and styles. There are other bands I have, as yet, not given much attention, which merit closer inspection.
There’s Big House, Crackerbash, Thrillhamrner, Sprinkler, Now William, Black Rodeo, Tennesseans, Young Turks, Flapjacks, Oily Bloodmen, the Jimmy Haskett Band, the Reason Why, Dead Conspiracy, MotherTones, Krowd Kontrol, and many, many more. More every day. Be True, Lost Boyz, Terraplanes, Caustic Soda.
There are old standbys Blubinos, Terry Robb Band, Lloyd Jones Struggle, Curtis Salgado and the Stilettos, Crazy 8’s, Dub Squad, Nero’s Rome, the Nerve, Calvin Walker, Paul deLay Band, Jim Mesi Band, Margo Tufo, Norman Sylvester, Pin & the Horn-its, Clevelands, Nine Days Wonder, Caryl Mack Band, Body & Soul, Mystery Train, Back Porch Blues, Ellen and the Nightwatchers, Labansky, Poison Idea, Ed & the Boats, Steve Bradley and the Cave Gents, Lip to Lip, Billy K., Lew Jones, Rex and the Rockits, Cruella, Brydge, Palante, Boka Marimba, Conjunto Allegre, Brothers of the Baladi.
Then there’s Age of Rain, Bad Mothers, Clever Cadavers, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Heart of Darkness, New World Order, Paulette Davis and Power, Evil Picklehead, Big Daddy Meatstraw, Groove Junkies, Calamity Jane, Last Pariahs, Drunk at Abi’s, Wicked Ones, Nervous Christians and so many more. Hey! You want a scene? You’ve got one!
Ten years ago, you could count the clubs offering ROCK MUSIC on two hands. Those clubs were jammed. There was nowhere else to go. Now there are hundreds of clubs offering all types of music. A particular club scene runs a cycle, relies on the input of its clientele. There’s no reason for you not to be checking out a band every night. It’s your scene. If you’re not part of it, you’re part of the problem.