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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2005/12/12
by John Zinkand

Trey McGees Garaj

Last week was a good week for music in Portland, OR. Trey and the 70 Volt Parade played on Wednesday night, Umphreys McGee played on Friday night, and Garaj Mahal played on Saturday night. Its unusual to see these types of names so close together here in Oregon. When those level names are seen together in Oregon its usually for a festival that gets moved and then is cancelled at the last minute. Portlands music scene is not terrible by any means, but in such a rainy city, there certainly can be some unpleasant and lengthy musical droughts. Since such great bands were coming all in one week, I had been looking forward to these few days with much anticipation. I had a pretty good time at all three shows, but I noticed how ambience and audience have such a major role on a particular listeners enjoyment of any live music show.
First up was Trey on Wednesday night at the Roseland Ballroom. I slipped out of work early and was able to get to the venue just as the doors opened. After entering, I had to wait in line to get up stairs into the balcony/21+ section of the venue. The line moved pretty quickly and seats were secured on the left hand side of the stage, right by the speaker and basically hanging over the left edge of the stage. These were prime seats as they were pretty much right on top of the stage. Every gesture, communication, and facial expression of the band could be seen plainly. The sound was great and, as an added bonus, it was the side of the room with the bar.
In a short time the Hackensaw Boys came out and played some old timey numbers with an upright bass, an acoustic guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, a percussion instrument, etc. They stood in a long row, packed closely together, and picked and harmonized like their lives depended on it. This was a good time to settle in, grab another beer from the bar, and observe the surroundings as the place started to fill up. In no time the room was packed with people. The Hackensaw Boys received a gracious response and ovation from the welcoming Portland crowd as they finished up their set. Everyone seemed amped and excited for Trey to take the stage.
As Trey and the band walked onto the stage the place erupted. While the other band members were getting situated in their spots, Trey was literally jumping up and down in place, seemingly with anticipation of the evenings performance. From the extended jam on the first tune, Sand, through the acoustic set, and all the way to the end of the triple encore, this show was rock solid. Trey was going to some great musical places with his guitar solos, the band played very tightly and enthusiastically, and the crowd was festive and into the show. To put it simply, this show was great. Trey has hit on a nice combination of players in this band. The combination of the two guitar attack, a killer rhythm section, female back up vocals, and a small horn section make this line up intriguing and entertaining.
The first electric set sustained a high level of energy the whole way through to the end. Sand, the show opener, was lengthy and rockin, and was followed quickly by Last Tube. Next, the catchy melody and energetic playing on the title cut from the new album, Shine, was impressive. Push on Til the Day, peppered with horn fills and energetic jams, was a raucous and intense way to end the first set. A middle set of acoustic music was a soothing interlude. The crowd sang along with Phish favorites Sample in a Jar, Get Back on the Train and Limb by Limb, but listened quietly or chatted with their neighbor during the newer tunes Invisible and Sleep Again. The second electric set started with a bang and did not let up. They kicked things off with the funky and groovy Alive Again, followed by a long, jammed out version of Simple Twist Up Dave that segued into Sly and the Family Stones I Want to Take You Higher. The energy levels on these two tunes got to obscene levels and were highlighted by Trey enjoying some musical interplay with every musician in the band. Although the set finished fairly strong, it was not as fierce as the beginning of the set. But a triple encore of Drifting>First Tube>Mr. Completely ramped up to incredible power levels that had not yet been reached that evening. The place went wild as the band played, smiled, and wailed away as they successively ratcheted up the energy on every jam.
I strongly believe that part of what made this show so good was the small size of the venue and the enthusiastic crowd. It was probably the smallest venue Trey will be playing on this tour, and the energy of the crowd was palpable. Everyone was very psyched. There were even a few girls close to where I sat that seemed a little too worked up. Im sure Trey didnt think so, but he wasnt sitting next to them and taking the occasional smack to the side. These girls were so into the show that they were jumping wildly, laughing, smiling at Trey, waving, and generally thrashing about. We all were basically on top of the stage in our section, so Trey could plainly see their large bosoms bouncing as the girls frolicked in their tight tank tops in the front row of the balcony. He would look up and zone in on them, lean back and smile and then launch into 5 to 10 minute jams. It was interesting to see that, while these girls were helping to fuel the energy level of the show, they were somewhat annoying to the people within close proximity of them. At the end of the show, as Trey walked off the stage, he looked up at them, smiled, and waved. They were most pleased, to say the least.
Friday night came along and it was time to see Umphreys McGee play the Crystal Ballroom. Umphreys is my favorite band touring right now and I was really excited for the show. Upon entering the venue, a spot in the 21+ section right on the dividing wall near the stage was quickly secured. It was a perfect spot to see the show as it was close to the stage and had good sight lines. Since it was directly in front of the speakers, there was no need to worry about the echo effect that can be prevalent when enjoying a show from the back of the room at the Crystal.
Overall, the crowd at this show was respectful and very into the music. The band kicked down the energy since it was the first show of their west coast tour, and the crowd responded graciously. At several points in the night the bouncing dance floor was undulating wildly as excited freaks thrashed about to such rockers as Fugazis Waiting Room which featured Brendan Baylisss brother Pat on vocals. There were a few newbies in the crowd who were completely blown away. At set break the guy next to me who had never seen the band just kept saying how incredible the set had been and screaming the phrase Umphreys Fucking McGee!! It was an enjoyable atmosphere in which to see a show as the crowd was into it and the venue itself is beautiful, if a bit of a hassle. I did see an older gentleman tell a neighbor to put it away when the guy tried to sneak a quick puff, which I thought was absurd. Many people were puffing, so to single out this one fellow seemed a bit crazy. Maybe the old fellow was having a bad day or is recently on the wagon. I just thought the respectful thing to do would have been for him to walk somewhere else as the room was not completely packed.
The show, while not especially lengthy, was blistering. The band warmed the crowd up with a Walletsworth opener that segued into a bouncy, fast, version of the instrumental KaBump. Jake provided some intense guitar solos on both tunes. After an exploratory Jazz Odyssey that went into a faithful cover version of The Beatles I Dig a Pony, the band took it up a few notches. The Robot World>Jimmy Stewart>Phils Farm>Mulches Odyssey to finish out the set was mind blowing. Robot World thundered along with other worldly energy and flowed right into the tasty Stew. I had mentioned on the Umphreaks message board (the Bort) a few hours before the show that Portland has never received a Phils Farm, so I was pretty excited when they broke into it. Phils is great because its sort of a bluegrass tune melded with a heavy metal tune. Its completely original and jams out in both genres. The long percussion solo that is the middle section of the tune highlighted drummer Kris Meyers and percussionist Andy Farags abilities. The Mulches set closer was out of this world and kept pushing the jam higher, louder, and faster until the set came to a climactic end.
The second set brought more of the sustained energy that had been established as the evenings theme. An intense Wife Soup opened the set up with its sweeping crescendos and catchy chorus that charged the crowd. After a dark and evil Resolution, the band brought it up even higher with one of the loudest, most intense versions of the newer tune Bridgeless that I have seen. Jake, Brendan, and Ryan were moving around the stage in unison, laughing, and generally having a good time as they cranked the volume to 11. After a solid #5 into the aforementioned Waiting Room, the band ended the show with the long and disjointed tune Utopian Fir. Fir is always a musical exploration and this version was no different. The band encored with the new tune Higgins which felt like a 70s rocker to me. It was all smiles and amazement as the satisfied crowd filed out of the venue and down to the street below.
The following night arrived quickly and I found myself at the Fez Ballroom awaiting the appearance of Garaj Mahal. One of the first things I noticed upon entering the venue was a few guys walking around with video cameras. Upon inspection of the stage area I noticed on stage mics that are not usually present and a line of tape across the floor in the front row. One of the camera guys told me that they would be going back and forth in front of the stage all night as they were making a Garaj Mahal DVD. I like DVDs as much as the next guy, but their presence was somewhat annoying and obstructing to the enjoyment of the show for me.
The band came out and played a set that included their signature sound. Eric Levy tickled the keys, Fareed Haque ripped through guitar solos, Kai Eckhardt played his bass expertly, and Alan Hertz rocked out impressively on his drums. Both the crowd and the band seemed somewhat distracted by the cameras and camera crew, however. Every so often folks would have to stop grooving so a camera man could get in front of them to film and obstruct their view in the process. Also, the crowd in general was somewhat loud and unruly, especially considering that the band is well known for putting out subtle and intricate music that is best appreciated when careful attention is maintained. A short woman near the front would not stop bumping into people, flirting with the guys around her, talking, and generally taking up more space than was comfortable for those around her. Later, a large man who did not dance or show any emotion whatsoever planted himself in the front of the room. While he has every right to do this, respect for the people dancing might have led him to view the show from the side or back of the room. Also, the place quickly became filled with cigarette smoke.
The previous concerts of the week had their negative aspects as far as audience and ambience are concerned, but this last show seemed the worst. The band was great, dont get me wrong, and I heard the second set was smokin. But I took off just as that set started. Maybe I was getting spoiled and finicky having seen two stellar live music performances earlier in the week, but the crowd, film crew, and smokiness of the bar were really bothering me. Garaj Mahal is one of my favorite bands and seeing them in a less than optimum environment was just not something I felt like doing at the time. Im sure things would have mellowed out had I stayed, but I just wasnt in the mood at that point. Instead I went to a well-known Portland late night food joint, Montage, and gobbled down some tasty mac and cheese with a glass of wine.
I can only look back at the week with pure satisfaction. Its rare that so many great bands come to Portland, especially within a few days of each other. I made the best of it by making it to each of the three shows. Its interesting to see how much the ambience of the shows had an affect on my enjoyment, though. When I was younger those things didnt matter to me at all. I would plant myself near the front, lock in on the music, and dance the night away. Any sort of drama with a fellow audience member was inconsequential. These days, in my old age, my surroundings play more of a role. An annoying space hogger, an obtrusive film crew, a very smoky room, or being especially tired can negatively impact my enjoyment of a show a surprising amount. Of course, when the music is really on and the band is really into it, these factors can drift far into the background. I only wish I had another three great shows coming up this week to bitch about.

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