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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2011/05/26
by John Zinkand

Checking In From Portland

I realize it’s been a little while since I’ve submitted anything to jambands.com and finally had a little free time to burn, so here it is. While writing hasn’t been something I’ve done a heck of a lot of recently, I have been very active in Portland, Oregon going out to shows. I looked back over the first half of the year’s musical escapades and am glad to see that I’ve seen a nice variety of music. Shows by bands I love and have seen many times, but also by bands and artists I’ve never seen or heard before. Variety is the spice of life and it seems the air is teeming with great music from all directions right now. Looking back over the past few months, I also like the fact that the shows have been spread around to a nice number of different and varied venues. Sometimes in Portland shows get into a groove of seemingly always being held at The Goodfoot or The Crystal Ballroom.

Speaking of the Crystal Ballroom, that’s where an interesting run of shows over the last few months began when I checked out Poncho Sanchez. The Latin drummer/percussionist extraordinaire was in town as part of The Portland Jazzfest this past February. His danceable, fun, high-energy set of Latin melodies and rhythms was relatively brief at about 75 minutes or so, but that’s to be expected in this festival setting. The highlight of this show for me was the fact it was an extremely rare 21+ only show at The Crystal. Come to think of it, it wasn’t 21+ only. They put the All Ages section in the balcony (where it should be all the time in my opinion)! Usually there is an annoying divider on the floor and the All Ages section is in the front by the stage and the 21+ section is the back of the room near the bars (where the sound is not as good).

Then I saw an awesome Zach Deputy show at The Goodfoot. A buddy of mine mentioned seeing him and loving what he heard on Jamcruise. When he described Zach to me I admit I was bit apprehensive. I’m not a huge Keller fan and the one-man band deal my buddy described sounded eerily similar. But after seeing him play I now understand that what Zach does is very different than what Keller does. Both are great, Zach just “speaks to me” a little more or whatever. The guy is huge. I was standing next to him and felt like a child. The Goodfoot is a pretty tiny venue and I was standing nearby, so I also heard him interacting with people – he sounded soft spoken and kind and was exuding happiness. And that’s what his music was all about, too. Happy, celebratory music sung soulfully with awesome layers and loops. Not to mention that Zach is a force to be reckoned with on the guitar, adding a sprinkling of hardy jams and hot licks to the musical stew. My fiancé wasn’t able to go to the show this night, but we listen to the CD of it that the merch guy or tour manager gave me (for free…thanks!), and anxiously await Mr. Deputy’s return to the Left Coast.

Next was Galactic at the Crystal. It was definitely a solid show and the venue was only minimally annoying. Yes, I’m a Crystal basher. I’ll agree it is a lovely room with beautiful art and that the bouncy floor is unique. Heck, they’ve even upgraded the sound so it’s not nearly as bad in the back of the room as it used to be. It’s just that they divide the room in half, the staff can be a tad pushy, there’s no re-entry, the bar service can be extremely slow, and the place is uncomfortably crowded when sold out or close to sold out. That said, it’s not THAT bad (I’m whining a bit, yes). I’ll still go here if I like the band enough, and I like Galactic enough. I had an unexpectedly extended nap just before the show, so woke abruptly, swilled a cup of coffee, and arrive at the venue around 10:30pm after Galactic had already started playing. The show had a dreamy quality to it, being we were so fresh from sleep, and many people left soon after we got there, so plenty of space opened up to dance to the funky grooves as the night progressed.

A co-worker of mind who knows I love live music asked me if I knew of Seasick Steve. I replied that I had never heard of him, all the while thinking that with a name like Seasick Steve, the music had to be pretty awful. How wrong I was. A week later I entered the Wonder Ballroom to witness this older, bearded guy play some great bluesy music. It was just Seasick Steve and a drummer, but they produced an enormously full sound. Steve also had what he referred to as his “Mississippi Drum Machine,” which was really just a block of wood he stomped on to keep time with the music. He played different guitar-like instruments, most of which I think he made himself. One was just a piece of drift wood with a few strings and some pick-ups that he played relentlessly with a slide! Another was a guitar he constructed out of a hubcap. It was astonishing to watch him play such dirty, bluesy slide rhythms and solos with such seemingly minimal, handmade instruments. He was quite the showman, as well, as he engaged in witty banter with the crowd and even had a woman come up on the stage so he could sing her a song face to face. I guess he lives in England and rarely plays the States, but if you ever have the chance, go check this guy out – you will not be disappointed.

An old favorite of mine, The Motet, came though town to play at the Mount Tabor Theater with opening act and local favorite, The Excellent Gentlemen. I caught the second night of a two show run at the venue which was a “Halloween Revisited” show. This meant the show would consist of nothing but Earth, Wind, and Fire covers, baby. The Excellent Gentlemen plays a funky, upbeat, soul pop kind of music that was the perfect lead-in to a long show of funky covers by The Motet. Extra horns and guest vocals by Jans Ingbar and more made the whole affair even funkier than usual!

Before I knew it, Garage A Trois came stampeding into town with musical chops blazing and performed a blistering show at the Doug Fir Lounge. The band was just on fire. And the energy of a comfortably full and enthusiastic crowd at the Doug Fir is hard to beat. The crowd was into it, had room to boogie down hard, and the band was digging on the vibe. Skerik wailed on the sax, Mike Dillon’s skill and energy on the vibes was jaw-dropping as usual, Stanton Moore on drums provided the rock-steady backbone, and Marco Benevento on keyboards added low end bass grooves as well as over the top melodies, solos, and effects to the mix. Simply put, this is a supergroup. And we were lucky enough to catch a supergroup on a good night at a great venue, a very special experience.

Changing up the venues again, The Bridge arrived from the east coast to perform an entertaining show at Mississippi Studios with hometown favorites The Quick and Easy Boys opening. Lead guitarist and vocalist Jimmy Russell of the Quick and Easy Boys lost his voice during the band’s last extended touring jaunt, so he was unable to add his usual contribution to the vocal mix. What he lacked in voice he made up for with howling guitar solos and ultra-funky rhythms. Sean Badders on bass and vocals and Mike Goetz on drums both stepped up their game as well. Mississippi Studios is a great little venue with awesome sound and a cozy balcony. Delighting the Saturday night crowd, The Bridge returned to Portland and made themselves right at home by playing another solid show containing both great songs and interesting, high-energy jams.

The LaurelThirst Public House is a cool little bar and restaurant that I hadn’t been to in years. My buddy’s brother suggested we go check out the free show by a band called Tree Frogs one Saturday from 6pm-8pm. We went and it was good. The band was surprisingly tight and delivered a nice smattering of both originals and classic rock covers. As the crowd got bigger for the second half of the show, the music intensified with longer and more powerful jams. We went back the following Sunday when we found out the Quick and Easy Boys would be filling in for the usual Sunday performers, the Freak Mountain Ramblers. It was strange to see the Quick and Easy Boys at 6pm here, but they rocked the place tough like it was 12:30am at Tabor or The Goodfoot, much to the delight of the packed house!

Last week it was Soulive and Lettuce at the Wonder Ballroom. As far as Portland venues go, this is a newer one and has recently expanded. It has really blossomed over the years into one of my favorite larger venues. It has a Crystal Ballroom feel in that it has a large, open floor, but it’s slightly smaller and not at an odd angle like the Crystal. Bars are located at the back of the room on the main level, and there’s a little balcony in the back with seats, standing room, and another bar. Recently they added a downstairs room with yet another bar (I like the way these people think), additional space to hang out, and a door to a covered, outdoor smoking area. I chatted with the bartender and she said they will eventually have a viewing screen and speakers here to pipe in the show and music from upstairs. The show was good, but not as good as some past shows I’ve seen from these guys. Always impressive musicians, they ran through a Beatles medley in addition to many of their own funky tunes. A fun show, if not epic.

Whew…it felt good to get that all off my chest. Although it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything here, I certainly have been active with work, travel, and seeing live music. And there’s plenty of great stuff on the horizon, as well. I’m looking forward to my first Ween show in Bend, Oregon on July 2nd, to Bela and the Flecktones at the Oregon Zoo on July 31st, and to Phish at The Gorge on the first weekend of August. Not to mention some serious traveling on the horizon to New Zealand in the Fall, then on to my first Jamcruise in January 2012. There’s tons of great music and experience out there and I’ll be exploring it as much as possible – and loving the ride. Hopefully I write about it a little more often in the coming months. Cheers!

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