Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, Tennessee – May 17, 2014
I had almost no idea what to expect from Alaskan indie rock adventurers Portugal The Man* in a live setting. Everything had happened so fast, after all – by which I mean not just the circumstances which led to me seeing them in impromptu concert two states and 350 miles away, in my old stomping grounds of Knoxville, TN, but also the process of becoming enough of a fan to want to do so in the first place. After years of merely knowing of PTM by name, I took a flier on the band’s latest album – 2013’s Evil Friends – at the end of last year, just before I launched this blog by publishing my cross-genre “best music” top twenty. I found the album’s mixture of confidence and playfulness intriguing and disarming. Subsequent listens, as well as strategic dips into the back catalogue since then, have made me certain that I was listening to a band now secure and seasoned enough to deliver an unaffected and fairly unique vision on their strongest possible terms, sealing up soul and whimsy and exploratory fervor in a way that was appealingly tuneful yet still proudly odd. Had Evil Friends and I intersected a few months earlier, it almost certainly would’ve made the lower half of my master list. Portugal The Man was a band I didn’t have ready reference points for (Pandora offered up suggestions like Modest Mouse and Neutral Milk Hotel, which both make sense to me, although they live at the fringes of my radar), a band that sounded both young, despite the depth of their discography, and truly different, despite their major label (Atlantic) trappings and esteemed producer (Danger Mouse). I really liked Evil Friends, and I was excited to learn more, albeit in a non-specific way. Then I got the opportunity to see them.
* Portugal The Man is spelled, in real life, Portugal. The Man, because, um, why not? While this seems like an eccentric but otherwise benign affectation intended to amuse or confuse the masses, its true genius lies in punishing Grammar Nazis like me. Rather than twist myself into an H.R. Giger sculpture (R.I.P.) trying to work the band’s name and counterintuitive punctuation into proper sentences, I will henceforth either reference them without including the period at all or else use PTM as an abbreviation. Golf clap for your efforts, gentlemen.
My history of road tripping to concerts is now over two decades long, though the trips themselves are sadly becoming less commonplace. I say “sadly” because there’s always been something wonderful about a lengthy car ride with that kind of destination as its end. You’re excited to get there, of course, but the built in travel time also provides opportunity to listen and re-listen to the bands you’ll be seeing – the analogy my friends and I often use is “cramming” for an exam – which only magnifies the anticipation. I hit the road for Knoxville armed with Evil Friends as well as PTM’s 2011 Atlantic debut In the Mountain In the Cloud, a solid album in its own right that only becomes problematic in comparison with its successor. Where Evil Friends seems honor bound to try on different tempos, different sounds, different narrative perspectives, and does so with a striking success rate, ITMITC offers up an almost uninterrupted procession of songs which, to my untrained ears, seemed to follow more or less the same formula: mid tempo, musically lush, with absolutely huge choruses that manage to be interesting without being particularly memorable. This isn’t necessarily a failing, and the more comfortable with ITMITC I become the more I expect those songs will similarly work their way into my consciousness, but the fact is that Evil Friends boasts a half dozen instantly arresting tracks, as well as subtler others that reward repeat listens. These are the songs that I responded to immediately, back when the idea of this concert had never crossed my mind. They were the songs I couldn’t wait to hear live.
At first blush, Evil Friends seems far too comfortable in its own weird skin to possibly be popular in a conventional sense, though my own prejudices certainly inform that otherwise uninformed opinion. I’m by nature a heavy metal fan, though the music I first cut my teeth on was ‘80s pop. From those not particularly parallel paths, my listening habits sprouted, cross pollenated, evolved, and branched out in almost every direction. I’m as susceptible as anyone to a catchy song, but, as a metal fan whose neck is an extension of his heart, also highly suspicious of and, at times, openly hostile to mass popularity as any sort of indicator of musical quality. I’m far more impressed by a band that can sell out a 300-seat club or a 700-seat hall than by one playing to an arena, no matter how many it holds, or how many fewer than that actually show up. Portugal The Man not only sold the hell out of Knoxville’s charming, historic Bijou Theatre but they rocked the hell out of it, something I had to be convinced would happen going in. I try to familiarize myself with songs before my first concert, but never so much with the band itself, because I want the show to inspire (or disappoint) me organically without preconceptions factoring in. The line between a competent live band and a great one is thin enough that I at least owe each new act the respect of discovering for myself. I knew PTM had songs enough to please the crowd but did they have enough presence, enough fire? The hundreds of folks seated around me harbored no such doubts, and either stormed to the front as soon as the house lights dimmed – creating in effect a four-row “pit”, sardine-packed and wedged between the stage and the first row of chairs – or, if they remained at their original seats, never, ever sat down. Neither did I. Their enthusiasm was infectious and, as it turned out, justified.
As befits an outfit so restlessly quirky, PTM played with minimal traditional lighting, instead illuminated by striking and ever-evolving full stage projections against a basic white screen. Vector lines danced across their faces, or colonies of stars enveloped them, or mountains of ice sheared away as they played. So often the shapes of their bodies were barely identifiable amidst a pastiche overlay of pictures that fell away and were replaced every few seconds. Like the music, it made an impression. PTM simmered for a few songs before appreciably shifting into higher gear, where they stayed for the remainder of the night. Guitarist John Gourley, whose remarkable vocal range, particularly his searing falsetto, is one of the great underappreciated weapons in all of rock, deployed fluid guitar solos that edged into the unknown just enough to inspire without ever lingering, but otherwise ceded normal “front man” duties to founding bass player Zachary Corothers. Corothers, with his unassuming but obvious verve and passion, was the focal point on stage through sheer force of will. He abused his distortion pedal so routinely that there were moments when the bass overwhelmed the mix and I thought, only half-jokingly, that his amp might fizzle or explode. PTM has its combustible moments on record, but is largely content to split the difference between progressive and psychedelic rock in a generally understated manner. On stage, Corothers’ Sasquatch-fuzzy bass alone propels the band into much more dynamic territory. The crowd sang along joyfully to ITMITC standout “So American” and also to Evil Friends highlights like “Modern Jesus” (one of last year’s preeminent modern rock earworms), “Atomic Man” and “Creep in a T-Shirt”, already terrific songs heightened by the atmosphere of the moment.**
** “It’s not because the light here is brighter / And it’s not that I’m evil, I just don’t like to pretend / That I could ever be your friend” Where else could a person turn to his best friend and loudly sing such a sentiment with absolute sincerity, and have it be yet another in an impossibly long line of bonding moments? I love concertgoing so much.
The main set both began and ended with variations on “Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue”, a sort of structured callback (including another snippet of the above-quoted chorus to “Evil Friends”, which also appears on the album as an interlude during “Creep in a T-Shirt”) that in a way speaks to the evolutionary gains PTM has made in the last three years. The difference between the two versions was telling; the opening salvo was coiled but inviting, the closer celebratory and unrestrained. Later, the night’s closer even included, as a sort of valedictory cherry on top, a lyrical reference to “Plastic Soldiers”, the most prominent song on Evil Friends to not be part of the set. See, even songs that aren’t included still get a cameo in this musical world. The crowd was in a full blown frenzy by that point. It was hard to tell what was more invigorating, the sound cresting from the stage to the audience, or what was being sent back. So often I muse and worry about the day that I’ll no longer care about music in this passionate way that I have pretty much since the age of ten, but not this day. My pessimist brain can point to how my tastes have evolved – how it’s taken progressively more to impress me the older I’ve gotten – and to the comparative paucity of road trips I’ve taken in the last several years. Maybe I don’t do concert trips like I used to. Maybe I should think about changing that. Judging purely by the decibel level that exploded into the air and then hung there, oppressive, like audible humidity, as Portugal The Man retook the stage, and by the sight and sound of the crowd singing and swaying to ITMITC favorite “Sleep Forever” as the encore wound down, hundreds of very specific music fans on very specific journeys might well wrestle with the same sort of musical mid-life crisis in another decade or so. I’ll likely still be on the road, and I hope they will too. Every once in a while, our paths might even cross.