Tag Archives: Portland

A night in the house Richard built

The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Portland, February 2019

No one could accuse Richard Thompson of being on-trend. For almost half a century he’s written songs and played a guitar, rarely rising above the status of cult hero, musician’s musician, or – the most back-handed compliment of all – critics’ darling.

On a snowy February night at Portland’s Revolution Hall, he’s still at it – touring with his band and playing songs from a record he released last year. As for trends, some 850 people have come out, filling the venue to capacity, to hear him do so.

It’s the fourth time I’ve seen the Englishman (at this stage a living folk-rock legend) perform. The first was in a packed tent in rainy field in the Irish midlands more than a decade ago – the stand-out track that afternoon being a version of “From Galway To Graceland“, his song about a Elvis fan who makes that trek, believing she’s set to marry The King.

In 2011 and 2015 I attended his shows – the latter an acoustic set, not unlike a show in Thompson’s living room – at Vicar Street in Dublin. These two gigs had all the traits of the first – blistering guitar work and an acerbic, if not outright sarcastic, stage manner.

Revolution Hall last Monday was more of the same: the guitar and the palaver, underpinned by the songs. New ones too – at least half the set was composed of tunes from “13 Rivers”, Thompson’s most recent release – a stronger, leaner set of songs than his some of his recent albums.

As befitted the time (Monday night, heavy weather, mid-winter), the set leaned toward the ominous on occasion (new song “The Storm Won’t Come” in particular), before Thompson – job done, Stratocaster turned down – produced the classics, the old favorites he’d advised then audience to wait around for, at the start of the show.

These included – most notably – a version of Fairport Convention’s “Genesis Hall”, dusted off and remodeled after almost 50 years, “Beeswing”, “Wall of Death” and – his calling card (and possibly his albatross) – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, whose opening riff was enough to justify the audience’s weeknight trip through snow and ice.

The highlight – for me, at least – took place during the first encore, when Thompson performed “Dimming of the Day”, his love song for onetime wife Linda Thompson, solo and acoustic. The performance was simple, stark and clear – no irony, no pyrotechnics. Who doesn’t want a love song – albeit a desperate, pleading one – to end the evening?

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The piano player and the perfect playlist

Elton John, Portland, 2019

It must be thrill to create a perfect piece of music, to touch or capture such a elusive thing. Some musicians do it once or twice, some a little more often – very few have achieved it repeatedly, over decades.

I’m not the biggest Elton John fan. For years – probably because of a string of cheesy ‘80s music videos – I avoided his work entirely. That’s long since changed, which is how I found myself sitting – with 20,000 other people – in Portland’s Moda Center last Saturday night, witnessing the man’s last go-round, his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.

Perfection was in the air. I’ve attended hundreds of shows over the years, but never one with such a bulletproof setlist.  

As he moved from one classic pop song to the next, I wondered how it must feel to be the guy sitting behind the piano, knowing that you’ve written a bunch of pretty-much perfect popular songs? To play a set so tight that there’s no room for “Honky Cat” or “Sacrifice” – tunes that would be the high point of most other composers’ nights?

Having written two dozen or more great songs, where do you go next? Are you tormented by them, or are they like cash in the bank (in more ways that one), a form of artistic security to be drawn down when necessary? Are you bored? (How may times and ways can you play the piano solo on “Bennie And The Jets”?)

Maybe the burden of perfection doesn’t weigh heavy. Perhaps, like Elton John, you handle it by just playing the songs. He looked like he enjoyed his three hours on stage in Portland. The audience – including this awed listener – certainly did.

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Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

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Hiking under and on the autumn leaves

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Autumn is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, which means the return of plaid, empty patios, chilly mornings and beautiful, dry fall evenings.

Well, that’s what it’s felt like this year. And the season feels even more wistful when I think of what’s around the corner: rain, rain and more rain.

To fend off thoughts of winter we’ve hiked, strolled, sat and done just about anything else we can outdoors in recent weeks, before the short nights and soggy mornings arrive.

The highlight this year has been hiking in Forest Park, the 5,000-acre public area minutes from downtown Portland (and one of the largest urban parks in the U.S.) More specifically, hiking the busy Wildwood Trail from Macleay Park up to Pittock Mansion, a five-mile round trip with 300m of elevation.

While the lower part of the hike is populated with runners, dog walkers and families, once you’re up in the hills large sections of the trail are empty, save for the shafts of fall light, the sounds of the undergrowth and your year-old miniature dachshund’s panting breath.

And leaves, countless leaves, of all depths of burnished yellow and orange and rust and brown, either fallen or falling or else making up part of an astounding seasonal canopy. It’s an incredible sight and an incredible landscape to hike in – a transient natural gift which we’ll have for another few weeks.

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Farewell sun, hello rain

Fall leaves, Portland

Autumn leaves, Portland

Autumn’s arrived in Portland, heralded by a dip in temperatures, the return of the rain and low, gray clouds in the morning.

Perhaps it’s the Irish in me but, after a summer of record-breaking heat and smoke, I can’t say I’m unhappy. I’m damp, but not unhappy.

If anything, I feel slightly nostalgic. Changeable, sunny/showery weather reminds me of Ireland, and Irish weather year-round. How many soccer games did we abandon at kids when a deluge erupted halfway through, blown in on blustery westerly winds? In July too.

Ask me in November and I’m sure I’ll give you a different answer, but for now the coming of Autumn has seen me look indoors and inwards, leading me deeper into my reading pile and back to my guitar, and allowing me to enjoy a cup of hot coffee without sweating (it’s the little things).

And forcing me to dig out my raincoat, of course.

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Things I’ve learned from a 10-month-old puppy

Hadley

Hadley

Hadley is a miniature dachshund who lives in our house. More accurately, as we’ve discovered since she arrived here at the age of seven weeks, we live in hers.

She’s trained us to dutifully attend to her toilet breaks, prepare meals and retrieve any and all toys that fall underneath the sofa. She’s working on training us to toss those toys to her on a bark command, but it takes time to break in humans.

Hadley is also the first dog I’ve shared a house with, which has led to some insights (apart from the fact that a dog is a constantly-flowing fountain of affection, expressed through face-licking and frantic tail wagging).

Here’s what else I’ve learned since our puppy arrived nine months ago:

  • There is no limit to the amount of fun that can be had by tugging on a fake pizza slice. None whatsoever. At times I feel like we could make a whole afternoon of this.
  • If your puppy rings the pee bell (OK, bops it with her nose) twice in quick succession, you best move quickly.
  • The climatic moment in that Sherlock/Narcos/Sharp Objects episode will correspond precisely with the moment your neighbor walks up her stoop, prompting a flurry of frenetic barking from your seven-inch-high, territorially-obsessed watchdog.
  • If it’s on the floor, it’s fair game. And good luck getting it back.
  • Chewing on a stinking, desiccated bull’s penis for a hour is a perfectly acceptable indulgence. (Hey, if that was the worst thing humans did, it would be a nice world.)
  • 4 a.m. playtime is a good idea. Announcing this by jumping on your sleeping human’s face is an even better one.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or the big stuff either. In fact, the only things you should sweat are the availability of treats, getting your blanket perfectly situated to sleep for another hour, and the fact that you haven’t licked someone’s face yet this afternoon.
  • Anytime playtime is a good idea. In fact, if you’re wondering if it’s playtime yet…it’s playtime. On that note….

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Music to waste hot dusty days to

Alfredo Bolona

Alfredo Boloña

Mid-August. A time of absence and lassitude, not helped by the smoky wildfire air that’s infesting Portland.

It’s a time of year when it’s all I can do to maintain my nine-to-five – it’s hard to raise the energy for much outside of that – or outside at all, given that temperatures are regularly hitting 35c.

Walking along Killingsworth Street in such heat last weekend I thought: what’s the perfect soundtrack for these days? One recording came to mind, one which sums up the slow, languorous nature of a hot August day.

“Aurora En Pekin” is a performance by Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos, a version of a song written by the Cuban guitarist Alfredo Boloña. Over the course of its five and a half minutes the pace, and the volume, rarely rise above a gentle whisper, the percussion slowly ticking the beat while Ribot’s guitar line meanders in and out.

It’s not urgent music, or music that draws attention to itself. It’s just there, simmering away, softly marking time until things become more urgent, more on-track, more September.

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Strolling around, waiting for the death-blow

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Sometimes a busy week leaves little mental space to write. So it’s been in recent days – a confluence of factors has ensured that it’s been about all we can do to keep up the daily schedule of work, chores, puppy-raising, etc.

The one exception was a stolen hour this morning, when I went for a three-mile dawn walk. And a recent resolution of mine is to listen to a new or old or heretofore-ignored album on such Saturday morning rambles.

What albums have I uncovered while strolling through sun or mist or (last Christmas morning) snow along Ainsworth Street?

  • Gerry Mulligan – “Night Lights”. Relaxing, very relaxing, not least Mulligan’s piano on the title track.
  • Elvis Costello – “Momofuku”. Fast and harsh and very good, not least Steve Nieve’s thumping piano.
  • First Aid Kit – “Ruins”. Sorry, I just don’t get it.
  • Thom Yorke – “The Eraser”. A trimmer, angrier version of Radiohead. Not bad, and “Harrowdown Hill” is one of the scariest songs I’ve heard in an age.

There are others, some that either elude me or that I didn’t engage with enough to rate. This morning produced the best find of the lot though.

I knew little about The Cure’s 1982 album “Pornography” before today. I had a vague impression that it was peak-Goth, not necessarily something I’d want to listen to 45 minutes of. But I love “Disintegration”, and those in the know rate “Pornography” up there with that one.

Turns out they’re right. Pounding drums, a searing, echoing guitar line, Robert Smith at his most echoey and depressed (the album’s opening vocal line is “it doesn’t matter if we all die”, and it goes downhill from there) – and that’s all on the first song, “One Hundred Years”.

It’s the sort of song that lesser acts have based careers or – at the very least – albums on (Portishead’s “Third”, for a start). As for me, walking around the polite streets of Northeast Portland singing “Creeping up the stairs in the dark, waiting for the death-blow”) made for a different sort of Saturday morning.

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Playing anthems…to 20 people

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

Some bands can’t catch a break.

Last week I saw The Low Anthem at Mississippi Studios in Portland, a small (smaller than intimate, in truth) venue. Just as well, as there were about 20 people in the room.

How could this be? Surely some mistake with the booking or the promotion? Were The Decemberists are playing an impromptu set in the bar next door?

Nope. Just the vagaries of popularity and music and trends and time. The one unimpeachable thing was the night’s music: a full rendition of the band’s latest release (a concept album about a salt doll immersing herself in the sea), followed by some older songs. It was a sublime, if unnecessarily low-lit (see above), evening.

Leaving the venue I cast my mind back a decade or so, to a time when The Low Anthem were being heralded as the new Fleet Foxes of sorts, and tickets to their Dublin shows were hard to get.

Somewhere along the way something changed – not least the band itself, whose members turned away from the ‘new folk’ (or whatever) label to indulge their own, more niche, interests (including building their own studio in a restored vaudeville-era theater).

Nonetheless, one assumes that when artists reach a certain plateau – of recognition at least, if not success – they remain there, maybe not ascending to the next level but, at the very least, not slipping down the hill.

Why care about this? Because The Low Anthem makes music that deserves to be heard, that may at times require immersion and focus but may also – when it comes to beautiful song like “Gondwanaland” – be the most sublime thing you’ll hear today.

 

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The Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden, Portland, 2017.

The Japanese Garden, Portland, 2017.

Rock swirls and moss green

Surrounds chatter and cell phones –

Someone’s missed the point.

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