Imagine the music of Portugal. The Man inscribes circles across you. Perhaps these circles are just the associations carried forward from film footage of gyrating Woodstock attendees, tie dyed T-shirts, or more modern and acid-trippy geo-circular screensavers. Mental association aside, it’s not often that a band of obvious influences creates music with contours novel enough to conjure shapes rather than trite comparisons to their heroes and contemporaries.
I arrive at the century old Majestic Theatre, a Madison staple since 1906, on a rainy autumn night. In a century of bawdy history, the theatre has housed everything from vaudeville to Harry Houdini to porn to live action midnight showings of Rocky Horror. Recently, the theatre has gained a new identity as a venue for regional and national musical acts. After walking across a few yards of worn red carpet, I step up to a bar added during the theatre’s not-so-distant tawdry turn as a day-glo then gangsta night club to find that openers Hockey have canceled due to band illness. Their slicker urban sound would have proven good counterpoint to Portugal. The Man’s jam-band tones and three-minute pop songs. As I sip on a TNT, Drug Rug, a Boston-band unfamiliar to me, begins rummaging around the stage several minutes later.
Drug Rug starts slow. Half the band begins a groove. The other half wanders around, plugging in, fidgeting, looking confused, unaware, and nonchalant. After a minute of tones somewhere between dream weaving and soundcheck, the drums build, the band unites, and you realize the song and band were not confused, but purposely nonchalant.
Like a theoretical Wilco or Fire Arcade, the mid-tempo opening numbers contain some loose drums slowly rolling the beat with bracketed charges of guitar. But theory isn’t everything. In practice, Drug Rug’s intensity isn’t strong enough often enough to give the band a steady heartbeat live, and the effect for the duration of the set is that of a rock n’ roll mannequin. All the parts are there, it looks attractive, but imagination is required to make it live.
Their second number, “Don’t Be Frightened of the Devil” from Paint the Fence Invisible, starts with some ear-catching dissonant guitar and Mamas and Papas vocal harmonies that lend a haunting, suspended aura to the century-old theatre. The spacious but steady drone of the bass with single-note collages from each guitar provide flavored and ethereal arrangements, like some lost conceptual track from Pet Sounds. The shared leads of Tommy Allen and Sarah Cronin are dead on and delightful, mingling haunting and bubbly melodies and harmonies, often in the same tune.
But if there is a high point to Drug Rug’s show, the first songs are it. Lacking verve as a live band, Drug Rug’s first songs offered colorful music. The rest of the set is a rehash of stale rock with lyrics marking the band as hipper than, say, Sheryl Crow or other Top 40. If the Sheryl Crow reference seems dated, Drug Rug still deserve it most of the night. In the best light, it is a complement to the lead vocals of Sarah Cronin, who can be a lilting delight that barely cuts through the routine rock at most moments. When the songwriting calls for her to rake and scream texture into the too predictable riffs and rhythms of Drug Rug’s music, there is life onstage.
But other than these small bursts, the band’s canvas is white live. Their playing doesn’t challenge the ghosts or limits of their predecessors, or their audience’s desire for vigor. The band do have their moments, as when Allen and Cronin play a dual guitar interlude akin to fuzzy swamp rock that challenges the placid audience. But this aside, their performance lacks any unexpected punctuation or mood pieces to change the emotions. No percussive undercurrents, no brazen hurricane crescendos, and no musical personality exists. Without emotional flux, lullaby becomes lull. The crowd, rock n roll’s best barometer, never rises higher than a consistent polite applause or nod of approval. When the band switch instruments for the last song, they sound the same as before, making one wonder where innovation exists in Drug Rug.
Portugal. The Man begin equally un-united. During what appears to be the middle of intermission, a lone keyboardist sits down and begins plunking chords. Unlike Drug Rug, these plunkings begin to swirl into a prog-rock organ manifesto. From the wings, the bandmates slowly enter onto a stage adorned as an artists’ studio with a trio of canvases—a triptych of The Satanic Satanist’s cover art—spread around as backdrops.
From the moment Portugal. The Man begin playing, intensity and urgency enter the theatre with them. Something is at stake again in the room. The band opens with “People Say” from their latest album, The Satanic Satanist. For a band that claims to eschew politics, this opening song has a deadly serious message about the ability of group think and cheerful optimism to dilute the tragedy of war. However, the bounce and flip of the music balance the mourning in the message. And with an intensity level capable of filling the theatre, people aren’t listening for a message. They’re turning optimistic themselves about the potential for the evening.
The second track, “Everyone is Golden”, a composite of simple, uplifting lyrics sung repeatedly over bright waves of rhythm, is prototypical Portugal. Yet, like a number of Portugal’s songs, it has a darkness. “Everyone is golden”, the band chants in unison, until lead singer John Baldwin Gourley finishes the phrase with a somber “But nobody will love them”, capturing in just one line both existential beauty and loneliness.
If darkness exists frequently in Portugal. The Man’s music, it exists only momentarily in ironic reversals. The music itself is expansive, happily marching forward while it reaches up, never droning in narcissistic loathing, and the band presents this dynamic better live than on album. After the Golden irony of the previous tune, the band builds into a warmer track from The Satanic Satanist, “The Sun”. The song’s assertion that “We are all / We are all just lovers…” circles the room in nouveau soul harmonies, like The Temptations dripped across good indie.
“Work All Day” is an updated styling of the dark side of experimental ‘70s space funk, but with more West Coast psychedelia than others who revisit the sound recreationally, say Andre 3000, who cooked up the genre with much Atlanta hip-hop sizzle, or Moby, who fashioned it into sturdy but techno-sweetened dance club samplings. Portugal, indie at heart, keeps the sound as au naturale as can be. The dreamy organ and slight Oriental echoes in the guitar line answer the minimal drum beat of the verse. The chorus, more like a parable, finds Gourley waxing about a working man’s soul packed in a bag until “there’s nothing” and the chorus’ more mechanical crush and groove emphasize the lyric’s dark, blunt edge.
Whatever darkness exists in these songs is lost to both the band and crowd. The formerly reserved, Midwestern crowd is giving back the substantial energy it receives. Is the experience cosmic? Portugal. The Man sing songs about how beautiful life is-the sun, moon, and stars appear often. So hell yes, it’s cosmic. The band makes you believe in these shiny, happy, imagist lyrics. Few since John Lennon have convincingly written songs about karma, universal brotherhood, and similar dopey utopia without forcing our fingers to the irony button.
“Lovers in Love” demonstrates the band’s musical chops. Cottony keyboards and descending falsetto vocals trek across the busy prog-funk keyboard and guitar moonscape at least a sonic mile below. The extended jams here pull the audience closer to the stage. The band members, too, seem to compress physically toward supernova status, a blur of instruments talking to each other. The unity of the band impresses consistently, moving from electric but still fragile folk rock to high-speed freight, often with only a moment’s silence in between explosions.
Throughout the night, a certain innocence, not anger, centers the band’s high energy and optimistic songwriting. Portugal. The Man takes enough of the sounds and wide-eyed vibes that the ‘60s now represent and spin this sound into a pallet of emotions that isn’t political or permanent, but is at least believable and tangible while you’re experiencing it. No borrowed personality is on display. The band’s rain and rainbows are their own, even as they cover Three Dog Night’s “One is the loneliest number”.
After a short break, the band returns for a two song encore which finishes with the wistful “1989”, a blend of folk and reggae with its sad soprano voice and melancholy lyrics. Yet again, Portugal’s personality is such that, sans acoustic guitars, “1989” is too charged to instill melancholy in the audience. Instead, reggae dancehall subsumes any lingering overtones of sadness.
Much like our age, Portugal. The Man is too apolitical to conjure the long-dead ghost of the ‘60s. And symbolic of our own age, the band can’t escape referentiality or the mining of the past to build the present. But if it is history one desires, Portugal. The Man is like a sonic wormhole, letting a listener linger amongst signposts, moon landings, and red velvet of rock n roll’s past and present. And, at moments, when you get caught up in their sound, you feel downright timeless. What more should you ask for?