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Portugal. The Man

(25 Oct 2011: 9:30 Club — Washington, DC)

Draped in a soft blue shadow and engulfed by dollops of manufactured fog, Portugal. The Man appeared on stage at the 9:30 Club to a sold out audience. Accompanying them was a number of tentacled structures, strung with glass orbs the size of basketballs.

They began their set with “So American”, arguably one of the best songs on their new album, Mountains in the Clouds. As the fog billowed across the stage, the glass orbs began to glow; colors swirled and flashed in tempo and with blue, green, red and purple hues. The unique effect was used intricately throughout the set, establishing a certain personality or mood to each song. A subtle but important nuance, the band was never lit from above… by dramatically muting their own physical presence, Portugal. The Man put their songs at the forefront of their performance. The unconventional stage set up is a great visual representation of the band’s mantra: elaborately simplistic and lysergicly grounded.

In the studio, they are psychedelic scientists who understand the complexities of minimalism. They have the ability to create textured songs that radiate a patient frustration that could only be cultivated in the sunless months of Alaskan winter.

As a live band, they are something different. Songs are liberated from the context of their respective albums and patience is traded for energy. The second song of their set, “Work All Day” is a great example of how some compositions are reworked to sound heavier on stage. The delicate, foreboding swing on the album becomes fueled by piss, vinegar and distortion. Another highlight from the 9:30 Club set, “Aka M80 the Wolf”, is a song in which the band incorporates instrumental extensions that feature ripping guitar solos and booming bass lines.

Although it takes them a little while to get into their own comfort zone the performance is incredibly tight and more energetic then one might expect. Even with obscured lighting, it was easy to see the animated blues and soul come out of John Gorely (vocals/guitar) as he swung and thrashed his hollow body and guitar throughout the night. The overall sound was strikingly driven by Zach Carothers bass - as opposed to the rhythmic leadership role typically held by Jason Sechriststs drums. The big surprise however, was the presence of the orchestral nuances and aural ambience that make Portugal. The Man’s albums so great. Those sonic details, provided by Ryan Neighbors on keyboard and synthesizer, might be the conduit that carries this band from the studio to the stage so well.
While putting out an album (or two) every year since 2006 may have kept them from fine tuning their live identity, one of the perks in their prolificacy is that their set played like a specially crafted mini-album.  It was clear from the singing that the crowd was more familiar with their new material from Mountains in the Clouds but the band put forth an offering from almost every album they’ve put out – especially Satanic Satanist. To close the show, Portugal played a three song encore that included an anthem-like rendition of “The Sun”, a powerful “Senseless” and the ultimate show-closer, “Sleep Forever”. 

Kevin Smallwood resides in the comb-over capital of our great nation, Washington, D.C. though his heart and many of his possessions are scattered throughout New York City.

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