Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the visionaries behind Portlandia, took their hit television show on a five stop, sold-out US tour in January. In case you are unfamiliar Portlandia is a sketch comedy that debuted on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) in January 2011. The show parodies and chronicles characters one may find walking the streets of Portland, or any hip metropolitan area for that matter. Armisen, a veteran of Saturday Night Live, and Brownstein, vocalist/guitarist of Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, not only created and wrote the show, but also starred in it.
Portlandia stopped by The Hideout in Chicago on January 18. The Hideout is one of Chicago’s secret gems that just hit its 15 year anniversary. The venue is appropriately located off the beaten path in an industrial park neighboring a city recycling plant, and has a maximum capacity of 150. Portlandia sold out The Hideout before it was even widespread knowledge Armisen and Brownstein were on tour. Even Craigslist was void of tickets; no one was selling yet plenty of people were looking.
Walking up to The Hideout I felt super cool that I would be attending such a rare event. Truthfully I was not sure what to expect with the live performance. Would Armisen and Brownstein re-enact sketches? Would there be costume changes? Music? Snippets from the show?
The performance began with a video introduction by the mayor of Portland, aka Sam Adams, played by Kyle MacLachlan. A series of unplanned projector technical difficulties fittingly preceded the clip. The fumble reminded me of a sketch from the show where Armisen and Brownstein meet with the Mayor to play him a song they wrote about the city of Portland, but no one can get the computer to play their track. Before long the projector was re-set and centered on the screen, ready for the Mayor to set the evening’s tone. Following suit Armisen appeared alone onstage without his counterpart. He called out for her and Brownstein shouted “AY-OH RIVER!” as she made her way from the back of the house, through the crowd and towards the stage.
Armisen and Brownstein were not out to throw a big production, nor re-enact characters and sketches. Instead they were onstage as Fred and Carrie, real people with a knack for casual conversational comedy looking to hang out. Together they filled their set with clips from Portlandia’s latest season, a couple of sketches, a series of Q&A, and live musical interludes.
One evening highlight was a Q&A session where the audience had an opportunity to ask Armisen and Brownstein absolutely anything. There were a series of weak questions such as: “How did you get your ears like that?” (in reference to Armisen’s radical biker character, Spyke) or “Will you work with Jack White?” Then there were interesting inquiries such as: “What characters do you most identify with?” (Brownstein went with Cath, an over-reacting politically correct suburban mom, while Armisen decided on Spyke, the radical bike snob.)
The favorite topic of the evening involved all things Chicago. Armisen lived in the city during his twenties, making the audience keen to compare and contrast city hot spots. With Chicago being such a hot topic the duo invited some local guests onstage to help define Chicago life. Guests included teenage fashion blogger/founder of Style Rookie, Tavi Gevinson, and her pals Spencer and Sammy Tweedy, sons of famed Chicagoan and Wilco band leader Jeff Tweedy. While Gevinson and the Tweedys could not recommend the best bars in town, they did share insight on their favorite hot dog stands (Superdawg), best venue (Lounge Acts) and best place to get a hair cut. Brownstein and Armisen admitted they tried to get R. Kelly to appear on stage, but his PR team declined the invite once they heard word of the Q&A.
Next to comedy, music played a significant role in the performance. Brownstein and Armisen were backed by Rebecca Cole (Wild Flag) on keys and Michael Learner (Telekinesis) on drums. The four played out key songs from Portlandia including the “Theme from Dream of the ‘90s” and their original tribute “A Song for Portland”. Sally Timms from the Mekons joined the band on stage for a number towards the end of the set, as did Damon Locks, Armisen’s old band mate from Trenchmouth. The show came to an end with a driving cover of The Clash’s “London Calling”.
Brownstein and Armisen bid Chicago farewell by throwing piñatas into the audience. The paper maché buddies were fashioned to resemble the pair, compliments of The Hideout. The audience tour them apart like savages to find reveal toys, temporary tattoos and other goodies.
Season two of Portlandia is currently airing on IFC. Portlandia: The Tour reconvenes February 19 in Philadelphia and concludes February 24 in Nashville, TN.