The El Mocambo (which, in another form, played home to the shambling Rolling Stones for a few legendary shows in the late ’70s) is a small, boxy venue smelling vaguely, but palpably, of an open sewer. It serves overpriced beers (no locals, no microbreweries), and boasts one unhappy bartender for the whole goddamn place. It also has large, sightline-offending poles right. in. the. way.
In short, it’s just not a typical indie kid scene. Or, I don’t know, maybe it is. They won’t tell me anything.
The room does, nevertheless, sound great—and maybe that’s all that matters. Certainly, the glorious acoustics (and/or sound tech) lifted openers Fleet Foxes’ sunny harmonies into the stratosphere, even if they couldn’t quite convince their lead singer to stand up. An indie it-band, these northwesterners looked shocked, amazed, and genuinely overwhelmed at the rapturous response they received from the intimate crowd. Their pianist, a dead ringer for Richard Manuel in 1976, seemed simply dumbfounded by the attention, and the be-seated lead singer even stopped a song after a few lines to ask an audience member how she knew the words to it. (Ah, yes: the interweb.)
Opening for Blitzen Trapper should be a daunting task for any young band—their chaotic, semi-legendary performances have been said to blow lesser warm-ups out of the water. Perhaps tonight they would have, had Fleet Foxes not been the bigger draw. Indeed, this band of filthy-haired and starry-eyed dudes—the youngest-looking would have a tough time passing for 14—managed to fill the place just on the strength of a good buzz and a couple of MySpace mega-hits. Astoundingly—and terrifically rudely—half the place left after they finished their set.
What that half had come to see were the Foxes’ impressive harmonizing (often in four-part), mysterious song structures, and powerful chops. And what the audience got was a lovely little set, punctuated by listeners’ own various shouts of encouragement and the band’s awkward but charmingly green stage banter. To see a promising band at such an early stage is always exciting: the energy in the room during their sweet performance was itchy and alive.
Blitzen Trapper / Photo: Jade Harris
The ostensible main attraction, Portland, Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper, rambled onstage after the semi-exodus following the Foxes. A sextet that looks like every ski town band you have ever seen—a few cherubic hippie types (skiers), a couple of skater-looking guys (snowboarders), a taut, wiry frontman (telemarker), and one totally random guy (local bartender)—Blitzen Trapper are a warm and inviting band. They look psyched, and they act psyched, but they don’t alienate the audience with their energy. They use humor, but don’t pretend to be self-effacing. They seem to know just how good they are, and revel in their tightness, their intensity, and their passion. At the same time, there’s nothing even remotely arrogant about them. This is a live act it’s hard not to enjoy.
Recently signed to Sub Pop, and touring on the strength of last year’s extraordinary Wild Mountain Nation LP, Blitzen Trapper is clearly a band on its way up. Up to where, exactly, it’s hard to say. Half of the crowd did leave, remember, before they even hit the first chords. For those of us who stuck around—probably 50 people—the band offered up a juggernaut of manic, unpredictable, and rousing rock’n’roll. They bantered about Toronto, about Canada, about Canadian superheroes (one guitarist was sporting an impossibly cool Alpha Flight T-shirt that impressed the guy standing behind me more than any actual musical aspect of the concert, and he effing loved the music), about Neil Young (“you guys know he’s Canadian, right?”), and about each other. Their drummer—who hits the skins so hard I felt bad for them—broke his cymbal. Like, with his drum stick. Then, he threw it at the wall repeatedly as the band and crowd egged him on. It was all funny, but in a totally non-showbiz way. It was real; real dumb, zany, entertaining fun. It was, as my friend declared, a total Gong Show (complete with gong).
Their music, a series of 20-odd three-minute numbers each packed so full of ideas and changes and riffs and hooks that they confound as often as they connect, falls into the hard-to-define category: Steve Miller on bad acid; Neil Young on good acid; Big Star on less acid. But, suffice it to say, early 1970s pop-rock is here turned on its head, shaken around, and then pummeled into a new, weird, barely-recognizable form.
When they came back out for their encore with members of Fleet Foxes (who were by then so drunk it was almost annoying, especially the one who looks 14), it seemed unlikely that they had much left in the tank. But, launching into a gorgeous, multi-harmonized version of Tom Paxton’s enduring coffee house classic “The Last Thing on My Mind”, they hit some of their sweetest notes all night. Full of levity and charm, the thin little audience begged for another, improbable encore, and got it in the form of a new tune none of us had ever heard. This was the tune of the evening, and maybe even the most definitive of their offerings: it was fast, furiously unpredictable, intermittently melodic and dissonant, and utterly compelling. In every way, a Blitzen Trapper tune.