Shows in Portland, Oregon start on “Portland time.” That’s why most music fans show up a couple hours late. God love ‘em, they can make an art of complaining. For the corporate drones with 9-to-5 day jobs, a three-band lineup starting at 11 pm incites a symphony of whining: “I’m too [tired/ambivalent/stoned/etc.]” Thus, October skies darken early and the rain drizzles on, day and night. We nod off or hole up reading, recording, painting, sleeping. We wait for May.
The result: a lot of bands play to half-full rooms. Such is the case at the inaugural show for the Doug Fir Lounge, a new venue on the SE side of Portland. The owners of the Doug Fir are trying to deliver on everything missing in the Portland music scene. They’ve combined an all-night restaurant with an intimate music space in a neighborhood that’s not downtown and the shows start early. The response? The room’s near-empty, it’s 10 pm, and the opener—local darlings The Joggers—are breaking down their equipment after their set. What the f—-?
Tickets say the show starts at 9 pm, and indeed the show starts promptly at 9 pm. Most of the audience, expecting things to get going on Portland time, miss The Joggers, miss the four-part super-pop harmonies and demented rhythms, miss the Zeppelin encores and shiny happy audience. Unhappy Joggers. A prime spot opening for Quasi at Show #1 in a swanky new venue, and the room is practically empty and the house lights are on while they’re playing. Sigh.
The Doug Fir Lounge smells new; mirrors and windows reflect fragments of the crowd, bright white lights beam out from under the floor panels. Walk outside for a smoke and you’re practically inside the Jupiter Hotel, a cheap hipster destination for exhausted rock and rollers. Inside the Doug Fir, the aesthetic is a strange blend of Art Deco and log cabin chic. The restaurant is open “21 Hours a Day” (a hot commodity in a town with just one all-night pancake house and a couple of Denny’s) and there’s a full bar, which is exactly where we are when Quasi’s squeals begin to filter down from upstairs.
We descend into a small room, people sitting at tables on one side and waitresses moving through the crowd carrying drink trays. It’s tight, a few hundred people jammed together. There’s an inflated skeleton head on stage, looking grim and fatal.
Sam Coomes is at the Roxichord, one piece of his mad-scientist toolbox, a monstrous keyboard that roars and rumbles, turning melody into seismic activity. His beard is thick, his eyes bright and wild.
Janet Weiss sits at the drum kit to his left, blond tips in her jet-black hair. Her playing is tight, focused and big. In one moment she’s John Bonham, in the next a fluid jazz player. The pair do make some eye contact, but not much, certainly not the kind that most bands have to make—one of the benefits of playing in a band with your ex. Coomes and Weiss have been married, divorced; Weiss is now Sleater-Kinney’s drummer, Coomes is a father, and a husband. There’s not a trace of unfinished business up on the stage though, just two old friends anticipating each other’s next move.
Quasi’s set consists of new songs and old ones, as the duo is currently in the studio recording a new record. The works-in-progress still scream like an old crazy bluesman rattling inside beautiful, surreal Beatle-esque bridges and melodies. But one song in particular defies the anger of Hot Shit, Quasi’s last barnburner of a record, with Coomes wandering into dangerously optimistic and anthemic waters, singing lines such as: “Peace and love/ Ain’t no shame, and Peace and love/ Not just a song you sing at shows/ Chained to a wheel/ Peace and love cut through steel.”
Neither Coomes nor Weiss take the obvious road to the bully pulpit during the show. There’s no ranting about Bush or get-out-the-vote reminders. (After all, Portland’s the town that G. H. W. Bush nicknamed “Little Beirut”; we’re already on the Kerry bandwagon.) But the lyrical thread strung through tonight’s setlist does piece together a value system bucking the way things are. It’s full of wake-up calls for the television-addicted, anesthetized masses.
What’s the message inside all of this melodic contradiction? Like John Lennon’s “Revolution”, and to a lesser degree Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, Quasi uses pop to a utopian end, as a revolt against mass media and mob mentality. If Quasi is preaching a way of living, an ethical code, it might be summed up as this: don’t do it for the money; don’t pretend to be someone you’re not; don’t believe what they tell you; don’t stop questioning; don’t pollute (your mind, your body, or anything else); ignore the subliminal (or overt) cues leading you to greed and over consumption.
Evidence: the infectious “Seal the Deal”, a mountain of a song that highlights Coomes’ melodic, ascending synth-lines, cut off by Weiss’ percussion breaks. “You can’t walk around pretending to fake it / It doesn’t work that way / You don’t have to be a pro to play.”
Or the second verse of “Our Happiness is Guaranteed”, from 1998’s Featuring “Birds”: “Why live in danger/ Why live in pain/ People on the surface find it hard to explain/ And every little thing is strictly monitored/ We’re given everything we need.”
Some aspects of a Quasi show rarely change: Janet takes lead vocals on a song or two; Sam humps the Roxichord; there’s a cover tune in the encore (tonight it’s the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”; last time it was “I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes). Janet moves to the Roxichord or guitar while Sam picks up lead guitar duties. Sam’s voice cracks. They improvise. They make eye contact and smile, but rarely talk.
Long story short, Quasi’s been in Portland for 11 years now, and they’ve played with and/or joined and/or recorded with a lot of bands and musicians (Janet: Sleater-Kinney, Jr. High, Sarah Dougher, Magic Musicians, Unwound; Sam: Heatmiser, Elliott Smith, Built to Spill, Hella).
So a new Portland venue opens up and who better to uncork the bottle with than Quasi? Just as long as you’re up for an eye-opening ride into truth, justice and freedom for all. Take a look into Sam Coomes’ eyes on this Saturday night, and you’ll see that he’s plugged into something bigger than pop music.
Now if only Portland could only drag itself out of the house and show up on time, wouldn’t that be something?