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Blues Goblins (featuring Sam Coomes of Quasi)

Cori Taratoot
Blues Goblins (featuring Sam Coomes of Quasi)

Blues Goblins (featuring Sam Coomes of Quasi)

City: Portland, Oregon
Venue: The Blackbird
Date: 2003-02-22
Sam Coomes is a man possessed. He's a sorcerer, a conduit for ancient haunted spirits. He's chased by the same devil that hunted Robert Johnson. He's a man of few words chasing fire with his guitar. Watch closely: Coomes can shift his person entirely. With his band Quasi, he can be a sweet, retro-pop genius one minute, a pissed-off 21st century activist the next. Now his eyes are rolled into the back of his head; he's in a trance, he's raising dead bluesmen and the ghosts that tracked them: Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James. On a Saturday night at the Blackbird in Portland Oregon, Sam Coomes snarls his black snake moan, and for an hour or so we're transported into his creepy dark world. His sweet vocals belie the frightening pathos bursting from the songs. The distorted guitar solos fly off his fingers. It's like he's not even trying. This particular solo project, the sinisterly titled Blues Goblins, is Coomes' first recording project outside of the world of Quasi. Around these parts Quasi is an indie-rock sensation, a local band untainted by excessive national attention. And Coomes is thought of as something of a local genius, an independent Renaissance kinda guy. This is a guy you're likely to spot around town scoring Super-8 film festivals, a guy who lays down keyboards for the latest Built to Spill record, a guy who writes/produces/records epic Quasi albums, oh say, every one to two years. That drummer (and ex-wife) Janet Weiss keeps Quasi in her busy schedule (she's also the third member of Sleater-Kinney) says something about how strongly Coomes' family, friends and fans believe in his talent. In some ways, stripping down to a guitar and microphone is closer in spirit to Quasi's first record, Early Recordings, recently re-released by Touch and Go. The band's last few records, post-modern gems like 1998's Featuring "Birds" and 2001's Sword of God, show the band moving into increasingly complex space, recalling the brilliant psychotic mayhem of the Flaming Lips. The Blues Goblins material is a statement of radical evil simplicity. It's an adventure of purification. And inside of this blues inferno is a screech from Coomes that we've never quite heard before. He's a quiet guy who doesn't have much to say to the audience, but inside of these songs Coomes rages. "It wasn't really, um, my intention to be the, uh . . . 'headliner,'" Coomes says, making imaginary quotation marks with his fingers. He stutters and stammers when trying to think of something else to say. "I'm feeling . . . non-verbal." He then rips into an incendiary guitar part, introducing Curley Weaver's "Born to Die". Coomes wails:
You made me love you
And you made me cry
You should remember
That you were born to die.
The act of playing other people's music seems to liberate Coomes. Inside of the music he's free, the old bluesman's material offering a psychological burn that's like rocket fuel for his psyche. Tonight Coomes is up here naked and alone. It's just him, a chair, an electric guitar. No drums, no band, no guest appearances from friends or former band mates. That's been known to happen at the Blackbird: one night you might catch Sleater-Kinney in the audience, another night Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks might perform unannounced. But tonight Coomes is on his own, and it seems fitting. Towards the end of the set, Coomes leaves his six-stringed pitchfork for the electric piano sitting in a wooden box marked "FRAGILE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT". He comes unglued all over again, banging his elbows up and down the keyboard, hunched over like Beethoven gone stark-raving mad. He hits the delay pedal, walks back to the guitar, adds a wash of distortion over the repeating piano lines. Complete madness. And then it's over, abruptly. The crowd wants an encore; Coomes says he's only got one more left. And then quietly, and sweetly, he dedicates it to his baby daughter, and proceeds to launch into a maniacal blues stomp that torches the place.

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