Portugal. The Man
Earl Greyhound, Wintersleep
Harper’s Ferry, Boston, MA • Nov. 2, 2008
Although I used to live within walking distance of Harper’s Ferry (in scenic Allston Rock City, Boston), I’d never actually been to the venue before this evening. To be entirely honest, it just never hosted many of the bands that I’d care to see. That is to say, historically, it’s hosted mainly jam bands and cover acts. Yehck.
But tonight, Portugal. The Man is playing. And they’re, well, awesome. Sweetening the ticket is opening act Wintersleep, a Juno award winning Canadian indie rock band, whom I’ve heard great things about. Wintersleep’s sound is probably best described as atmospheric indie rock. Think Explosions in the Sky with more electronics, mashed up with the sonics of Hum and haunting vocals that at times recall Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
Their set is great (shouldn’t they be headlining somewhere?), and they play songs pretty much exclusively from their latest album, Welcome to the Night Sky. The longer, slower, more drawn out and ethereal numbers like “Drunk on Aluminum” and “Miasmal Smoke” are absolutely breathtaking live, like watching scientists in lab coats recreate experimental results in front of a live studio audience.
Next up is Earl Greyhound, hailing from Brooklyn. First impression: awesome name. Second impression: Eh. Although they’re certainly a talented, powerful three-piece, it’s just not really my kind of thing. If I had to sum it up in a genre name, I’m afraid I’d have to call this “southern funk swamp rock”. Equal parts Black Crowes and sludge metal, they churn out a thick wall of sound that’s fierce on the low-end, to the extent that it’s actually, physically headache-inducing. Massive props to their drummer, Big Ricc Sheridan, though: he is a truly a machine behind the kit.
Finally, the headliner takes the stage. Portugal. The Man kicks off the show in an interesting manner, with a sitar player sitting in. It’s a fitting beginning to a very odd, unpredictable, and inspired performance.
The best moments of their set are, hilariously enough, their jammiest. And they get pretty jammy in a live show, much more so than their albums might initially suggest. I can see now why they’re playing at Harper’s Ferry — and that’s not meant to be condescending at all, this really is a jammy performance I can enjoy, and after watching it, I can’t really imagine it being any other way. It’s a vibrant act full of noise, extended reggae-inspired freakouts, and tribal rhythms — not at all what I expected and a lot more fun than any show I’ve watched in a long time. It feels unscripted, and it feels like the band is having as much fun as the audience is.
Regardless of the amount of jam injected into the set, the band manages to stay true to their catchy singalong choruses and oddball chants. They also make good on their indie-hardcore roots, but in unexpected ways: bassist Zach Carothers thrashes about like a man possessed; the buildups and breakdowns are often sudden, unpredictable, and powerful; the organ and bongos get about as hardcore as organs and bongos can be. Just as their music defies classification, so does their live show. And you can tell they’re having a great time as they rocket through a number of songs from each of their three full-lengths, guided only by John Gourley’s crooning falsetto, like some sort of indie-schizo Pink Floyd reaching toward the light.
The singalong anti-chorus and pounding breakdown toward the end of a haunted version of AKA M80 the Wolf is probably the highlight of the show for me, and of all the songs in tonight’s performance, AKA and the few other cuts from their first album have been altered the most (“Marching with 6,” “Horse Warming Party”). But honestly, they’re better for it, and the band doesn’t disappoint. Likewise, the songs from their latest album, Censored Colors, are much higher energy than their recorded counterparts (particularly “Lay Me Back Down” and “Colors”), twisted and peppered with additional instrumentation and audience love. “1989,” from Censored Colors, is probably the most straight-forward song they play all night, and really allows Gourley’s vocals to shine.
Portugal. The Man is one of the few bands making music today that is truly hard to classify, and that isn’t afraid to take risks. Each of their albums has been a big departure from their previous. It’s really not surprising then, that their live show should be something unto itself, exciting and unpredictable in its abundant enthusiasm and reinterpretation of their catchy but unconventional melodies. I really believe it’d be difficult *not* to enjoy this performance, even if you aren’t already familiar with the music. And if you are familiar, well that’s great. But just don’t go to a Portugal. The Man show expecting a flawless recreation of the album cuts. Because that, after all, would be predictable. And predictable, as we all know, is boring.
Portugal. The Man: www.portugaltheman.net