9 October 2009
Turner Hall, Milwaukee
[Note to our readers: On occasion, our far flung correspondents review concerts. Here's one.]
Uniquely named Portland-based band Portugal. The Man took the stage last night before a very enthusiastic, young audience at Milwaukee's Turner Hall and played with ferocity, skill and heart. The group has been touring on the heels of this summer's release, The Satanic Satanists, starting in the Northeast US in mid-September and winding their way east through the end of October, before headlining the remainder of the year in Europe. But it was the band's note-worthy set at this summer's Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Chicago that had sustained buzz about the band in the Midwest and created curiosity for this reviewer.
This still-young band is in search of its own sound and as a listener they seem to tantalizingly close, especially when leaning on the songs of Satanic and its immediate 2008 long-player, Censored Colors. Portugal. The Man faces the familiar quandary in pop music: Do you stay the indie darlings and carve a small niche among a select group of listeners or try to expand your sonic landscape and slip into more of the (to some, dreaded) mainstream? That push and pull was evident in their sometimes uneven, but always dedicated performance last night.
Of course, in order to make such a leap, your band better have the chops. Such is the case with Portugal. The Man. The set was dominated by singer John Baldwin Gourley and the ringing sound of his over sized Gretsch guitar. Looking like a cross between Cream-era Clapton and a shaggy Duane Allman, the mustachioed Gourley switches to the upper register with seeming ease from his God-given tenor, and coaxes emotion from playing skilled chords to match. Boyhood pal Zachary Scott Carothers is a strong presence, confronting the audience head on as a counter to Gourley's odd sideways - albeit center - position on stage. His driving bass and complimentary vocals serve as a vital bottom to this group, wedded to the ever present gaze and beat of drummer Jason Sechrist. Depending on the song structure, Ryan Neighbors' keyboards alternate between providing fills and sharing "lead" with Gourley on some choruses.
The band's influences seem myriad, both obvious and subtle: T. Rex ("And I"), the trippiness of My Morning Jacket, David Bowie (covering the Ziggy Stardust era "Moonage Daydream"), the power chords of original Santana and (!) Harry Nilsson's "One." And they even threw in a snippet of an MGMT song.
The point in bringing out these references is to emphasize that Portugal. The Man appear to love music (cue the elusive interview of Russell in Almost Famous). And it shows in their confidence in playing the new material, particularly "People Say" and "Lovers In Love." Admiringly, the band gives no quarter when they play, always seemingly in attack mode.
And there's also the rub. As a relatively new headliner, Portugal. The Man needs to learn to construct a set of music that will eventually lead to a crescendo with its live audience. But given its talent, I'll be in the audience again next time expecting that area, too, has progressed.
The one vexing question is why doesn't this infective live energy translate onto the Satanic disc like it did with Colors? One can only chalk it up to muddied production. But, alas, there is saving grace: do yourself a favor and order the Deluxe Edition of the CD, which mirror every track with an acoustic version, letting the songs and the band shine in natural light.
Portugal. The Man's new release The Satanic Satanists is out now on Equal Vision Records.
An acoustic version of "People Say" from Vimeo is linked here.