Were it not for force of personality, Melanie Valera's (AKA Tender Forever) show at the Works Wednesday night would've felt more like an Apple commercial. As much as the multi-media performance was a demonstration of what can be done with the stable of toys put forth by Steve Jobs and co., it was also an exploration of Valera's character and history.
But indeed, glowing Apple logos were everywhere. Certainly the piece put some serious dollars in Job's coffers. It featured five or six MacBooks, an iPad, iTunes, plus a green screen, two video cameras, and a Nintendo Wii—easily ten grand in equipment cost. In the hands of Valera the glut of technology became a gateway to whimsy, rather than cold abstraction.
The set began in total darkness, with a glowing iPad fashioned as a necklace, and perhaps a beat machine. Soon three collaborators emerged with MacBooks in hand, white light's pulsing to the rhythm. They surrounded and lit Valera, the only stage lights at the time.
Soon, though, the spot-lights came up and the distant specter that was became the stream-of-consciousness Valera, who through long chatty bits between songs invited the audience into the living room of her mind, talking about her family and European heritage, feelings on love and more. The honest is no surprise after taking into account that Valera is a K Records artist, which values almost above all the earnest, touchy-feely, craft-making and shared tactile experience.
Even in this hyper-technological arrangement, Valera and her crew kept things this "K," if you will, by willfully displaying all the process and working parts. She used the Wii to add live synth drums to a backing track, and had a faux Skype chat with "ex-girlfriend" Beyonce Knowles (it would've been cooler to do an actual live call). She covered Justin Timberlake's "My Love" on the Omnichord, which then led to a collaborator dressed as a DVD menu to load the show's "commentary track," a pre-recorded comical discourse on the show itself. Then Valera hit the green screen, complete with a green body bag that left nothing but a floating head on a screen across the stage. The stage hands then played "Pong" with it. Finally, a camera facing the audience was tuned to pick up the lights on their cell-phone screens. Shaking them back and forth, the sensor turned the moving lights to the song's backing track.
The involved multi-media show was something Valera said she and the team had little time to rehearse, and that it rarely came together. But here, on stage, it did for the most part. "It looks really good," she remarked half-way through, sounding relieved. "And it's fucking working, man." There were, at times, absorbingly long pauses between songs where Valera did her best to entertain the audience with stories and non-sequiturs while her crew ironed out the tech.
But when the songs were moving, they faired well. Valera's brand of electro-pop was akin to the evening's set in that her engagement turned all the bits and bleeps into something welcoming and human. Many of the songs shared familiar turf—breakups—and often featured montage-like bridges of introspection and triumph over the feeling of being wronged. The one-off performance was quite different for Valera, who performs regularly without the technological apparatus (next at Kennedy School on September 24th). She seemed to revel in the challenge.
Local openers Lovers faced their own set of difficulties that weren't quite as engaging to overcome. A huge room, a rainy Wednesday and a prior weekend of tremendous concerts made for a seated and lackadaisical audience. Lovers music, a sparse but round electro-pop, played live with a drummer, synths, and vocals is not built for sleepy audiences on the comedown. While it's textured and not all bump, Lovers are better suited for clubs where they and the audience can get close and feel it together.
In the 600 seat auditorium Lovers indeed sounded great, but the feel was a bit off. I talked later to a fan who's seen the Portland trio many times before. "It's not sit-down music," she said. "You never see that at their shows."
But on this dreary Wednesday night, TBA festival-goers did. And unlike Valera's indefatigable charm and guile, Lovers appeared more inward looking, and maybe even stoic. The songs were there, well written and performed. But in this setting, on this day, they weren't quite enough to break through on their own.
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