Today was the official, final day of this year’s TBA Festival (phew!). Last night ushered it in with a big celebration: Chanticleer Trü’s Evelyn. Folks made figure eights on roller skates, circling a giant disco ball wrapped in a pink tulle bow in the middle of the room. Balloons hovered a few feet above the floor, and videos from the ‘80s—of aerobics, nail art, and Jem—flashed on a giant screen.
At the entrance to the space was a graffiti wall—puff paint sat on the table as an invitation to draw. Nearby was Michael Horwitz, working steadily at his portraiture project. A man dressed as a giant, plush disco ball wandered the room, and party hats punctuated the heads of the attendees. It was like an underground disco party with an ‘80s infusion. The color pink was pregnant in the room (I'm pretty sure that's the only way to put it)—in the attire, in the lighting, in the flashing neon “Evelyn” sign.
Evelyn was booked as an art installation turned night club, which is fair enough: a party may be exactly what's needed after an exhaustive week of demanding contemporary art. The name of the party came from disco queen Evelyn Champagne King; King would’ve been proud.
Tonight Chanticleer Trü reins in this final Works performance of this year's TBA Festival. He made a guest appearance however earlier this week (Wednesday) during SQUART, which, to recap, was a performance of mayhem and asses— literal asses, which aligned nicely with the New York Times's recent declaration about our fine butt nation.
SQUART—which is short for Spontaneous Queer Art—is a project that San Francisco-based, TBA veteran Laura/Larry Arrington started four years ago. It began as a response to the isolating effects of artmaking and grant proposing. Arrington wanted to do something collaborative, something that "was silly on purpose.” Mission accomplished. How SQUART works: an open call occurs and people sign up and show up a few hours before the show; they're then divided into four groups to create a 14-minute performance, which is judged by a group of “celebrity” judges (Wednesday's judges included Holcombe Waller, the aforementioned Chanticleer Tru, Linda Austin, and others). The contestants are judged by whatever silly, sometimes entertaining, bullshit that pops into the judges' heads at the time.
The run time of the SQUART was two hours, which is way, way too long for an absurdist performance like this. It’s framed as “usurping the conventions of reality TV shows,” but SQUART doesn’t have much to do with reality TV, or with anything that has a narrative structure. Instead, there’s a lot of crawling around, naked wrestling, screaming, grunting, groaning, etc. that occurs during the 14-minute acts of the show (of which there are four). Two women next to me muttered sarcastically the whole time, moaning, “Good thing we only paid $45 for this,” and eventually they were gone, and, after about an hour into SQUART, there were a lot of people that had gone, and quite a few abandoned seats in the audience.
On the contrary, the performers on stage seemed to be having a good time. The takeaway: SQUART works best for the people who are involved in the performance, and for people who WANT to get involved and create a community around movement; it’s not a fun show if you’re expecting to sit back and be entertained. At a performance like SQUART, you will be asked to do aerobics, and you will be asked to “get the fuck up.”
Many comics argue in favor of stand-up being an art form; both Patton Oswalt and Kyle Kinane have said as much on their comedy albums. And there is a real case to be made on their behalf. Most long stand-up sets are arranged much like a symphony or a Broadway musical: a strong opening riff to draw you in, an extended middle section where little motifs and beats spark and dazzle along the way, and a big closer to send you out into the night beaming.
It was great, then, to see comedy given a big showcase as part of an arts festival like TBA, and to see the stand-ups invited to be part of the night by host Jason Traeger (he takes the pictures on the Portland Stand-Up Comedy Photo Album blog when he's not doing comedy himself) bring so many different variations of the form to The Works.
The biggest surprise of the evening was an appearance by former Portlander Ron Funches. The jocular co-star of the NBC sitcom Undateable was apparently in town, in part, to finalize his divorce, a situation that he was quick to make light of in his signature lackadaisical style: "At least I know who is to blame for this situation...[long pause]...my son. Have to put the blame squarely on his little shoulders." (I'm paraphrasing this so forgive me if I didn't get it exactly right.) It was obvious the situation wasn't getting him down, or he's just been enjoying some local weed, as he seemed downright giddy up there, snickering at his own punchlines and not seeming phased when the stairs leading off the stage collapsed underneath him (he didn't get hurt, by the way).
Otherwise, we got an array of familiar, and mostly male, faces. And if there was a theme to be teased out of the night, it was an emphasis on some absurdist voices. Tim Ledwith ceded most of his time to a hilarious PowerPoint presentation that had AppleTalk reading a long suicide note he supposedly wrote when he was 12, accompanied by a slideshow of childhood pictures. Christian Ricketts, on the other hand, presented a long bit that involved a mute ventriloquist's dummy named Lou that warned of the dangers of tobacco products before apparently ranting about a Zionist conspiracy. It was one of those set pieces that goes from really funny to not funny at all back to being funny again, if only by dint of the sheer ridiculousness of watching a grown man wrestle a felt puppet onstage.
The comic that seemed to wake the late night crowd up the most was Amy Miller. As you may know, her style has a more traditional stand-up bent, but that seemed to spark something in the 300+ strong audience. Having seen her set a number of times now, I can safely say that the X Factor was the confidence with which she delivered the material. Her riffs on dating younger men and growing up in a trashy family were familiar to me, but I still found myself guffawing away at them anew. If anything came out of last night's fine comedy showcase, it's that my money is on Miller becoming the city's next breakout star.
Before the main portion of his Re: Disc COVER lecture, Chris Sutton struck a Sarah Palin-like tone, letting it be known that when he writes about music on his blog Record Lections, he's not concerned about facts, but rather how the songs and albums make him feel.
The idea, I'm guessing, was to let him off the hook for when he screwed up a detail about one of the 15 songs he was about to talk about, but it also added to a rather oppositional stance that the musician/DJ was taking for this evening. Sutton was quick to point out in his opening remarks how frustrating it was for him to find people his age (39) listening to only one kind of music. He was different, you see. He listens to everything. Except the obnoxious subset of '90s hardcore techno known as gabba.
For the next hour, Sutton did his best to prove this point, playing segments of 15 tracks by the likes of DJ Shadow, Augustus Pablo, The Kinks, Growing, and The Shocking Blue and reading his blog entries about the songs or the albums they came from over the top. Some of it was insightful and powerful, like his closing assertion about jazz pianist Thelonious Monk ("Time, by definition is a law. Monk has broken it and showed you how to burn down the jail."); most were as hyperbolic and breathless as you would expect someone's casual music Tumblr to be.
It was never made clear, though, why we should care about his opinions about Hound Dog Taylor or Flipper. Sutton only occasionally connected the songs to his own experiences and only once talked up how a band (ESG) helped inspire the sound of one of his musical projects (C.O.C.O.). And for someone who claims to be a voracious music fan, I found it odd that the most recent track he played was released over a decade ago.
What Re: Disc COVER lacked was, yes, some factual information. And I don't mean just about the artists he was highlighting. I would have loved him to have walked us deeper into his world and show us how these songs affected his life in small or large ways. Or find some dramatic or thematic way to connect all the material that he played outside of the fact that he really likes them. A mixtape without context feels like an odd gift.
Opening night of TBA is alternately thrilling and amusing. I love being among these folks who are very excited to be celebrating the international arts community and the conversations that come out of this meeting of likeminded folks. But I also have to stifle chuckles at the folks who throw on their most outlandish outfits for the occasion. Is this an attempt to reflect the art of the festival? A way to get potentially noticed by a talent scout or fashion designer?
I’m absolutely reading too much into it, because above all else, this is a party. And people like to get dressed up for parties. And the tall doofus wearing jeans and a hoodie (that would be me) has no right to judge.
The new year of the festival also brought about a new home base - in this case the former home of a company that trucked in window shades and wooden blinds. It’s a fine spot (I loved walking out to my car and being greeted with the sight of a huge power station humming away in the dark) and perfect for the two larger installations on hand: MSHR’s Resonant Entity Modulator and Jennifer West’s Flashlight Filmstrip Projections.
The former was the most provocative of the two: four large squares of glass encircled with lights and with these digitally carved sculptures sitting on top. Each one also pumped out its own frequency of sound. One was low and rumbling, another crackling and scratchy. It felt like being in a workshop afterhours, and listening to the death throes of a quartet of deconstructed robots.
I enjoyed West’s installation, which was simply pieces of Plexiglas suspended from the ceiling of this large room, with strips of film attached to each one. Visitors were handed flashlights and encouraged to attempt to project the images on the surrounding walls. The sight of the huge stark white room with this cluster of people and objects in the middle was even more stirring than anything on the film. But I loved the interactivity of it, and how the shadows of the attendees mixed in with the multicolored images coming from the celluloid.
The main draw for the party, though, was a performance by THEESatisfaction, thee best hip-hop act to have emerged from Seattle since Kid Sensation (in your face, Macklemore). Really, to call them hip-hop is incredibly limiting. The duo’s sound is equally indebted to the worlds of jazz, soul, and funk, mixing them all together into something thick, thoughtful, and groovy.
The emphasis of the group’s set was on empowerment (as both females and African-Americans) and self-reliance. Lyrics paid heed to skin tone—“My melanin is relevant,” went the hook of one tune—and losing all the pretensions you might have entered the room with (or as they put it, “turn off your swag and check your bag”).
The biggest message though was that their work was all their own, something that some folks sadly need reminders of. Just ask Stas and Cat (the two vocalists and producers of THEESatisfaction) or Natasha Kmeto or Grimes or any other female electronic or hip-hop project how many times they get asked, “Who makes your beats for you?” or have some “helpful” dude messing with their gear or telling them how they’re doing it “wrong.” There wasn’t anger or frustration in Stas and Cat’s voices as they returned to that theme again and again. It was more a call to action for any other would be musicians or performers in the room. As Cat said, “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”
Because I'd been running headlong into TBA without watching the changing schedule, I was under the impression I'd be seeing Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang last night at closeout party at The Works. I realized slowly, after my second (or third or whatever) Natasha Kmeto/Rap School punch that I was probably going to see Natasha Kmeto and Rap Class instead.
And it was true! The night was taken over by the Dropping Gems crew. It just goes to show you, you can never trust your little TBA book or your calendar in your phone as much as you can trust a cocktail. Cocktails don't lie.
First there was short set by Rap Class, who seemed to be dressed farm too warmly. (Luckily, when he came back out for his proper set after Kmeto, he had shed his baggy sweatshirt.) Rap Class is all smiles, seriously. This is a guy who looks happier making music than anybody. And he should be, because The Works was finally living up to its party potential, due to Rap Class and Natasha Kmeto.
Kmeto, too, was pretty obviously pumped to be on stage. "It's Saturday night," she laughed, "what can I do but sing some sexy music for you?" She delivered on that promise. She builds loops of her voice over the electronics she's manipulating, and every sound from her mouth is sex: "Who will be the one to go home with you tonight? Can I be the one?"
All week at Works events I had been thinking, I can't wait till this place is just full of sweaty, sexy-dancing art people. TBA brings an eclectic crowd out to the Con-Way warehouse: young Portlanders looking for a good time, imported artists of every stripe, older art heads from the city and suburbs, and tired volunteers ready to shake off the week and dance.
Before I got drunk enough to hit the floor myself, I was enjoying watching this insoluble mix of people dance. There were a few older couples slow dancing to Kmeto's doing-it jams, and I don't know if they were a little buzzed or just awesome, but one of these couples got REALLY dirty, but in a classy, well-dressed way that totally shamed me off the dance floor.
That mixed with the usual crowd of Portlanders not-quite-dancing, the handful of really amazing let-it-all go types, and the impressive number of what had to be professionals—this is TBA, after all, and the crowd presumably contained performance artists and dancers from all over the world—made it a dance party that lived up to the venue and everything it contained this past week.
As sweaty and loud and sexy as it was, it was impossible not to remember that this dance music occupied the same physical space that a week of various performance art had occupied. And of course, through the warehouse walls, one could find galleries filled with art, or the Room Tone performance happening just before the Dropping Gems show. Kmeto and Rap Class brought the blend of accessibility and creativity that TBA, and The Works in particular, require.
I would not complain if Dropping Gems became the official dance party curators for TBA every year. At least I could watch those old folks show me up on the dance floor every year.
Of all the performances I've seen at TBA over the years (a fair sampling), I can't think of one that comes close to Alexandro Segade's Boy Band Audition in how much the concept really took over the reality of the performance. This event really, actually did feel like a boy band audition. The real performers of this piece were the enthusiastically participating audience members, facilitated and directed by the artist, Alexandro Segade, along with his brother Mateo Segade working the music and projection.
Segade purported to be from the future, where California had somehow taken over Oregon, and the rest of the west coast I think, and then loosely explained that he came back to create a really stellar boy band to somehow save us from that harsh future. I didn't totally follow, but that part was just framing to get us to participate, and to take this seriously. Addressing the obvious question, "Do you have to be a boy to be in the boy band?" his excellent answer was, "I will determine if you are a boy."
He invited the audience to crowd in close, instructed us all to strut around practicing our "swagga"—an important tool for any member of a boy band, no doubt—and then used some projected video to lead the whole crowd through a bit of song and some choreography moves. After we were warmed up, the serious auditioning started.
Before the Nick Hallett show last night at The Works, I ran into Alison, who told me she'd just been to see The Blow at the Winningstad Theatre. She gushed (yeah, I'm gonna go with “gushed”) about how charming Khaela Maricich was, and how solid the show was because of it. I don't know if Alison stuck around for Like A Villain's performance of Make Well last night, but I'd like to know who won in the personality department.
Because goddamn was Holland Andrews charming. I don't know if the concept—music meant to heal the soul—would have worked if she'd been the aloof, humorless healer implied by that description. But even from the beginning, before her charm took over, Like a Villain was a credible force. “It's hard not to be dubious of people burning sage and waving feathers,” a friend of mine said afterward, “but even though I thought to myself, 'I don't usually trust this,' I did.”
In her first song, during which Andrews did wave a feather and burn sage and wander through the audience singing wordlessly over a loop of her own vocals and breath, her voice—powerful, real, human, loud—filled the Con-Way warehouse and earned all the credibility she'd need in order to claim to heal.
She earned it in other ways, too. As soon as that first song was over, while the audience breathed fragrant smoke through gaping mouths, Andrews explained that Make Well was meant to heal us all energetically. Then she suddenly, nervously laughed her way through an admission: “I've never done this before. Should I have said that? Was that unprofessional?” She fiddled with some pedals and changed her tune. Feigning confidence, she corrected herself. “I mean, I've done this a thousand times. And it works every time. You're all lucky to be here.”
From there she took off. There was some audience participation, and when she realized we were underperforming, she cut it off naturally, with a shrug and a sigh and a smile. She told us we were “going to get a little cute” and sang a ridiculously sweet song about a sudden romance. She sang a song under a dozen loops of voice and clarinet, until she was on her knees screaming and wailing over echo and reverb. It was harrowing. I thought, does she have to show me the damage to my soul before she can heal it?
But then she sang one more song, momentarily twisting girlishly in her dress and repeating “You are more than what you know” over and over until I felt the healing start again. I could have used one more healing song after that, to complete the process.
I don't know if I felt totally healed afterward. But when got to the bar at The Works before the show and saw the punch named for Like a Villain, my friend asked if it was supposed to be a play on “Like a Virgin.” I said I didn't know, but now that song would be stuck in my head all night. Two hours later, Id forgotten who Madonna was. I'd been lost in what was happening on stage. I think I felt better. I think I still do. It was probably the sage.
Nick Hallett's Rainbow Passage is based on a diagnostic text by speech scientist Grant Fairbanks. It's a description of rainbows—the science, history, and myth of them—but its content is secondary to its purpose: it also contains every sound in the English language. Hallett's composition, for voices, synthesizer, and bass clarinet, presents the text musically and ties the form and content of that piece together.
It's like he's thrown the English language into a prism, or through a thousand drops of rain, and seen it refracted into its manifold phonetic parts. The performance Saturday night was gorgeously realized. Local artists The Julians, Golden Retriever, and Holcombe Waller joined Hallett on stage. It's not a loud piece, not big enough to drown out much talking in the wide open warehouse space at The Works. Yet, there was barely a voice heard that wasn't on the stage.
The idea that this is an exhaustive text kept coming back to me. You could have a list of English phonemes and check them off one by one until you were done. It could be a game: an enormous bingo card, with each of the boxes representing a sound—you would win a blackout by the end of the night.
Through that exhaustiveness, it's the expansiveness and the illimitability of sound and language that Hallett explores. A text like this is naturally limited by English, as there are sounds in other languages unrepresented in ours. But it's also limited by the mouth—tooth, lip, tongue, cheek. What I kept thinking about was the way the instrumentation and the vocals challenged each other to make new sounds, to imitate each other and be unlike each other.
There was a section near the middle that seemed rather improvised, when the musicians were joined by Holland Andrews of Like a Villain, who sang and played clarinet. There was an interesting play involved, voice against voice against synthesizer and clarinet and bass clarinet. It got a little noodly, and a little overlong, but it led back into a repetition of the beginning of the text, sung by Holcombe Waller, whose voice was just unnervingly beautiful—incredible, almost, through the reverb and echo.
The lights went down and the stage was lit by a Brock Monroe light installation: white light refracted through prismatic lenses. Rainbows swept across the performers and stage. Suddenly it seemed to be a science experiment; I felt like a kid, my little mind blown by something as simple as a prism—this is something I've understood since gradeschool, but not seen in this light, so to speak. That light is separable into color, the way language is separable into sound.
Language is just sounds; sounds can be sung or played, twisted and changed; sounds don't mean the same thing; they don't have to mean anything. For example, “exhaustive” can mean “awakening.” The text of the Fairbanks “Rainbow Passage” is past the jump, if you want to read it, or sing it, or play it on your clarinet.
I don't think I've ever had as much fun at TBA as I did on Saturday night. Evidence: cabaret with bluehairs, drag queens galore, and cheese-curd hotdogs. Can't beat that evening with a glitter stick.
I think the Schnitzer crowd got some blood flowing to their wrinkly bits at the Meow Meow show. The Australian cabaret diva is a little racy for the normal Oregon Symphony patrons; she's also brilliant. Meow Meow is a delightful mix of bathhouse Bette Midler, Fosse's Cabaret, sad Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, and the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin. In a cloud of sequins, slips, fake eyelashes, and confetti, she owned the stage in front of the Oregon Symphony, accompanied by Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale on piano. She kissed the musicians in loungey repose, bemoaned her lack of budget for smoke machines and dancing boys—which she solved with a tiny handheld smoke machine and amiable audience members that she draped about her body and used as arm chairs. She even managed to crowd-surf on the front-row audience. ("Google crowd-surfing when you get home," she advised.) No hips were broken!
Yes, it was schticky, and yes, it was absolutely fabulous. Meow Meow is a consummate showman—she had the crowd firmly in her manicured hands. On a beat, she turned the mood from raucously funny with her French/Chinese/avant-garde version of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" to heart-achingly bittersweet the next minute with Patty Griffin's "Be Careful" performed on an empty stage, holding her own spotlight. Along with a lovely full-bodied voice, she has the heart of a slapstick comedian—sashaying around the stage like a diehard lounge singer, working it hard, and throwing out roses to the crowd ("Throw them back!" she ordered in diva fashion). The whole shebang ended in a huge everyone-on-stage spectacular worthy of a Muppet Show finale—with Lauderdale and the Symphony in red long underwear, dancing boys from the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, the Von Trapp kids (!!!!), and a nearly nude mannequin. So. Much. Fun.
And just when I thought things couldn't get more gay... I went to the drag ball at the Works. Alison reported on some aspects of the evening. (Hey, I didn't see those giant pickles! I had a veggie hotdog with cheese curds and glitter on it, served up by a boy wearing an apron over his underwear.) Kaj-anne Pepper and Chanticleer Tru hosted the performance of vamping drag queens, titled Critical Mascara: A Post-Realness Drag Ball. Categories included Diva Practice, Glamour Gore, Vogue, and HAAAIIIRRR. After the gals strutted their stuff, the panel of judges awarded scores such as "Fuck You" and "Fuck Me." There were outrageous costumes, natch—one gal greatly reduced the value of her Beanie Babies collection—and even crazier hair (HAAAIIIRRR!), but I think the vogue dance competition really upped everyone's game. I've never seen arms do things like that—limbs were twirling around like drunken windmills and the audience was eating it up. The Con-Way building's sound was a little mushy, so it was hard to hear everyone's name, but the dance beat was strong. Very, very strong. And, two days later I'm still finding glitter in unusual places, which seems like a sign of a successful drag ball.
Check out more of Pat Moran's photography here and on his Flickr:
Friday night at The Works, Peter Burr's hodgepodge "live television program" Special Effect hit the stage. Burr, moving eerily slowly in front of a large video screen, blended animation, music, and live performance in what was ostensibly an adaptation of (tribute to? comment on? explanation for? tangent from?) The Andrei Tarkovsky flick Stalker. I haven't seen Stalker, and since it's a three-hour Tarkovsky movie I'd need a considerable pile of uppers for, I decided I could probably figure out Special Effect without it.
WRONG. Roughly a third of the scenes appeared to be scenes from Stalker, repopulated by angular, multifaceted humanlike polygons, and voiced, possibly in real time, by Burr speaking backwards and reversing the sound. That's the only way I can make sense of the stilted, groan-tube sound of the dialog. That was unsettling, and I was engaged then, but without context it felt superficial, like watching a magician just to figure out how he does his tricks.
What I really got sucked into was the music. It's listed as original music by Lucky Dragons and Seabat, but the most fascinating segments were music made of Burr saying "inside" (I think) over and over. Regardless of the word spoken, the rhythms found in it changed and interchanged with the patterns of video special effects and noise on the screen, and it was the only time I felt fully immersed in the event of Burr's work.
Worth mentioning, I suppose, were the segments of the show that I guess were an old Soviet sci-fi cartoon, about a dude with a beard exploring a new planet, lusting after little purple aliens, and shooting the shit out of some aliens that mostly looked like dinosaurs. The dialog was all in (probably) Russian, but the subtitles were obviously rewritten for philosophy and comedy. The jokes ranged from tongue-in-cheek references to the Soviet ethos to humorless dick jokes. It served as a respite from the inscrutable majority of the show.
Last night was TBA's free opening night show, featuring original riot grrrl Kathleen Hannah's new band The Julie Ruin and adorable openers from School of Rock and the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls.
First things first: God, it's good to get out of Washington High School. That venue was cool—especially the first year—but it was consistently strained beyond capacity by opening night crowds. Security posed challenges, there were endless lines, the unisex bathrooms were time-based experiments in total grossness... In comparison, the giant Con-Way warehouse feels goddamn luxurious, with plenty of room for last night's crowds. (Though it remains to be seen how ticketed shows with less of a draw will fare—it's an awfully big space.) The line to get in to the venue moved fast (once I found the grownup entrance), the lines for food and drink were long but manageable, and at no point did I get the refrain from "Hater's Anthem" stuck in my head, which... kinda usually happens on opening night at TBA.
Con-Way is a warehouse space slated to turn into a New Seasons soon. It's an adamant return to the days where TBA was a roving, pop-up operation in a different space every year, and PICA clearly poured a ton of work into transforming it into a venue suitable for multiple sizes and types of shows. In addition to the main stage, there's a small gallery and I *think* another small theater space, though I didn't have a chance to full explore last night. It's a really cool space—the kind of thing you wish Portland had all the time—and I'd recommend checking it out before it starts selling organic fruit snacks and locally fermented miso.
I'll be curious to hear what other people thought of the show last night. I loved it, but it was an almost defiantly un-arty choice for a festival opener. (That's why I loved it. I like to see a few big, everyone-is-welcome events at TBA every year, in addition to the more specialized and less accessible stuff, and I particularly liked that this show tapped into the history of riot grrrl in the Pacific Northwest.)
I'm not sure I've ever been this excited for a TBA opening night show—yes, even including that year everyone dressed in all-white and paraded across the Broadway Bridge (TBA!). Tonight, the festival kicks off with a free show from the Julie Ruin, the new project from Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and arguably the most influential figure of the riot grrrl era.
When I was in high school back in ye olde 1990s, it seemed like there was a show in Portland every weekend from some great feminist/queercore band: Sleater-Kinney, The Need, the Gossip, the Bangs, the Butchies, Bratmobile, Cadallaca, and plenty more I'm forgetting either because I'm old or they weren't that good. And while these days it's much more common to see women onstage (unless you're at Warped Tour), I do sometimes miss that sense of a highly engaged community around supporting female artists.
WHICH IS WHY I'M SUPER EXCITED TO SEE KATHLEEN HANNA TONIGHT! According to early reviews, the band is playing a mix of new songs and tracks from Hanna's great 1997 solo album Julie Ruin, which inspired the current tour. Hanna pulled together a full band to tour with, featuring Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Sara Landeau. And the event listing also says "Featuring Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls and School of Rock"! So maybe something cute will happen.
The show is tonight at 10:30 pm at the Con-Way Warehouse (2170 NW Raleigh), which is where TBA is hosting all of their late-night programming this year. (The Washington High days are over, and it's about time—the limitations of that venue were really starting to show, as cool as it is.) And it's free and all ages. Which means it will be packed.
$20 to any man who pushes his way to the front to take pictures :D JUST KIDDING
Brooklyn-based artist Thu Tran and sound artist Matt Fitzpatrick took the stage last night with food demos and slideshow lectures, imparting Tran’s findings after months of studying different food under a blacklight.
The night turned out much like you would expect: a few giggles shared over some Frankenstein junk food, e.g. a nutritional yeast and Emergen-C sprinkled atop a donut made from Pillsbury dough. This was scored to some goofy, keyboard lullaby music, with Tran singing off key (but with an endearing urgency). Tran has a sweet stage presence that makes her both super likable and fun to watch; it’s that personality you might know from her puppet cooking show series Food Party—it's zany, but done in deadpan, with a dark sensibility that every now and again creeps out of the edges of her permanent, toothy grin.
Tran's performance of Yes and No of Blacklight Food was done at the Cinefamily 24 hour telethon fundraiser, in Los Angeles, at 3 am. In lieu of a video from last night, here's a video from the telethon:
As has been mentioned regarding other shows at TBA, the Washington High School venue was a little inappropriate. The performance would’ve made better sense in a smaller, more intimate space (i.e. a small telethon stage). Watching an intimate act like cooking in stadium-like seating—as a projected live video feed, from a distant balcony seat in Washington High School—is peculiar, and feels counterintuitive (it also cut away from the open, communal, all-inclusive collaborative approach that Tran generally takes to her work).
Regardless, the auditorium was packed; the lower level was full, and the seats in the balcony seemed to fill as well. The show actually started on time last night! And it only ran about 45 minutes—any longer, and it might’ve been grating, but the 45 minutes was just long enough to enjoy some aggressive wafts of microwavable popcorn, and to create silly atmosphere to ease us into the last couple days of elusive and challenging variety of art that TBA tends to offer up.
First of all: Poor Alexis Blair Penney. His show last night was a classic Works misfire, and it really wasn't his fault.
Penney is an Oakland-based drag performer probably best known for the song "Lonely Sea." The songs he played last night were melodramatic and urgent, and he had real presence, as he stalked the stage in high heels and makeup, head bare. A live feed projected images of Penney and his band on screens behind them, and if we'd been in a small crowded club it would've turned into a sweaty dance show, no question. But we weren't in a crowded club, we were in a cavernous high-school auditorium, with theater seats where the dance floor should've been. Penney was clearly aware that the room was mostly empty, and that a theater-crowd audience was watching with arms crossed. "Know what it's called when you take this kind of thing seriously? Art, apparently," he said at one point, which is my favorite quote of the festival so far. A few diehards danced in the aisles, but otherwise the poor dude just didn't have much to work with. This would've been a different show in a different venue. Like say... the beer garden? <—SEGUE ALERT
After Penney's show, outside in the beer garden, a drag performer led an enthusiastic crowd in a routine of sorts—I wasn't paying too much attention, but there was definitely jumping, wiggling, and gyrating. What did this experience have that Penney's didn't? It was the right size for its venue. Also, it had a whiff of the types of "public engagement" projects that TBA used to feature more prominently, the lack of which I bet has contributed to what feels like a decline in the fest's visibility this year.
[Weird "Seen at TBA" last night: A slightly tense showdown between a dude who was determined to climb a tree in the beer garden, and a security guard who was equally determined to get him down. The guard was straight up threatening, while tree-dude pulled the "I'm just climbing a tree, bro, what's the harm" routine. I have to admit, I was a tiny bit disappointed when PICA staffer swooped in to defuse the situation—I wanted to see the security guard try to climb the tree. But anyway, it was a total callback to Keith Hennessy's show, when he pointed to the fest's security as reminder that though they do good work, PICA is beholden to The Man in many ways.]
Last night for THE WORKS, Global and Mobile Pop filled the stage at Washington High School with screens in triplicate and African-sourced sounds.
Curated by musician Chris Kirkley, aka Sahel Sounds, the night featured performances by local experimental-pop trio Brainstorm, Somali pre-civil war legends Iftin Band, and sound and video artist Jason Urick, who took the stage for the night to publicly surf the web on topics related to the performance (streaming videos from YouTube or Vimeo, scrolling slowly down Wikipedia tabs, and exploring the digital footprint of what was being presented on stage).
The visuals on the three screens consisted of, from stage left to right, Urick's aforementioned Internet, prerecorded video mash-ups (also by Urick) and Skype sessions with African musicians, and live tweets corresponding to #globalmobilepop on the final, right screen.
The experience was at once meditative, chaotic, informative, fun— designed almost perfectly to overload a person's senses, encouraging info consumption to a point just beyond the comfortable.
One annoyance of TBA this year has been that cute little old-timey announcement board in the hallway where the night's show schedule is posted. At least three times now, I've shown up for a show that's listed in the program and online as starting at 10:30 pm, only to find that damn board telling me it won't be starting til 11 pm. A half an hour's not a huge deal, but it's indicative of a larger problem: there's a LOT of hurry-up-and-wait at Washington High. Last night's Perforations was scheduled to start at 8:30 pm, and it did, but the 20-minute segment from 8:30-8:50 pm was followed by a solid 40 minute of waiting around for the next part of the show to start. Not to mention the general pain in the ass of waiting in line outside of Washington High, only to get in and wait in another line inside of Washington High.
Per official channels, "Things get backed up around using Washington High as a venue for 8:30 mainstage shows (particularly last night and tonight). Set changeovers can delay performers, so 11 is generally a safer bet. But doors always open by 10."
With the disclaimer that I tried the "11 is a safer bet" approach two nights ago, and missed part of Miniature Dramas. SIGH.
Last night's Works two-part program Miniature Dramas actually started on time, an event I was so unprepared for that I unfortunately missed the first few minutes of Laure Heit's charming set. Our photographer described it, aptly, as a resembling a live-action indie comic—hunched over her tiny world of paper cutouts, Heit told clever little stories about a tiger-riding girl and a boy who caught on fire (real fire! the magic of live theater!). She then pounded a glass of wine before launching into a segment called "27 pictures of myself naked," 27 drawings of a little naked figure riding a bike, popping, telling a secret, "talking on an old-fashioned phone," and more. Her miniature paper stage was projected onto a big screen behind her; it was fun to watch both the images on the screen, and Heit herself on the stage, intently focused on her tiny creations.
I was less captivated by the evening's second segment, David Commander's In Fight. The setup was similar—a live, small-scale production projected onto a big screen—only his featured a large paper-machÉ airplane populated by Star Wars action figures (Princess Leia flight attendants? That is someone's very specific fantasy, I'm sure of it). Commander's manipulation of sound and cameras was impressive, as he took the audience inside the plane, then inside the TV programs the people on the plane were watching (SkyMall's nefarious influence featured prominently). But while technically impressive, the we-are-all-passengers-on-a-crashing-plane subtext seemed too obvious, and frankly not interesting enough to justify the amount of effort Commander expended on the production.
They call it everyone's favorite. Saturday night confirmed that: the Works was packed last night for Ten Tiny Dances (now in its tenth anniversary). If you could endure the long and annoying wait for the show to start, you’ll agree, it will probably be a standout of this year’s TBA—amazing in how a small platform can “snowball” (more on that later) into something immersive and transformative. And, as we've said before, it's a welcome reprieve from some of the more challenging, feature-length works at the festival.
Most likely, since you’re following TBA, you know the premise of Ten Tiny Dances: five-to-10 minute dances designed by 10 different folks for a square, 4’x4’ platform. The spatial constraint serves as a catalyst for creativity. Last night’s performance showcased a huge range of solutions to the constraint, from improvisatory to rehearsed, from silly to serious, from introspective solos to a stripshow-turned-all-inclusive dance party. Also, a kid goat (eh? See: Hana Erdman).
I'd never heard of self-described "drag terrorist" Christeene before TBA this year, and I wasn't sure what to make of the videos I'd seen online, but last night's performance was oddly uplifting. "Oddly" because, well, the show did in fact feature lead singer Christeene (the nom de drag of performer Paul Soileu) licking what I think was pudding out of another man's butt; "uplifting" because underneath the incredibly graphic stage show and lyrics were genuinely catchy pop songs. Plus, backup dancers in gimp masks performing upbeat, goofily choreographed dance numbers... I don't know, it was just sort of delightful in a way that absolutely belied how on-the-surface offensive a lot of the material was. Plus, the crowd—lots and lots of youngish gay dudes, clearly already fans—was super into it. It was fun!
Tonight at The Works: The wildly popular and only intermittently offensive Ten Tiny Dances. (It's worth noting that this year, the beer garden and food offerings at Washington High are free and open to the drinking-age public. If you're in the neighborhood, drop by for a $4 Session, eat some food, and check out the scene.)
TBA is fancy this year. There's a shiny new sign announcing the presence of shiny art things, and the outdoor beer garden at the Works has gotten a makeover, with a smaller, aggressively reinforced perimeter that affects crowd flow in a weird way—you can no longer grab a drink inside and just wander out to grab some food on the patio. The opening night crowd was typically PNCA-pretty, and while Venus X didn't pack the dance floor per se, there was still a healthy, sweaty crowd on the stage and floor of the school's old auditorium.
This isn't the first year TBA has opened with projections on the side of Washington High, but last night's noisy presentation of The People—Portland demanded the neighborhood's attention in ways it hasn't in the past. You could pretty much watch the show from the outdoor seating at Hal's (er, "Havana West"), my preferred Works pre-func location, and some of the homeless people who live around Washington High seemed touchy about all the activity. ("Don't touch my fucking trailer!") We'll have a review up of The People—Portland soon—it runs for two more nights.
Also, I had a tiny ice cream cone. It was delicious.
It's not even worth trying to take in any of TBA's art offerings on opening night—it's a party, it's loud, everyone is kinda drunk and wound up. So to that end, I'll post some more pretty pictures of opening night after the jump.
I had high hopes for Big Terrific last night, and by the size of the crowd at Washington High School last night, so did plenty of other people—I'm not sure I've ever seen a Works show so packed,
The show started out strong, with hosts Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman, and Max Silvestri riffing on their inclusion in TBA ('it's really nice to be called art") and introducing a new installment in their great webseries Bestie x Bestie. Bestie stars Liedman and Slate then did a hilarious joint standup routine, riffing comfortably off each other and their long friendship. This portion of the show included TBA's SECOND reference to Game of Thrones (yes, I have been counting)—in this case the TV show, which they described as "a fantasy show on HBO about people getting reamed from behind." I also really liked Liedman's bit about fantasy: "I don't like the name of the fantasy genre because I think it's presumptuous," he said, explaining in considerable detail how his own fantasies differ from George RR Martin's. His proposed name for Game of Thrones' genre: "alt medieval horny nature magic." I'm not sure I've ever seen a two-person comedy routine quite like this one: Slate and Liedman easily drifted between bits, taking turns or talking over each other. The jokes were tight, but it seemed completely spontaneous and relaxed; Slate has the more vivid stage presence, and her high-energy physicality was nicely grounded by Liedman's lower-key crankiness.
After this promising beginning, the trio shifted into a more traditional comedy format, with each performing a few minutes of standup. This is where the evening lost considerable steam, and it was mostly a problem of scheduling. Presumably at their Brooklyn comedy showcase Slate and Liedman typically act as hosts, rather than hosts AND featured performers; here, it was as though they opened for themselves, which proved awkward. Slate and Liedman's joint act should've closed the show; instead, they were the comedic high point after which the rest of the evening was a gentle downward slump. The likable Silvestri would've been great as an actual opener, warming up the crowd (and I liked his joke about how people in Portland must be so sustainable that they eat their garbage because there are NO GARBAGE CANS ANYWHERE), but Slate and Liedman were so funny together that it pretty much set Silvestri up to fail in comparison, and the individual acts of Slate and Liedman were less engaging than their work together. I wish I could go back in time and just rearrange the elements of this show; as it was, I was drifting off by the time Slate finally closed the show out at about 12:30.
As TBA's first comedy show, I think I'd call it a qualified success. From an attendance standpoint it was certainly a winner, and I have no doubt it brought in people who don't typically go to TBA shows. That being said, from a comedy standpoint it was a pretty traditional show—you're likely to see more weirdo experimentation at local showcase Comedy Is OK (they've got a show at Bunk Bar tomorrow night, matter of fact). I'm looking forward to seeing if or how TBA handles comedy programming in the future.
Side note: Washington High makes a pretty solid comedy venue.
The warning didn't bode well: "don't go in there." I had barely stepped into the lobby of Washington High School when two strangers on their way out, whispered secretively to me their misgivings about the evening's programming. Last night THE WORKS brought us Catch, a bi-monthly showcase of sorts that features an array of performances, videos, music, and more, hosted by Brooklynites Jeff Larson and Andrew Dinwiddie. It sounds entertaining enough. So what was this couple so troubled by, that they felt the need to warn someone they hadn't met before about the dangers of entering the auditorium?
Next Larson and Dinwiddie took the stage to introduce another act. Oh goodie, video art. Something that I've already stated on this blog, I'm not so good at grappling with. Which proved true in this case as well. About two minutes into the piece and its flashing images of rural roads, semi-flooded country houses, and sound bytes of someone talking about the pros of those feet shoe things, zzzzzzzzz... yes, I completely zoned out. Which is what I would do for the majority of the pieces in Catch's programming. I don't mean to be caviler but things just kept falling flat in the auditorium last night.
That is, until some drunken drama ensued! Jump with me won't you?
By 10 pm yesterday evening, TBA had worn me out with slow-paced artwork. I started off at the Northwest Film Center for James Benning's Ruhr— a feature-length film that ends with a single, hour-long shot of the top of a smoke stack (which I'll further explore in a later post). After Ruhr concluded, I headed to Washington High School for the Works, where NEW MUSICS was billed for a 10:30 start. When I arrived at the school, I was in serious need of something with some strong entertainment value.
I had high hopes that I'd find a remedy in NEW MUSICS, a program inviting, as PICA's event description puts it, “Portland’s most exciting sound scientists and pop adventurers to collaborate with some of the city’s under-sung traditional music ensembles.”
Last night at the Works was all about video, with back-to-back screening of two very different works in experimental film.
The first, Alex Mackenzie The Wooden Lightbox: A Secret Art of Seeing presented by Portland avant garde film nonprofit Cinema Project was exactly what comes to mind when I hear the words "experimental film": A non-narrative, subtle, difficult-to-access piece filmed on Super 8. Flickering shots of dots moving across the screen, light changing on a human face, and a bird in a cage played across the screen set to a repetitive, meditative soundtrack of bass and dripping water. My friend in the next seat leaned over to me and said, "This is entertainment for stoners."
Yes, though I think the target audience is film nerds. Sadly, I was not enough of either last night to appreciate the work.
Next up was a piece by Miwa Matereyek that mixed animated video with live performance. The feeling among the audience was notably excited—when the doors opened to the auditorium, people rushed in and scrambled madly for seats, quickly filling the entire bottom floor of the theater.
Matereyek's animations are dreamy, playful, fantastic places: Lush ocean islands, bright and busy cities. As the animations project onto a screen placed on the stage, Matereyek stepped behind the stage, become a shadow puppet in her own video. The blend of beautiful, intricate scenes and the spontaneity of Matereyek's on-the-spot movements creates an entrancing performance.
Luckily, there's a video of the piece online! Not the same tension and presence as seeing the work, Myth and Infrastructure, in person but still a good taste.
Love. It. Matereyek's performance ended all too soon. As she took a bow, I kept hoping the lights would dim and she would get back behind the screen for another video. More! More!
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