Photo by Emilee Booher / Willamette Week
On an unusually hot but breezy September evening, fans trickled into “Portland’s Living Room” to see Iron & Wine supported by local breakout group Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside and solo artist Marketa Irglova. The Friday night MusicFestNW show promised to be diverse in genre, Sallie Ford setting the tone.
Portland: Where Local Tastes Better
In my quest to discover female songwriters other than the (overly-referred-to, but deservedly so) handful of pioneers in rock history, a friend once recommended Portland’s Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside. My boyfriend had a copy of their EP, Not an Animal, so I promptly popped it into the stereo. Immediately, I squirmed at Ford’s vintage vocal stylings, because that’s just so damn popular right now, especially in the Portland indie scene. I thought, eh. She’s good, but it’s not my thing.
But when KINK FM posted a video online of the group performing on David Letterman, I have to admit, my head turned to look again. I watched in envy and felt a stupid sense of Portland pride. A few weeks later, Ford and the band performed in KINK FM’s Bing Lounge, infecting me with their throwback, rockabilly sound and sassy, spitfire lyrics. I danced excitedly and knew I could not resist any longer.
On the MFNW stage at Pioneer Courthouse Square, the band, comprised of Ford on rhythm guitar, Jeff Munger on lead guitar, Tyler Tornfelt on upright bass, drummer Ford Tennis, and an organ player, seemed to jump in unison like a bopping big band in an old cartoon. Sallie (Is that her real name? It’s so perfect!) wore a black, polka-dot vintage dress with horn-rimmed glasses, her brown ringlets bouncing with each washboard-like strum on her red, hollow-body Harmony Rocket guitar.
Sallie and her outfit really help make the band what it is, but the lead guitarist, whose overall look my friend described as “Lester the Molester,” is arguably just as integral. I get a kick out of watching him. He has a vintage look, although representing a different decade than Sallie, clad in plaid with a bushy mustache, puffy hair barely tamed by a trucker hat and oversized, thin-framed glasses. The audience chuckled as he swigged a beer nonchalantly between singing two lines in a song. But his noteworthy contribution is the Chuck Berry-influenced lead guitar licks that boost each song to a new level of excitement the second he strikes.
Looks only go so far, but I think Ford’s costume reflects the way she really dresses, bringing an element of authenticity to their classic sound. More importantly, Sallie’s voice, now growing on me like a fungus, sounds like a child from a 1950’s TV show hollering through an old telephone, boasting an occasional emphatic growl. Her lyrics are simple but intelligent, sometimes communicating values of the past, like this excerpt from “Write Me a Letter”:
Just like they took away the Polaroid picture
They’re gonna take away everything that means something
Today I think I saw ten thousand cell phones
But not one decent conversation
The band ended the show with (what I thought was) a cover of an old, obscure tune called “Cage” (for which there’s seemingly no information on the Internet except that it is featured on their debut album, Dirty Radio). Sallie spat the lyrics, “That bitch, she locked me up in a cage” on loop while Munger wailed on his axe and the audience bounced. When the applause died down, Ford happily shared that she would be flying to Paris the next day, a mark of their recent breakthrough success.
And the success doesn’t stop there. According to their Facebook fan page, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside will be releasing their record through a French label called Fargo, and after Paris, Ford takes off for Brussels. Not too shabby.
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Photo by Emilee Booher / Willamette Week
A Whole New World for Marketa Irglova
In heated musical discussions, my sister has used the adjective, “Disney” to describe the ballads of The Swell Season that I have come to love. Do not tell her I agree that “Falling Slowly” could very well have been sung by Aladdin and Princess Jasmine on a magic carpet. But I still get my jollies every time I hear great harmonies and loved the movie, Once.
However, I think I have joined my sister’s camp after seeing the solo debut of Marketa Irglova, best known as the female voice of The Swell Season.
Irglova has, oddly, been touring with Iron & Wine as a backup singer and mentioned that she was appreciative that band leader Sam Beam “let” her do a solo set at the Friday show. My guess is that, after winning an Oscar, Irglova does not need someone’s permission to play a show, but her evident humility is always refreshing.
Teaming up with another Iron &Wine backup singer introduced as “Ida” on the daf and an electric bassist, Irglova sat formally at her Korg keyboard and began to play without saying a word.
Irglova’s pure, feminine, soprano voice painted gently over a canvas of vibraphone-like notes bleeding into one another in a minor key. Ida marched the song forward with stern, resonant bass thrums on the daf, a Persian drum she held high, catching light through it like a full moon in front of a microphone. (Note to self: I’ve got to get one of those!) The bassist played minimally, plucking quarter notes at most, and seemed out of place in his blue jeans and hipster-cop sunglasses. He was either in a stoned bliss or bored, from what I could gather.
The audience hooked on to Irglova and Ida’s jarringly well-matched harmonies, and Irglova graciously offered the stories behind the songs, one about falling in love with life as if it were a person, another an Iranian folk song sung in Farsi. (I always think stories enhance a live music experience and keep me engaged.)
But combine the fact that we had all just finished dancing with the fact that they were six songs into a set of ballads and standing outside in the sunshine, and we became a chatty, fidgety audience. Perhaps it was the venue, and perhaps it was not Irglova’s fault, but I eventually ceased to be entertained. I started pondering the people around me and their unique ways of responding to music, which is something I do when I am not into the show.
And, like the ballads of The Swell Season, Irglova’s songs were pretty “Disney.” Though beautifully composed, heartfelt and well-executed, I could not help but think of a long-haired, wide-eyed princess coming into self-realization at the peak of each song.
Props to Irglova, though, for taking equal delight in backing up other musicians as well as being in the spotlight. I have not seen one inkling of vanity in her, and that is rare in the entertainment industry.
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Photo by Emilee Booher / Willamette Week
Reinterpreting the Wheel with Iron & Wine
“You asked for it, bitches,” Iron & Wine’s lead singer Sam Beam sarcastically asserted after busting into a finger-picked, folk version of “Freebird.” Laughter and applause ensued, the audience validating the band for delivering yet another twist on a well-known song. I have seen Iron & Wine in concert twice now and am starting to conclude that Beam takes great joy in reinterpretations, not only of popular songs, but of his own music.
My limited exposure to Iron & Wine’s recorded music consisted of their cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” on the Garden State soundtrack in 2004, plus bits and pieces of other mellow indie-folk tunes featuring Elliott Smith-style whispered vocals. When this overused singing affectation seemed to emerge post-‘90’s, I remember asking myself, “Is it okay to sing this way?”
I guess I was not too keen on it.
Then, a couple of years ago, my ears perked at something pleasing and upbeat in the backyard of a lesbian couple’s barbeque, prompting me to inquire. I found out that, apparently, Iron & Wine also knew how to rock. More than two years later, I thought I might finally check them out.
As the sun set behind the buildings surrounding the Square, Iron & Wine stepped on to the stage with surprise guest artist M. Ward, and Portlanders proceeded to pee their pants. (Or maybe that was just me?) Then, the supposed “indie-folk” band began their set with a percolating stream of funky synthesizer and a steady, danceable groove produced by drums, shaker and jazz saxophone. If this had been my first Iron & Wine show, I would have been confused from the start.
The second song continued in a similar spirit, presenting flavors of ‘70’s R&B paired with bluegrass-style backup harmonies. It kept building until, out of nowhere, the sax screamed along a dissonant scale and guitar distortion tripled, driving the song to a dramatic, abrupt ending. The audience cheered.
At times, the music seemed without a genre and challenging to describe, but, mostly, I think the band mixed two or more unlikely genres into each song. I caught glimpses of Paul Simon-esque African harmonies and beats in combination with what I decided to dub, “slow folk-disco.” One song sounded like it could have been a slowed-down version of “Stayin’ Alive,” and it was pretty! The song, “Wolves (Song of The Shepherd’s Dog)” built its way into a jam reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Money” with frenzied sax, laser beam harmonies and furious, scratching synthesizer. It was the highlight of the show. (Listen to the song free here.)
Some concerts are a musical journey, and the audience is engaged from start to finish, rising and falling with the crescendos and decrescendos of the evening. Though the songs were “almost nothing like how they sound on the album,” according to a fellow audience member, I had a feeling that we were all on the same journey together.
I suppose it is difficult for some hardcore fans to never know what to expect at a live show, though, and if I had heard the albums first, I might have been slightly bothered by the reinterpretations. But what do people expect out of a live concert: straight replays of the records, completely reworked versions, or a compromise between the two to give the audience something both familiar and new? The debate could occur between two people or in one’s own head and never be resolved.
The audience prodded for an encore, and Beam returned to the stage to play the sentimental ballad, “Naked As We Came” from the band’s 2004 album, Our Endless Numbered Days. M. Ward accompanied on mandolin, and the rest of the band sang backup harmonies over dream-like, melodic guitar picking. A fan behind me sang softly along, and I basked in the connection he was experiencing. Here is a taste of the second verse:
She says, “If I leave before you, darling
Don’t you waste me in the ground”
I lay smiling like our sleeping children
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes round the yard
It was a poignant, cinematic denouement from the former film professor. Suddenly, the whispery vocal “affectation” I used to detest became a testament to Beam’s multidimentionalism as a musician. The man can whisper, but the man can also jam, and because of that versatility, Iron & Wine has gained a new fan.