I have a complicated relationship with Cage The Elephant. A few years back, one of my friends met her future husband at Cage The Elephant's Pet Aid show. They're getting married next summer. But when I saw them a year later, they were a little underwhelming. So when I heard they were coming to December to Remember, I wondered - their bona fides as a matchmaker were unchallenged, but could they live up to their reputation as hitmakers?
I needn't have worried, however. After a rousing set by local openers Just Lions, Cage The Elephant came on stage... and dispelled all of my doubts in about 30 seconds, delivering the hardest-rocking performance of this year's December To Remember, yet. Lead singer Matt Shultz is a force of nature - he probably expends more energy in one song than many bands do in an entire show. By the band's second song, he was stage-diving and crowd-surfing - I think he spent more time held aloft by fans than any other singer we've seen at Crystal Ballroom in recent memory (at one point Shultz surfed the all ages crowd halfway to the merch table, then crossed the barrier and surfed back on the over-21 side).
It's also noteworthy that the band kept the crowd engaged both through their older, more punk oriented songs and their newer, indie-ish material (which has a bit of a Portugal The Man-vibe, if you ask me), with hits from both eras interspersed throughout their set. I even found myself singing along to Come A Little Closer, by the end of the show.
I am a skeptic no more. Matchmaker? Check. Hitmaker? Double Check.
Veteran #dec2rem performers Holiday Friends took to the stage on Sunday night as the first week of December To Remember neared its end. This is the third consecutive Dec2Rem that the Astoria band has played, and it's not hard to see why: their upbeat, indie-pop sound is a consistent hit with concertgoers. There have been no shortage of amazing bands at the Crystal Ballroom this week, but their song "Astral Observations" is the one I've had stuck in my head ever since.
Headliner Vance Joy is one of those artists who are great to watch, but a little difficult to write about, because his show seemed to go very much according to plan. There were no stage-dives, no profanity laden diatribes, no wacky cover songs or guest rappers (although there was an amusing anecdote where he talked about using his uncle's "poetry" in a song, only to find out that he'd been cribbing lines from Skynyrd's "Simple Man"). If you've heard songs like "Riptide" or "From Afar," the Australian singer's performance was exactly what you'd expect and everything it should be: mellow, emotive, folky. With just a small band and his guitar, Vance charmed the crowd for about an hour with his earnest, honeyed vocals. There were no surprises on Sunday night, but sometimes that's the best kind of performance.
One of the best things about December to Remember is that it normally brings together artists from all over the spectrum: local bands, national acts, rock bands, folk singers - there's a little something for everyone. And on Night Four, Crystal had its first dance party of Dec2Rem 2014, when Mackintosh Braun and Glass Animals came to party.
While Mackintosh Braun didn't necessarily have the crowd dancing in the aisles, the Portland duo did a good of setting the tone for the evening with a their light, poppy set.
Then Glass Animals came out of the jungle (no, really - there were huge potted plants all over the stage), and things got mad real. Greeted by the loudest crowd response of the week, the band immediately launched into a furiously energetic set.
Although their sound has a sexy, subversive tone that's similar to Alt-J's, their live performance had an energy very reminiscent of The Neighbourhood's Dec2Rem appearance, last year: young, rambunctious, untamed, but most of all, fun.
A good litmus test of that last quality is the covers - or lack thereof - that a band chooses to do. The most serious of bands won't do covers at all; a great many bands will only cover songs in their genre. (If you're questioning this logic, ask yourself if you can seeThe Pixies covering "Genie In a Bottle.") But a really fun band will cover anything - the more incongruous the better. And Dave Bayley's madcap cover of Kanye West's "Love Lockdown" proved that Glass Animals can party with the best of them.
Perhaps fittingly, December To Remember's first triple-header came on night three of the series, when Superhighway, Priory and Wild Cub all descended on the Crystal Ballroom for a very Portland-centric show on Friday night.
Openers Superhighway are no strangers to the Crystal Ballroom. Before moving to Los Angeles and changing the name of their band, Eli Hirsch and Quincy Saunders were known to Portland audiences as The Ecstatics, and while their name and mailing address might have changed, their return to the Crystal proved that their brand of infectious pop-rock and their devoted Portland following have definitely stayed the same.
Portland band Priory kept the mood going with more feel-good, 80's infused electro-pop and a fusillade of laser light. In addition to playing "Weekend" and tracks off their most recent EP, singer Brandon Rush proved to be one of December to Remember's most talkative performers, sharing a couple anecdotes about the perils of touring and the time he broke a rib crowdsurfing at a previous show... right before he jumped into the crowd at the Crystal.
Although Wild Cub's set got off to a slightly rocky start - lead singer Keegan DeWitt took a wrong step and fell off a speaker, which was mildly terrifying for everyone watching - they quickly found their footing. Wild Cub's highly energetic indie pop was the perfect crescendo to the evening, following up nicely on the vibe from the first two acts. Keegan also took a moment at the end of the set, speaking with a Mark Foster-like earnestness, to reminisce about his youth in Portland - cruising downtown and talking about music with his friends - and to point out that Portland continues to buck the conventional wisdom that live music isn't as important, anymore. ("No one cares about live music... No one cares about shows... And yet you guys and 94/7 have sold out twelve shows") Although the night was full of great moments, many would probably say that the high point came at the end of the show, when the band did a very entertaining cover of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love."
As December To Remember entered its second night, the Crystal Ballroom played host to one of the month's more diverse lineups: In The Valley Below and KONGOS.
After a long, moody intro, In The Valley Below kicked their set into gear with a spirited rendition of their song, "Stand Up." Compared to their 94/7 session at Mississippi Studios, ITBV rocked a little harder and sounded a little slicker this go around, which made the Fleetwood Mac comparisons flow even more freely than before. Not only do they have an ethereal, Fleetwoody sound, but singer Angela Gail has a bit of a Zooey Deschanel meets Stevie Nicks look going on, too. The Nicks-Buckingham comparisons aren't a bad thing, though - the band plays with the energy and aplomb of a much more seasoned band.
When I looked at my notes for KONGOS, I realised I basically had written only one word, underlined and in all caps: EPIC. The four brothers from South Africa can pack more energy into one song than many bands expend in their entire set. Much like their I Saw Them When show earlier this year, KONGOS cranked up the volume early and never let up, encouraging the crowd to test the Crystal's famous bouncing floors on "I'm Only Joking" and treating the crowd to a blistering mashup of Dr. Dre's "Nothing But a G Thang" and The Beatle's "Come Together", backed by rapper Mo Gordon.
Anyone who's seen the movie "High Fidelity" probably remembers the rules of making a mixtape: start with a strong selection, then "take it up a notch" on your second selection. Apparently these rules also work for picking your December To Remember lineup, and so far, 94/7 seems to be following them to a T.
December To Remember kicked off at the Crystal Ballroom on Wednesday night with killer performances by Summer Cannibals and The War on Drugs. Local stalwarts Summer Cannibals started the night off with their signature brand of Portland rock 'n roll. Every time we see them, they sound more polished than before, and while there might be a temptation to feel nostalgic for the band's raw club days, there's no doubt that they can now handle venues like the Crystal deftly.
The War on Drugs started their set on a high note, quite literally, and the show was off and running. The last time they were in the area, their only in-town performance was their amazing 94/7 Session at Mississippi Studios, but the full War on Drugs experience is something to behold. There's something very American about the band's sound: frontman Adam Granduciel often sounds like a younger, more articulate Bob Dylan (the harmonica helps sell the comparison, too), but with a Springsteen-like earnestness. It's easy to lose yourself in the band's wistful, expansive sound; each song rolls into the next, like a car cruising down an endless stretch of highway - and the crowd at the Crystal was definitely along for the ride.
Back in 2012, Alex Clare was a pretty ubiquitous presence on the airwaves: he was on 94/7, he was on Top 40 Radio, and his single "Too Close" was featured in a string of Microsoft ads. But the passage of time in the music industry can be a pretty fickle thing – we haven't heard much from Alex in the last couple of years, and although he's faded somewhat from the public view, that didn't stop a dedicated crowd from packing into the Wonder Ballroom the night before Thanksgiving.
With December to Remember fast approaching, hearing Alex Clare sing reminded me of what a "big tent" 94/7 (and alternative music in general) can represent to modern recording artists – where influences can range from electronica to folk to old school rock and roll – or in Clare's case, electronica-infused blue-eyed soul. For his set at the Wonder, Clare gave an impassioned performance that (perhaps somewhat oddly) reminded me of Future Islands: although their sound and demeanor are completely different, they inhabit a similar position on the musical spectrum. Although Clare may be considered more of a pop artist than an alternative artist, these days, Wednesday night proved that no matter what label you hang on him, he can put on a dang good show.
When Bastille was in town for December To Remember last year, I made the prediction that the next time we saw them would be in an arena-sized venue. Now, I don't like to brag, but we saw that prediction come to fruition on Thursday night, when Bastille returned to Portland for their show at Moda Center.
Bastille has gradually become known more and more as a pop band, rather than an alternative one - and nowhere is that more apparent than in their choice of openers. Where last year's performances featured bands like Little Daylight and NONONO, Thursday's show was kicked off by pop/soul singer Ella Eyre. While we may not be hearing her on the Bottom 40 anytime soon, no one at Moda Center seemed to care, cheering along to the 20 year-old singer's high-kicking, high-energy performance.
When Dan Smith and the gang came on stage shortly thereafter, I paused to reflect on how far they've come since we first saw them, last September. The band has essentially been touring on the same material for over a year - although there are a couple of new songs, and they've swapped out the City High cover for TLC's "Scrubs," most of the setlist (and all of Dan's jokes) are the same. What's changed, though, is the environment: a year ago, they played in front of a handmade BASTILLE banner; now their backdrop is a stadium and more A/V equipment than a typical Best Buy. The change suits them, though - it feels like they were always meant to play this kind of venue. It feels like they're home.
Talking about an established band is a very different experience than writing about an unknown one - the conversation changes. Unlike the latest Passport Approved artist or a future December To Remember opener, you don't have to answer the typical biographical questions about a band who's making the arena circuit. Who they are, where they're from, what they sound like - none of that matters, anymore, because everyone already knows the answer.
In fact, there's really only one question that anyone poses about a band like The Black Keys: Do they measure up in person? This was the very question I found myself pondering as I waited for Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney to come on stage at The Moda Center on Halloween night. (Spoiler alert: they did just fine.)
After a solid but slightly repetitive set by English musician Jake Bugg, the Keys came onstage with a minimum of fanfare - an ethos that ran throughout their set. There were no moving stages, no pyrotechnics, no elaborate costumes or nods to the holiday - just two guys and their band. (Across the river, the folks in St. Lucia dressed up as the cast of Star Wars. The Black Keys appear to have been dressed as... The Black Keys.) Throughout the night, they toured their extensive repertoire of hits and crowd favorites, reaching a fevered crescendo on "Howlin' for You," and delivering a spot-on cover of Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You," that had even the normally staid Rose Quarter staff dancing in the aisles.
I've seen more epic shows than The Black Keys, and I've seen more revelatory shows. I've even seen bands that I personally liked better than The Black Keys. But ultimately, there are few bands that are as good as The Black Keys. As anyone who's listened to Brothers can attest, there's just something about the band. Something raw. Something powerful and timeless. Something that was completely on display Friday night.
The build up to December to Remember continued on Saturday afternoon, as In The Valley Below played the latest 94/7 Session at Mississippi Studios. Although the fierce winds and the occasional falling tree limb may have kept some of Portland's less adventurous music lovers at home, by the time Mark Hamilton took to the stage to introduce the band, a respectable crowd had gathered to witness the Los Angeles duo's Portland debut.
The first thing you notice about ITVB when you see them live is the heavy Fleetwood Mac vibe, both in terms of the band's somewhat folk-influenced sound and singer Angela Gail's Stevie Nicks-esque sense of style. The comparison is also bolstered by the fact that while the duo often behaves like a couple on stage (sharing a drink, singing arm-in-arm, etc), both the blogosphere and their own publicity materials are extremely ambiguous as to whether or not the duo is an item in real life. Regardless, Gail and guitarist Jeffrey Jacob are definitely at their strongest as a duet - while Gail's solos have a sort of beautiful severity to them, the duo really shines when Jacob adds his voice to the mix, most notably on their single "Peaches," which takes on a decidedly rocky vibe when played live.