December to Remember entered its ninth straight on Thursday with spirited performances by both Natasha Kmeto and TV on the Radio.
Local artist Natasha Kmeto is a little hard to pin down: she's a singer-songwriter; she's a producer; her voice will give you chills, but most music writers seem to have a hard time finding anyone to compare her with (the closest I can get is to say that she sounds a little bit like a cross between Erykah Badu and Amy Winehouse, but that doesn't quite do it justice). Armed only with a mic and mixer, Natasha gave a funky, emotional performance that included an impressive cover of Nine Inch Nail's "The Only Time."
It's been almost a decade since the first (and last) time I saw TV on the Radio. They were opening for Franz Ferdinand, and I have to admit that I didn't much care for them, back then. They were a little too weird for my tastes. (Mind you, I was there to see Franz Ferdinand, so maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for an edgy, experimental band from Brooklyn.) But times and tastes change, and I was curious to see how the band would compare to the other Dec2Rem artists.
The reality is, they don't - there simply is no other band quite like TV on the Radio. From the opening instrumental interlude (which lasted for about 30 seconds before the band came on-stage) to their venue-shaking bass-heavy encore, TV on the Radio operates on a completely different level from most indie rock acts. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone sing with an unparalleled intensity and earnestness, and their fans are equally dedicated, following every song for over an hour and a half with rapt attention.
Is TV on the Radio still a little weird? Yeah, totally. But I'm into it, now.
Thursday night's Dec2Rem show opened with a rather, erm, eye-opening set by A Giant Dog. I have witnessed many things over the course of December To Remember, but this is the first time in my memory that I've found myself asking "Uh, is the lead singer wearing any pants?" Despite their rather next-level name and outfit choices, the Austin band gave a solid opening performance, the lead singer sounding like a cross between Gwen Stefani and Patti Smith.
Future Islands and Spoon both played (on separate days) at MusicFest NW, this year, but as Future Islands singer Samuel T. Herring enthused, this is the first time they've ever shared a billing, together. For the band's opening set, Herring gave a one of his characteristically raw, soulful performances, with high-kicking dance moves, animalistic growls and howling refrains.
Exactly five years to the day from their last December To Remember appearance, Spoon returned to the stage at the Crystal Ballroom. Although their performance at MFNW was impressive, that show pales in comparison with what the band was able to do within the more intimate confines of the Crystal. Britt Daniel is a consummate showman, and he led the crowd through one hit after another for well over an hour (their four song encore was almost as long as some band's sets). We've been lucky to see Spoon twice, this year - but let's hope we don't have to wait another five years to see them at Dec2Rem, again!
Tuesday night brought a pair of December To Remember veterans to the Crystal Ballroom, as Dresses and Fitz & The Tantrums finished out a week of sold-out shows. While many of this year's local openers (including Dresses, who came back from an almost five-month hiatus to play the Crystal) were on the lineup last year, there were only two headliners from Dec2Rem 2013 that returned this year: Alt-J and Fitz & The Tantrums. That's testament to how popular these bands are: not only do they sell out two December To Remembers in a row, but they pack in the crowds during their mid-year shows, as well.
So how did this year's performance stack up against last year's - or their May show at the Roseland? Truth be told, all three performances were near-identical - there were no revelations here. For most bands, that would read as an indictment, but for Fitz & The Tantrums, that's praise, because when you're on the top of your game, there's really nowhere else to go. Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs hit all the high notes we've come to expect from them: a scorching opening with "Get Away" and "Don't Gotta Work It Out," their spot-on cover of The Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams," the typical stage banter, and a strong finish with "Moneygrabber" and "The Walker" - everything in its place.
Every year, millions of Americans re-watch movies like "It's A Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Story", not necessarily because they expect the experience to be different, but because those are movies they love seeing. It's a December tradition. Well, for my money, I wouldn't mind seeing Fitz & The Tantrums become our own December To Remember tradition.
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.