Singer Hill Cafe on Urbanspoon
I’m fascinated by the way many (but not all, mind you) Portlanders describe surrounding areas that don’t fit their mold. Vancouver is “Vantucky,” a backward, uncivilized place populated with mostly hicks. Oregon City apparently is the same, only with more “religious freaks.” Lake Oswego is a yuppie paradise. Heck, even Southeast Portland is a “ghetto.” Seriously, anyone who’d call SE Portland a “ghetto” has certainly never seen one.


Lime Tart and Cappuccino.

Lime tart, cappuccino, and some sweet decor.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to my sojourn down to Oregon City. In fact, I really didn’t know where Oregon City was and had gotten well into the day before I decided to find out exactly where I was headed this particular evening. I initially feigned excitement about dropping down to Oregon City for a show at the 505 Tavern, to which my co-workers responded with resounding “meh.” Geez, the reaction was so lukewarm I thought I’d accidentally said “Vancouver.”

Perhaps I’ll enjoy it after all.

Plants on the wall over the stage.

Just in case you thought I was kidding, yes, there really are plants growing out of the wall.

After scoping out a few options, I decided on Singer Hill Cafe as a good place to crash before my show. The  shop seemed to have plenty of loyal patrons. The layout reminded me of a more expansive version of the dearly departed Marcell’s in Vancouver, which was essentially a large house. Singer Hill is a coffee shop with a full menu of sandwiches and salads, pastries, and a mighty fine Lime Tart. When he saw me taking pictures, the owner took me on an impromptu tour, showing off the backyard garden where he hoped to host a few outdoor concerts in the future.

Singer Hill hosts music on Fridays from 6-8pm, and I arrived in time to catch the second half of a fundraiser show by Tiffany Carlson who delighted the a rather cordial crowd of friends and families. I also have to acknowledge the pretty sweet stage that had plants growing out of the wall. That I’ve never seen before. It’s easy to feel at home in Singer Hill Cafe, and that’s a feeling I really have to search for in Portland, which is often hip, but rarely cozy. You know, I gotta admit: Oregon City is an okay place.

Well…if you like Vancouver.

Elephant Revival

Elephant Revival

In our crazy world where consumer product diversity outnumbers biodiversity (probably), people search for meaning in strange places. This would explain why we have chocolate products named after elegant white birds, dish soap named after the expression of unbridled mirth, and a media & entertainment conglomerate named after the measurement system of duration and sequence of events. This search for meaning extends into the entertainment industry, since the connections artists build with audiences sells CDs and pays the cover at plenty of shows. This meaning doesn’t necessarily have to be definite, but it repels superficiality that can sprout like mold on so many successful touring bands when monotony sets in. I bring this up because I attended two performances of the touring band Elephant Revival, and the group gave me a sincerely meaningful musical experience.

The label “Trascendental Folk,” while accurate, seems to contradict the sense of focus and unity I get from their show. “Eclectic,” like my favorite buzzword “edgy,” gets tossed around too often today when you’re actually hard-pressed to find any modern group that isn’t, in some way, eclectic. Eclecticism and transcendentalism are natural outgrowths of the sheer abundance of popular culture, and aren’t necessarily “selling points” anymore. What makes Elephant Revival unique is that they are effortlessly and humbly transcendental, incorporating a cornucopia of influences in a way that seemed honest and natural. While all of their members were excellent, I was particularly impressed by the multi-instrumental talents of guitar/banjo/mandolinist Sage Cook who seemed at home with every instrument he touched, and vocalist Bonnie Paine whose captivating, lilting vocals were matched by her throwing down some serious washboard and djembe percussion.

Where the Axe & Fiddle show presented them at their most eclectic electric, the group gathered around an omni microphone at the Alberta St. Pub for a show which took advantage of the acoustically intimate setting. With nothing but church pews and wooden stools, the group treated a small gathering of family and friends (old and new) which grew steadily into a respectable crowd. In the Axe & Fiddle they were on stage, but in the Alberta St.Pub, they were at home, and that made the difference between a good show and a meaningful one. Myself and a cohort from The Student Loan even jammed with them on a few tunes, and that invitation alone added to the feeling that the group was offering more than simply a performance. They were willing to connect with new friends on tour and explore a little, and that means something.

“I love gluten.”
Sage Cook

Hawthorne Farmer's Market - "Cash or Barter"

Hawthorne Farmer's Market - "Cash or Barter"

As we’ve stumbled into the 21st Century, I’ve noticed an odd preoccupation with getting in touch with our Earthy, 20th & 19th century roots. I assume this is just a silly phase we need to go through before cars start flying, but I’m willing to go with it. Case in point, America has gotten preoccupied with open markets again, and we sure know how to make a stink about it. Anachronism is in, man. It’s been in for a while actually. Granted, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s a bit odd, but not bad. You know, about as odd as seeing a vendor peddling the herbs he grew in his back yard while sipping an iced cappuccino from Peet’s Coffee. We just need to be honest with ourselves and accept that we are, indeed, in the future. We’re in a future run by the past with the “neo” prefix attached to it.

I won’t wear the highbrow musician mask and say that I can’t stand pop music. I can stand pop music, I just don’t typically listen to it. I am, however, a fan of the more acoustic end of the spectrum. Today, “acoustic” is the musical counterpart to “organic” food: plenty of technology guiding the process, it’s just not over-manufactured–and it might cost a little more (vocal harmonizers, looping pedals, and the irony-laden Acoustic Image amplifiers). It’s difficult enough already to justify my preference the acoustic genre without sounding pretentious. I thought about including the label “independent” but I’m not even sure what that means anymore. Saying I’m way into “Indie,” well, that would just make me a card carrying blowhole.

So yes, I bring this up because of Sara Bareilles.

Oh yeah, I said it. Sara Bareilles. I know, I know: The Grammy nominee? That goofy ditty about not writing a love song ? “Dude,” you say, “she is soooooooo last year.” You might even follow that up with, “Man, you may as well go get yourself a passport that says ‘Table Saw’ because you’ve just entered the land of the tools.”

Fair enough. Dual citizenship is hardly a bad thing to have these days.

Bareilles comes on the heels of my recent K.T. Tunstall kick. Where I had come across Tunstall playing solo on Leno one night, I overheard Bareilles’ single “Love Song,” on my lunch break over the sound system in the school store. Now I imagine that the song had appeared in everything from movie soundtracks to advertisements for tampons before I heard it, but it was new to me and I kind of dug it. Being the professional Googlesmith that I am, I pulled up some info and was…conflicted when I pulled up this trippy video (Embedding disabled by request. Just click on the damned video).

My first impression was, “Wow, that’s a strikingly attractive (or adeptly photoshopped) person overdressed in inside a giant analog karaoke machine.” My second impression was that she appeared to be playing the piano. Intrigued by the possibility of genuine talent, I decided to investigate further, and pulled up this video.

No, it’s not the acoustic version of “Love Song.” It’s Peter Gabriel’s “Your Eyes,” and not a bad version of it if I may say so. The girl’s no Harry Connick Jr., but she’s an able pianist and a respectable vocalist. Her songwriting isn’t particularly ground-breaking, but overall she’s a solid artist capable of passing the intimate-live-setting-with-limited-EQ test. Fair play to you, Sara. As it turns out, you can actually get this and four “stripped” versions of songs from her album, but only if you buy the whole, non-stripped album as well. I haven’t checked out iTunes yet, but I’m just not a fan of the purely digital realm.

It’s fascinating because I wonder how many pop songs I would love if they didn’t carry the stigma label of being top 40 hits. A friend of mine “admitted” to purchasing a Colbie Calliat album because he knew that “if she were playing around the corner at the coffee shop, [he]’d totally go see her.” Yeah, “Bubbly” did kind of lose its luster when I saw it in an ad for…what was it? Allergy medicine? Genital herpes treatment? You know what I mean. It’s often difficult, in this day and age, to determine whether we are enjoying something because we like it or because it’s being marketed specifically to us.

I guess if someone’s doing their job right, there’s no difference.

“Is that why you wanted a love song?”

I’m a musician for people who hate music. I don’t say this because I’m particularly accessible to the musical layperson, but rather because I’m not really much of a music aficionado. I don’t like buying CDs (or downloading mp3s), listening to the radio, or physically getting off my lazy keister to go appreciate some good live music. I seem to only discover new artists when I’m in their immediate vicinity. I’ve found that this is often the best way to do it, since I then get the pleasure of getting to know the musicians that I so admire. There are many, but I’ll take a moment to selfishly acknowledge a few independent musicians that deserve to be A-listers that could make me feel more important by association.

Joel Smith
Joel Smith

Joel Smith is fresh on my mind since I am watching him perform with his band The Hands of Plenty at this very moment at a tragically under-attended show at The Mandolin Cafe in my hometown, Tac-town, Washington. Joel holds the distinction of being the first guy to recruit me to play a two-step bass line, which has since proven to be a valuable skill for me to have picked up. Anyways, I experienced my own personal folk revival as I re-listened to Joel’s debut album/senior project River Roads, and was so taken in by his songwriting that I woke up three days later at a cafe in Chattanooga, TN wearing only a pink Snuggie blanet and a pair of brand new Levi Strauss jeans with $230 stuffed in the pockets. The guy’s got so much talent it may very well be dangerous. I hear Spokane, WA may change it’s name to “Joel Smith.”

Endah and Rhesa

Endah and Rhesa

I first heard Endah N Rhesa while setting up for our show at the 2009 Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival. While we bickered with the sound engineers and our mandolinist battled illness, I had a diva-esque hissy fit at our embassy attache demanding that he retrieve the CD of whoever it was performing at “that stage over there.” I had no idea who they were, but from my vantage point, it was a travel-sized guitarista with, like, three voices and a statuesque bassist who could lay down grooves like nobody’s business. While I was unable to go see them myself, they flattered us with their presence at our performance. Afterward, we gushed our admiration for each other (“If I were famous, I’d make you famous!” I believe is what I said) swapped CDs, and took a few pictures together. I’ve since made it a weekly ritual to check YouTube for more videos of them. These two epitomize the trifecta of  depth, taste, and chemistry, and their website is a thing of beauty. Love them. It’s the law.

Fruition String Band

Fruition String Band

I met the musical miscreants of Fruition String Band my very second day in Portland, as Chad and I were giving busking on Hawthorne Blvd. the ol’ college try. It was scorching hot and we made close to nothing, but we did run into some individuals making a more lucrative pull. The lady and gentlemen of Fruition String band sing it up with soul, walking a line between the purely traditional and a fresh, contemporary energy that’ll bite you in the ass if you take it too lightly. The Student Loan split a show with them at the Goodfoot Pub & Lounge a few weeks back and I’m still recovering from their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” I done danced so hard I broke my femur, and that’s no joke. I mean, dude, the femur is a big bone.