Tuesday evening’s SCOPE doubleheader was a study in contrasts.
I came into the evening with relatively low expectations for the opener, whom I had seen playing the Blue Moose two years ago based on critical buzz and had found boring. My hope had been that they would rise to the level of the headliner or at least the venue. My hopes were dashed. Granted, the room has awful acoustics (the best IMU Ballroom shows feature bands like Iron and Wine that don’t turn the space into a mass of echoes). I tried to keep this in mind while cringing at the sound of Twin Peaks’ performance: The space itself makes good bands sound okay and bad bands sound awful. Twin Peaks was the latter.
The opener looked and played like an immature idea of a band rather than a touring group of musicians, filled with a nervous excitement that seemed more implosive than energizing. The band did themselves few favors: Each member seemed to be in his own world, as though each had a relationship to the song that was being played but forgot that they were supposed to perform together. The music was discordant.
Listening to drunken, mumbled stage banter (including a charming anecdote about a favored bowel movement at the Blue Moose), one wondered whether the band was tired of hearing themselves play. Musically, the keyboard sounded good, and the band would string together occasional hooks — or things that would have been hooks had a real band intervened to save the life of songs. Unfortunately for the songs — and the band — nothing saved them.
Fortunately, I believe I would have been impressed by Portugal. The Man even if they’d chosen a competent opening act, and the overall set was far more strange — and enjoyable — than what I had seen in Des Moines for the Evil Friends tour. They set the stage perfectly: The light and laser show allowed the audience the illusion of being immersed in a lava lamp.
The audience’s response, indicated by the ample smell of marijuana, was nothing short of an enthusiastic embrace. The band kicked off with an elongated, slow, bubbling cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” largely lost on the teenagers in the crowd, but a sign that the band was actively aware of its roots despite the overlay of smooth synthesizers and poppy beats.
For many groups, a Grammy is a kiss of death — a sign that creativity will be sacrificed on the altar of digitally reconstructed pop formulas that are exciting enough for swimming pools and bland enough for supermarkets. Their newest album, Woodstock, seemed to have swerved into this territory as the group’s ability to balance snarky crunch with danceable pop crashed wholly into the latter category, leaving behind the sounds of their anthemic, clever, anti-Christian Evil Friends.
The band dipped into a few songs from Evil Friends early in the show, accompanied by a video projection of naked humanoids performing various impossible dance moves, giving birth and melting, or anthropomorphic heads failing to kiss. The sole downside of the projections was that the ballroom proved a bit too small, forcing some of the image onto the ceiling. Nonetheless, “Atomic Man” and “Modern Jesus” (and, eventually, “Purple Yellow Red and Blue”) were delightfully rather than dutifully performed. And the band’s willingness to end songs with a prolonged stoner metal flourish was an excellent nod to the musicianship beneath the glossy sheen.
At 10, the band played their Grammy winning single “Feel it Still,” as John Gourley’s falsetto became as synthetically modulated as any instrument or humanized form on the stage. The song, like much of Portugal. The Man’s ouvre, features lyrics simultaneously simple enough for a sing-along but clever enough to allow listeners to feel intelligent when liking the punchy anthems. After the hit, one noted a stream of parents and partied out teenagers leaving, a testament to ways that the music industry deafens people to the potential for bands to have more than one good song.
The band’s response to its fair (rather than evil) friends was to become weird, indicated by a message on the screen. With the screen exploding into a dose of hallucinogenic phantasmagoria worthy of the most acid-addled Woodstock attendant, P.TM seemed willing to fly its freak flag and become unabashed about its psychedelic roots. Long, immersive guitar solos served as a soundscape to back the visuals. Along with the drums, the keyboards, as an organ, began to anchor infinite-seeming arcing guitar solos and Gourley’s falsetto.
They dipped into the neo-glam “So American” before their ultimate song, hastened by travel demands (their tour bus had evidently caught on fire, requiring the band to catch a flight): “Hey Jude.” This final touch — the blend of the band’s back catalog into the roots of psychedelic music as a live set that nonetheless maintained the kind of mass-market appeal required for financial viability — deeply impressed me. Unlike the Flaming Lips, who seem increasingly to be devoured by the psychedelic madness that used to fuel them, Portugal. The Man seems poised to usher in a new generation of musical weirdness.