Chris Milam and Noah Derksen at Whirled Pies in Eugene, Oregon
I don’t know what I was thinking. Whirled Pies? I expected a restaurant full of, what else? Pies! “Whirled” was not even a consideration. Whirled? Pies? Freaking pizza! How dense am I at times? Pretty damn.
I walk in and stand for a good two or three minutes until I hear this voice. “This isn’t Lou Malnati’s,” it said. I had no idea where the voice came from. “This isn’t Lou Malnati’s,” it repeated and I looked to my left where a dude was sitting, tilted my head and said, “I’m not sure what that means.” “Lou Malnati’s,” he asked more than stated. “Chicago? Pizza?” I looked at him funny and he pointed to the jacket I was wearing. “Blackhawks?” Then I understood!
It set the mood for the night. I saw Chris Milam sitting alone close to the stage and headed over and introduced myself. Soon after, Noah Derksen, who was opening, stopped by and said hello. Not much time to talk because he was heading to the stage to plug in. The rest is a long and very pleasant musical memory.
Derksen, it turns out, is a Winnipeg boy. Nice voice, impressive songwriter, looking like someone who grew up in Eugene – half hippie and half normal. Blue jeans. Sweater. Semi-long hair tied into a bun at the back. No fashion statement here. Just road clothes and a trunk full of songs. Damn good ones too. Just acoustic guitar plugged into an amp and a presence. A presence which won over the sparse crowd readily enough. Even the kids sat down and chewed their pizza quietly. This was good stuff. Pretty much folk but better than most, the songs melodic and rhythmic and the guitar and voice mixed very well. By the time he was done, the crowd was convinced. And I was thinking that Milam had his work cut out for him.
But Milam hit the stage, grabbed a beautiful Epiphone hollow body electric, and tore into one song after another and what I thought was going to be a softer, gentler genre became a whole ‘nother realm of rock. I sort of hate to say this because I know how many people are not that that thrilled with John Denver these days, but Milam’s voice has enough of Denver in it that I am not only intrigued but impressed. It is not just the timbre but the power and when he stepped back from the mic and tilted his head upward, it was close to overwhelming. Sharp, defined, it cut enough to stop the crowd cold. Between the songs the chatter diminished and during the song disappeared altogether. He made his point with his songs, most from his recent album, Kids These Days.
He plays guitar left-handed and I spent the whole of his set listening to the sound of the chords, knowing that the lower strings were on the top as he strummed and loving the sound. To the point that I noticed he occasionally would upstroke a few and was sure it was for effect. Blues. Rock. Rockabilly. (Almost) Metal at times. Milam can play. But he holds it back. His heart is in the songs, not the show, per se.
And he has written some beauties. When I first heard this one, I was floored.
Before I walked out, I stopped by to talk with a guy who turned out to be the owner. The place has only been open a little over a year, he said, and things were going fairly well. They don’t do enough business to pay musicians at this point but they do have a decent stage and PA for artists to work with. And they care. Obviously. Bands started coming in and asking about possible gigs when they first opened and they explained the situation. Some bands may have cared but most did not. They just wanted someplace to play.
Where everything goes from here is anybody’s guess. Derksen won’t be home until Thanksgiving. Possibly Milam, too. And Whirled Pies? If they keep their attitude about helping musicians on the positive side, I am willing to help spread the word. Seems like all I hear about anymore is venues closing. It would make me very happy to watch one make a real success of it.
But the important thing is that people support the music. Noah Derksen and Chris Milam are great artists to start with. Like one of our old friends said in a song once – “Live Music Is Better bumper stickers should be issued!” It was better this night, for sure.