Pete Droge / Warren Pash / Willy Vlautin – Aladdin Theatre (Portland, OR)
It seems like a long time ago, but I can remember it vividly: the righteous sense of outrage I felt after learning that Husker Du’s Bob Mould had written most of his band’s material on little more than an acoustic guitar. (The horror! Nothing is more of an affront to a teen’s rebel-punk sensibilities than the image of the folk-addled troubadour strumming vacantly away while the world burns.) These days, I have not only accepted Mould’s “indiscretion,” but have actually come to cherish solo shows that allow artists to present songs in their raw, “unfinished” state, bringing the truth of these tales into stark relief.
Tonight’s bill featured three musicians whose considerable songwriting skills benefited from this stripped-down approach. Opener Willy Vlautin is the leader of Portland’s Richmond Fontaine, and was joined onstage by the band’s pedal steel virtuoso, Paul Brainard. (The “duo” format was used by all three acts.) Comparisons abound between Vlautin’s flat, nasal-inflected twang and that of Uncle Tupelo-era Jay Farrar, and for good reason: Richmond Fontaine, consciously or not, has created a nearly exact sonic approximation of Tupelo’s nascent punk/country blend — but Vlautin writes in a much more straightforward narrative style than Farrar, a point made abundantly clear on a few of his jingle-jangle road journals (“McDermitt”, “15 Year Old Kid In Nogales, Mexico”). Vlautin’s hard-luck tales of the drama inherent in America’s small towns (the usual suspects all bobbed to the surface: murder, cheatin’, drinkin’) haven’t always been that compelling on record, but they created a complex, bleary sense of dislocation when given the quiet treatment.
Los Angeles scenester-turned-Portland resident Warren Pash was a last-minute addition to the bill when Mary Lou Lord had airline troubles on the way to the gig from the East Coast. Pash’s shows since he moved to the Rose City have generally been hit-or-miss, but his strengths were given considerably better airplay this evening. Backed by the tasty Telecaster stylings of erstwhile Flatiron Scott Weddle, Pash played an abbreviated but satisfying set, saving his best song, the wistful “Platinum Blonde”, for the finale. If the new material he previewed is any indication of his artistic future, Pash could grow into a real force to be reckoned with.
Droge, the evening’s headliner, has never really captured my fancy in quite the way he seems to have done for so many others; the lanky singer-songwriter has a devoted following, not to mention one of the more active fan websites I’ve visited recently. But after his Aladdin set, I’m beginning to see the first rays of light. His last record, 1998’s psychedelic, swirling Spacey And Shakin, was to my ears a messy affair, heavy and amplified where lean and reflective might have suited his songs more flatteringly. Droge’s set list on this night featured material from throughout his career, including “Mr. Jade” from his 1996 album Find A Door, the soundtrack hit “Beautiful Girl”, a few new numbers (his moving pop-culture portrait “Calendar Tim” was particularly winning), and a reworked batch from Spacey.
Backed only by vocalist Elaine Summers (“the Emmylou to my Gram,” Droge joked dryly) and the ever-present Brainard later in the set, Droge wrought new meaning and life from his songcraft. Whereas previous recorded efforts have seemed a slightly jaded blend of Tom Petty and Matthew Sweet, Droge’s plaintive, earnest vocals lent an air of hard-won sincerity to his songs, turning a tune that sounded sarcastically jaunty before (“Blindly”) into a moody show-stopper.
“Darkness has a way of shedding light on me,” Droge sang poignantly into the spotlights, striking just the right twilight note before the crowd filed out into the cold. “Won’t you meet me on the other end of night?” Amen, brother Pete.