Yamagata at the new Doug Fir Lounge
the occasional glimmer of hope
I'm not better off than I was four years ago. But like so many others
in Portland and everywhere else well, we all make
do, yearn for better and seek the occasional glimmer of hope.
Yamagata: sure-handed songwriting with a timeless sweep. ["Rachael
Y.," by Mary Bergherr]
Yes, gainful employment can be difficult to find,
oil prices climb by the day, the political landscape has been a
shrill, relentless drone and the realities of war and terrorism
are an ugly, ominous backdrop.
Yet when friends visit town the time becomes right
to forget all our troubles and remember ... It's still incumbent
on one's self to make things happen. We only live once and all that
For instance, finding an off-the-beaten-path rock
band at an intriguing venue on an uncrowded night is a surefire
formula that has survived many a misguided administration.
And Rachael Yamagata's mid-October Sunday-night show
at the Doug Fir Lounge provided the perfect launching pad for a
night full of delightful surprises that lasted till well past 4
Fir, Portland's new hipster hotspot, is an elaborate quasi ski
lodge of a nightclub with an expensive-looking logging motif pasted
over the interior of a 1950s-style diner and adjoined to what was,
until recently, a rundown hotel. That hotel, the Jupiter, has also
been upgraded and the complex, just across the river from downtown,
recently hosted the most fashionable art show of the season. The
block has become the anchor of lower East Burnside, Portland's latest
street du jour.
Yamagata, who majored in theater and French before
migrating toward music, is a smoky-voiced chanteuse with an intriguing
recent album. That album, Happenstance, boasts mature, sure-handed
songwriting, strong performances and a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts
As goes her story, Yamagata spent the late '90s in
a funk band on Chicago's club circuit before landing a solo contract,
delivering a six-song disc in 2003 and showing immense promise.
Her songs have a timeless sweep that nods in several directions
Tin Pan Alley to '60s pop to a broad sampling of the sounds
of the day.
There's an undeniable charm attached to anyone who
can pull off a lyric such as: "... I feel like I'm loving you
in 1963, flowers in my hair, little bitty hearts upon my cheek ..."
That charm goes a notch deeper whenever Yamagata channels
a small jolt of Janis Joplin, such as in "I Want You,"
where infectious piano and an oversized beat adorn a song that would
otherwise rely too heavily on swirling clarinets, muted trumpet
and a pre-rock cabaret aesthetic.
"Letter Read" establishes a moody verse
with another deadly piano hook before melding into a dramatic major-key
chorus. And "Worn Me Down," which sounded like a hit on
Yamagata's 2003 release, has been re-recorded and still sounds good,
not necessarily better or worse.
But in concert and despite a promising configuration
that added cello and violin to the traditional setup of guitar,
keyboard, bass and drum the overall effect was somewhat less
than totally compelling.
The show never took flight.
Yamagata: a self-titled 2003 EP shows immense promise.
It was marred by an uneven pace that seemed unable
to find the proper mix between sensitive ballads and more upbeat
fare. Things were further complicated by Yamagata's giggly stage
presence. In fact, much of the medium-sized crowd sat cross-legged
on the floor for most of the show, until an awkward moment when
Yamagata repeatedly exhorted everyone to their feet as reluctant
participants in a curious audience-participation sexuality-check
It left one wondering if a few more years of fronting
a band might be the answer.
Further, a few technical problems with the Doug Fir's
ultra-clean sound system conspired against a smoother pace. Also,
some minor sightline problems related to the stage-right placement
of the keyboard put Yamagata squarely behind a pillar for a significant
segment of the less-than-300-capacity house. Since elbow room wasn't
a problem, we simply moved.
Still, the show had convincing moments as Yamagata
switched easily between keyboard and acoustic guitar. We were mildly
disappointed but far from distraught.
And little did we know that our night had just begun.
Once Yamagata's set ended, our own brand of happenstance bumped
us into a music-industry mate. We made our way from the upscale
Doug Fir to a nearby downscale joint for some post-show congregation.
Soon thereafter, we ran into yet another lively friend and, after
a quick libation, headed for one more scruffy pub.
providing a launching pad for a night full of enchanting surprises.
for her Web site.
Next thing we new, we were spending a few hours on
board the tour bus of a rock band. They'd parked in front of their
downtown hotel in advance of the next night's show.
Which is obviously a whole other story, except to
explain the aforementioned post-4 a.m. wrap. And to put into context
the notion that the entire whirlwind adventure was the result of
a fervent, politics-and-pocketbook-be-damned attitude that got us
out on a Sunday night in the first place.
Because once you're out, anything can happen.
To review: We're glad the Doug Fir exists. And although
we're in no great hurry to return, we're happy to have seen it in
its fledgling days. We're also better off for having made the distinction
between Yamagata's live show and her recordings thrilled
that she has such a wonderful album to which we can repeatedly return.
And we're happy to have such fine friends.
But the real point is that one thing so often leads
Where will we be four years hence? Who knows. Tomorrow
may never come. But if it does and we survive at least a few years
more, we'll always be able to think back and remember: That October
Sunday back in '04 man, that was some night ...
Which will bring us right back to that occasional