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Rachael Yamagata at the new Doug Fir Lounge
Seeking the occasional glimmer of hope
by Mark Anderson

ope. 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.

Rachael 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 rot.

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 a.m.

The Doug 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.

Happenstance: whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts appeal.

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 appeal.

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.

Rachael 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 monologue.

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.

Yamagata: providing a launching pad for a night full of enchanting surprises. Click 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 to another.

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 self-sustaining glimmer.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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