Phoebe Bridgers

One reason I decided I could start this music blog is that I’m counting on guest posts from  friends who are both music fans and good writers. None of my friends is a more dedicated fan or better writer than luxbndr. We’ve seen many a concert together, and he’s often inspired to write a review afterwards. Here’s a good one from last summer:

Portland, Maine

July 27, 2018

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Phoebe at Port City, photo by me

More than a year ago I gave an old-school tube amplifier to Atlas,  a young man who had become enamored of analog technology. If it was analog, it was pure. Atlas liked pure. He got it. Awhile later he returned with the amplifier, repaired, functional and ready once again to “pound sound.” When he brought it back (which was not MY intent…I had hoped to be rid of it) he passed a 45 single on to me of an artist he knew……who not only had recorded this 45 single and was finalizing an album, but had also worked with him on restoring that old tube amp. Her name… Phoebe Bridgers, and the friend and fellow musician who assisted Atlas and Phoebe in the amp repair, one Harrison Whitford. had also recorded some music, which Atlas kindly shared.

Forward cut…..Phoebe’s album has been released….I mention this to fellow BobKatz, Luann, who immediately recognizes Phoebe Bridgers ….”she’s great!”….. I inform Atlas as well… who smirks and says…”hey, who knows, she could play Portland someday, wouldn’t that be cool”

Someday arrives….. July 27, 2018. Port City Music Hall.

A pilgrimage. And as in all pilgrimages, signs and portents. Dark sunset clouds with silver linings attendant ….a full moon obliterated by thunder, lightning….….an electric night. The works….

The works….which means crafty beers and three pizzas at Otto’s….and standing in rain at the gates to the Hall, as pilgrims are wont to do….standing at gates…. raining. Pilgrims never get a break. But wait….behold! The gates to the Hall are parted…opened almost an hour before schedule as the Keepers of the Gates rained mercy upon the masses. Portents abound…..the clotted Moon pulls.

We flow into the Hall and slip in the filtered darkness to assignations, basking in lilypads of light, waiting. Port City Music Hall seats about 550 people max, with comfortable select seating for maybe 50-75 of the crowd. Mostly it’s a standing type of club. That’s fine if you’re 20 but we’ve done our stand up time….we went for the pricier option and did not feel guilty at all in having a seat and pulling up a beer.

Souls increase and a tipping point…. opening act, Angelica Garcia stands in platformed light…. the songs begin. Angelica’s voice is strong, full of soul and sound. A controlled force, defiant, definite, adamant, convinced. Full command of a southwestern guitar, nuanced and strong. Some compositions her own, some from deep in history. Angelica goes forward, moving out of history into future approaches to music. This is where her set gets tricky. She sets up a sort of i-pad style studio on her mic stand…. Angelica “builds” sounds and loops, hitting buttons, entering data….piling her voice on her voice and, in effect, creating her own multiple harmonies and counterpoints. Music loops and dubs are hard to create effectively, timing and all that….but they can create amazing underwork and jumping off points. Angelica creates a warm space for Phoebe and Band.

….. Break

. …Souls build

Lights dim

Phoebe Bridgers and Band slip into light, ambient band sounds accompany. Recalling our most recent concert Snail Mail, the Katz note that this band has a much better command of presentation. Snail Mail seemed thrown together from the morning vestiges of floor laundry from a keg party. No consistency, zero theme. Phoebe’s band? Sharp. Like Dylan’s 90’s group….suits, shirts, ties…okay, no fedoras. But serious and all on the same page. We’re in good company. Prepared. Phoebe stands and flows…in a mix of choir, nun and mendicant….light and dark. Her mic stand snaked with bulbs and lights. Presentation. Her guitar muted by a sheet (Paper? Cardboard?) strapped across the soundboard. Nothing but string.

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Confident….her opening song “Smoke Signals”….starting with the famous song… normally expected to be rousing closer, maybe evocative encore. For the next hour/plus, Phoebe and Band will attest, confess…protest…without benefit of closed confessional or thoughts expressed in confidence to a friend. Open and direct….brother and sister plotting an escape from abuse, the end of a broken painful relationship, the murder of an abuser. Voices move….conversational between lovers in one, introspective, self-accusatory in the next, but all unmasked…core….real voices. And Phoebe’s voice lifting them all… suggests..spins around notes like…well, like a smoke signal. Like a being …and a ghost of the being. Meanwhile, the supporting work by the band has that same hint of “something underneath”. Nuanced notes and voices that seem to swirl around a suggestion, something implied that is there…. but not obvious. Like jazz musicians playing off a melody…but it’s not exactly jazz, either.

An aside….the whole history of humanity can be seen as exercises in dichotomy, especially in contemporary post-industrial, “either/or” society. Comparisons degraded to “black/white”….“yes/no”. Ones and zeros. Nuance no longer exists. There used to be over 300 gradations between black and white. Neil Young…defender of analog and feedback..inventor of a deep digital music program (PONO) ….once professed “there’s a lot of data between zero and one”

That’s called “nuance”….The colors, the sounds, the smells and touches…there’s a gradation between freezing and burning….a lot of “data” between 212 F and 0 Kelvin. That same gradation exists on every sensory plane, including sound, and are just as important.

Well, this nuance was what Phoebe Bridgers and band brought to Port City. Gone were the algorithms provided for “ease of musical choice”….you know…the Pandora and Spotify ones that say “if you like Emmylou Harris you will like etc etc etc…. Joni Mitchell? May we recommend…”

Every one of us in the group had fallen into the same trap given to us since grade school. Compare and contrast….so we kept trying to describe Phoebe Bridgers in terms of who she was most reminiscent of…..mistake!

Phoebe Bridgers was Phoebe Bridgers…self-deprecating one minute, torn by the world situation the next…always feeling and always open. She was there, in the pocket and she brought us all in. I have been going to concerts since (ahem) 1970. One can be forgiven for getting a little jaded by it all. How can an artist bring a new trick to this battered hat? Well, actually…Phoebe Bridgers did. I won’t do a song-by song review but here are a couple keepers from the night……

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Smoke Signals….the opener…of course….complete with Twin Peaks guitar and a voice that had the lift and drift of the smoke it spoke of.

Funeral….I worked with homeless kids for awhile….the death of promise can devastate and Phoebe hits the wall on this one. A delicate gut punch, if there is such a thing.

Demi Moore….one of those “my gawd, what am I capable of” horror moments…and a real good reason to not go there! Her brief monologue in front of the song…crazy and funny and “my gawd”

Steamroller…..a great song and (of course) one of those concert nuggets we all hate to love….a b-side on a now rare 45….try and find THAT for your mixtape!

Killer and The Sound….the official video does not do justice to Phoebe’s full-lunged blast on the live band version….it was the screamer of the night

Two cover songs as well….a duet with Julien Baker, who was in town co-billing with Courtney Barnett, on Gillian Welch’s wry “Everything Is Free” …”I’m gonna do it anyway/even if it doesn’t pay”….took the song to a great level

and “You Missed My Heart” the encore/closer of the night, by Mark Kozelek….with Phoebe slowly relating a nightmare of events until she ended…curled up in a ball on stage

It was great to see a group bring it together for the night, finding the crack where the sound and light come in…it’s why I love live music….when it’s on, it’s ON and everyone is lifted…sometimes hard to find….but worth every mile. Thanks to Phoebe and band for bringing it all to Portland.

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About Luann Yetter

"Do you remember lying in bed with the covers pulled up over your head, radio playing so no one could see?" (The Ramones) Yes, I do. And I remember the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. And I believed in the magic of rock ‘n roll. Funny thing is, I still do. Somehow I never grew out of my fangirl phase. In recent years I’ve enjoyed writing local history books. But after three successive publications, I took a break. And then I realized that without deadlines or contracts, what I really want to write about is music.
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