Sunday, February 22, 2009

Johnny & The Manes @ The Empire 2/21

Johnny & The Manes played Saturday night at the Empire, opening for Strause & Co's CD release show. I knew it was going to be a great set when I walked into the downstairs of the Empire, and could hear the band sound checking "Thought Machine". I'd heard John practicing this new song, but I had no idea that he was ready to perform it with the full band. Or how heavy and awesome it would sound. When I got upstairs, I could tell the whole group was really excited to play it. It's the first song that they've completely written together as a band.

It absolutely rocked. From the opening line ("Inside the Thought Machine there is a factory that manufactures only mazes") to the climatic sonic tidal wave that bubbled and boiled with Jeff Marion's keys, the band put in their tightest performance I've seen.

They kept the energy up through the rest of their all too short set. Dan Boyden's drums kicked "Drag" into high gear- a song that seems to be just a pair of horn-rimmed glasses away from being a lost Elvis Costello classic with the invective chorus of "I used to think you considered me a good influence / but now I hope you choke on each drag of your last cigarette"

By the time they finished with "'88 Olds", everyone in the audience was having a good time, nodding or dancing along. Shawn Ayotte's bouncy bass-lines were particularly carefree and joyous. The Empire also did a great job with the sound, and Johnny's voice came through strong and full of personality.

I had intended to check out the 48 Hour Music Festival Across the street, but ended up staying at the Empire. Johnny had remarked that the Manes' barnstorming rock was not the most logical opening act for a night of Bluegrass, but the good time energy reached across genres. The Jerks of Grass took the stage next, all crowded around a single microphone, and lived up to their esteemed reputation. Alicia and I were also blown away by what might have been possibly the greatest bass solo we had ever seen.

I knew nothing about Strause & Co before Saturday, but they proved to be a great headliner. Brad Strause had played in a very successful Cajun band before losing his vision, wife, and job all in a single year. He spent the next two years at home, playing songs to his dog. Finally, his music was discovered by a fellow Portland musician and they went about putting a band together and releasing an album. It's always a pleasure to see someone play who truly lives music to the core of his or her being. Strause also played a tune he'd written for his seeing eye dog, who dutifully sat next to him on stage. I think the dog nodded off halfway through the song, but I guess he'd heard it before.

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