LIVE: The Blow, Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR

By Hollister Dixon

As a live performer, Khaela Maricich (otherwise known as The Blow) is less of a musician and more of a performer. She gets on borderline empty stages, with her collaborator, Melissa Dyne, triggering the lights, projections, and music from elsewhere. Onstage, she sings her songs, but she also dances around and interacts with the audience and – and this is approximately half of every Blow performance – monologues. In freeing herself of the shackles of band and instrument, she is free to utilize a much different set of muscles when performing if she wants to create an engaging performance, lest she find herself relegated to the fate of being a “karaoke performer”. In a lot of ways, this is far more difficult, because every crowd and stage is completely different, meaning you need to figure out what you’re working with every single night, and then abandon that and learn something new the next night.

These are not the concerns of The Blow at this moment in time, and that is a very weird thing. Currently, The Blow are working with a new performance, which they’ve deemed “Unplugged”. For them, this means no laptops or projectors, which have been replaced with live instruments. However, those live instruments are Maricich’s keyboards, and an impressive array of modular analog synthesizers – the very same ones being used to produce The Blow’s new record – manned by collaborator/projectionist/song-triggerer Melissa Dyne. The big question: Does this work? We’ll get to that question in a little bit.

The night began with “radical space-muse” (in Maricich’s words) Anna Oxygen. It embarrasses me that I was unaware of just how deep the roots of Oxygen go. For the uninitiated: She’s been performing since the 90s, with two albums, multiple projects, and countless collaborations with artists like The Microphones and Beth Ditto under her belt, and occupies a space somewhere in between her tourmate Maricich (strange, vocally-intensive, personal pop songs) and Liz Harris (elaborate songs that rely heavily on loops created on-the-fly with two loop pedals, and a keyboard). There’s a beautiful freedom built into the weirdness of Oxygen, and it shines brightly in her introductions to each song (“This is another electric-unicorn-running-endlessly-through-a-tunnel song”, she says of song, and “You’ll have to imagine me wearing psychic armor while I sing this one” about another). It could easily be viewed as the ramblings of an unrefined artist if done by someone else, but here these things all make up the whole of an incredibly diverse and talented artist who knows just how to build the world in which she resides in front of an audience.

This is a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow, of course; when announcing that a song would be her last of the evening, someone in the audience shouted back, “Thank god!”. Oxygen took this in stride, looked directly at the person and, dripping with charisma and sarcasm, thanked them for their input and enthusiasm. Weirdness aside, however, Oxygen has a captivating voice and a commanding stage presence, and by the end of her performance, she had those who “got it” eating out of the palm of her hands. It’s a shame that more people didn’t quite get it, but it’s hard to hold that against them.

I’ve been asked a few times if I enjoyed The Blow‘s show. On each occasion, I pause to really think about that question, because it is one with two entirely different answers. When trying, I’ve had to look at the evening in two different ways: as a “performance”, and as a “concert”.

First the bad: as a “concert”, I thought it was possibly terrible. With The Blow’s last record (simply called The Blow), I found myself in love with the music and the way Maricich performs, and walked into the room expecting something akin to that. Unfortunately for me, the nature of the performance made this impossible, because the freedom from instruments had been removed, relegating her to a single, visibly frustrated space onstage. Her voice was often unsure and on-edge, and while the songs resembled their recorded counterparts, they never quite brushed against being danceable, and it was almost impossible to connect to everything.

The framework of the performance had a strange domino effect. Because of her place as a performer being replaced by that of an instrumentalist, Maricich seemed disconnected from the crowd, which in turn meant that she didn’t once deliver one of her signature monologues (she only really once spoke: “Thanks to Anna Oxygen for not giving a single fuck, and thank you all for coming. That was our last song. Really. That’s it. Have a good night everyone.”), which meant the show lacked enough of a spark to keep about 3/4 of the crowd occupied long enough to simply stop talking and watch, and the gaps in between songs, often reaching five minutes in length, didn’t help this. It’s a task bordering on insanity to perform with the synthesizers Melissa Dyne was working with, which meant the space in between songs, as Dyne got everything just right, felt painful – especially if you watched Maricich, who swung between visible annoyance and confusion to bemused laughter at the situation. Dyne took all of this in stride, of course, but there were times where it felt more like an exercise in long-form awkwardness than anything else.

On the other side of things, looking at the night as a performance changes things entirely. “Unplugged” isn’t meant to be a simple and danceable routine for The Blow, and instead meant to be a way to pull back the divider between artist and listener and allow the latter to peer into the inner-working of how the music they enjoy is made, in all its messy and difficult glory. It’s not a simple and seamless process a lot of the time, and can take forever to really nail into place. You have all the time you need to get those things right in the studio, but when you’re in front of people, you have to move as fast as possible to keep people from rioting. What we got to see was the process of creation in its unrefined, infant stages, where all of the knobs and plug-ins need to be in the right places to produce the right sounds. Old classics like “True Affection” and “Fists Up!” sounded bizarre and even alien in this light, but in that light the entire affair actually feels more personal and more exposed than a typical Blow performance, because the only way one of those can go wrong is if Dyne’s laptop goes up in flames, or if Maricich loses her voice entirely. Here, though? A million things can go wrong and cripple the entire performance.

At the end of things, I feel like the whole thing would have been more engaging and easy-to-swallow if it had been presented as a performance piece and not a concert, which would have meant a different and more responsive crowd. There’s something truly beautiful and brave about what The Blow is doing with “Unplugged” because of just how difficult it is to reproduce those songs in a live setting, and how much can go wrong. The evening might have also been more engaging if it had been easier to hear over the sounds of a room full of people ignoring the performance onstage, as well. This new direction is bodes well for the future of The Blow, but I just hope I can still dance to it.

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