By Hollister Dixon
Those three years I spent doing a podcast taught me a lot about myself, but one of the most important things I learned was about the love, adoration, and respect I have for anyone who is able to turn in a quality radio production with any regularity, and get people to listen. In this respect, then, getting to see a live performance of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s Welcome To Night Vale – a bi-monthly podcast with a legion of fierce, loyal, and rabid fans – in the opulent Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was like being a Little League short stop at a Red Sox game. Radio is a fickle beast, and the nature of podcasting is such that you have to fight tooth and nail, at times, to really grab people’s attention. And yet, four years on, WTNV’s fanbase is devoted enough that they were not only able to justify being at the Schnitz, but were able to sell the place out for an hour-and-a-half of music, surrealism, and ghost stories.
The unfortunate thing about Welcome To Night Vale’s live shows is that, to get the full effect of everything, you need to actually hear it. As the show’s credits-reader/proverb-deliverer Meg Bashwiner highlighted in her pre-show delivery of the show’s rules noted, the story of this particular tour will be released as a live recording after the tour is complete, so even giving major details about the plot are hard to justify. In lieu of a traditional review – which is hard to truly do for something like WTNV – I’ve compiled a series of observations about the show as a whole. Please enjoy.
Observations from Welcome To Night Vale in Portland
- I had planned on going more-or-less chronologically here, but there’s one thing that must be addressed: there are few things more mind-melting than watching someone you’ve only listened to. This is different with music, of course – most people have a divide between singing voice and speaking voice – but it’s a strange sensation to hear a voice you know incredibly well coming out of a human being. I know what Cecil Baldwin looks like, but watching him talk felt like several wires in my brain had become disconnected. I felt this way seeing Ira Glass speak several years ago, and it’s still a problem for me.
- Series creator Jeffrey Cranor and in-house music producer Jon Bernstein, aka Disparition, look exactly how I would imagine them. I’ve never thought about what Disparition looks like, but when I saw him, I knew precisely who he was.
- Joseph Fink, however, looks nothing like I’ve ever imagined – but I’m pleasantly surprised. There’s no way around it: I can see myself in Fink. He’s a slightly pudgy, bearded man with unrelenting love for the art of storytelling and radio, and he’s done everything in his power to make that love into something beautiful and successful. Also, he’s really very funny.
- The show was opened by Erin McKeown, telling stories and bantering heavily between songs. She’s a lovely, talented person who managed to play for half an hour in the Schnitz, alone, with nothing but a guitar and an amp, and did so in a way that showed that she didn’t need a backing band. The Schnitz is a room that can swallow up smaller acts, but McKeown made it her own. That said: I absolutely hate crowd participation parts of shows. All the time.
- Cecil Baldwin was born to be a radio host. The timbre of his voice makes it feel like he was grown in a laboratory, for the sole purpose of being sent out into the world to do quasi-scifi radio plays. Onstage, he adds several other layers to the persona of Cecil Palmer with slight moments of physicality: an over-the-top headshake here, absurd hand gestures there. Even his use of his script felt like a natural progression of a fantastic character.
- Staging a radio play is a difficult tightrope to walk. It’s one thing to stage a radio play, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually justify the move away from purely audio. It requires the energy and presence of everyone performing, or you’re probably just going to be better off staying as an audio show. WTNV does very little to move past simply being “people talk to each other on mic”, but the abilities of the whole cast completely justify every single tour date.
- I am admittedly far, far behind on WTNV, and one thing that keeps me from binging my way to the end is the fact that the show’s surrealism has, in some respects, become more important than storytelling. Ghost Stories leaves the surrealism intact, but gives the audience enough human interaction to diffuse the effects of this surrealism, and with every guest brought onstage (Intern Jeffrey Cranor! Tamika Flynn/Symphony Sanders! Pam Winchell/Desiree Burch!) they continued to punctuate the absurdity with fantastically funny interactions.
- Without giving anything away, the “ghost story” Cecil Baldwin delivered after The Weather (performed, obviously, by Erin McKeown, who performed the fantastic “The Queer Gospel”) was show-stopping and beautiful. If Baldwin ever steps away from WTNV and into full-on acting, he’ll be showered in Oscars. If the story itself wasn’t autobiographical, I’ll be shocked.
- The WTNV fanbase is insane. Truly, madly, deeply crazy. Outside of a convention or a midnight movie showing, I’ve never seen that many people in costumes for something in my life. It was a sea of young, passionate, energetic, obsessive people, and it gave me so much hope for the future of unconventional storytelling, and for the future of radio as a viable medium.
- I will share one small quote from the show itself: “Today’s proverb: If you’re happy and you know it, the chemtrails are working.”
Walking out of the Schnitz at the end of the performance, I felt more creative than I have in a very long time. Watching a bunch of weird people rage with unbelievable ecstasy and exuberance onstage, doing exactly what they want with their performance, on a show created independently, for a packed room of adoring fans, in a flawless concert hall in the middle of Portland? As a small fish looking into their very big pond, it was hard to not feel inspired to create after seeing what happens when a quality program is discovered by an amazing crowd.