By Hollister Dixon
One of the best ways to figure out what you’re getting into when you go to the Portland Institute for the Performing Arts curated Time-Based Art festival is to simply pick up a copy of their comprehensive guide to the festival: it’s a pocket-sized, glossy and impeccably bound little volume, one well-suited for keeping as a souvenir on your bookshelf. It’s a guide that you pick up and, immediately, you feel the weight of pure art. TBA has been going since 2003, and it has grown in its focus and quiet restraint since then, bringing in names like Antony Hegarty, Marina Abramovic, and HEALTH. On the musical side of things, thins are a little less poised, but looking at the lineups for any given year reveal that each and every musical act chose makes perfect sense. For TBA:13, the festival brought forward The Julie Ruin (Kathleen Hanna’s newest project, which we all missed), The Blow, and Kim Gordon’s newest band, Body/Head. Being our first year at TBA, we decided to dip our toes in but a few inches, and only experienced two bands. Next year, the real fun starts.
The Blow // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
It’s easy to forget that the museum block in Portland is home to several different theaters. The magnificent Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is the best in this group, but also included here are the Newmark (which I knew about), and the extremely small Winningstad, a room that felt, at once, like a James Bond set, and a westerner’s vision of a Chinese/Japanese concert hall. The room is filled with, more or less, the exact types of people who you would see at a performance art festival. “This is the whitest crowd I’ve ever seen,” said Yousef Hatlani, my cohost and photographer. And he was right: where my beloved MusicFest Northwest always felt like a delightful cross-section of the music fanatical community of Portland, this felt entirely different. Thus is by no means an insult to the community at large, but it was hard not to notice, as I looked at the people filing in around me.
As the lights dim, a solitary figure wanders onstage. Khaela Maricich (otherwise known as The Blow) makes her way to a mic stand in the center, staring out at the crowd like a deer in headlights. She lets out a shrill run, and then another, like a choir girl getting in one last tiny little bit of a warm-up, while unaware of the crowd that can see it. She then opened her hour with an a capella performance of the closing track from the new, self-titled Blow record, “You’re My Light.” The crowd watched her silently as she sang her quiet, strained love song, and the moment she finished, everyone burst into applause. Maricich is not a creature of half-measures; she spends her between-song periods rambling about the subject matter of the songs, and trying to wig out some of the squares in the audience, which is tremendously fun. At one point, she crawls onto a seat in the front row someone is still in it, trying to wiggle herself into the small crevasse between the two people before her, before giving up and just sitting on someone. She spends a lot of time dancing clumsily onstage, in a way that demonstrates that, although she is not a professional dancer, she’s well-aware of the fact that this is the best way to express herself. The Blow is a neat little comment on the nature of pop music and the things that come with performing it, and Maricich (along with her lights/music girl, Melissa Dyne) manage to play with those conventions while still making every note feel earnest.
The music itself is just as compelling, of course. The bulk of what is performed is from The Blow, and she brings a spark to each and every track that comes from that set of recordings, be it the propulsive and slightly heartbreaking “Invisible”, or the stunning, sweet “Not Dead Yet”, the album’s penultimate track. She plays with some of the tracks a bit while performing, adapting them for the stage, and it makes every moment truly shine. The performance only lasted an hour, and personally, I would have been much happier if we’d gotten just a little more out of her, as I was unprepared for the evening to end. She’s going to be back in town very soon, and you can bet that I’ll be there for that, too.
Body/Head // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
Far out in the alphabet district in downtown Portland, you’ll find a lot of hip bars and stores, which bleed into the urban landscape that includes The Works. There’s no way around it: The Works is a warehouse. When you arrive at this location, you feel like your eyes are deceiving you: among all of the nondescript businesses, there’s this bizarre pop-up venue, with a massive food truck, a street poet typing out poetry to display live on a couple big LCD televisions, and, inside the warehouse, a long bar set up near a stage, which itself is located in the middle of the room. While it isn’t the strangest location I’ve been to, it’s hard to imagine music occurring here.
However, there’s something strikingly perfect about seeing Kim Gordon and Bill Nace, otherwise known as Body/Head, performing in this space. Kim Gordon is a fair distance removed from Sonic Youth at this point, but if the comparison were necessary, the din is something out of very early Sonic Youth, most notably Confusion is Sex. Whereas her ex-husband has been making late-era SY music with Chelsea Light Moving, Gordon has found solace in making simple noise. She commands the stage with a presence that is hard to replicate, and wails on her guitar with an incredible precision, making sounds that no human could even make on accident. Nace stands beside her adding to the whirlwind, but it’s incredibly hard to take your eyes off Gordon in this state. When you do manage to take your eyes off her, it’s to watch the strangely compelling visuals behind the pair, showing slow-motion clips of two people, separately and together; who these people are, I can’t be sure, but there’s a certain voyeuristic quality here, and it’s hard not to watch.
Body/Head is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow, especially if you never managed to completely immerse yourself in the music. Kim Gordon is a name associated with a certain style, however, and as such, the music she makes shouldn’t be viewed as over-the-top and sloppy, but should be viewed with a degree or reverence to her abilities. However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the performance itself, so the impenetrable wall of sound – and the late hour – meant that I left after about 40 minutes of music, although I could still hear the band playing from two blocks down the street. It was simply incredible.