And here I thought I left late. Nope. Thanks to the benevolent fates it was all green lights and an immediate parking space (quick slide no across Washington sideways into a spot a block away, applause) and I'm camped at Kelly's Olympian spot on nine o'clock, waiting for the festivities to begin but this is a rock show, meaning it may well start at whenever o'clock, which is fine with me so long as it starts at whenever o'clock on the dot.
Anyway, what's brought me downtown on a crisp Saturday night in November is a band I actually wasn't sure was still together. Sunset Valley emerged in the mid 90's back when we still bought CDs, Kurt Cobain was only gone a year and Portland, though cool and attention-worthy, hadn't yet landed the cache to have the suffix "-ia" attached to it. Comprised of Herman Jolly, Jonathan Drews and Eric Furlong, Jeff Saltzman and Heatmiser man Tony Lash have since been added. Sunset Valley issued a handful of albums and singles/EPS that compared favorably with a wave of hook-crafted songsmith-fronted bands that swelled around that time (Sunny Day Real Estate, Matthew Sweet, that whole Elephant 6 collective). By the mid-aughts I don't recall hearing much of them and to be honest I was too consumed by the constant 'everything else' always going on in music to notice. Nonetheless they'd gained enough of a footing in my jukebox brain that when our station manager sent out an offer to see them I pounced. Not to jump back into nostalgia but because Sunset Valley always struck me as a band that brought a constant tide of promise to the table so I'm looking forward to it. First though Mark Pickerel minus his Praying Hands and then Miracle Falls who, coincidentally, played last time I was at Kelly's, opening for Australia's laurels back in May. A good night out coming I do believe
Voice in that Handsome Family range, chesty baritone that sounds as if it could build a cabin in the woods all by itself (it's no surprise that the former drummer in Screaming Trees would sound like that, I suppose, and indeed there's a certain Lanegan flavor to it). Plays acoustic as if he's maybe been classically trained. Songs sway from gothic Americana ballad to country rocker (with floor tambourine bashed at by his left foot in true one-man band fashion) to bar band troubadour sans band. "Let Me Down" easy is an early set masterpiece, starting off as a kind of lover,s lament that switches gears half way to go galloping into an emphatic hollerin' rocker. Haven't ever seen him with his band (don't even know if such a thing still exists) so don't know how this solo turn compares but as it stands now the guy can write a song, not to mention bring it and I mean bring it on a live stage. "I Study Horses" is an impassioned tour de force while in the song following, "Graffiti Girl," Pickerel's voice passes by Matt Berninger without waving, racing ahead like he's afraid of being on fire, his voice roaring with a sorrow-tinged conviction. It's not easy standing on a stage with just an acoustic and your voice but Pickerel's all command and no quaver. Not every song transports, the tail end of the set sags some but I'll still get some place early to catch him if he's on the bill - suggest you do the same - and ending his set with a rousing version of "House of the Rising Sun" only doubles down on that intention.
Well, in truth not much to add to the last post about Miracle Falls except they're all that much stronger now and I'm ready to declare them Portland's best kept secret. I'm also ready to just let the notebook go and enjoy them. There's a 90's indie vibe crashing into the trance beat of psych with shoe gazing tendencies to boot (ha!) which is just too much tangled excitement for me to handle so see you at the far end of their set...
...and here I am. Let me just say this: finishing off their evening with a mesmerizing, enchantingly jarring rendition of "Venus In Furs" with a Warhol clip of the very recently passed Lou Reed in dark shades drinking a Coca Cola on the screen behind them is a highlight that will be hard to match. It's as moving as it is reverent as it is just scorchingly good. An enormous bravo! is due them and they indeed get it. Go see this band if you get a chance (and here's their website to help you out).
Word was Kelly's was going to be sold out tonight and it would seem it's close. We're not sardined but there's not a lot of space between the leaning waiting bodies as Sunset Valley run through their soundcheck. And then, with a creeping melodic build, we're off and it's Beatles circa the White Album notched up with pure Portland energy, Jolly immediately in control, the audience in his pocket. The Tommy James & The Shondells-meet-The Pixies of "Blanketville" has the majority of the crowd in a collective state of wow and bounce, its refrain of "you make me disbelieve in time" a most appropriate theme to the entire scene of seeing SV in an Portland institution like Kelly's here in 2013. And boy, people certainly remember them, erupting in little knots of joy when this or that song begins, and/or simply thrilled to be in the presence of such an assured, in sync rock band.
Refreshingly, they're not that shy or precious about their sound, allowing themselves to indulge in the tropes of their heyday - clear pop structures, merry melodies, college party harmonies - what could, at the time, have been described as a Pacific Northwest version of Britpop and no one would have objected. Whatever you call it, it's a triumph, we're here to celebrate and we do, from the lip of the stage to the vibrating windows facing Washington. In a way, Portland was a more hopeful place back in the mid-to-late 90's in that the cultural success it's since achieved, where the New York Times can't seem to keep their journalistic hands off us, was but a nascent dream. In that sense it was a more earnest time and Sunset Valley reflect that. They'll bludgeon you with a kind of sonic hope and you'll bloody well enjoy whether you want to or not (how could you not?) Joyous, rockin' like hell, stretching for the high notes, SV are here to represent and represent they do, repping that odd sense of eternal youth that existed then (it was just for a moment, like it always is), an energy matched by their abiding tunefulness, an asset they always carried effortlessly. The band is buoyant, ebullient even, Lash bashing like the zen master he is, Jolly Drews and Furlong grooved together like the three-headed rock monster they are, "Statue Robot"'s in-the-basement boogie like an underwater Cheap Trick (where do I come up with these things? Dunno. Go with me here) is a particular highlight. But here's the deal: if you've ever wondered where someone like the Shins sprang out of, take a ride out to Sunset Valley. You'll find seeds of that stuff growing everywhere out there.
- Dave Cantrell