May 24


By Tyler Blue (Website | Twitter)

For a live music lover like me, one of the best things about leaving a small town like Santa Barbara and heading to the big city of Portland is instant access to an extensive crop of diverse concert venues. When I moved to Santa Barbara in 1999, there were at least half-a-dozen clubs and bars which regularly hosted the sort of jammy music I wanted to see. They dropped like flies until SOhO became virtually the only place to go; at least for smaller shows. I’ve had plenty of memorable times there but one can only endure so much repetition before craving a change of scenery. Cruising the streets of Portland, I find myself frequently amazed upon discovering yet another theater which has eluded me up until that point. Practically every neighborhood has one and each is a unique entity with historical significance, style or both. It doesn’t hurt that they have cool names like Aladdin, Roseland, Groove Suite and Refuge. I just looked at and there are a bunch more I still haven’t even seen, let alone been to.

Photo by T. Blue: Soulive’s Eric Krasno lays it down at The Wonder Ballroom

The first show I saw in Portland back in ‘99 happened to be at the city’s most famous venue - The Crystal Ballroom. Opened back in 1914, the ballroom’s claim to fame is its massive dancefloor which “floats” on ball bearings. I thought that was one of the coolest things ever and still do. Since my return back in October, I’ve been appalled to find that many locals don’t hold it in very high regard for various nitpicky reasons. Almost any other town would give its left nut to have a Crystal Ballroom. But in Portland, with so many other options to choose from, it’s understandable that people gravitate to other favorites. Several of my friends had been telling me that The Wonder Ballroom was at the top of their list.  I finally had the opportunity to check it out on Tuesday night when Soulive and Lettuce came to town. The 778-capacity venue, which opened in 2004, definitely lived up to the hype.

Zooming down from Camas, WA across the mighty Columbia River to make an 8 p.m. start time, I should have known better than to be in a hurry. Scrambling up to the box office, the schedule revealed there would be two DJ openers and Soulive wasn’t coming on until 10:15. Fortunately in Portland, there’s always somewhere close by to grab a pre-show cocktail and Secret Society Lounge is one of the best. Two martinis later, I strolled in to the Wonder; anxious to see what the place was all about. The building itself, which was completed in 1914 (apparently a banner year for Portland construction), started out as the Ancient Order of Hibernarians - an organization committed to immigration reform and preservation of Irish culture. In 2006 it was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. Nestled near the happening North Mississippi neighborhood, it’s a little bit church, a little hipster hideaway.

Stepping into the musical sanctuary, I was struck by how sleek and clean the place felt while giving off a cozy warmth. The walls of the auditorium were lined with rows of extra large, identical, abstract paintings. A station in the middle of the floor was a user-friendly addition for people to put their drinks on. A small balcony with a bar offered limited seating. The clean lines of wood framing the stage had the effect of putting the entertainers in a window, like they were performing from through a theatrical portal; while still maintaining a tight connection with the audience. The DJ who was on (don’t remember the name) dished out edgy, jungle beats in collaboration with a drummer. I walked right up to the front, greeted an old acquaintance and got the limbs moving to shift into the nighttime prowl.

Photo by T. Blue: Soulive’s Alan Evans and Eric Krasno unleash their funky jazz fury

We live in an era of genre-bending music and there is nary a combination which has yet to be melded. Two which go together just about as naturally as any are funk and jazz. Soulive is a band I don’t know too well and haven’t listened to much but some of what I’ve heard really taps into that gooey, stylistic nexus. The one thing I knew to expect for sure was the hollow-body guitar wizardry of Eric Krasno. The trio from Woodstock, New York took the stage at 10:30, attired like Greenwich Village jazzmen in shirts, ties and fashion-conscious hats. On either side of Krasno, who donned a little bowler, the suave Evans brothers gave the outfit an unmistakable element of jazz cat cool. Drummer Alan, who looks a little like Mos Def, greeted the crowd while Neal hid behind his fortress of keyboards and organ. Launching into their signature sound, it suddenly felt both fresh and familiar. Neal is one of those keyboardists who handles bass duties with a dexterous left hand but his bottom end contributions were diluted into the overall sonic soup rather than independently distinguished. His swirling Hammond sound spiraled through the mix like whirlpools dissecting a raging river.

Last year the band made some new fans with its release of Rubber Soulive - a reinterpretation of The Beatles’ classic. At home, the album makes for a fun, loungey listen, but live, ten feet in front of my face, the songs crackled with volatile electricity. Not too long into the set, the trio unreeled a solid portion of the album, whipping through instrumental versions of those timeless tunes with ferocious precision and creativity. Adding to the intensity was the placement of Alan’s streamlined kit right near the front of the stage, as he gave it all he had like a man readying for The Rapture. The interplay between the three men was organic as breathing as it felt like an instance of the music played the band. Diving into “Eleanor Rigby” at rapid fire, Krasno squeezed the nectar out of his instrument, pinballing the reverent melody through a condensed parade of peaks. A guitarist’s body language is so important and in Krasno’s case, his pained expressions and skyward-focused head tilts colored my experience throughout the evening.

For a Tuesday night, the audience didn’t hold much back as I looked around at a few boiling points to see pods of people pogoing into the air. The Wonder was at maybe two-thirds capacity and looking good. Many were surely surprised that Lettuce would be the evening’s headliner. I had heard one of the band’s albums which stuck in my mind as one of the more slamming studio sessions of modern funk. My expectations were high as the band began to take shape onstage. The octet was comprised of a three-piece horn section, bassist and a second guitarist. Krasno and Neal Evans represented from Soulive but it was a little disappointing to see Alan retreat to the sidelines. After a promising start, the set fell into a somewhat generic funk mode, lacking much passion. Krasno shifted into more of a role player rather than the volcanic jazz icon of earlier. By 1 a.m., my tired legs took me up to the balcony to ho-hum it through the rest of the set. This was a rare case of an album actually being more thrilling than a live show. There’s no doubt Lettuce can bring the heat, but, at least by my perceptions, they simply weren’t feeling it at the Wonder.