Concert reviews: Vundabar/Ratboys, Starcrawler/Uni, Lucy Dacus, and Valley Queen in Portland, Oregon
By: Joseph Perry (@JosephWPerryJWP)
Vundabar with Ratboys, Friday, March 23 at Mississippi Studios
Vundabar sold out its Portland, Oregon concert at Mississippi Studios in advance, and it was easy to see why. This Boston-based rock band, touring behind its recently released third album Smell Smoke, the trio put on a memorable show that exuded energy and a huge dose of fun.
From the set’s opening moments, drummer Drew McDonald proved himself to be not only an outstanding musician, but a first-rate showman, as well. His highly animated style on the skins was combined with a terrific sense of humor, and audience members gleefully focused on him every time he raised his sticks for dramatic effect. The camaraderie between band members was evident, as McDonald and frontman/vocalist/guitarist Branden Hagen joked with each other both verbally and instrumentally. Bassist Grayson Kirtland rounded out the trio, which is incredibly tight. Though the lyrics on Smell Smoke often deal with heavy subject matter, the mood of the concert was celebratory.
Chicago’s Ratboys opened the show with a spirited, dynamic performance. Vocalist and guitarist Julia Steiner had an effervescent stage presence, making humorous remarks between songs that deal with such topics as keeping the deceased family pet in a freezer, and her brother almost being hit by a train. The group’s guitar-driven indie rock has an Americana flavor to it, and Ratboys’ opening set was a enthusiastically received by the crowd.
Starcrawler with Uni, Saturday, March 24 at Bunk Bar
Los Angeles buzz band Starcrawler evokes the unpredictable 1970s heyday of rock and roll concert going. The music of this young quartet has roots in Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, The Runaways, and other hard rock and punk bands from that decade of rock decadence, and their live show brings to mind what it might have been like to see Kiss or Alice Cooper just as they were beginning to break out.
Lead singer Arrow de Wilde is a hypnotic presence, whether getting audience members to clap along (“Come on, Portland, don’t be too cool!” she exclaimed to those who didn’t follow her initial visual request) or going into her possessed or psychotic stage personalities, which at one point included spitting blood on herself and the lady in the front row next to me. Guitarist Henri Cash is a force of nature, with terrific guitar skills that back up his bounding, leaping stage antics. He smiled throughout the show, obviously having a fantastic time.
From driving songs such as “Let Her Be” and “I Love L.A.” to the slower, sludgy, heavy riffs of “What I Want” and show closer “Chicken Woman,” Starcrawler brought an electric, youthful energy that perfectly matched its 1970s vibe. During their final number, DeWilde pushed her way through the audience before climbing on top of the bar, shoving everything out of her way as she crawled across it. I’m guessing that Bunk Bar staff and some patrons may have been less than enthused about that, but the fans ate it up. After she went to the back, Cash went into the crowd for an extended guitar solo. The chaos may have been more controlled than a heyday Stooges or Johnny Thunders concert, but the excitement was there.
New York City’s Uni opened the show with a winning set of 1970s-style glam and progressive rock, with a bit of psychedelia added for good measure. This trio (with live help from a keyboardist) is another act that deserves to break out big time, with its dynamic stage presence and first-rate musicianship. The group’s singles “Mushroom Cloud,” “Adult Video,” and “What’s the Problem?” were highlights, with band founder, songwriter, and bassist Charlotte Kemp Muhl, vocalist Nico Fuzz, and guitarist David Strange offering up a transfixing live experience.
Lucy Dacus, Monday, March 26 at Doug Fir Lounge
Richmond, Virginia’s Lucy Dacus proved on stage that she is poised and ready for the greater attention that her incredible sophomore album Historian is bringing to her. Dacus and her band performed stripped-down versions of songs from Historian, playing only a few songs from her 2016 debut album No Burden. The live arrangements sounded glorious, showcasing Dacus’ smooth voice and confessional lyrics, which were complemented by Jacob Blizard’s powerful electric guitar solos.
Highlights of the evening included the band taking a back seat while Dacus began the song “Pillar of Truth,” which is about the death of her grandmother, and then joining back in as the song builds in intensity. My personal favorite song of the night was her powerful version of “Night Shift,” another song that begins quietly before becoming a sweeping, majestic piece with closing vocals that border between heartbreaking and freedom-finding.
Dacus has a friendly, unassuming air about her on stage, which helped to make her performance seem intimate. She talked about her day in Portland and recommended a Thai restaurant where she ate lunch, and gave repeated genuine, humble thanks to the audience for selling out her concert on a Monday night, which she said she couldn’t believe. With Historian bound for many critics’ and fans’ top 10 lists for this year, and performances like this one, I predict she will start believing it soon enough, as her star continues to rise.
Valley Queen, Wednesday, March 28 at Mississippi Studios
Los Angeles-based rock outfit Valley Queen puts a modern spin on the 1970s California rock sound that included such acts as Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles, with a bit of Fleetwood Mac and Patti Smith added to the mix. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Natalie Carol’s sensational vocals have a bit of a country touch to them, and she can use them to great effect for flat-out rock, as well, as she did at this concert.
The quartet presented an outstanding showcase of songs from its 2017 EP Destroyer and a selection of new songs from its forthcoming debut album. With touches of blues rock, folk rock, hard rock, and 1970s-era influences, Valley Queen has crafted its own unique sound, and Carol’s vocals are an ideal part of it. Although her stage presence is a strong one indeed, including heartfelt performances, this is definitely a band project, and these musicians play tightly together, with an infectious energy that won over any audience members who were seeing them for the first time.
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