The fabled and enchanting Pacific Northwest summer has given birth. Its bouncing baby boy is 4th Rail Productions, Portland, OR’s newest live music promotion company. Rick Barnes and Simon Frumkin, founders of 4th Rail, have wasted no time in establishing it as a unique and cutting edge operation: they are bringing their tweaked-out sonic favorites to the people. The 4th Rail summer lineup has featured Siamese, a punishing live drum & bass trio from Seattle; Zony Mash; a highly skilled jazz/funk outfit featuring renowned Hammond B-3er Wayne Horvitz; and Netwerk: Electric, Santa Cruz, CA’s emerging electro party.
4th Rail’s debut was staged June 15th at the GoodFoot Lounge, Southeast Portland’s funky neighborhood hangout. With low ceilings that create a basement, house party vibe the GoodFoot is at most a year old, but has managed to attract a loyal following with its enchanting artwork and friendly vibes. In the opening slot was Portland’s Gray Area, a live electro-downtempo band that has formed just recently. The trio’s set that night was a mélange of slow building, trance-inducing, Floydian chord progressions (on the guitar and keys) and patient, groovecentric drumming. I am looking forward to watching Gray Area expand their sound as they become more comfortable with one another – for their future is bright.
Siamese took the stage and immediately tore into their brand of frenetic live drum & bass. Now Sector 9’s drummer, Zack Velmer, was the hottest live D&B drummer that I had ever seen, but that all changed rather quickly. Kevin Sawka, Siamese’s driving force, is literally a joke. His pace, intensity, tightness and vision are at the heart of Siamese’s mission to “reverse engineer dance music.” Sawka, together with bassist Jeremy Lightfoot and keyboardist Dave Z (that’s all it says on the website), are a massive musical force. This is evil, maddening music that aims straight for the cerebral cortex and delivers in a gripping sonic whirlwind. While Lightfoot threw his body around the stage, pulsating with rhythmic intensity, Dave Z was melodically and sinisterly alternating through his complex and fascinating keyboard work.
For three solid hours Siamese tore a hole in the atmosphere, flipping the boundaries of intense dance music; their experiment in reverse engineering is a mind-numbing success. Siamese seems to continually blow up Seattle bars and clubs and seem to be more than capable of carrying that momentum elsewhere.
On July 2nd Zony Mash, another Seattle favorite, visited P-town for a show at the swank, quasi-Moroccan Fez Ballroom. A beautiful room for a show with a wide open, well-polished dance floor and ample comfortable seating along the walls, the Fez is one of Portland’s nicest rooms for a live concert experience. This was the second time I have seen Zony there, and they brought me back with their unique take on patient jazz/funk/psychedelic rock grooves. Wayne Horvitz, the well-traveled and multi-tasking organist, is a virtuoso on the Hammond and a truly gifted musician. He is the leader of Zony Mash and on this night Zony was laid back. A sparse yet excited crowd reveled, danced, and chilled to the intricate rhythms of bassist Keith Lowe, “the unsung hero” of Zony. He and guitarist Tim Young play impressive counter points to Horvitz. Each member's style adds complex color and force to the often haunting soundscapes. When Horvitz drifted into space, tweaking his synth that sits atop the Hammond, Young freely torched through psychedelic guitar lines that drive underneath the music and lift it far beyond the level of standard jamband jazz/funk. Zony is rooted much more in full-band jazz improv than jamband funk solos. For a night of headstrong, eerie jazz and blistering team interaction Zony Mash is a goldmine.
4th Rail finished up their summer lineup on July 13th back at the GoodFoot Lounge. I was very excited to check out Netwerk: Electric because of guitarist Jason Concepcion’s work with the Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars. When listening to some CDs of the Allstars, I was highly impressed with his desire to stretch music in many different and original directions. The first thing that struck me about Jason was his physical stature. This dude is a small guy!
Anyhow, the beautifully clear Oregon evening began with a tight, electro funk number that had me interested. Bassist David "Sweets" Menez played awfully tight as he held down a thick groove throughout the tune. I was a bit taken back by how low Concepcion seemed to be in the mix as I could hear mostly keys. The GoodFoot, for all its atmosphere and ambiance, is not the greatest place to HEAR live music. I had to stand directly in front of the guitarist to truly hear the music he was playing. This guy has music running through his veins. However, I don’t know if the band was looking for him to step up and lead more or not but I was disappointed in the band’s collective playing. I wanted out there psychedelic trance, drum & bass, and downbeat grooves but mostly what I got was second-class Phish jamming.
There was a cool cover of an Ernest Ranglin song in the first half from the album Below the Bassline. It was really well done during the composed section of the song, with Concepcion adding interesting twists on the great Jamaican guitarist’s style. The jam, however, seemed to take on a bluegrass feel that didn’t jive with me but I will say that there was a large contingent greatly enjoying all the music. Many people were up dancing with the band and apparently getting off on the music a lot more than me. I will say that I very well might have been the exception in the crowd. The second set centerpiece seemed like a long "Weekapaugh" jam to me.
With the slight disappointment of this show behind me I can say that I am truly psyched to have 4th Rail in town. They are beginning a weekly residence at the GoodFoot on Tuesday nights starting in August that will focus on live electronica-styled bands. If you are in Portland come check out the next level of live improvised music, if you haven’t already. And when Siamese comes to your town – if you like your music on the twisted groove side, get wherever they are!
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