Stroke of luck after stroke of luck hit me on the summer solstice this year- hopefully leading to good luck for the rest of my season (and I think I deserve a little bit of luck, Mr. Universe). The first lucky occurence– one of my best friends arrived in the Midcoast for her summer tenure at the company we both work for. Second, I was able to leave work an hour early to head from the Midcoast to Portland for a concert I’ve been so looking forward to. I found Khruangbin while finishing my thesis film in college by watching random KEXP videos, and we were a match made in heaven. An even further match was discovering that, despite the fact that they don’t really seem to be on tour, Khruangbin had this show scheduled in Portland.
My friend wasn’t able to get a ticket- the show sold out, and re-sale tickets were in the 60-90 range. But she tagged along so we could catch up on the road, and with the hopes that we would be able to find someone selling a spare ticket outside the venue. On the way to Portland we caught up on how the beginning of our summers have been, and before the show, we met a friend for pizza at Flatbread Pizza Co., a Portland classic.
We parked in the Oldport, one of Portland’s hubs, even though our concert was at the State Theatre near Congress Square Park. One of the things that I love about Portland is how easy it is to walk what feels like all the way across town (yay small cities!). The walk felt worth it too– we stopped for gelato at Gorgeous Gelato where we made incredible smalltalk with our gelato-barista. Passing the Nickelodeon Cinemas, there was a band of boys in their mid-teens playing original rock songs to a crowd of about 20 smiling and dancing Portlanders.
When we arrived at the venue, we waited outside for a while, trying to come up with a plan for rendezvousing after the show. While we waited, someone came up to us and asked us whether we needed a ticket or not. He then gave us- free of charge- the ticket that his friend had bought and wasn’t able to use that evening. We waited until he went into the venue to celebrate yet another stroke of luck.
The State Theatre is one of my favorite, favorite venues. I think that it’s near perfect, with the right amount of seated and standing room, easy access to bars, a perfectly placed merch booth, and really good sound. Everything I have been to there has sounded spectacular, and it’s never too loud (something that really bugs me, as a nervous, ear-plug wearing concert goer). Going to this show, both artists were people who I wanted to see at a venue where I knew the sound was going to be awesome, and I was far from disappointed.
Kikagaku Moyo came out shortly after we entered the venue, and then played about 45 minutes of psych rock that truly brought the house down. Most of their songs were soaring in their arrangements, with gentle, rhythmic vocals from singer Tomo Katsurada. The band seemed like there was no “frontman,” with guitar soloing being tossed back and forth between Katsurada, Daoud Popal, and Ryu Popal (who played an incredibly beautiful electric sitar incredibly beautifully). Kikagaku Moyo translates to “geographic patterns,” which is a pretty brilliant summation of what they bring to the table of modern psych-rock. And the band had something that elevates any performance for me as an audience member- visible joy. Even Even those members of the band who kept a bit more stoic would crack a smile from time to time. For me, Katsuraada stole the show, either with an impassioned vibraslap solo or by letting his face totally contort with the force of his guitar solo. I’d go see this band again at the drop of a hat.
Seeing a band live for the first time is always special, but it’s particularly special to me when the relationship with that band started on YouTube. It’s almost like seeing your favorite comic book characters come to life. And with a band that is as cool as Khruangbin is, this feeling was almost exaggerated. When band members Laura Lee, Mark Speer, and Donald “DJ” Johnson took to the stage, the two former donning the trademark wigs that come along with Khruangbin performances, it felt like I was in one of my favorite movies.
Khruangbin is an impressive band to see live. So much of their sound is based on simple, foundational elements. The drum kit is tiny. Speer doesn’t play with guitar pedals. Their songs don’t have lyrics as much as they have vocal additions, perfectly placed to fit into the rest of the arrangement. I was also impressed by how little improvisation the band seemed to do. Each of their songs is carefully constructed, and the performers know exactly what needs to go where.
Khruangbin is a very technical band, but they don’t lack any of the joy that I crave so much from live music. In fact, they have it in spades, especially bass player Laura Lee. Aside from being quite possibly the coolest person to ever live, Lee seems so happy to be playing for people, for giving people music to help them get down. The second half of Khruangbin’s set was a true dance party, with the band playing track after track that made it impossible not to get down. For a moment Lee and Speer were playing complementary solos by beating empty wine glasses with drum sticks. I barely had my eyes open for any of “Lady and Man,” one of my favorite of Khruangbin’s tracks– they were shut tight as I danced up a storm.
I was worried when the band left the stage from their main set. 2019 has been the year without an encore, since both The Murlocs in Cleveland and the Meat Puppets in Portland didn’t return to the stage after their main set (though I can’t blame the Murlocs, the crowd in Cleveland gave the meekest request for more music that I’ve ever heard). When Khruangbin left the stage, I wanted more, and I hoped that the rest of the crowd would help me out. We cheered for a long time, and as the minutes went by I got more and more worried. But there was nothing to fear– the delay had only been because of a costume change. Khruangbin spent their encore bringing the house back down, it was almost like they were getting everyone ready to go to bed.
Almost instantly, this concert climbed my list of my favorite shows of the year. Excellent venue, excellent bands, and all shared with my best friend because a random stranger gave us an extra ticket for free.