Last Night: Blitzen Trapper at the Independent
Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008
Words by Jennifer Maerz, photo by Chrissy Loader
Better than: Seeing the Parson Red Heads alone.
I recently read an interview with M.I.A. where she laughed off the fact that in the beginning, record labels had no idea where to place her music. Makes sense, since her output is an international concoction stamped with so many different styles the woman's gotta need a new passport every time she records a new single. And in the end, it all worked in her favor. M.I.A. makes the good kind of musical mishmash.
Portland's Blitzen Trapper, on the other hand, is all over the map without ever leaving the country -- or the confines of the old fashioned kings of classic rock 'n' roll (Dylan, Neil Young, the Dead, with a little Billy Joel on the side). Which makes their live shows less groundbreaking and more plain old lacking focus.
Watching the good natured Northwesterners of Blitzen Trapper take the stage last night (with a rousing "Portland!" shoutout to open the night), I had a tough time nailing down just what kind of show we'd be in for. Was it gonna be innocuous indie rock like the opening act, Parson Read Heads, whose performance offered as much color as their all-white outfits (each song as bouncy-go-lucky, yet hook-lacking as the last, a wash off benign pop and momentary prog rock freakouts).
Blitzen Trapper was at least more creative than that. The band had a couple tricks up their sleeves, extras accenting their meandering aesthetic. But while the bird call, melodica, and cow bell were interesting diversions, at the core of the setlist were songs that veered all over the place, with few tracks showing off enough of the band's strengths. Blitzen Trapper moved from crunchy harmonica ballads to upbeat piano jams to a slow, bluesy Zeppelin number to sugar-poppy Matthew Sweet/Archers of Loaf riffs. They were a little bit folksy, a little bit rock 'n' roll, and a little bit Billy Joel (by way of Tom Petty). Unfortunately, the one thing they weren't was cohesive.
I appreciate experimentation -- and creativity -- in a band. Don't stick to some two-year-old David Byrne rip-off trend, or last year's dance punk model, by any means. But hearing Blitzen Trapper try on each of these various styles -- the poppy hippy jam, the tighter college radio single, the harmonizing Northwest rocker-going-Neil-Young thing -- was like watching a kid try on an older brother's clothes, wondering which look he'll one day grow into.
Not that the band was putting on airs. They were musically proficient in most of the genres they wandered around, but they didn't knock any of them out of the park. Too bad, because frontman Eric Earley has earned his starring role in the group -- his vocals are captivating and his delivery singular and powerful enough to fill the room.
But there was just something missing... something either really punching out the hooks in the pop ditties or pushing the band further into unknown territory, into places you'd never guess their music would go instead of the songs shifting from one sorta familiar style to the next.
Overall the set comprised a bunch of songs that were almost there, but not quite -- with three exceptions: the title track to Furr, the melanchony "Not Your Lover," and the a capella version of "The Gambler" three Trappers sang at the end as a spoof. But even there they couldn't stay on target, the Michael McDonald-looking member spiralling off into a Michael McDonald voice impression once the others lost interest in the joke. But then again, their cover, and in particular that impression, were still charmingly funny.