[FUNKY BAR ROCK] In one alternate universe, Scott Pemberton is dead.
In another, he's a vegetable, with his wife keeping careful vigil, looking for a sign of life in his steely blue eyes.
Luckily, in this universe, the Portland guitarist is alive and well. Those eyes are vibrant as he sips a beer at a pizza joint on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and chats about the impending release of his first studio album, Sugar Mama.
If you've frequented the Portland music scene in the past 15 years, you've probably heard a nasty-ass lick from Pemberton. He's spent 15 years making others sound great, shredding with Triclops; jamming with Joey Porter, Everyone Orchestra and Piano Throwers; and working as a session player. Now Pemberton's front and center. All it took to get him there was a brush with death.
The incident is a blur. Two years ago, bike met car. Doctors said Pemberton was unlikely to live. If he did, he might never speak again. Days later, Pemberton snapped to. After time, he started to play music again. He saw his path.
"Before, it was like having a whole bunch of little pots going," Pemberton says. "[After], I was able to focus on one great thing. It's been clear that this is the correct path. It was almost like, as weird as it sounds, being born again. I was brand new. My memories were hazy at best, but I could play the shit out of the guitar."
Suddenly, Pemberton and a rotating lineup of musicians were packing the Goodfoot with free shows every Tuesday, forming a community of fans numbering as many as 400 who flocked to see the guitarist shred.
His newfound confidence led to Sugar Mama, Pemberton's first studio album, whose title pays homage to his wife, Winter. The album—produced by hero-turned-friend and Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin and featuring such guests as legendary local bluesman Curtis Salgado—jackknifes playfully from the dirty funk of "Let's Play House" to the giddy rock of the title track and the experimentation of the metal-lite "Juice Box."
Classic rock, jazz, psychedelia and everything in between collide and fuse around the notion of discovery that jumps with ease from the composer to the listener in a hyper-caffeinated cocktail of bar music done right. The album features 11 cohesive tracks that speak equally to Pemberton's multigenre mastery and his ability as a clever lyricist to convey fun while digging deep.
The complexity of Sugar Mama is epitomized by "Bubble," a song about parallel existences that Pemberton cites as indicative of his mindset. "This little bubble is just so much fun/ There could be no other bubble, baby, quite like this one," he sings Seussically over a Latin-surf signature. Later in the song, though, things turn deceptively dark with the refrain, "Without you, I'd probably be dead."
"Whenever shit hits the fan, there's this other new bubble where everything's fine," Pemberton says. "[But] in this other bubble, I'm dead or I have gnarly brain damage. But in this other bubble, I'm perfectly fine. I've got a beautiful girl and a nice house, and Steve Berlin plays on my record.
"It seems almost too good to be true."