In the land of what he calls "hyper-expressive" songwriters, Michael Rockstar is an odd bird: a musical comedian. What's more: He's actually pretty funny. It's not necessarily his Adam Sandler-esque folk songs that make Rockstar a hit, though; it's his charming demeanor, his broad smile and the fact that he is always himself—and loving it.
Being from a musical family (Rockstar's father played in '70s band Wheeze and now runs Sedona Records) has a lot to do with it. The 26-year-old (whose real last name is Wolin) says his family's involvement in the industry was inspiring: "My uncle taught Slash how to play guitar, my aunt cut Madonna's hair during the 'Like a Virgin' tour, my dad managed an early incarnation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers...if they can do it, so can I."
A local by way of L.A. and Tucson (for college), Rockstar says Portland is a good fit for him because "people don't feel like everything's been done here. They perceive the sort of thing I'm doing as fun or quirky rather than lame or over." And, based on Rockstar's reception last Monday night at Pix PÂtisserie on Hawthorne (Rockstar pays the bills as an employee at the Pix on Division Street), I'd says he's onto something.
Red-faced and all smiles, Rockstar played songs about koala bears, being in love with two girls and receiving a giant sausage in the mail from his grandparents. Though he released a self-titled debut in 2005, Rockstar's recorded material proves a poor substitute for watching him pretend to skateboard through Pix or egg on a high-pitched trombone solo.
And, at moments when audiences tend to feel awkward (when asked to clap or sing along), Rockstar goofily dances or pits sections of the crowd against one another to eliminate their apprehension. Furthering the absurdity, his trombone player, Ethan Chessin (MarchFourth Marching Band), wears a jester costume. Rockstar also makes you laugh at yourself; when folks smiled at the words "koala bears do get STDs," for instance, he scolded the crowd, yelling "not funny!" which elicited even more laughter.
Last Monday's set also featured drummer Dan Huelsbeck (as well as props like balloons, a bubble gun and plastic hand-clappers). But Rockstar says his rotating-lineup sets—which feature everything from tap-dancers and jugglers to contortionists and duets with Trixie, a Teddy Ruxpin-cum-blond baby doll that accompanies him (in a higher-pitched recording of his own voice) on covers such as the Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy"—are "more like troupe ensembles than anything else."
Rockstar's audiences vary as much as the nature of his sets: He's played to drunkards at the Green Room's open-mic night, at kids' birthday parties and on the street in college (to earn beer money). But he admits he hasn't always won crowds easily: "I played at a place called Hell's Kitchen in Tacoma, Wash.," he explains. "The placed smelled like blood and booze, and it was definitely not my crowd. I have no idea why they booked me. Everyone was heckling me with, 'You ruined my fucking night,' 'You fucking suck,' stuff like that. It was bad." But Rockstar takes even the tough nights in stride: "Hey, it happens," he says.
And such good humor is exactly why Rockstar is so endearing: He knows who he is and owns it, for better or worse. "When I was in high school playing music, everybody was always laughing at me," he says, "so I figured, why not run with it?" Leaving Pix last Monday night, my face literally hurt from smiling so much. So why not, indeed.
Michael Rockstar plays Friday, Feb. 23, at the Funky Church. 9 pm. Free. 21+. Read WW