There's a moment that's been rattling around in my head for at least a day now, like some haunting technicolor dream.
"I want to see every leaf on every tree," Portland's Holcombe Waller
sings in his song, "Atlas." But his voice doesn't project a golden optimism; instead, he couches the words in an exquisite half-voice, cloudy with doubt, shaded gray. As he sings, the face of a soft young man—shrouded in covers, eyes welled with tears—fills the screen behind Waller. "Well, Atlas just shrugged," he continues. "He's goin' back on the drugs... Yeah, I'm back on the drugs..."
That song is an emotional high point of Waller's work-in-progress seen Friday at TBA: 07, "Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest." Collaborating with four of Portland's most accomplished crossover musicians— Tony Rogers, Kelly Meyer, Steve Kennon and Ben Landsverk (full disclosure: I sing in a manband with Landsverk)—Waller has assembled a musical dream team well-equipped to bring his fragile art-pop songs to quivering full life.
But "Unknown/Hope Chest," although a work-in-progress, feels more than unfinished. As performed Friday, it read like the germ of a germ of a promising sketch of an idea. Waller himself writes in the program that the "performance is a collection of individual songs that don't necessarily connect into an obvious narrative." So instead of providing an emotional arc, or recurring characters or meaningful interpretive layering (the film segments are stop and start, and rarely add much heft or contrast to the songs), we're left only with Waller's solo songbook performance.
That songbook is formidable (he throws in an amusing Jacques Brel tune...but why?), and endlessly listenable: melancholic, introspective and wholly Waller's (with co-writing contributions from Landsverk). It's a beautiful world of sound to live in for 90 minutes, from piquant wistful song ("Literally the End of the World") to piquant wistful song ("Eyes Like Knives").
Waller was in fine, if slightly underpowered, voice for the night, and his formidable supporting musicians gave thoughtful support on strings, french horn, guitars, keyboard and even back-up vocals.
Waller did squeeze in one uncharacteristically almost-raunchy anecdote about a recent trip to Rooster Rock. Walking home from a day at that beach, he's cruised by a man walking toward him. The man asks a question: "Do you like to suck cock?" Waller pauses. "I had to think about that for a minute," he says. "And then I said, 'yes.'"
The story, funny as it was, also felt safe, and clean, and slightly detached. Like much of Waller's "Hope Chest."
Opening the night: strip-me-down-and-dress-me-up-again cowboy drag artist Larry Krone
. Krone's shtick may be the interpretive distance between the authenticity of his rough-hewn country singing (Dolly Parton, Luther Vandross, others) and the outrageousness of his camp couture, but his briefs-only striptease performance for a few of the tunes felt entirely beside the point when Krone's singing itself was so emotionally naked.
[photo above: Holcombe Waller]