[ELECTRO POP&POP PUNK] This must be a joke, right? A fire code-taunting publicity stunt, some hacker's Make-A-Wish or a trenchant satire of music industry 2.0? Homegrown pop-punk sensation the Thermals caps its annus mirabilis with a free concert at cafe/gamer haven Backspace? Weirdly, the cutely named, newly expanded Old Town haunt sorta works as a venue—more than Kinko's, certainly—and a good swath of indie nation turned out. While we'd imagine the evening's crowd prettier and more, shall we say, coed than trad clientele, this was still alt Portland, and the division 'tween geek and hipster's not nearly as grand as some of us would like to believe.
Certainly, Jona Bechtolt—YACHT's burgeoning laptop-rock purveyor—was in his element: delivering pasted-together guitar bits and tweaking self-referential multimedia irrespective of beat. As repetitive and derivative and inevitably shallow—imagine an electro-Har Mar without irony—as Bechtolt first seems, his goofy and vibrantly amateur, irritatingly addictive positivism is infectious. He's like an anthropomorphized Facebook. By set's end, the venue's limitations seemed a triumph—entertainer and entertained blended seamlessly, rapturously. Something so fascist about a proper stage. True prophets needn't bother with the pulpit.
I'm sure those hearty stalwarts front and center for the Thermals were similarly delighted—God only knows how long they'd queued for the privilege. Most of us strained to glimpse frontman Hutch Harris amid the frenzy. After a string of packed arenas, including sold-out Crystal Ballroom shows, the band wanted the last local show of its breakout year to be free and inclusive. But, according to Harris, they had some problems finding an all-ages locale downtown. "We talked to Ground Kontrol, but it would've had to be 21. What's the point of just playing to the older kids?"
The band certainly made use of the crowd's bristling, manic energy. Songs were sped up and shortened and flowed into one. Beneath the tailored scruff and designer hoodies and purposeless eyewear, the crowd faded into an amorphous, ageless mass. The beer garden lay deserted, but the dwindling devotees outside had rather better sound and sightlines. I'd never seen the Thermals before and, talking to a friend later, still didn't really feel I had. He flipped on the computer and guided me through the band's YouTube channel—y'know, to get the real experience.
Photo: Hutch Harris of the Thermals, taken by Justin Kent.