A week or so back, Portland, I went to the Doug Fir to check out local band the Builders and the Butchers open for New York indie-rockers the Walkmen. I have to admit, I'd never the seen the Builders before that night, but I'd heard rumors about the band's live shows. Apparently, Portland, the folky, backwoods-sounding five-piece is known for leading the audience outside of venues and parading like a marching-band down Portland streets.
I can't say I was disappointed by the Builders' performance. Although there were no outdoor antics, singer Ryan Sollee sounds just as warbly and expressive live as he does on the band's self-titled album, and the band pulled a few stunts, like throwing maracas into the audience. It didn't hurt, Portland, that you adored the band's performance. I overheard one show-goer whisper in awe to another: "Did you know they can all play like 12 instruments?" You sang along to every song, paying especially close attention to "The Night, pt. 1." When Sollee called out the song's chorus, you responded back in kind, singing the lyrics "When the night!/Oh, the night!" as loud as you could.
And maybe it was your fault that the Walkmen seemed dull by comparison. Even though the out-of-town band is more successful (having performed on the O.C and sold a few songs for use in TV commercials), you, Portland, were not as excited as these indie-rockers as you were by the funeral-rock of the Builders. Even though Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser is kind of a dreamboat, you weren't wooed or seduced by his throaty vocals. You seemed unimpressed by the band's polished-but-distorted sound.
The funny thing is, Portland, I walked away from the show loving the Builders more than I loved the Walkmen—even though I didn't feel that way before the show started, and even though, in all honesty, the Walkmen are a tighter-sounding band when it comes to live performances. An example: A few times during his performance, Sollee from the Builders' lifted a megaphone to his mic and sang through it, hoping to create the same hollow, echo-y effect he pulls off on the album, but the megaphone failed to alter his voice at all. The Walkmen had no noticeable hiccups: The live songs were symphony-inspired, with no holes or gaps in their structure. The band shifted seamlessly between tracks, sounding like a complete unit, rather than five musicians just messing around on stage.
But no one noticed the Walkmen's expertise that night, Portland. If crowd responses were record sales, the Builders were certified platinum and the Walkmen tanked. You nearly worshiped the Builders, dancing during each song and hollering afterward. The Walkmen's crowd—although tighter-packed in the Doug Fir basement—stood still, offering only applause in appreciation. I couldn't help but the love Builders more: How could anyone question the success and skill of a band that so many people cheered for, sang along with, and danced to?
That's one lesson you've undoubtedly taught me, Portland: Love thy musical neighbor. It's what I'll miss most about you when I leave you this weekend, moving north to a small town on the Washington coast for a reporting job on a weekly paper. If you asked me today, I'd unquestionably tell you that your music is the best music in the country—that no city beats Portland when it comes producing new bands. But honestly, that statement is influenced by knowing those musicians personally—some of them as friends, some as co-workers, some I've interviewed—and by the crowds that fill this city's clubs and bars every weeknight. In the past five years I've lived here, Portland, I know that you would rather see your hometown heroes play at the Doug Fir than a big-name touring band at the Roseland.
So this will be my last letter to you, at least for now. I'm terrible at goodbyes, so I'd rather just put the Builders and the Butchers album in my car stereo and drive north on 1-5, with memories of that last show still ringing in my ears.
Picture taken with my camera phone at the Builders and the Butchers show at the Doug Fir on Nov. 15.
The Builders and the Butchers at MySpace
The Walkmen at MySpace