Once upon a time, as a tiny kid in a little old town, I made a single, forced visit to church. It was uncomfortable, dressy, full of hypocrites and boring—a bad experience all around. I never went back, and now it's too late—I'm a lost cause. But if the preacher that day had had anything like the pull of David Eugene Edwards, who knows what might've happened?
One thing's for sure, I would've been terrified. Edwards is scary enough when you're a grown-up. Frontman for the great 16 Horsepower (who are sadly no more), Edwards is a preacher's grandson and himself a crazy-eyed prophet of apocalypse, all fire-raining tooth-and-eye vengeance and wrath. On tour now as Woven Hand, his stage presence has shifted from the brimstone-spewing gothic altarboy of a decade ago to something more like a scruffy folky, complete with beard, button-down shirt and tweed cap. He actually looks sort of like Bill Bryson. It's a deceptively regular-joe costume that doesn't even begin to disguise the man's fundamental oddness and intensity.
Though less overtly theatrical than he once was, Edwards still brings to his show a stagey element befitting an old-fashioned spit-spraying sermon. At key points in songs, he held up his forearm to show his tattoo or his gold-banded finger, put his hand on his chest or over his eyes. When he sang "I love Him more than madness," his free hand circled his ear in the universal sign for crazy, and you damn well believed him. He used to get so overcome while performing that his eyes would roll back into his head and flash white; this time he only did that once, but it turns out his direct gaze is no less hair-raising.
Of course, the whole spooky God-is-watching-and-is-not-pleased act might be offputting, especially in a town as famously ungodly as Portland, if the music behind it weren't so powerful. Alone on stage, Edwards re-creates the textured complexity of his albums with looped chanting and breathy whispers that seem to float up from the crypt. He keeps no fewer than three instruments at hand; his mandolin looks like it's as old as the verses his lyrics reference. And his unearthly voice is as haunted and haunting as ever. When he finished the set with an old 16HP song ("Black Soul Choir"), some key lyrical changes—namely, "I would offer up a brick to the back of your head, boy, if I were Cain" became "to the back of my own head"—seemed to hint that he's still grappling with those old demons. Somehow, the way he presents it, his unabashedly Christian music becomes less about Christianity, or religion at all, than about one struggling soul's lone fight with uncertainty and darkness.
Just because I went to the show to see Woven Hand, that doesn't mean everybody else did. The openers, the Sun The Sea, is Peter Holmstrom of the Dandy Warhols' new band. They seemed a little draggy and admitted they'd all been sick recently, but the songs had enough achingly pretty moments and enough rhythmic drive that I'd check them out again. (The next show will be sometime in early October, they said.)
Then came the Evangelicals, who really deserved a more lively crowd. These boys from Norman, Okla., were hilarious, intentionally or not. They brought their own Doric columns, erected on the plastic-flower-strewn stage, and a dry-ice machine they abused like hamsters on the crack-pedal. Drummer up front, which is always good. Keyboard on an altar. One guy had a sailor shirt on, and the singer had one bare foot for some reason. They played scrappy, disorganized, bouncy-bassed punk songs full of awkward pauses followed by "So...," like a musical mirror of hipster speech. Tambourines were kicked, columns collapsed. Nobody might've been converted but it was good fun.
The headliners were Serena Maneesh, a small army of attractive Norwegians who went into total guitar-smashing-on-the-floor freakout mode on the second song and pretty much stayed there throughout. They had an awkward blonde amazon bass player and a cute, cowering violinist, but the best part came at the end when most of the band left the stage and the two main guys squirmed around on the floor making droney noises.
Serena Maneesh: www.serena-maneesh.com
The Evangelicals: www.myspace.com/evangelicals