There was a lot of love for the Thermals at the Wonder Ballroom Friday night, and the evidence was everywhere. From the broad range of ages in attendance, to the fervor in which each song was greeted, as if every song they played was at least 10 people's favorite Thermals song, the venue breathed with an air of unexpected newness. We were jazzed to be there. We were celebrating their immortality.
In the middle of their husky but unhurried set, the latest Portland sighting since their gig at the Bernie Sanders rally, bassist Kathy Foster tallied the band's existence as lasting more than 14 years, adding—as if there was a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the two comments—that in that moment, on stage in Portland for the umpteenth time, they "[felt] the love." It's true, the city loves the Thermals, because in the Thermals the city sees something increasingly uncommon: They see a band who has never had to drastically change its DNA in order to stay alive. Contrary to popular belief, the Thermals prove there is vitality in stasis. Evolution is dead; long live the stubborn same role.
Opener Little Star was grateful to be included in the night's lineup, which they said using their mouths and words, though the same sentiment they could have conveyed just as much with the earnestness of their shaggy pop-punk. They write songs about traffic jams in Beaverton with an equal measure of heartsickness as they do the break-up of an intense romantic relationship—they're a band that probably isn't too young to have endured so much big melancholy in their lives, but still seems that way. They were a smart choice to set the right tone for what was to follow.
Next came Summer Cannibals, a certifiable, objectively "very good band." Just as it must have felt for the first people hearing the Thermals play back in 2003, watching Summer Cannibals now is like witnessing a fully-formed entity emerge, big-bang-like, from the chaos of nothingness. Though their new album, Full of It, will be their third, and they've spent plenty of time on the road, the trio disguises themselves as amateurs, barking out a caterwaul of a set, starting loud and then after 10 songs tirelessly going louder. It was effervescent and exhausting and new—a band way too tight to only be at the beginning of their time together, but performing like they were only just discovering the degree of their powers.
Cannibals guitarist-vocalist Jessica Boudreaux basically stayed on stage after their set, joining the Thermals as an extra pair of (infinitely nimble) hands. Hutch Harris, freed from lead guitar duties, attacked each song with the fervor of a preacher building a congregation, convincing the venue his band's humble show was actually an impromptu religious event. He commanded the audience's attention through the spectacle of his David Byrne-like limbs, grabbing the air just above his sightline, or karate chopping his hands back and forth right next to his ears like a lunatic, gesticulating vaguely but with some sort of clear internal logic. During "Born to Kill" he stood proudly atop a speaker. He submerged into the crowd for "The Sunset." More than once I swore I sensed a Freddie-Mercurial flash of energy stir up the room. This, he seemed to be saying as he randomly pointed at people's faces or bits of empty air, is how you live forever. And then, a few brisk songs later, he went from the lead singer of Queen to the lead singer of Creed, his arms outstretched in a "v" to better drive home the avian drama indelible to "St. Rosa and the Swallows."
They must have played close to 25 songs. Their setlist was mostly built from their latest LP We Disappear and the majority of their most beloved album, 2006's The Body, the Blood, the Machine, but the audience rallied the loudest around the title track of 2009's Now We Can See—probably because it was a song delivered flawlessly, the chorus big and singable and known like the back of each audience member's hand.
It was infectious, all that familiarity. In so many ways, We Disappear proves that the current incarnation of the Thermals isn't all that far removed from the band that released "No Culture Icons" in 2003. But when they played that song to kick off their encore, and when they sounded just as invigorated as they do on those first fuzzy recordings, it's hard to believe that there will ever come a time when you going to see the Thermals won't feel like it's your first. DOM SINACOLA.
All photos by Thomas Teal.