Last Saturday evening's Oregon Zoo concert by newly minted hometown heroes (well, two out of three, anyway) Case/Lang/Veirs, kicked off—if that's the word—with a tedious opening half-hour from wan Canadian songwriter Andy Shauf that recalled none but laid-back Seventies smoothies Bread, and failed to stir much reaction from the sun-baked crowd except to prompt someone down front to shout, "Pick it up!"
Not that the energy level exactly skyrocketed once the headliners took the stage. After a welcoming standing ovation, the lawn-bound crowd was mostly relaxed— at least until K.D. Lang started affably trash-talking the audience midway through, egging it on by comparing its energy unfavorably to that of the fans at the Seattle show two nights prior. The seated section down front, it should be noted—which seemed substantially composed of friends and family of the artists onstage—betrayed no dearth of enthusiasm throughout.
But then, Lang herself had enough energy for at least half the house—or, at least, enough to make up for her two relatively reserved co-stars—as she swayed, shimmied, and at times practically moshed her way back and forth across the boards, seemingly having the time of her life. With her center stage in a bright white button-front shirt, flanked by her younger collaborators in similar-if-not-matching hippie-ish tunics, both dark-colored and white-embroidered, at times they visually suggested Lang and the Langettes. It figures Lang would make the most magnetic frontwoman, having emerged in the era before grunge's authenticity fetish took hold, already harkening back to an earlier era of showbiz charm.
Not that Veirs or Case weren't perfectly chatty and welcoming throughout the night. They're just of a generation, and genre, that expects the fans to come to the artist, instead of reaching out and roping them in. But Veirs made frequent reference to her excitement at performing for a hometown crowd. "Hello, people—people who are my people!" she said in greeting. And while Lang offered the aforementioned trash talk, it was Case—at Veirs' request—who let loose a zoo-themed, kid-friendly version of her noted potty mouth, expounding briefly on the topic of elephant poop. An early, passing reference to Case using a "prison knife" led Lang to suggest "Sister Wives and Cellmates" as a name for the trio's tour. The orneriest Lang got was in a quick riposte to Veirs' comment, "We're taking swagger lessons from K.D." "That's butch-dyke swagger lessons, sweetheart!" she grinned to the crowd's delight.
Opening with the first three songs on the trio's self-titled debut album revealed how a bit of practice and roadwork has helped the band fill in the spaces in the arrangements which were evident in its debut performance last month on OPB. The warmer, fatter sound of the Zoo's PA, as opposed to that sterile TV-studio environment, probably also made a difference. It was heartening to hear the new songs come alive as living, breathing things.
After a half-dozen tunes from the album came a few setlist surprises, starting with a date-appropriate take on Veirs' "July Flame," complete with haunting vocals from Lang and Case that made one wish these women had always been available to each other as a harmonic resource. Next, though, Lang practically stuck the whole show into her back pocket, unleashing a truly titanic version of fellow Canadian Neil Young's "Helpless." Her broad, resonant voice surrounded the song and hoisted it out of its hippie-folk origins into a realm of pure musicality. Even the full crowd's standing ovation seemed almost too meager a response.
Case gamely continued with a beloved tune of her own, "Margaret vs. Pauline." She'd later feature her more recent song, "Man," as well. Most of the balance of the show stuck to songs from case/lang/veirs, including a set-closing "Georgia Stars" that ended with Veirs on her knees, wailing away like a metalhead—though on an acoustic guitar. Oughta-be–hit "Best Kept Secret" began the first encore, which closed, inevitably, with Lang's signature "Constant Craving." Lang sang languidly behind the beat, and it was sweet to see the lesbian couples of a certain age pair off to slow dance. The second encore featured a welcome cover of Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" and the trio's own tender "I Want to Be Here," offering love and hope in the face of frightening times.
A quarter-century ago, we got a pair albums out of the Traveling Wilburys, and they never even played a show together. Is it too much to hope that this latest all-star collective likewise spawns a sequel? Portland, you can bet, will be ready for it.
All photos by Thomas Teal.