Blitzen Trapper Are Dead. Long Live Blitzen Trapper!

With a new lineup, Eric Earley and company played Portland for just the third time since 2019, opening for Modest Mouse at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

We’ve all got that one concert from the end of 2019 or the first two months of 2020. The one you didn’t go to. Too tired. Too busy. Still not caught up on Succession. “I’ll catch ‘em in the spring or summer,” you probably thought. Oops.

For me, that show was on Nov. 10, 2019: Blitzen Trapper at Revolution Hall, because it would be another 19 months before they played a show of any kind (a distanced outdoor “pod” concert at Zidell Yards), and almost two and a half years before a truly proper gig (at Rev Hall this past April). On top of that, it was the last time Blitzen Trapper’s classic lineup—the band as Portland has known them since 2003—would play a show. Post-pandemic, only frontman Eric Earley and drummer Brian Adrian Koch remain, with founding members Erik Menteer, Marty Marquis and Michael Van Pelt all moving on.

Few band lineups last forever (see also: The Wipers, Everclear, Sleater-Kinney). And whether you’re talking an early record like Wild Mountain Nation or 2020′s Holy Smokes Future Jokes, Blitzen Trapper’s music, sound and some 300 songs are almost solely Earley. But the same five guys—six until Drew Laughery left the band in 2010—brought those songs to life for more than 20 years (dating back to the band’s days as, wait for it…Garmonbozia).

The group that took the stage Aug. 19 to open for Modest Mouse as part of the PDX Live concert series at Pioneer Courthouse Square was Earley, Koch (who remained musically active during the pandemic in the duo Dead Lee with Kara Harris), keyboardist-guitarist Chris Benson (of The Beautiful Clarks and Benson Amps) and prodigiously mutton-chopped guitarist-bassist Nathan Vanderpool (Fruit Bats), who was also Blitzen Trapper’s longtime sound engineer.

With or without a pandemic, sustaining a band financially is tough. Menteer and his wife are now renovating a mountain lodge in Rhododendron (where they’ve also had a coffee cart), Marquis is getting a master’s degree in geographic information sciences at Portland State, and Van Pelt is a Los Angeles-based freelance digital producer for an ad agency.

Earley himself also works full time. He recently joined the houseless services agency Greater Good Northwest in Washington County, after first being with Do Good Multnomah (that Nov. 2019 show was a Veterans Day benefit for them). When I interviewed him for Street Roots at the end of 2020, he was focused on helping his clients, being with his family, and making visual art while barely even picking up a guitar, let alone writing or recording.

Since then, he has obviously picked up a guitar, but there’s not yet any hint of future music or extended touring (the band’s last currently scheduled show is another date with Modest Mouse in Idaho on Aug. 29). It’s not melodramatic to say that any Blitzen Trapper show could be their last, because in this day and age you could say that about any veteran band.

So I wasn’t going to miss even an opening slot. With the sun pounding down on Pioneer Courthouse Square at the start of the 6 pm set, Koch wore sunglasses, shorts and a straw hat—while Earley, in a tropical green St. Croix T-shirt, looked like he was ready for a gig at the new Margaritavilla resort in Medford.

“It’s an honor to play with Isaac and the boys,” he said of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock before kicking things off with the stalwart “Fletcher,” featuring Benson on slide guitar. There were also five excellent songs from Holy Smokes Future Jokes, a less jammy (i.e., opening band-abbreviated) but still choogling “Thirsty Man,” and three songs off of 2008′s iconic Furr.

It’s a slightly thankless task, playing to what was essentially an outdoor happy-hour crowd, but amid the drinking and the chatting you could see the Blitzen Trapper die-hards scattered at the front: smiling, swaying, singing and pumping their fists (or holding up a phone) to “Furr” and whooping in recognition of Earley’s guitar-strummed opening (after a flamenco-ish introduction) to “Black River Killer.”

It was, however, the first time I’ve ever been at a Blitzen Trapper show in Oregon where Earley sang “the sheriff let me go with a knife and a song/so I took the first train up to Oregon” and wasn’t greeted by at least a single cheer or woo-hoo when he got to “Oregon.”

“This is a good place to look for UFOs,” Earley said at one point, scanning the sky before telling a story about seeing one during his semi-homeless, warehouse-recording Wild Mountain Nation and Furr days. “I’ve been in Portland 25 years. It always changes and gets weirder. I still love it, though.”

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