When they strike the ideal balance between cause-driven unification and good old rock'n'roll catharsis, benefit concerts can take on a consciousness of their own. It has everything to do with intention—the crowd shares more than fandom for a band, and in turn the bands share with the crowd more than a setlist meant to make them look good. Everyone in the room feels suddenly allowed to share their values, their frustrations, their fears, and from that openness come extraordinary musical moments.
There were several at the sardine-packed Crystal Ballroom on Feb. 26 for Hell No, an all-star show benefitting the ACLU and Unite Oregon. Comic and host JoAnn Schinderle screamed "Holy shit!" into the mic after almost every performer, and at no point did that feel like hyperbole. Hell No's lineup, curated by Sleater-Kinney and Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, was a staggering sampling of bona fide PNW alt-rock legends, including Weiss's own bands, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, stalwart queercore protest rockers Team Dresch, no-frills shredders Summer Cannibals and Portland jam-rock scenesters Mascaras.
Of course, critiquing a benefit concert for its musical caliber is missing the point. But if we admit the musical content does contribute to, and even create, the feeling of the space, it's hard to deny that Hell No did something extraordinary. An all-issue-encompassing protest of the Trump administration and its agenda, Hell No used every opportunity to educate and empower its audience. Lola's Room, the second-floor bar at the Crystal, was encircled with tables representing a range of local nonprofits—Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, Outside In—and of course, the ACLU of Oregon, who, along with immigrant, refugee and POC-led nonprofit Unite Oregon, received all proceeds from Hell No ticket sales, which totaled over $20,000.
Between acts, it featured guest speakers, including newly-elected city council member and renters rights advocate Chloe Eudaly and a particularly impassioned oratory from Gregory McKelvey of activist group Portland's Resistance.
But Hell No paid equal attention to the other half of its mission: to give every person who showed up a musical outlet for expressing and making sense of their feelings—a necessary pit stop on the path to social engagement.
"Cheer them on to their rivals," sang Colin Meloy in his full-fledged folk singer articulation, "'Cause America can, and America can't say no / And America does, if America says it's so."
Singing and dancing and just being present were three things every person could do, right then and there. While it's a slippery slope to mistake showing up to a benefit concert for being "done" with one's contribution to opposing a deeply bigoted and troubling social structure, it's not ridiculous to think of it as a positive, manageable step toward those ends. When people need to feel togetherness, music helps.
"It's important to remember that resistance is a body," Carrie Brownstein said during Sleater-Kinney's electric closing set. "We can't all be the heart, and we can't all be the vascular system, but together, we make a whole body."
Brownstein has taken on so many personas in pop culture now that it's easy to forget about the one most core to her, as a guitar goddess and femme-rock icon, the closest thing millennials have to a Patti Smith. The chemistry between her and Corin Tucker has faded not one iota since the '90s, and their set was absolutely fearless.
Their finale was an ear-ringing, sing-along rendition of "Fortunate Son." The last voice, appropriately, was that of Janet Weiss, when she set down her drumsticks: "Don't take any fuckin' shit!" she said. "Goodnight!"
All photos by Sam Gehrke.