With over 1,000 shows on my list, as I watched the snow fall, I thought about which one was the pinnacle. I could go big, Bowie, Stones, Who, Eagles in the 70s. But as my memory pot simmered, and everything else disappeared with the steam, I had one night left. On April 15, 2013, I saw something transcendental in a little bar down in the inner eastside industrial district in Portland. I didn’t take any pictures, don’t have the ticket stub. They were out of t-shirts. All I have from the show is a little blue lapel pin that says “I AM HERE.”
My buddy Bob got a heads up from somebody that he really needed to see a band from London that was coming to town on a school night. Bob told me to meet him at Bunk Bar. This is a deeply odd place to see a show. It’s a small, former warehouse space that specializes in magical sandwiches and the mandatory row of Portland beers on tap. There is no stage. At some point, the wait staff pushes back an arch of tables, and a few monitors appear as a demarcation line, the illusion of a stage. No sound system. You get the sound right off the amps. No special lights, just a seemingly, randomly aimed collection of spots. There isn’t a green room. Opening bands blend into the crowd when they finish their sets and load out. There’s a hallway that leads to the restrooms and a door to the kitchen. That’s where the next band mills about, guitars strapped on, waiting to plug in.
One element that makes this show so special is that I almost didn’t see it. I was in a tough run, trying new medications to deal with my PTSD and panic disorder. That entire day, I had vacillated whether I could deal with a show, the people, the noise and especially the voices in my head. About the time I knew Bob was at the bar, I called him and said I was a goner. I simply couldn’t summon up the willpower to make it down the hill from my house. Being my pal, he both understood and gently encouraged me. I was disconsolate after I hung up, pacing about almost in tears. Time had ticked by for the opening band. Finally, as I have often had to do with the voices, I got punk rock on them and said, “Fuck it. Just go down and see what it is like.” That was the trick I often played on myself. Commit only to the parts. Drive down. Find parking. Mill around outside. Buy the ticket. One small step at a time. Each one with an escape plan.
Finally, inside the door, I looked for my friend. There couldn’t have been over 50 people in the place. He was in the back, beer in hand. I had surprised him. He came over and gave me a big hug and said, “Let’s get you a beer.” As the booze took effect, I knew I was there for the show. Conscious of the exit door, I motioned him down to lean on a table on the right side of the stage. He’s a short guy, so I am always conscious of his sight lines. I can see fine over his head. There was a manager looking guy sitting in a chair at the edge of the drum set staring at his phone. He gestured to the hallway and out came 4 women from London: Savages. We knew nothing about them. Never heard a song. But Bob and I share a minor obsession. We love women who rock. We seek those bands and singers. Too old coots, we are the most unlikely Riot Girl fanatics on the planet.
They looked rock band tough, all dressed in slick black clothes. Being eye to eye with a band in a small space means there is no place for them to hide. No antics. No posing. You get to see the band in what is little more than a practice space or a basement show. From the first slashing, high speed, almost surf guitar notes, I got that familiar chill as my body shed all anxiety and was fully present. Bob and I looked at each other, eyes wide, mouths agape. The singer, Jehnny Beth, was a blowtorch of charisma, seemingly in a trance for a moment, then exploding in swirling, dark lyrics. At the end of each song, as the room heated up with moving souls, Bob and I kept mouthing “what the fuck” at each other. Three songs in, Jehnny Beth talked to us. And here was where the intense fourth wall imploded. We were in awe, but so were they.
You see, this was their first American tour. They had driven all day to Portland from San Francisco. The first thing she said was almost adorable, “We did not know how big America is. What we drove today was the entire length of our country.” Looking at the faces of the four women, you could see they were a little exhausted, pumped on adrenaline, and a little lost in what was happening to them. I don’t think I have ever had the thought at a show before, but there was an innocence hanging in the air all around them.
There were no weak songs. Each one was an experiment. Challenging rock ballads. Full-on aural assaults. And, in each one, an ethereal challenge for the listeners. I looked around the room. Everyone was on the same ride, a shared journey of discovery. It was an experience you never wanted to end. When they finished, the applause and yelling was the most sincere demand for an encore I had ever heard. They came back out of the hallway and stood there, not plunging in. The drummer stood behind her kit. Jehnny Beth took the mic and said, “Uh, this is the first time we have done an encore.” The room went nuts yelling and clapping. She put her hand up to calm us down, “No, you don’t understand, EVER! We only know one more song. We could play that and one more again if that’s alright.”
Of course, it was alright. They ripped through the two songs, and all came out front to bow and thank us. I looked at their smiling faces and saw clearly that they were just kids who had stepped through a dream door and had only then realized it. Our great luck was to go along with them for a couple of hours. I stepped over to the mech table wanting a t-shirt. The woman behind the table said, “We didn’t know this would happen. We only have these buttons left.” For me, that night, that button said it all. I put it in my shirt and gave my friend a hug. Yea, I AM HERE.
I have seen them in headlining tours 2 more times. The photo is from a sold-out show at the Wonder Ballroom. Last night of their US tour where Jehnny Beth started by yelling, “You are getting everything we have left tonight!” We did.