A Most Necessary Evil: One Night in the Roseland Mirror
“I wanna be your friend but don’t have the self-control
We’re in love
But I don’t get what you see in me
Lovin’ me could be your fatal flaw
Just hangin’ in here trying to be your
Necessary evil, necessary evil”
- “Necessary Evil” (Multi-Love by Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
“Messed with Polly and Marie
Took some xany and addy (woowoo)
Does this mean you’ll never blow me again?
Love dissolved in acid rain (uh-uh uh-uh uh-uh)
- “Ur Life One Night” (Multi-Love by Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
There’s a debate, friends.
A debate of paramount would be too much to say considering I’ve only google-researched (page two? Pfftttttttttb), but ‘tis a debate for old forums and I assume, once someone gets ‘round to it, the debaters on the Portland subreddit and Yelp would whizz themselves on a rockwiz trivia debate outside a bar after sixbeer-am, probably running wild to the restroom or bolting to piss in a side alley with a singular question about quality. But shit, I’ve carried myself away. This is a debate… a debate on the worst concert venue in all of Portland, Oregon. Debate what you will about the opposite, the other end, the best; somewhere in between the Doug Fir Lounge or Mississippi Studios or the Aladdin Theatre, maybe the Edgefield if you don’t mind a loss of sightlines. But the worst? Well, to start off with the basics: The Rose Garden should never be considered unless you’re considering legacy bands and even then, you’re just listening to a below-quality greatest hits CD chosen by that particular artist on that particular night (Rolling Stones, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller Band, hell, the Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, now). It’s a groovy spectacle, maybe, but there ain’t no indie band on God’s green earth that’ll sell that modafucking center out. The Memorial Colliseum has a better time with its sound quality—50/50 compared to 30/70—but even then, it’s all arena atmosphere. Expect no truly organic intimate moments with the crowd to be telegraphed on the big screen. There’s a wall between the artist on the arena stage and the pit below them; it was crystal clear as the divining sphere both Sampha and the xx waxed with, prescribing tales of pain and heartbreak like Xanax bars and Molly pills at the Memorial while the audience could naught but watch, and it was a blue summer sky with not a teardrop cloud in sight when the Dead & Company (really just Grateful Dead songs with Mayer solos, but I like Mayerblues, so I’ll hold my tongue) moved the Garden up their jamming heights and who, if they can’t jam like the Dead, should be forbidden from touring if they can’t jam with the likes of the Band or the Allman Brothers. Unfortunately, they didn’t so I guess the Mayer Blues Band featuring the Dead should really be doing something else than wasting people’s time and money or else I’d have to firehose the whole bastard down… (oops) But, well, again I’ve lost the plot—though I be the narrator—so permit me to continue to indulge in this tale, I promise, it’ll all come back upon itself, as one friend told it to me: “when I went through the mirror and the universe collapsed upon itself.”
But this first mirror is an ugly one—a reflection upon the worst of Portland, A Most Grisly Task and yet a A Most Necessary Evil, to spot a venue where you’d rather not see anyone. And rarely has shithouse been as applicable as describing a bad concert hall, but depending on who you ask, Portland has two: both the Hawthorne and the Roseland Theaters, thrown out like a twin pair of rusty knives, cutting right to the heart of someone disappointed by the memory of a good band with a killer sound cut short by the guillotine of poor acoustics in a brickhouse that might as well have a tinroof. Oh, it sucks, and it actually makes me mope; the only thing that solves a woodshed sound quality that blows like a faulty hairdryer is drugs. Shaddap, ma, I ain’t just talkin’ about the harder ones: the mollies and the addies, the lucies and the fun guys, the ampers and the downers, but also the “socially permitted” types. Some concerts need to go four shots
past eightbeer-pm—how else you gonna make it to a midnight cocktail? I’m not much of a drinker, though (I need encouragement), finding myself more attracted to the green lady through shownights and morning writing binges, she works on my schedule much finer than beer ever will. A fine, fine lass, who’s as easy as they come, I mean, she swings with the wind, dances under rain, keeps warm in winter and with you, she’ll celebrate spring. She’ll enjoy hemp paper or tobacco wraps, she won’t worry about a bowl of cereal or a morning pipe either, hell, she’ll take a drag split with cigarettes or Moroccan shisha too. But most impressive is how she well can bake—into cookies, brownies, breads and cakes, sure—and confection: gummies and candy? I couldn’t believe it, but sure as a grape ferment, now she even dabbles in wine. And wine, a Catholic will not trade for grape juice and into a mimosa will a barman make: alcoholic. The only form of fun allowed at these chapels. Tiny are the shrines of The Know and Valentines’, small are the altars at Lola’s, Holocene or Doug Fir’s, trivial are the tabernacles of Roseland, Hawthorne, and insular is the monastic Revolution Hall, all reliquaries of slight-size with eyes on walls that can tell sin, these niches bar the freedom found at the mounts of Edgefield or Sunlight Supply, places for the biggest ironies of mainsteam indie to host sermons that would choke in the claustrophobia of churches. When outside, these amphitheaters of Tabor are a place to make with the Traffic and “light up or leave me alone.” But when cloistered amongst the holy hovels, edibles are best for meeting the priest. But alas, I was trapped in a chantry, a chorus with no exit, yet still searching for the nearest salida—left with but three paltry pre-rolled doobie brothers at the auditorium with no brownie to get me by among the ushers; all shining in the fluorescent yellow of latenight nausea at the Roseland.
“Something wicked this way comes
We don’t like to fall
But when we come down we lose it all
Then we open someone new
We eat their bones and wonder why they have no bones left
Maybe one day we’ll find we have
No need for a leader”
- “No Need for a Leader (II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
I thought to myself it could not possibly be as bad as the warning labels: “accursed place,” “haunted house,” “sound-quality-nuts turn away, lest ye be turned mad!” Alright, those aren’t true quotes, but damn if a bad review doesn’t sound like a doomsayer’s warnings. As a former radio-guy, this came as no surprise that live sound is a hard bastard to pin down nowadays, especially when most music is made with our modern piano, the personal computer. And it’s nominally a tough act when you’re working with Ruban Nielson, the Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who whizzes around in absurdia with psychoactive talents. “But hell,” I figured, “I could endure this with the help of some friends.” So, on I went with two recent friends, indieheads to the core and fun to talk music with, ready to enjoy Mr. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, even if his is a sound made for enjoying the red-eyed nights, high on sleep deprivation, and two eighths, green and white-to-brown, divining metaphysical contradiction, absurdist plights and downright social dysphoria. He’s an anomie who makes music for other-bodied familiars, using his discomfort as bridge, looking for… well, pity would be too cruel a term—it’s relatable, empathetic, screwing in your brain like last mics of lysergic acid diethylamide on a late night after the trip has finished but the esprit, locked in a cage à cerveau, remains restless at fourbowl am. Indulging not because it would enhance the music—but because I could finally ignore all the clicks and clips and bedshits of a wall of incontinent sound. The world could not vex me more then by handing such a hex upon the Portland-based band of Ruban Nielson, wired like an electric tākuta on as much kool-aid as he could find. Drunk he was, but still finding the right notes he was, beginning on “Ffunny Ffrends,” Nielson, ground and whirled well as a drunken man can as Thomas Mabus’ keyboards hit flat notes, hardly a tonal pip, and Kody Neilson’s mikes missed the beat count; it’s impossible to state how quickly this night could have sucked worse than it already started. A beer-battered fishstick for a leadman, a keyboardist that needs space to push out the tone squashed at the speakers, and drums that started out with a wont for something but missing everything at the amp, holy shit, by the end of a so-so “Necessary Evil” I was already feeling a squeeze to take a break with some buddies, go outside, smoke one and then come back for one later, just because the of dread that while my brain might remember Kody Nielson’s impending snare and hit-hat stings and Jacob Portait’s distorted bass notes, I may not hear them, or more importantly, feel them.
But, ever the late messiah, the Nielsons (guitar and drums), Portrait and Mabus pulled a “From the Sun” through the ergot mirror and into a fuzzy being, an extended instrumental, wherein Nielson (guitar) took an intra-tour tour of the balcony, playing as a member of the audience to the audience. Alright Roseland, your sound quality may waver like a tide with commitment issues trying to follow the moon, but I ain’t ever seen that done before—a guitarist on the move, running riffs through the corridors of the mezzanine, ballading on the balustrade, whatever it need be called, Nielson proved why he’s a cut above every other psychrock band this side of Tame Impala or King Gizzard—he can jam with the best of ‘em, plastered or otherwise. He’ll tour the joint, make sure every great escapade leads to a great escape, as he plays the everliving hell of out the scene. It made the whole concert worth it, and easier to ignore the sound while I ran on themes. How refreshing when modern pop-pysch infuriates by its seeming lackadaisical attitude—if I wanted lackadaisical attitude, I’d find a mirror thank you very much—because time does not always heal wounds, sometimes they just fester. And the more minutes, hours, days, weeks, months pass, the more that Real Estate gig pisses me off. Not studio-wise mind you, but live; in the flesh, with their hearts pounding in the same hall as I, a refurbished school auditorium, now used to for all the edumication music should offer, all that was learned at that concert hall is that if you don’t play your music like you mean it, then step off the stage. Addressing these neo-psyched, shoedrooling, lost-in-their-own-dream auteurs of the modern era (not you, Ruban, you soft-spoken Kiwi weirdo):
If you can’t jam with your instrument, forget about it. You cannot just tell me this is your instrument. You gotta caress that guitar as you work its strings like you are the one it’s always been waitin’ for. You gotta scale up the mountain of that bass neck like you’re Edmund Hillary. You gotta pound those drums like a mortar to the pestle, grinding out the spicy beat. You gotta convince the fools in the pit that you can throw together notes and chords on the fly because you fell asleep with that thing, your thing, an instrument, your instrument across your chest or under your head, passed out after exploring it with the curiosity of a cave diver, a spelunker that lives off nothing but baked bean cans and a love of the dark. The secret howled by a ragged animal from 1977: “you gotta be crazy/ you gotta have a real need.”
He was a sad beast, that lowdown pig, that David Gilmour, who chucoted my dog-ear and cajoled my brain to warp like a funhouse mirror, framing and hanging in the abandoned farm house with the story of you, the helpless sot of puppy-peace becoming marked madness and giving way to the hounds in his hands; lurching and stalking across the cut for a good four minutes, barking and then chasing down errant three-part notes on the chordfields and hounding on melodylanes, around the fences of a fenderfarm and into the Hammond pen, safe and hidden before bass pigman Roger Waters, an animal more equal than others finds you conflicted, alerts the hounds and sets them upon you, their red-eyed reflections going larger, larger, larger till full in your widening pupils, their teeth gnashed, nothing left to do but let the beasts bark and bite your hands, legs and arms, tug and tear you apart because your soul ain’t shit, ain’t nuthin’ but dogfood to some pigs. And some of those pigs are in bands, and they no longer see nuthin’ but dollar signs on your face, rollin’ on your eyes—late-era Floyd were that mudhole of morality, got dirty with it, grime and slime painting them each like a mud sculpture of human filth and then slapped it down on wax. They made me believe the eyes and ears, skilled bad teachers backing it up with an expertly cynical live musicianship and revealing a relationship that goes deeper than just mere songwriting. Understanding the dirty-job of indulgence: UMO hadta make me, my friends, Bobby McGee and the other people overfilling the seats, clogging the hallways and ensconcing the dancefloor believe that these mirrors of reality are worth our freedom; that for this music, we’ve got nuthin’ left to lose.
I’m caught beyond the feeling I won’t live far beyond this
I’m caught beyond the feeling I won’t live far beyond these years
We’re growing in a vicious garden
We don’t complain or nothing
Did you hear that sound?
Gonna chop it down.
- “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” (Sex & Food by Unknown Mortal)
Floyd’s socioeconomic fable, adapting state-communist history to authoritarian capitalist mores in late-Seventies Britain, is a complete other can of worms than the highly personal, hallucinogenic hole-hiking of Unknown Mortal Orchestra through the glass mirror portal, or is it? The first mirror being the venue, the second being the music, the hole being that soul and the universe being the narcissistic reflection of Ruban Nielson, we see not only an anxiety-ridden insomniac but a sorcerer of sexual magic and drugdaze curses; it’s all in the lyrics: “Bicycle,” “Thought Ballune,” “How Can You Luv Me,” “So Good at Being Trouble,” “One at a Time,” “Monki,” “Faded in the Morning,” “Major League Chemicals,” “Internet of Love (That Way),” “Not In Love, We’re Just High,” “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” and damn near all of Multi-Love. However, starting with parts of II and onwards through Multi-Love and Sex & Food, our auteur with a taste for autoimmolation has married these immediate vices to an intoxicated sense of doom evolving from the simple (“Nerve Damage!” and “From the Sun”) to the complex (“No Need for a Leader,” “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty” “The World is Crowded” “American Guilt” and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays”). The point isn’t that he is no longer an anxious ball of sleepless nerves but that since the debut days of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the mirror has collapsed upon himself and now when his reflection points back at him, it just asks: “Who isn’t crazy nowadays?” As in, who wouldn’t fall asleep with nausea as the world gasps for a cool breath of air from the blistering superheated smoke of infernal machines burning up whatever fuel they can find. Who doesn’t? In some ways it’s the only thing to do!
But those more-than-familiars who listen to Nielson’s musical tendencies can attest the evidence that Ruban has induced a musical-morphing, a recording-revolution from shapeless lo-fi psycher to millennial auteur. And may every area of independent rock, everything from shoegaze to alternative folk to neo-psychedelia to surfrock to skatepunk to post-punk to disco-rock to darkwave to noise-rock to new grunge etc. and back to shoegaze again be damned to the ignorance of masses forever, if Nielson didn’t display that while completely and utterly shredded on cocktails at what must’ve been elevenbeer-pm, touting almost the entire moody funk lullaby force of Sex & Food and reeking of Prince-level devotion to style and substance so thoroughly that even if the sound is more watery than a microphone dipped like an ice cream cone in the big ocean blue, I can’t help but blurt: “I love his guitar more than I love Kevin Parker.” It’s a high-judgement made whilst fully sober, a clown without makeup dancing in the rodeo. Oh sure, Parker may be better; a musician whose reputation has transmogrified to international guitar-god and whose skills have thus been distorted to hyperbole whereas Ruban Nielson remains a Pacific Prince, a man of indelible dispositions via coaxingly breezy compositions questioning whether he really needs therapy when everybody is as insane as he.
And spoiler alert: despite his wont for anonymity, it has not worked out quite as splendidly—whether it be the Pitchfork squirrels barking up his romantic tree or, in-general need-to-know rabies that infects a good portion of indieheads (*glumly raising my hand to this*)—he’s become quite the tangible artist, thanks to independent rock’s, er, less-widespread nature but not oversaturated or imprisoned behind the bars of T.V. screens and stadium scenes—a sentence of which the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam have been deemed worthy, more real and more alive than the grainy pictures of Live at Pompeii or the earthquake tour of In The Flesh ’77. It’s what makes him just a damn good a guitarist as Gilmour in ’77, whose talents were greatly steeped in tone—an arena that Nielson has down pat—he’s not outworn his welcome or set himself in stone. Moreover, thanks to glitch-hop percussion, synthpop tastes, and a lo-fi approach, he rolls out his own version of popular psychedelic rock that doesn’t suck, or worse, bore my brain enough to crawl out of my skull. Knowing the music helps, a little intoxication helps (lest I might have died after that Real Estate snoozer), but not much helps like an artist that knows how to ride out a groove and work his way through their own catalogue nigh-backwards. However, if you were an unfamiliar in that Roseland audience, I have to ask: why were you there? Thanks to the spotty concert-sound coverage you wouldn’t have heard why his latest record could enchant people with an umbral, under-the-hooded-moon magic. And if you were a familiar who wasn’t drunker than an Irishman on the morning of his birthday, you’d find your enjoyment of a setlist touting most (if not all) of Sex & Food while finding time to smash the hits still lacking the same seductive aural talents. What would be found between the headphones was not found between those venue walls. And different is good, but this was bland. It was a good night marred by bad sound that never really registered until I madeout with the same vices that give Nielson the heebie-jeebie romantic-uneasies; those three doobies, hastily rolled together pre-concert and wracked within my pockets, now boated like native canoes in the carpark of a TriMet station. The car was warm and my ride and I both had places we didn’t want to be. We both hosed the grass on a conversation that had nothing to do with Unknown Mortal Orchestra or Ruban Nielson or the Roseland and was stimulating in its own right. But behind my scar-letting pupils was the paranoia of seeing a remarkably normal reflection in the third mirror of a haunted funhouse crash down upon me; the likeness of a man with all the wibble-wobble cut out of his music by an outhouse of a venue.
I wanted to see and hear a nervous, bizarre and far more savage Nielson, and failing that, I wished to burn any memory of normality or choppy quality down with the orange-and-black embers in my pencil-thin joint.