Saturday, August 22, 2009

Friday night in the city by the bay

Living in a rural state like Maine, crammed up into our nation’s northeast corner, cultural offerings and entertainment choices often are lacking, at least compared to larger metropolitan areas of the country, and even New England. Save for Portland, there are few if any places that offer more than a movie at a metroplex, a chain meal at the strip mall, or a back road Allen’s Coffee Brandy, cut with a jug of milk.

Portland is small compared to other cities within a two hour drive, south from Maine’s southern boundary. At the same time, there are few cities of Portland’s size that offer the variety of activities available to participate in on a given Friday or Saturday night. And it has an amazing number of topnotch restaurants, although just how Portland matches up with other larger cities has come under some scrutiny of late. Others chime in on this matter..

What I especially appreciate about the city, and have for the past twenty years, since moving back from the Midwest, are the opportunities to see artists and bands in smaller club settings, particularly those of the independent variety. Portland has its arena shows at the Cumberland County Civic Center, and pricier events at Merrill Auditorium and a few other venues, but if you want to go out and catch a band that represents what I referenced yesterday when I asked rhetorically (regarding Joe Pernice) the question “why hasn’t this guy/band hit it big, yet?” from Friday’s post, then you usually can find several choices in Portland, especially at places like Space Gallery.

I’ve blogged about Jose Ayerve and Spouse several times at Words Matter. My friendship with Jose dates back to my days spinning records and playing DJ on the Bowdoin College station, and then reconnecting with him several years later.

Given that Spouse doesn’t play out as much as they once did, as band mates are growing older, acquiring additional responsibilities beyond music, and that all of them live south of here (mainly in Mass.), when I get wind of an upcoming gig, it gets filed away in the memory bank.

I’d been aware of last night’s gig at Space for a couple of months. Being that is was a Friday night, and Miss Mary and I had been through a particularly tough work week, I suggested that we hit a Happy Hour locally, connect with some old friends at Slainte (Chris Keenan plays every Friday night, from 5:00 to 7:00), and I even Tweeted our niece hoping that she might be free to meet us for a drink.

As luck would have it, we experienced the perfect convergence. I caught up with Alexa, Chris’ wife, who I used to work with, we got to hear Chris run through his set, have a couple of pints of Guiness, Joanne did meet us, and we let the stress of work slide away.

Afterwards, with the night still young and Jose and Co. not expected to go on ‘til much later, I was interested in a bite to eat. At first thinking Norm’s, Joanne suggested 555 (or Five Fifty-Five), on Congress. I’m so glad she did. I had wanted to check out the place and we weren’t disappointed. The restaurant has been receiving quite a bit of buzz, including Chef Steve Corry being voted one of the 10 best chefs in the country.

Eating at the bar, we had drinks, I had the sam’s blt burger, with organic arugala mayo, bacon pickled sweet tomatoes and melted Vermont cheddar. MMM!! If one must imbibe calories, then this is the way to go. Actually, even with my beer intake exceeding my usually austere one light beer per summer night regimen, I didn’t get too far “off the reservation” with my night on the town. Mary had the steak n’ fries, which features a three-day marinated hanger steak. After a drink with her aunt and uncle, we bid Joanne “adieu” as she was headed home to see hubby and prep for Yacht Rock @ The White Heart. Mary never has shared my affinity for amplified music, so after sitting in my car and chatting for a bit, she headed for home. I was off to rock out at Space, any a rare late night out.

We bid Joanne “adieu” as she was headed off to Yacht Rock @ The White Heart and Mary was headed back home. I was off to rock out at Space, any a rare late night out.

There were two opening acts on the bill ahead of Spouse. I showed up during the middle of the opening set by local guitar player Adam Kurtz. Kurtz was working his way through several computer enhanced solo guitar excursions. Definitely an interesting player. I wasn't expecting much, but I'd definitely check out a set of his again, particularly on a night when I wasn't hoping he'd finish so I could see the act I was waiting for, always the curse of the opening act.

Between sets, I had a chance to briefly chat with Jose and we spoke about Pernice’s book tour that he’s managing. We chatted briefly about publishing, my own upcoming book projects, and he introduced me to the guys in Sandra Black, who drove up from Morgantown, West Virginia to play with Spouse (and follow them to Northhampton, MA on Saturday). The band brings a very distinctive delivery to their indie-infused rock. I heard elements of the Pixies, VU, noise-rock, but what really propelled the band’s sound and made me want to hear more from them was vocalist Billy Zweiner’s delivery, which I wish I had words to describe, but it was unique in a very positive way. The band was very tight, which was even more amazing in that Jose was standing in on bass because the band’s regular bassist, Jason Henry’s wife just had their first child, so he was AWOL for the first time ever. Jose mentioned they hadn’t had a chance to practice, foregoing a run through for a day for the boys at Scarborough Beach, instead. Sound check was it for them, but I thought they were pretty amazing.

What else can I say about Spouse. I’ve seen them as a three-piece, which they were for this show (JJ O’Connell on drums and Ken Maiuri on bass), a four, or five-piece, and I”ve seen Jose solo several times. Each time, I think, “these guys are so much better than 95 percent of everything else on the alt-rock landscape,” but Jose and the band continue to languish in indie rock obscurity.

Spouse broke out five new tracks from what will be their latest offering due in the fall. I thought the new material had a much harder edge than the standard Spouse fare making up their current catalog. That isn’t to intimate at all that the band has sacrificed songwriting, or their melodic sensibilities. Jose’s guitar playing has evolved over the years where he truly carries the band in a very understated way not common with most guitarists and band leaders. He truly understands the concept of band, versus wanking away like so many axemen.

As the band segued into their older material, I couldn’t help but sway, bang my foot, and groove to the all-too-familiar strains. Spouse’s “Are You Gonna Kiss or Wave Goodbye?” from 2004, was one of the CD’s that pushed me forward during the writing of my first book. I can write to certain types of music, much of it mellower than Spouse, but that CD will always hold a select place in music that I own.

I also felt pangs of bittersweetness as I thought back over the years. My life has shifted dramatically for the better over the past seven, or eight years. As I grow older, I no longer feel as “at home” at shows, and tend not to go out and see bands. Spouse and in particular, Ayerve, remain one of the few artists that will make me stay out into the early hours of the AM to catch them live.

Today, I woke up nursing a hangover and struggled through my 20 mile bike ride. I’m actually feeling a bit dehydrated, but I’m glad I got out once again to a rock show. It’s a connection to the past that I cherish, albeit an experience of youth that is slowly slipping from my grasp.

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