Concert Review: Guster/Kishi Bashi (McMinnimin’s Crystal Ballroom: Portland, OR – 3/31/2015)
So, what does a group of young adults from church do when they want to have a nice social event? Go watch a concert, that’s what. So, that is how a group of five of us came to meet somewhere close to the middle of our respective areas to watch a band noted for its environmentalism, its legendary touring schedule of about 250 dates a year, and its mix of tight four-piece jangle pop and comedic covers. A couple of the other people in our group were really big fans of the band; I happened to be at least a little bit fond of them thanks to the fact that their song “Satellite” (from their album “Ganging Up On The Sun”) appears on my favorite Pandora station. The ticket came with a free copy of their recent album release “Evermotion” (to be reviewed), but to be honest the album didn’t make an immediate impression on me, so I was hoping that the live show would give me the enthusiasm I need to go back and dig deeper into the tracks of their latest release. That expectation was fulfilled, and more.
Some comment deserves to be said about the Crystal Ballroom venue to begin with. As we had a few people who are old and cannot stand around for hours or jump as easily as we did when we were younger, the group of us hiked up all of the flights of stairs to get to the balcony, which only has a few seats. Some of those have their view blocked by an ornate chandelier, and all of them suffer with some legroom difficulties, but it was a lot better than being crammed into the space downstairs. Despite the difficulty with seating, the Crystal Ballroom is a nice venue. The event staff is friendly, there are at least some seats, and the first come, first served nature of the seating and standing arrangements rewards dedicated fans who show up early as opposed to those who simply buy the most desirable seats. There is a certain egalitarian ethic, along with a famous diagonal partition between the all ages area and the over 21 area of the floor, that attracted comment throughout the evening from the musicians themselves on several occasions.
Before performing, Guster was opened by Kishi Bashi. Kishi Bashi set a high standard with an energetic performance that blended classical and Middle Eastern-inspired violin melodies, some adept work at a foot pedal sampler, and some beatboxing skills, to go along with enthusiastic vocals and even some excellent dancing. He did exactly what an opening act is supposed to do—provide some good songs, introduce audience members to an act they may not be familiar with, and win some new fans. He certainly won himself some new fans with his performance, including our party, which ended up buying at least two sets of his first two albums among us (review forthcoming), and he was even able to join Guster on stage later on during two of their songs towards the middle of their set (one of which was “Satellite”). He also showed himself to be a man who knew how to ensure his continued presence on successful tours by praising Guster warmly, praise that was warmly reciprocated in turn by Guster later on. Seeing a mutual admiration society between an opening act and a main act, both of whom did a wonderful job, is something to appreciate and enjoy.
Guster themselves played a set that lasted about two hours or so, and mixed some of the songs from their recent album along with existing classics. Among the songs from their new album that were played, “Long Night,” “Simple Machine,” and “Never Coming Down” made a strong impression alongside their existing body of work, and “Kid Dreams” (part of the encore) and “Lazy Love” were pleasant album tracks that will likely serve as part of Guster’s deep catalog of songs for a while, at least until their next studio album comes out in 2018 or so. Speaking of their back catalog, the band played songs that I could recognize from Easy Wonderful (“This Could All Be Yours”), Ganging Up On The Sun (“Satellite” and “One Man Wrecking Machine”), and Keep It Together (“Amsterdam” and “Homecoming King”). To be sure, there were a lot of songs I did not recognize, and their cover of “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” was a bit silly, but the performance was energetic, the band was versatile in switching instruments, showing some vocal harmonizing (only a little bit of which was off-key), and showing some inventive instrumentation (including an entertaining instrumental coda on one song that included both trumpet and trombone solos). The audience sang along to the lyrics, clapped and cheered enthusiastically, and most of the audience stayed until the end.
Overall, the concert was a wonderful time. Both Kishi Bashi and Guster both played to their existing fans and behaved in such a fashion as to win new fans, including telling stories about some of the songs, never letting the energy flag, being daring enough to try for ambitious performances and accept that the result will fall short of perfection, but never short of passion. The flexible addition of supporting musicians added instrumental depth to some numbers in Guster’s set, while the core foursome of Guster played tight, and even let the audience set the tempo on one of the encore’s songs. The mood in both the opening act and the main act followed an ebb and flow that was organic, with segments of driving anthems, and other segments (including most of the encore) of more meditative numbers, with Ryan (the band’s secondary lead singer) receiving his lead vocal duties mostly towards the end of the set. Watching this set let me know that I need to schedule this outing again with this group the next time they come to town, and that a thorough review of Guster’s catalog is probably in my future, as this was the most enjoyable concert I’ve been to in a long time, even while the band dealt with concerns that are still highly relevant in my life.