Live Review | The Jezabels (PDX – Music Experiment Show)
by Caitlin Lilly,
Photos by Bobby Lilly
There are moments in life that pulsate with possibilities – moments you know will blossom into incredible stories you will happily retell for years. So when someone offers you the opportunity to cover a local opener plus an Australian headliner who are playing aboard a sternwheeler on the Willamette River in a nautical steampunk-themed celebration, you do not refuse. You rearrange your schedule, work out the logistics, and you get on that boat.
The aforementioned party was the third of four Music Experiment events scattered throughout the U.S. this year. This was the result of a collaboration between Portland-based Intel and MTV’s latest sub-channel, MTV Iggy, which is dedicated to showcasing emerging artists. Marketing was minimal, involving the Willamette Week’s website and a few mentions on KNRK. Those who learned of this event through these channels or via word of mouth were given somewhat cryptic instructions in order to access the necessary information. Though the concert was free, hopeful guests were asked to tweet the #musicexperiment hashtag in order to gain access to ticket pickup and boarding coordinates. This minimalist promotional campaign worked – the event reached capacity several days prior to its scheduled date.
Admittedly, this concept was a lot to take in. Its blending of so many elements could have been a recipe for disaster, with genres mixing awkwardly on a tiny watercraft. Instead, the idea was executed flawlessly. Dedicated cosplayers mingled with event organizers and eager Jezabels fans. Attendees were polite, friendly, and respectful. Groups merrily posed for photos with one another, often flanked by two ladies who wandered the ship in elaborate light-up jellyfish costumes. This was the ragtag bunch setting sail on the Willamette one early October evening. For those unfamiliar with steampunk, think Jules Verne meets Back to the Future III meets burlesque – all sprockets and spyglasses.
With 500 passengers on board, we leave the dock around 8 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to explore the ship, enjoy complimentary food from the buffet, and visit the multiple onboard bars. We are greeted by young men and women in novelty vests and brightly-colored petticoats, respectively, asking if we’d like a photo. Those who say yes are given a sepia-toned novelty printout featuring the Jezabels name, as well as the names and logos of the primary sponsors. Photos are taken with the multiple Intel Inspired Ultrabook laptops lining the edges of the boat’s middle level. At the rear of the room is a small stage, which is enhanced by a backdrop of cardboard gears and copper pipes befitting the theme.
In the few minutes prior to Y La Bamba‘s set, an announcer informs us that the main stage is located on the ship’s roof, and capacity is limited to approximately 100 of the vessel’s passengers. Given this information, a decision must be made: stay downstairs for the openers and risk lockout from the main event, or head upstairs early to guarantee a space? I and several others opt for the roof. Two television monitors flank the main stage, but they don’t offer a live feed of the initial festivities. Fortunately the sound from downstairs is pumped through our speakers, and the few dozen rooftop revelers dance to the rhythms being broadcast from below. From up here, Y La Bamba sound superb; it’s simply a pity to miss the visual.
We paddle down the Willamette, crisscrossing under bridges as cars and cyclists pass overhead, oblivious to the party beneath them. The ship loops between the Hawthorne and the Steel, too high for proper clearance and too low-priority to warrant a lift. We must make figure-eights in our allotted stretch of river. Amid the costumes, the beauty of the city lights, and the stillness of the river on this clear October night, what does the route matter?
At last it is the Jezabels‘ turn. The four band members, all in costume, climb onto the tiny stage. They are quite energetic from the start, though moving cautiously given their position on the third story of a moving sternwheeler. “A Little Piece” kicks off the set, and vocalist Hayley Mary hits the high notes flawlessly in the chilly evening air. It’s clear the performers are enjoying this experiential oddity as much as the audience. The many stimuli require great concentration, and the band delivers. They have a graceful yet calculated way of thrashing about on the tiny stage. True – one false move could send any of us careening into the water.
We are the very definition of a captive audience. Tonight there can be no slipping out the exit before the encore. No one dares leave the upper deck at all, for fear of losing the position to one of the waiting attendees listening to the audio feed below. Who would want to miss a second of this delightful journey? We are having a collective moment.
“You guys need a bigger harbor,” the band teases as we make what is perhaps our thirtieth U-turn, “we’re from Sydney.”
Ms. Mary’s long faux-pearl necklace has broken from her frequent jumping. She casts it aside while snarling the lyrics to “City Girl,” her lovely voice carrying far beyond the tiny ship. Warmth is radiating from the stage despite the growing river fog. The stage lights strobe in time with each crash of the cymbals on “Endless Summer,” a perfect choice for a city that never sees enough sunshine. Crowd members follow the energetic band’s lead, leaping into the air as the penultimate song plays. The roof quivers slightly with our weight.
The platform leaves no opportunity for a traditional encore disappearance, but audiences tire of that game. Instead, the band shuffles past the rear of the stage, obscured slightly by the engine room, before returning for one final number. Each of the four members puts his or her whole heart into this performance, with exaggerated movements punctuating the guitar strumming and keyboard mashing. The Jezabels are truly excellent live, even when teetering three stories above a flowing river. They provide the magic that ignites this deliciously weird event, and they’ll surely join the lucky few attendees in retelling the story of the steampunk sternwheeler show.
A Little Piece
Easy to Love
Pics from this show on the Columbia Gorge Sterewheeler can be seen below.