Review + Photos | Portland Cello Project's Extreme Cello Dance Party @ Doug Fir (PDX)


Photos by Colin McLaughlin

[B]y now it’s no secret: Portland is a place unlike any other. From a certain over-saturated television show to the New York Times’ ongoing love affair, there’s no denying we live in a quirky little paradise. Sometimes, though, a reminder is necessary to regain perspective – to make lifelong residents and recent transplants appreciate the city’s charm. The Portland Cello Project’s Extreme  Cello Dance Party is that reminder.

Tales of this not-to-be-missed event’s gleeful atmosphere have spread across the city, and the fifth annual Extreme Dance Party has been sold out for weeks. The Portland Cello Project is a collective of cellists and other musicians. They travel across the country changing people’s opinions about the limits of the cello. This collective typically deals in classical music – both historical selections and their own arrangements – with a handful of pop tune interpretations for good measure. Most performances do not include vocals, which is part of what makes tonight’s event so special.

With a repertoire several hundred songs deep, the Extreme Dance Party is as unpredictable as it is delightful. Each year, curator Brian J. Perez, Jr. assembles a supergroup featuring Cello Project members and musicians from various local bands. Gracing tonight’s stage are half of Wild Flag (Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole), as well as most of the other contributors from last year.

Tonight’s event begins with Brendan Gill, a longtime participant and first-time singer. His selection is Pulp’s “Common People,” and he’s got the smarmy Jarvis Cocker swagger down. All aviator sunglasses and skinny slacks. “Throw your panties at him!” an audience member yells. He’s making eyes at all the ladies, grabbing hands, and completely doing the song justice. A follow-up from Adam Shearer, Love and Rockets’ “So Alive,” continues the early theme of slithering, sexually-charged choices. Shearer puts his heart into his performance, and holds the mic stand over the crowd so they can sing the outro for him.

The night takes a turn for the summer jam, with Don Henley’s (not the Ataris’ punk version) “The Boys of Summer.” This song really lets the cellists shine, as they play at a fast clip to capture the beachy energy. Another shift quickly follows, as cellist Doug Jenkins – who is celebrating a birthday, a homemade sign notes – leaves his cello behind to provide Puff Daddy’s portions of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.” A rapping cellist is something to behold. This is some pretty amazing cross-genre business.

Several songs in, John Brophy, local legend of Baby Ketten Karaoke fame, joins the dozen people assembled onstage. “Who wants to dance to a song?” he asks. People cheer accordingly. “That’s awesome because I have a song!” His selection is Erasure’s “Chains of Love,” and it’s flawless. Equally flawless is Kyrsten Crowe’s rendition of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor.” It’s one of the most technically solid performances of the night, and she’s got quite the voice on her.

Upon reaching the halfway point, the ensemble takes a well-deserved break to rest and re-energize. Performers can be seen in the backstage wings, pressing cold beers against their foreheads to counteract the sweat. They’re back after about 20 minutes, bringing some new Justin Timberlake and classic Daft Punk with them. As the night draws to a close, Corin Tucker appears, resulting in 2/3 of Sleater-Kinney sharing a stage once more. She and Christopher Francis Schiel perform “Rock Lobster,” and her signature warbling vibrato is perfect for it. Ms. Tucker has fun with the song’s sound effects, joyfully tossing in screams and funny noises while sporting a giant grin. Keeping with the song’s theme, the two toss beach balls and a mylar lobster balloon into the crowd. The inflatable toys bounce violently against the venue’s low ceilings as they are batted around by attendees.

The real standout of the second half is the immensely talented Chanticleer, whose duet with Christopher Francis Schiel is incredible. Of course a Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song was expected, and their rendition of “Can’t Hold Us” is a glorious final number. Like last year, most of the performers return for an encore of “Bottoms Up,” complete with teeny champagne bottles to hoist in the air. Dozens of glasses appear over the audience members’ heads, toasting the exceptional performers. This event is a love letter to Portland’s best attribute: the ability to bring together people from divergent hometowns and backgrounds to form a real community. Cheers, Portland Cello Project, and see you next year.

Set list:

Common People (Pulp)
I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor)
So Alive (Love and Rockets)
The Boys of Summer (Don Henley)
Mo Money Mo Problems (the Notorious B.I.G. ft. Mase and Puff Daddy)
Dog Days Are Over (Florence + the Machine)
Try a Little Tenderness (Otis Redding [Prince Buster version])
Chains of Love (Erasure)
Ex-Factor (Lauryn Hill)
Rio (Duran Duran)
Mirrors (Justin Timberlake)
One More Time (Daft Punk)
I Touch Myself (Divinyls)
Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners)
I Feel Like a Woman (Shania Twain)
Father Figure (George Michael)
Call Your Girlfriend (Robyn)
Rock Lobster (the B-52s)
Can’t Hold Us (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis)
Bottoms Up (Trey Songz)