Monday, September 24, 2012

Show Review: Portland Cello Project Performs Radiohead's "OK Computer"

"Ten kinds of amazing."
"Fuck yeah!"
"I can enjoy a good wine even if it's poured in a different glass."

The people have spoken: Portland Cello Project's Saturday evening performance at the Aladdin Theater was by all accounts great. Erik Henriksen at the Mercury even wrote an adulating Open Letter to the Portland Cello Project that started circulating the internet on Sunday morning.

I've been puzzling. It seems like Radiohead is a band that people "get" or they don't, and a couple weeks worth of attempting to "get" them got me nowhere. Friends recommended starting with The Bends and OK Computer. I listened to both, but found little to get me hooked. The band's attempt to emulate Phil Spector's "wall of sound" approach just left my head achy and overloaded. Then I asked a friend who was a fan if she'd like to go with me, to get a fan's perspective on the performance—but she was more excited to go on a bike ride that night.

(That's not a terribly high praise for a fan, is it?)

Classical performance is something I'm no stranger to though, and I can appreciate Portland Cello Project's aim to demystify classical instruments and diversify their audience. Their modus operandi involves performing in places you wouldn't expect (in a field near the Fremont Bridge, perhaps?), and performing pieces you wouldn't expect. Like Missy Elliott*. Or the theme to Princess Mononoke. They collaborate with guest artists frequently (at this performance, their guests included The City of Tomorrow, Disassemble the Widget, Adam Shearer, and a percussionist known as "Night Dawg"), but the cellists always take center stage.

And just like with this performance of "OK Computer," the group peppers in little tastes of more classical fare—Saturday's performance included J.S. Bach's Sarabande, and a brief introduction to the musical compositions of Hildegard of Bingen.

Why were these pieces interspersed between the OK Computer songs? I'm not sure, but I'd love to hear your theories. I'm of the mindset that bands deliberately put albums together in a certain order, so throwing a piece by a postmodern Estonian composer (Summa by Arvo Pärt) in the middle is slightly confusing.

One thing I will say: while a classical treatment of Radiohead didn't bring any new revelations about OK Computer, it was significantly more interesting to listen to. Arrangements were interesting and diverse, and using a small men's chorus provided some depth to the vocal parts (although the sound balance still made it difficult to catch the lyrics). Adam Shearer's featured solo on "Exit Music (for a Film)" was a great moment as well.

It seems like the real key for Portland Cello Project performances is to have a good working knowledge of their source material. Even after the Radiohead was over, the group performed three songs as an encore, one of which seemed familiar, but the giggles and claps around me meant I was clearly not in on the joke.

Next time though, maybe they'll play "Subterranean Homesick Blues" rather than "Subterranean Homesick Alien." And that is what is likely to keep me coming back for more.

*=You should really watch that Missy Elliott video!

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