By Charlie Carroll
ArtsPost staff writer
With the stage lights dampened to a minimum, John Baldwin Gourley, a quiet and unassuming figure, strode onto the stage of the 9:30 Club. Clad in a red, white and blue hoodie, the shy and pensive frontman of Portugal the Man donned his guitar and approached the microphone. The crowd roared in preparation for the band’s performance, but Gourley stood on the stage, motionless and silent. The dimly-lit stage and creeping wisps of smoke produced by the smoke machine added to Gourley’s mystique. He faced the right side of the stage, tuning out the audience to find his voice, and moments later kicked right into the opening licks of “People Say.” With little more than his soft, versatile voice, delicate guitar strokes and support from the rest of the band, Gourley became king for the night.
In only a few short years, Portugal the Man rose to the top ranks of indie rock through unrestrained perseverance and a creative spirit that continually inspires listeners and challenges itself with contemplative, beautiful pieces. Claiming Sarah Palin’s own Wasilla, Alaska as their hometown, the group formed after the demise of Anatomy of a Ghost, Gourley’s first band with Portugal bassist Zachary Carothers. The members of Portugal packed up their gear and relocated to Portland, Ore. in 2004. Since that time Portugal the Man has readjusted its lineup and released five studio albums, currently touring in support of their most recent brainchild “American Ghetto.” The band’s current lineup is comprised of Gourley (vocals/guitar), Carothers, Ryan Neighbors (keyboard/synth), and Jason Sechrist (drums).
From the outset of the March18 show, it was obvious that the show was going to be a collective family act. The New York four-piece known as The Dig opened the show, warming the crowd up for the rest of the night with a solid performance led by frontman Emile Mosseri. They concluded their set by bringing all the members of the other touring bands up on stage to perform a song, attempting to fit at least 15 different musicians up onstage. The artists each played their own unique instrument, ranging from an added tom head to a bottle of whiskey to a manican leg, passionately attacking their instruments (and the song) in a supportive family atmosphere. Port O’Brien followed The Dig, adding their brand of folksy California indie to the mix, inviting all of the other bands up on stage once more.
By the time the openers had wrapped up their sets the club was filled to the brim with an interesting mix of plaid-and-tie-dye hipsters eager to rock out to the laid-back musical stylings of Portugal the Man. Following the opener they went right into “And I,” a crowd favorite from their critically acclaimed album “Censored Colors.” With Carothers swinging his bass up and down, Gourley bathed himself in the red, green and blue strobe lights, lowering the mic and dropping to his knees under the weight of the song. The band pleased their hardcore fans by playing a number of songs from their first two albums, including “AKA M80 the Wolf,” “Shade,” and “Church Mouth.” The majority of songs, however, came from the albums that shot them to success, “Censored Colors” and “The Satanic Satanist.”
Gourley remained humble and shy throughout the set, despite cheers and bursts of applause. Before playing “60 Years” from the new album and spoken as an after-thought, Gourley half-heartedly suggested to his fans that they “download the new album or whatever.” The statement was less a matter of disinterest and more indicative of Gourley’s shy and polite persona which, unexpectedly, commanded the crowd as effectively as any bombastic act. After closing with “The Home,” the fan’s passionate and emphatic cheers for an encore brought Gourley out to stage to perform “Created” solo. Lighters were raised in the air and the crowd fell into silence as he uttered the first line of the song. Halfway through the sentence, however, Gourley stopped and stepped back from the mic, chuckling to himself. Once he had composed himself, Gourley told the audience how deeply he was moved by all of their support over the course of the night.
“I just got the chills,” he muttered. “That’s the first time I’ve ever freaked out onstage. I almost passed out. Thanks a lot guys, this is the biggest show we’ve ever played.”
The band sauntered in after Gourley finished the song and went straight into the song “Church Mouth.” In keeping with the night’s tradition, they brought back the family atmosphere by inviting the other musicians onstage with them to perform a deeply emotional cover of “Strangers” by The Kinks. For the night, the 9:30 club was turned into more than just a club venue. It became an intimate family community.