Do you like the thrill of venturing somewhere seemingly dangerous? Then The Steep And Thorny Way To Heaven (TS&TW2H), tucked under the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland’s inner east side, is the venue for you. Portland singer/composer/guitarist Myrrh Larsen’s rock opera Grey Gold premiered there last weekend and concludes its recently extended run January 29.
My winter heart traipsed through dimly lit intersections, under overpasses, ebullient that we were escaping the iron lung of a concert hall or a church. Once inside, there is enough seating for ten. I am not kidding. There is standing room enough for maybe 50 if you crush. TS&TW2H has its priorities straight: Good sized stage and a bar. Y’all in the audience can puppy pile on each other. And with enough booze, you will.
Do you like dadrock? Pitchfork doesn’t, so while it’d give this show a 1.7, favoring the obnoxiously obtuse lyrics and somnambulistic music from the Decemberists and Radiohead, I give this much more mainstream sonic experience a solid 6.6. The David Bowie influence is evident in Larsen’s mascara and hair. Other music heroes include the 1966 Rolling Stones (not the 1971 Sticky Fingers Rolling Stones or the 1972 Exile on Main Street Stones), the Mars Volta, Afghan Whigs, and some of the more usual suspects: Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Muse.
I heard the rock steady 4/4 meter of Foreigner infiltrated with NIN’s rhythmic noise. The song “Persephone” in particular opens this concept album-esque show with stop action, using bombastic silences as a hook. Very Trent Reznor.
Also very Reznor is Larsen’s tight control, evident in the crisp ensemble. Because I’m so used to attending under-practiced and under-rehearsed professional classical music concerts, I carry a vigilance and anxiety I wasn’t aware of until somewhere in the middle of “Persephone,” when I noticed I had totally surrendered myself to this control freak. In fact, by the third cut, “Love Has a Time Machine,” In a tender moment of awwwwwwwww, I time traveled, feeling as naive and unfettered as the youngest there, thinking fondly about my partner several rows back where I abandoned him for a front row position. Grey Gold took nine months to put on stage with a sneak peek performance on November 21. That’s six weeks before the first show on January 8! The show was so tight, even Larsen tuning his guitar then taking a swig of water (or Everclear) was efficiently choreographed, one eliding into the other in under eight seconds. I counted.
And speaking of concept albums, do you like concept albums? Because this really isn’t a rock opera. Which is a good thing for all of us who rolled our eyes when we saw Tommy. I was seduced into going because the show included actors re-envisioning a Greek myth I love backed by a band influenced by NIN (among others), in a grungy inner southeast underground performing space with Larsen in charge. The one-act show revisits the Persephone and Hades myth:
“What if [Persephone and Hades] really do fall in love; and what if they both know the stakes: if Hades risks his kingdom and refuge for love, and if Persephone knows exactly what is being offered when she accepts? How do two gods, each powerful in their own right, learn to retain their own power and identity while accepting someone else into their world?”
Larsen’s program notes are sharper than his lyrics, but then, I was 20-something once upon a time when lyrics functioned as icing to thumping, muscular music. Grey Gold’s tight album length feels just right at just under an hour, compared to sitting though Tommy for three days.
The two costumed actors playing Hades and Persephone broke through the fourth wall and silently shared their problematic relationship with us in the audience, moving among us, through us, back up to the stage, sometimes disappearing behind the stage, always in constant motion through the house — a smart move given Larsen’s criminal charisma. He steals the show. God, how I miss this quality in classical musicians. (Here’s a fun fact. Larsen trained as a classical cellist growing up).
Do you hate opening acts? Learn from my mistake, suck it up and make it to this one. Because I hate them, I missed everything except the contortionist just before the main event. She has joints where I have femurs and shins and such. Each night has different opening acts. There’s a concept.
Do you require perfection? It’s not a perfect show. I got tired of 4/4 at 72-80 bpm occasionally punctuated with quieter, slower ballads. The mic’d balance between Larsen’s small voice and the band wasn’t. While I wanted to hear Larsen’s vocal expressiveness, lost in the din, my sweetie, several rows behind me, wanted to hear the lyrics. It’s hard to follow the story without them. Either turn down your band or turn up your vocals, Larsen!
What’s Larsen’s next move? His restless energy propelled him from curating the once-a-month Someday Incubator at the Star Theater (“Portland’s Showcase of Performance Work-In-Progress”) to immersing himself into the job of co-creative director for TS&TW2H once the Someday Incubator was no more. Defining himself as an arts instigator, he lurks in the fringe arts, here collaborating with a Renaissance choral ensemble, there with a mask fairy-tale theater show, even contributing vocals to other underground rock bands. What’s after Grey Gold?
Would I pay $10 or $11 for this show? Hell Yes!! The overall experience of being shepherded from beginning to end by a gifted impresario/creator/performer as dedicated to his audience as Prince, in an underground venue as naughty as I wanted it to seem doesn’t happen very often. Bear in mind, this isn’t just a tight, very well rehearsed concert. This is another world. Give into the spell. Don’t be afraid of the night. Or maybe, do be…just a little, because safe has killed music and Myrrh Larsen knows this.
Grey Gold continues this Friday and Saturday January 15 and 16, with an additional show January 29 at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, SE 2nd and Hawthorne, Portland. Tickets are $10 at the door or $11 online.
Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.