Wanderlust Social is a Cabaret, old chum

The eloquent melancholy of a ringmaster...and the weekly winter jazz jams that promise sweet relief

It’s been a tough month for Portland’s ringmaster. He’s had five friends die, and withstood an amicable split from his bellydancing life partner Tiare Tashick. But Noah Mickens kicks off his second weekly Wanderlust Social on Dante’s crimson-curtained stage with “Life Is a Cabaret.” He raises his pinky from his whiskey tumbler and arches his brows, effortfully lifting his spirits above malaise to sing words that are all too true:

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret…

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Few local figures are quite as much larger than life as Mickens (save maybe the slinky, glittering, glamorous, serpentine  “Nagasita” Tashnick, just returned from Budapest, waiting in the wings to dance her number). Wanderlust Circus’s intrepid leader coordinates and emcees more touring shows each summer than he cares or bothers to count; he’s even franchised half of his brand to a second San-Diego-based touring troupe just to cover the growing demand. You may recognize him as the first sample of local color tapped for the “Portlandia” pilot, marshaling a parade of circus folk down the west esplanade.

But what’s more…Mickens is a character.

noah_mickens

photo by Xilia Faye

Always in his ringmaster alter-ego “William Batty,” but increasingly just as himself, Mickens sports pinstripes and a slicked-back coif. He affects antique, gentlemanly graces that can switch on a dime into roguish rambling. He’s a legend of his own making, as eager to recount his origin story as he is to promote the upcoming shows. He may be a master of many media—but he’s an absolute alchemist at ambience. Where Salvador Dali famously said, “I don’t take drugs, I AM drugs,” Mickens doesn’t make a scene, he IS one. Which is paradoxically why the new Wanderlust Wednesdays, he insists, are not about him. They’re a refuge for persons like himself: too glitzy, bizarre, romantic and fantastic for this humdrum workaday world. As he’s fond of calling them, his bohemian family.

But of course there are also more practical matters: Right now, Mickens is juggling two holiday cirque-stravaganzas, “White Album Christmas” and “A Circus Carol,” whose accompanists are, respectively, The Nowhere Band and 3 Leg Torso. This roster temporarily bumps the Wanderlust Circus Orchestra, a nine-member supergroup that Mickens has gradually recruited from other favorite jazz acts to accompany his circus shows the rest of the year.

wanderlust_circus_orchestra

photo by Xilia Faye

Mickens explains the making(s) of the band:

The story of how I got the band together is a little complex. The Orchestra has members of Vagabond Opera, 3 Leg Torso, Shanghai woolies, Juan Prophet Organization, Anna Paul and the Bearded Lady, and Bhattsi.

My initial house band was Shoehorn and the Hat Band, then we went our separate ways for a while and I hired Juan Prophet Organization as our new house band during, while continuing to cast Shoehorn as a featured performer sometimes. THEN, Juan Prophet lost three members simultaneously, leaving only the core songwriting duo of Jeff Holt and Kristopher White. So I took Jeff, Kris, and Shoe; and added a bunch of my other favorite players.

I knew Anna Leander and Paul Evans (our musical director, while I am the band leader) because I was doing a monthly swing night with them and Russell Bruner for a while. I figure her voice was perfect for this kind of vaudevillian swing band [he’s right; with a light fry, a sprightly rhythm, and a bit of Boop-ish squeak, Leander suits the songs], and Paul is an absolute motherf-cker, music-wise. Shortly thereafter, he joined Vagabond Opera when Robin Jackson decided to back off from touring. I had done many shows with 3 Leg Torso, which is where I got xylophonist TJ Arko; and I met fiddler Griff Bear when he played violin in the opera Queen of Knives, written by Eric Stern and directed by me [and performed in by Ashia Grzesik]. Joe Haegele our drummer, was referred to me as a member of The Shanghai Woolies, but it turned out we already knew each other from way back in my noise/experimental days at The Jasmine Tree. So that was the band, The Wanderlust Circus Orchestra. We perform some material composed by the various members of the band, and some standards. About half and half, I’d say.

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More often upstaged by summer circus shenanigans, the Wanderlust Circus Orchestra is richly deserving of its own spotlight and a forum to hawk its album, “Joyous Panic.” Hence this regular winter gig, where guest acts come and go but the band stands on a rare pedestal, sauntering through its repertoire for a room that, at turns, babbles along with the atmosphere and stares in rapt reverence. This band, accustomed to toodling along in the background, doesn’t make a big deal of itself—but the individual and ensemble musicianship is amazing. Flute, xylophone, and coronet make surprising little flourishes (a la Merrie Melodies) over syncopated grooves that dig deep into the proverbial pocket. In fact, the playing is so high-caliber that it’s possible to enjoy the Wanderlust Social completely sans-conversation.

Aerialists, meanwhile, have found the perfect low-pressure venue to work out kinks from their usually-higher-stakes (and ceilings) routines. Various solo acrobats spin, swoop, and contort just above the room, and Wanderlust co-director Nick The Creature eagerly accommodates them, installing and collapsing a ladder to hook and unhook their various silks and hoops between songs.

Soprano/cellist Ashia Grzesik, just returned from Europe and set to release a brand-new album at the Alberta Rose Theatre the next day, was last week’s surprise guest, sitting in on a few jazz numbers and playing a couple of originals that Mickens specifically requested, admitting they’d moved him to tears.

One assumes there’s room for more surprise guests in weeks to come; the Wanderlust Social has been reaching out to a network of talent to claim some stage time. Mickens could carry the show on his own, but what fun would that be? He’s actively asking for company.

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“Welcome, Friends,” Mickens grandstands, “To this gathering of the tribes, this convening of the family,” He sweeps his arms wide to encompass each neo-bohemian romantic in the room. He tells a story about “the dirtiest limerick of all time,” but then recites the limerick itself with all but the filthiest words redacted. People howl. Between songs and announcements, the emcee bops offstage to circulate in the crowd, at some point returning to reveal “a silent costume contest…in which you’ve all been judged.” He awards a bashful couple dressed like a skunk and an opossum with his own silver waistcoat for a prize.

As the show winds down, Mickens gets serious, rhapsodizing into an impossibly eloquent eulogy for recently fallen friends, bemoaning how the world is sometimes cruelest to the bright-shining ones. He doesn’t want to lose more, he says. Anyone who feels like letting go should hold on…should try to keep on the Sunny Side of the Street…segue the jazz classic.

Mickens and friends supply more pure SHOW than a ten dollar cover on a weekly Wednesday should legally buy. (Not to mention implied entry into a “circus family,” which usually comes at far dearer costs, like superhuman skill and/or freakish alienation). It seems like an ideal way to regale holiday visitors with our town’s treasures, or pre-func for one of Wanderlust’s big weekend shows, or simply indulge your yen for fabulously overdressing.

“This waistcoat,” growls Mickens, “Has magical properties, imbuing the wearer with the most dashing, most refined, most androgynously powerful sensibilities…so that you believe you can become…whatever you aspire to as your highest self…even if your aspiration…is to be ME.”

Wanderlust Social occurs every Wednesday night at 8pm at Dante’s through January.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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3 Responses.

  1. Noah Mickens says:

    Wow, thanks for the article Anne! Photos are all by Xilia Faye. Nick the Creature is more than just my right-hand man – he is the co-director of the whole circus! In fact, he’s been using the name Wanderlust since before we met. Everything else is right on, though.

    This Wednesday: ARTIS THE SPOONMAN and MEG RUSSELL!!!

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