MusicWatch Weekly: This land is mine

Retro rock, math punk, psychedelic cumbia, shredded metals, and Jimmie Herrod

Well folks, we’re almost done with Second Summer and the world is on fire, from the Amazon to Africa to Indonesia to Portland’s Rocky Butte, but the usual churn of crazy local bands and composers continues to enliven bars, cafes, and churches all over the place. This week and weekend you’ve got free funk and two days of local metal in downtown Portland, psychedelic cumbia and shreddy math punk across the river, and a retro-rock sextet up in NoPo. But right now I need to put down my panggul mallet and my kretek cigarette and talk to you about Jimmie Herrod. 

Now, normally I wouldn’t talk about former singing coaches two weeks in a row. But it’s just my good fortune that (to reference a cruel old joke) those who can sometimes also teach–and it’s everybody’s good fortune that Portland and Environs are so full of wonderful singers who are also wonderful teachers. Last week it was mezzo extraordinaire Hannah Penn, and you can read all about her performance in Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings in Angela Allen’s review right here.

This week it’s singer-composer Jimmie Herrod, who left me for Pink Martini.

Singer-composer Jimmie Herrod backstage with Pink Martini's Phil Baker and Bill Marsh.
Singer-composer Jimmie Herrod, laughing at me backstage with Pink Martini’s Phil Baker and Bill Marsh.

Kidding, kidding! Herrod is a Portland State alum who got hired on as a vocal teacher right after he got his Master’s; before he got drafted by Pink Martini he had a full vocal studio with all kinds of students, and I was certainly the least of them. While at PSU, Herrod studied composition with Cascadia composer Bonnie Miksch, and it shows. His music is in that sweet spot I’m always talking about listening for in contemporary music: his songs cross genres with lyrical grace, catchy melodies, and just enough harmonic novelty to keep the ears pricked and the heart fluttering.

And that voice! Not too many singers this young can rev up from breathy and tender to a hall-fillingly powerful yowl while still squeezing every possible drop of emotional complexity into each note. I think of Herrod every time I listen to my favorite Secret Chiefs 3 album, 2004’s Book of Horizons–halfway through, sandwiched between the electro-acoustica and the theological black metal, their surfy cover of Ernest Gold’s theme from the 1960 film Exodus comes on, and then I just have to pull up this video of Herrod singing it with Pink Martini last year in France:

This land is his.

This Saturday, back in Portland, Herrod is doing a solo show at The Old Church with another PSU alum, composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Chibia Ulinwa, going solo and mononymic following the dissolution of Jazz Boyfriends. The supporting cast is pretty great too. If you somehow missed all of PSU professor George Colligan’s hundred appearances at Montavilla Jazz Festival two weeks ago, now’s your chance to catch up. Pyxis Quartet violinist Ron Blessinger will be there too (read our interview with Blessinger and fellow Pyxisist Greg Ewer here), but it’s the drummer that really excites me.

Micah Hummel–yet another fearless Viking, naturally–is a madman. A fine drummer and composer, sure, but the elegant and creative way he integrates technology into his playing is tasty as hell and truly beautiful to behold. I caught his act at a PSU noon show last year, and I’ve been wanting to see him in full swing ever since.

Jimmie Herrod and Chibia Ulinwa perform at The Old Church Saturday.
Jimmie Herrod and Chibia Ulinwa perform at The Old Church this Saturday.

In other words, this is where I’d be Saturday night if I weren’t eight degrees south of the equator hitting melodious metal with wooden hammers. You want to hear what the future of music sounds like? Check these two out.

Jimmie “Not a Tenor” Herrod, loving what he does.

Since Herrod–along with Edna Vazquez, another badass local singer-composer (and recent Darrell Grant collaborator)–was recently invited to formally join the PM crew, we thought it was time to holler at him and Chibia on [redacted] to catch up, discuss their show on Saturday, and talk about where the music comes from.

Formative musical experiences

Chibia Ulinwa: For me, it was in the 4th grade when I first started playing the violin. I had always been into music, but it didn’t really click until I had my first violin in my hands. It wasn’t the best violin in the world either, but I was so excited that that didn’t even matter at the time. I was fortunate enough to have an orchestra program in my public schools growing up, and my orchestra directors played a great influence in my pursuit of music over time. I wasn’t able to take lessons up until my first year of college, but I loved playing so much that I found some way to make it work. It was something that I understood from the get go–it just became apart of me.

Jimmie Herrod: I grew up playing clarinet, and I think the moment of playing music communally was a defining moment of my understanding and appreciation for music. That shared experience with others, making a collective sound no one can do independently.

Musical inspirations

Chibia: This is always a tough question for me. Growing up Nigerian-American, I was always surrounded by all sorts of African music so that was definitely a big influence in my upbringing. Nigerian artists like King Sunny Ade or The Nkengas, Fela for sure. I also grew up listening to a lot of Congalese music like Awilo Longomba. I’m a huge Strokes fan and always will be. As of right now, some of my top picks would be Thundercat, Laura Mvula, Lianne La Havas, Matt Corby, and Rex Orange County.

Herrod: I’d be lying if I said I listened to a lot of “compositions” or have a large vocabulary for classical music, but I think some people find my affinity for Bjork to be a surprise, and maybe also the Carpenters. I grew up listening to all sorts of music thanks to the influence of my dad, but wasn’t super immersed in regards to classical or jazz music.

This Saturday

Chibia: I’m doing all original tunes. I’m so ecstatic to be able to share music that I’ve put so much love and energy into with everyone. I really try to tap deeply into my emotions and I think my tunes reflect that.

Herrod: This concert is a funny one in comparison to shows I’ve put on in the past. Musically it will feature a few songs from my recent album, but many others from the past–nine of which I’ve never performed in any capacity, or haven’t played in over 5 years. Another factor is the instrumentation and ensemble itself. In some setting or another I’ve played with all of these musicians but one, but only a few of them have played my music before.

Genre drift and composition

Chibia: I think music is ever-shifting and that’s what makes it so cool. I mean, yes you can put music in a box and say this is this genre and what not, but I think that stifles the artist’s ability to explore their sound. We aren’t bound to the rules that were set before us. If we were, Gregorian Chant would be all the rage, and I’m not quite sure I’d be happy with that. Now I’m scared to answer this question [categorizing my own music] ‘cause I just ranted about putting myself in a box, but the goal is R&B. We’ll see. I might change my mind.

Herrod: I wonder about this a little too. Maybe people are being more exposed to things, like we are with food. I can go to a restaurant and try a localized version of something, maybe it’s not the most “true to home” version of that meal, but it’s at least an introduction. I think music has moments of this experience. I think my music leans on pop forms, while using some aspects of theater and jazz-based harmony from time to time. I used to hear melodies on the go a lot more frequently, but with the lifestyle I have now it’s rare that I have a real piano to touch and translate that musical daydream onto. I record things I’m humming, I write down words, and I travel with a mini two-octave keyboard and try to use some of my downtime on tour exclusively for writing. I would say what I’ve learned over time is to record everything. I’ve been haunted by many an idea that I will never hear myself play again, left only to misquote myself, or doubt the quote itself.

Meanwhile, in downtown Portland

If you find yourself in downtown Portland today (Friday in Portland, that is–I don’t even know what day it is in Bali), you might want to lace up your Docs and tromp your way along Third Avenue, past Cameron’s Books and Stumptown and the Voodoo Line and the corpses of Ash Street Saloon and Berbati’s Pan. Just before you get to the smoke shop at West Burnside you’ll find the infamous Paris Theatre, where the two-day Shake the Earth Fest will be ruining everyone’s weekend.

Ten bucks a day buys you a deadweight ton of Pacific Northwest metal: Portland bands (and a few neighbors) pile into Portland’s favorite pornhouse-turned-rock-club and start playing at three in the goddamn afternoon like they’ve got church the next morning. Check these dudes out, if you dare (yes, they’re all dudes; sorry about that).

Morbid Fascination’s demon-eyed bass player is tired of your light bulb jokes and will definitely swallow your soul.

From Rose City Itself: Proven, Othrys, Kingdom Under Fire, Apophis Theory, Battle Axe Massacre, Hed Change, Harrah’s Void

Neighbors: Piranhapuss (from across the Columbia River in woodsy Vancouver), Trojan Swamp Monster and Set In Stone (both down from smoldering St. Helens) Morbid Fascination and Pitch Black Mass (both up from sunny Salem on the other side of Wilsonville, Tigard, and those Terrible Terwilliger Curves).

I like my metal like I like my Balinese kopi–technical, extreme, and sludgy as fuck–so Morbid Fascination and Trojan Swamp Monster are my top picks from this line-up. Both bands brutalize your brains with their chewy cookie monster vocals, squealy-djenty guitars, Castlevania riffs, and sick modernist harmonies–and if they play early enough in the day, you can still dash over to The Old Church for aftercare with Herrod.

“You guys feel adjusted?”

Cross the river

Shimmy across the river like bananantifa is after you, and eventually–just past KBOO and Sizzle Pie East–you’ll come to Doug Fir Lounge, all cushy and woodpaneled and soft-lit like it’s Paris Theatre’s tethered. If you can make it there by Saturday evening you can get a load of Orquestra Pacifico Tropical.

Orquestra Pacifico Tropical rousts the street preachers from PSU’s park blocks stage.

If that sounds too sabroso and extroverted for your tastes, after you get across the bridge you can just duck behind The Ugliest Building In Oregon (to hide from the scary bananas) and hightail it up MLK. Be sure to stop into one of the Popeyeses!

Keep going until you get to High Water Mark at Northeast Dekum (right across from the historic Mount Olivet Baptist Church), where you will be delighted to discover local legends Gaytheist doing their sardonic tough nerd schtick. This is also on Saturday, so plan your evening out accordingly.

The first time I saw these beloved pronky weirdos (the only Portland band other than Pink Martini who can rock tattoos and coattails) it was right after my old cyberpunk band played a sweaty show with them at Foggy Notion–I mean, Lombard Pub. The last time I saw them, they were co-opening with Nasalrod at the packed Big Business Mississippi Studios show earlier this year. Gaytheist and the ‘Rods were so damn good that when the headliner came on my bandmates and I went ahead and Irishbailed three songs in, disappointed and exhausted.

Coattails!

Either you don’t believe me or you think I’m crazy. Fine. Go check em out for yourself.

No Po

If you’re reading this today–Portland Friday–you already missed your chance to haul ass up to the Peninsula, that part of Portland where the Willamette River curves and renders East and West meaningless (the 4 bus will take you right to the front door), where you could have spent the evening at the legendary Mississippi Studios with Martha Stax & Queen Elizabeth.

Every now and then I hear about a newish Portland band and blurt “omg wtf why have I not heard this yet?” (Actually that happens more than once in a while; grad school sucks). Martha Stax has only been around since 2017–they don’t even have a bandcamp page–but they’ve already played Treefort and opened for Kulululu, and now they’ve headlining the Mississippi stage, right under the vintage drum heads.

They had me at “6-piece minimalist/art-rock group” and “a small choir that repeats on a skipping record.” But woe is me, trapped in Paradise on the other side of the planet. According to the band, this is their last show for awhile. Sometimes that means the drummer is moving, sometime that means it’s record-recording time–either way, it could be decades before we hear from them again.

So you missed it. But don’t feel bad–so did I. Better luck next time!

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