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OR Treatswatch: Masked mandrakes

In which we pull up a clutch of Halloween shows, screaming, by the roots.

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The Darkness has returned to Oregon. The rains have come again, dousing fires and clearing away smoke and smog; the trees and soil grow green and grey with the revitalizing damp; a million earthworms wriggle in celebration; a million birds sing their avian declaration, “supper’s ready!” The sun creeps ever earlier under the horizon, shrouded behind deep, dark banks of heavy cloud cover, passing now from airy leveling Libra into the sneaking water sign of Scorpio.

Halloween is upon us. The Feast of All Saints. Día de muertos. Night of the Living Dead. Samhain. And you know what that means, dear reader.

It’s time for a costume party!

Playing dress-up

We humans have always had a penchant for masks and facepaint and all kinds of costumes. From the famous antler headdresses of ancient shamans and the carved wooden masks of Indonesia and the Pacific Northwest (read David Bates’ recent piece on Pacific Northwest art here) to the Guy Fawkes and Richard Nixon masks worn in the modern era, these disguises have a very specific purpose–not necessarily simply to hide the wearer’s mundane identity, but to transmute it into something transcendent. To wear any sort of mask or costume is to participate in a transformative ritual–and the transformed element can be your own inner self, or the entirety of your society, or anything in between.

Today we’ll skip the trickster traditions and indulge in some friendly treats, starting with The Tribute Band Phenomenon. Every band knows a few cover songs–music written by somebody else. Classical groups do this almost exclusively, of course, but most bands in the blues/jazz/rock/etc. tradition prefer to have in-house composers to come up with original music. Even here, though, there’s always a lot of love for a choice cover, for instance the beloved Echo & the Bunnymen version of “People Are Strange” you know from Lost Boys or Ghostlight Orchestra’s bone-melting rendition of “Dead Man’s Party”:

There has since arisen a tradition of The Tribute Band: bands who specialize in dressing up as some more famous band all the time. Occasionally there’s a twist on that gimmick, as in the case of Lez Zeppelin or AC/DShe; or consider Portland’s Klingon rockers Stovokor, who do write original music but never break kayfabe. And Halloween is often a time for bands who “wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing” to go crazy and play Tribute Band for one night before returning to their regular programming.

Which brings us to Jenny Don’t and The Spurs playing Danzig at Mississippi Studios on Halloween night. In true tribute band tradition, they’re calling themselves Jenzig.

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Now, if you know The Spurs you’re either scratching your head or already buying tickets. This quartet has been a Portland favorite for a decade now, with a raw, punky, crooning, down-home roots-country sound and a fanbase that followed them over from the other bands they’d all played in (Pierced Arrows, Wipers). Their albums are terrific and their shows are a blast. And they’re distinctly not a heavy metal band.

This is the fun of masks, of course. Whether we’ll hear The Spurs going all metal (which would be grand) or doing their own twangy twist on undead masterpieces like “Mother” and “How the Gods Kill” (much more likely), it’s sure to be a real treat. It’s a damn fine fit in any case, Glenn Danzig being a helluva crooner himself. Bonus macabre points: founding Spurs member, Wipers drummer, and Oregon Music Hall of Famer Sam Henry will certainly be there in spirit, having passed into the sublime earlier this year.

There are a few other noteworthy costume shows coming up, though none as notable as Jenzig. At Show Bar, also on Halloween, one of Portland’s many surf bands–Spooky Boys, playing a set of Arctic Monkeys songs–opens for a local Strokes tribute band calling themselves The Stronks. Also at Show Bar, on the 28th, “an unholy cast of Portland music community veterans” called Dead Astaire does their annual monster mash of music by Boingo, Bowie, Cure, et alia.

Long-running Talking Heads tribute band Life During Wartime (whose name grows more apropos with each passing election) plays Polaris Hall on the 29th. They’ll be playing music from their debut album of original songs–a strange thing for such bands, though not without precedent (Nirvana started as a Credence cover band, believe it or not). LDW will also be doing their “let’s perform all of Stop Making Sense” routine, a madly ambitious bit of audacity.

Also on the bill with LDW: a Fleetwood Mac tribute named Taken by the Sky (taken from a line from “Rhiannon”). And past the veil, on November 2, the touring project Black Jacket Symphony will be performing all of Led Zeppelin IV at Revolution Hall.

Sweet dreams

The best costume party of all, of course, is The Saloon Ensemble’s annual bacchanale at Alberta Rose Theatre. Yes, that’s right, their deliberately misspelled Nitemare B4 Xmas is back for another journey into the underworld. Since the Oregon Symphony is skipping its Nightmare performance this year (opting instead for the kid-friendly Hocus Pocus with its unmemorable John Debney score) this is your only chance to hear Danny Elfman’s music in Oregon this season. Tickets are still on sale for Elfman’s Big Mess concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and also for his Cello Concerto with Gautier Capuçon and the San Francisco Symphony, but you’d have to go all the way to (shudder) California. Isn’t life scary enough?

Anyways, this Nitemare is possibly the best thing still happening in Portland. The present author has already enthused about this little miracle quite enough, so we’ll simply quote from our review of the 2019 performance:

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Saloon’s Nitemare is many kinds of show–a kid’s show, a variety show, a retelling of a seasonal myth, a big-band dance show, an enthusiastic singspiel–and there’s something timeless about that sort of despecialization; the production’s smattering of amateurish elements only added to that feeling. But that’s not to say that any of it was poorly performed–the show was grand, simply grand, and the band kicked ass, with extra points to the vocal trio and to wolf-headed saxophonist Joshua Cliburn for bridging Elfman’s ‘30s-obsessed Weill/Ellington style and the Saloon Ensemble’s hokey Lawrence Welk, Benny Hill, cantina band schtick.

The hootenanny, in other words, was a perfect example of what it looks like when the people take matters into their own hands–when a love of music and myth overrides institutional concerns and “the enemy of the good” and creates a living theater. I hope this show runs for a century.

This year’s Nitemare runs October 27-30, with matinees on the weekend. Get your tickets right here.

For more spooky cabaret action, you might brave the wastelands of Downtown Portland for Miz Kitty’s Parlour Vaudeville Variety Show at The Old Church on the 29th. This 21-and-over shindig is in its 21st season, and they’re celebrating in grand style: music from the Andrews Sisters style vocal trio Libertine Belles and accordionist Mike Danner, plus a “juggling master” and a “historical conjurer” and “slow camera papparazzi” live-painting the show and gods know what else. Sounds insane, and just about purrrrrfect.

Perhaps the safest, tamest, churchiest of Halloween concerts is Trinity Episcopal’s annual Halloween Organ Spooktacular, which sounds a lot grislier than it actually is (the only organ on display is the cathedral’s Manuel Rosales Opus 11, 54-stop, 85-rank tracker organ, which you can read about in Daryl Browne’s recent profile). On the 29th, Trinity’s new Canon of Cathedral Music–organist extraordinaire Katherine Webb–will perform spooky classical music, stuff like Bach’s notorious Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Get a taste from last year’s concert, featuring Webb and former Trinity organist Bruce Neswick:

¡Viva la muerte!

We leave you with Milagro’s 26th annual Día de Muertos observance, which started this week and runs through The Day Itself, November 2. ArtsWatch Theater Editor Marty Hughley has this to say about it:

While Halloween seems to be mostly about candy and elaborate masquerades of the macabre, Day of the Dead celebrations, with their implicit acknowledgement of death and life as eternal co-dependents, retain a bit more symbolic connection to our cyclical/seasonal world. And so, after years of concocting narrative and thematic concepts for its annual presentations, Milagro’s latest Viva la Muerte show, the theater says, “returns to its original Día de Muertos traditions with an espectáculo filled with dances, songs, poems, calaveras, monologues, and more.” Nice and cyclical.

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Music and dancing are integral parts of Milagro’s Día de Muertos show. Photo by Kat Leon.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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