Baba Yaga

MusicWatch Halloween III: The Unveiling

The dead rise in Portland with a feast of tribute bands and other spooks

The world is already a haunted house. Killer clowns, mercenary robots, dystopian surveillance states, wildfires galore–what do you need a haunted house for? Instead, go lurk in the shadows with some dark music and costumed fun. There are dozens of tribute shows and other appropriately spooky concerts happening tonight (All Hallow’s Eve Eve), tomorrow (All Hallow’s Eve), Friday (Samhain), and through the weekend.

Hiding under the covers

Bands these days tend to turn their snotty punk rock noses up at the reviled “cover”–who wants to play someone else’s dead old music, when you could be creating your own new frankenstuff? Normally I heartily approve of this virtuous sentiment, as anyone who’s heard me ask “who the fuck cares about Brahms?” can attest. Local bands are your best source of folk-based contemporary composition, and even the worst among them have a creative joy that even established cover bands like the Oregon Symphony can only rarely match.

But every now and then, these folks like to turn their noses down and play dress up. And by “every now and then,” I mean Halloween season, when the veil between worlds thins to a viscous membrane and musicians reveal their secret hearts–this is the one time of year when it’s not only acceptable but downright Cool to learn Other People’s Music and play it for all your friends. Some bands do this sort of thing full time (Portland’s very busy Talking Heads tribute band Life During Wartime comes to mind), but Halloween season is when basically everybody gets in on the tribute game. Some of these bands are even making the rounds, trick-or-treating around various local venues over the next few days. Here are some of this year’s most exciting costumes.

A Bunk Halloween at Bunk Bar down on Water Avenue features Hell Beside You as Seattle ghouls Alice In Chains, New York Kids as aughts moodsters Interpol, and Victoria as dreamy duo Beach House. Up at North Portland’s stabby Kenton Club, Lobotomen does The Ramones, Danzig Fever does Misfits, Chippunks play “Rodent Punk Classics,” and The Hauer Things plays songs from the Nuggets crypt.


Into the Woods with Baba Yaga

Fertile Ground: Sam Reiter embodies the Slavic wise woman of the forest in a compelling foray into the mythological



The Headwaters Theater is on the beaten tracks. Passing by the huddled Arts and Crafts homes of old North and Northeast Portland and down a winding path, you end up right against the railroad tracks, where the full-speed-ahead comings and goings of lumber-cars packed high to the rafters are signed off by the fugitive and ornate scripts of graffiti artists. It’s then just a small journey to the Headwaters stage: as can never be overstated, Portland’s vibrant theater scene can take you to hidden places, where at the end of the night it is well worth the time. Down this road, heading out to the little-known, you’ll find the creative spark of Sam Reiter’s Baba Yaga.

Reiter as "The Maiden Tsar." Photo: Trevor Sargent

Reiter as “The Maiden Tsar.” Photo: Trevor Sargent

Reiter’s folk-steeped performance, part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, touches on the history and nature of the feminine. There’s been some contemporary ferment history-wise for women, who have been searching for their mostly undocumented past in the grand annals that celebrate battles, buildings, and heads of state. Silvia Federici‘s Caliban and the Witch came out more than a decade ago and signaled a change in the grassroots memories of women through time. The Slavic folk figure Baba Yaga (Bah-buh Yuh-gah) is not necessarily a witch, but rather the personification of the outlaw: an older woman living alone in the forest in a movable house supported by chicken feet. By her connection to a natural and personal power, as reinforced by thunderclaps and frights, she’s been given an overall “yes” from the universe.

Reiter, directed by Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, takes on the powerful-woman mythos in a majestic, loving performance that is an invocation of an old spirit. We’re in a small, but professional-looking theater. The sounds of Gogol Bordello, the Romani punk band from the outskirts of the still-fragmenting Iron Curtain, fill our ears. We’re reminded that our understanding of the Slavic East – Ukraine, the Ashkenazi shtetls, the Russian quarter of a continent – is deficient. While we may leaf through our Nabakov and celebrate his butterfly collection, there’s a deeper literary trust that has been ghosted out by the West. The pushing and pulling begins with Baba Yaga, and with Reiter, dragging along through the metaphysical veil in a specific storytelling tradition that has universal parallels. Baba’s a diva, in the Brahmanic sense, and beyond – like a sweet but uncertain Bangkok rickshaw driver, for instance; or like the jazz legend Miles Davis, half-person in body, and half-spirit, too, a little otherworldly: someone we go to for wisdom, but there’s never enough time on the clock for him to explain what we will barely understand. Reiter has loved Baba Yaga for a long time, and the deep knowledge of the wistful woman is real from the start.

In the next hour, the magic of sunlight passing across morning dew, the fragments of old book pages making the air musty, the hero’s quest, are alive. Reiter, supported by Robert Amico’s effective shadow puppetry, is Baba Yaga: a feral look in her eyes, a young woman transformed into the old crone who transmits messages from the stardust down to us, the very frequent inhabitants who lie in error of the universe.

Layers and layers of images tell some of the many stories of Baba Yaga. The dreams or nightmares we had as children: a panic with breadcrumbs; being saved by small, but impressive animals; finding the way to true love. In many productions of fairytale theater, the obvious intent is to cultivate future theatergoers, and right they should. But Baba Yaga is the pure magic of stardust settling, and because of its very nature, it is prone to singe us here and there. It’s an archetype, resurrected: raw, age-old storytelling.

Baba Yaga, deep in the forest of the mind. Photo: Trevor Sargent

Baba Yaga, deep in the forest of the mind. Photo: Trevor Sargent


Baba Yaga continues through January 28 at The Headwaters. Ticket and schedule information are here.