Weekly (p)reviews: From What to Why

Mat Randol on a sharp level, Doug Martsch at Sou’Wester, Megadeth and Lamb of God at Moda

Stopping Portland musician Mat Randol in his tracks for even a few minutes ain’t easy. Especially in 2021, a year that has already seen the release of two albums bearing his name: Why Are You Like This?, a braggadocious collaboration with fellow local rhymer YoungShirtMayne, and What Are You Afraid Of?, his measured, introspective solo joint that dropped last month.

Through this stretch, Randol hasn’t dared to take his foot off the accelerator, flitting about the city and online doing the tireless work of self-promotion. He, with a little help from New Left Media, put together a livestream performance of Why Are You Like This? this past April. Randol’s been hitting the stage, too, headlining (with YoungShirtMayne) the first post-pandemic edition of The Thesis, the hip-hop showcase held monthly at Kelly’s Olympian. He’ll be returning to that downtown venue this Saturday, September 11th, to celebrate the release of What Are You Afraid Of? 

In and around that, Randol has continued to write and record new material, capitalizing on this creative hot streak while he’s in the thick of it. “I’m in a space where I don’t want to stop,” Randol says, speaking on the phone during a break from a recent studio session. “I just wanna keep going.” 

After spending some time with the two LPs he’s released this year, there’s good reason to encourage Randol’s compulsion to continue on. He answers the questions found in the titles of each—inquiries that he has received from others or that he’s asking of himself—with cocksure attitude and daring sincerity. 

On Why, Randol’s responses are all flex. Over a splashy beat from fellow Portlander sxlxmxn, he declares, “With a pen I feel like Jordan… I’ve done it all except for move to Utah and become a Mormon.” But on What, Randol spends much of the album spelling out his anxieties: his insecurity about his voice and talent, struggles with faith, and, on the moving “Up To You,” the constant push-pull of his romantic relationships. “It’s hard for me to trust you, that don’t mean I don’t love you,” Randol spills on the track. “Truth is I don’t trust me.” 

Heard back-to-back, the contrast between the two albums, in both tone and content, is electrifying. It’s not an unusual mood shift for a rapper that grew up loving artists like Lauryn Hill, Black Star, and Common—all artists that ably balanced the soft and hard. But for Randol, the juxtaposition feels impressive when taking into account that he was working on his 2021 albums simultaneously. “I mean, that’s the beautiful thing about me is having many layers to myself,” he says. “The spirit of working with Shirty inspired me to want to create my own songs.” 

Not that Randol needed much of a push to create. He’s been doing just that for the past six years, dropping a steady stream of solo material and guest verses along with heady collaborations like Starting To Realize Everything Still Stands, the psych jazz-rap combo he’s in with guitarist Harvee Bird and multi-instrumentalist Sir Nai. It’s an impressive and varied discography by any measure, but as proud as he is of the work, Randol says he “only just got good this year.” 

“Ah… you know, that’s a lie,” he quickly backtracks. “I’ll say 2019 going into 2020 I hit a different stride because I started pushing myself to create at a faster pace. That kind of hyperdrive development. I think that’s when I got good and I’m on a sharp level right now.” 

Mat Randol’s album release show is on Saturday, September 11 at Kelly’s Olympian (426 SW Washington St., Portland), with Nia Joe, The Dutchess, and Brlll. Doors at 8:30 pm. Tickets: $8 advance, $10 at the door. 

Doug Martsch @ Sou’wester Lodge, Seaview WA, August 12, 2021

Doug Martsch has come out of the shadows of the pandemic with an impressive drive. The Built to Spill leader has been booking as many shows as his skinny body can manage in recent months, almost all of them happening in and around Portland. (He’s set to open for local psych rockers Federale this Friday at Mississippi Studios.) His excitable schedule has also taken him outside our city, with stops in Seattle, and last month, to the Sou’wester Lodge, the hipster enclave of vintage travel trailers and a favorite vacation spot for Portlanders. 

The performance was a fundraiser for the lodge’s arts foundation, and because it was held outdoors and ticket sales were kept to a minimum for the benefit of social distancing, it was a humble, homey affair. Folks splayed about the ground level stage on blankets or hunched over nearby picnic tables. As the 90-minute set neared its end, Martsch explained that he’d better wrap it up lest he continue to annoy the nearby homeowners. “She just texted and said it sounds great,” a voice replied.

Doug Martsch at Sou'wester Lodge, September 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Doug Martsch at Sou’wester Lodge, August 12, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

It certainly did. Martsch took the stage with zero fanfare or introduction, snapping folks to attention with a reverb-soaked rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and rolling forward with a long evening of loosely faithful, mostly acoustic covers. (The only exception was a charmingly odd rendition of Violent Femmes’ “Good Feeling” performed using an Omnichord.) He dipped into his own catalog sparingly, with stripped back takes on a few Built To Spill favorites and a pair of slide guitar heavy tunes from his 2002 solo effort Now You Know

The overall mood was one of pure relief. A small return to normalcy, even as the clusters of attendees stayed apart from each other for the sake of safety. The easement only grew as ripples of excitement flowed through the audience when they heard the opening notes of a BTS favorite and recognized the first lines of Norma Tanega’s “You’re Dead” or Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren.” The grins on people’s faces were obvious even behind their masks.

Megadeth / Lamb of God @ Moda Center, September 4, 2021

With Labor Day approaching, an unfortunate wave of controversies at their heels, and their first post-pandemic tour underway, Megadeth hit the stage of Moda Center this past Friday eager to get down to business. Frontman Dave Mustaine even dressed the part, with a simple white button-down and black jeans. And he moved with simple purpose, strolling up to the microphone to snarl out the lyrics to “Wake Up Dead,” “Sweating Bullets,” “Symphony of Destruction,” and other thrash metal classics. When the moment came, he sidled up to the lip of the stage to peel off a quick guitar solo. No muss, no fuss. 

His bandmates, guitarist Kiko Loureiro and newly installed bassist James LoMenzo, followed his lead. They disappeared between songs and popped up right when their parts began. All three slid up and down the mostly bare stage with the precision of the players in a table top hockey game. The hour-long set was as solid, workmanlike and uninspiring as a London tower block. 

Perhaps that’s why the mostly masked, supposedly all vaccinated (or COVID free) crowd responded to Megadeth as they did: appreciative yet muted. Mustaine is one of the elder statesmen of American metal (he turns 60 in less than a week) and certainly earned their respect. But it hardly compared to the torrent of energy and enthusiasm that Lamb of God generated during their opening set.

Lamb of God at Moda Center, September 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Lamb of God at Moda Center, September 4, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

The long-running Virginia quintet have long existed in the shadow of Megadeth and the other bands in metal’s Big 4, even serving as support act for Slayer and Metallica in recent years. But for this run of shows, LoG are making a big noise from their second tier position. Where Megadeth’s stage setup consisted of six tall video screens that ran through a series of animated backdrops, LoG brought pyrotechnics and steam. And the five members of the band were all chaos energy, bounding around the stage with fearless elan. 

Combined with the tightly wound fury that the group brought to this career-spanning set, LoG’s intensity and heat noticeably stirred things up in the crowd. The general admission section at the front of the stage heaved and clashed with sweaty abandon nonstop—a collective release of pent up pressure with little interest in social distancing or mask mandates. And throughout the apparently sold out arena, the rest of the audience were all raised fists and strained throats. Is it any wonder they had little fire left for the headliners?

Lamb of God at Moda Center, September 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Lamb of God at Moda Center, September 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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