Weekly (p)reviews: Pulled back into a catapult

Spoon Benders burst out, Kadren busts a rhythmic rhyme, Kiefer tumbles forward

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In the continuing conversations about the state of the music industry during and post-pandemic, no one was truly worried about the already established artists and institutions. To them, this was an unfortunate hit of the pause button on their continued trajectory. 

The wringing of hands concerned the up-and-comers who were poised to stake their claim before things shut down. There was no way of knowing if they would get back on track or finally gain some purchase once the world opened up safely again. For most, it’s a square one situation. But one pair of rising Portland artists is somehow coming out of the lockdown in a better place than when they went in. 

Spoon Benders had barely been together a year before the world ground to a halt in 2020. But in that brief window of time, the quartet had drawn a lot of attention their way thanks to a volatile mixture of slashing punk, doom metal, and exploratory psych rock that only became more explosive in a live setting. The group was getting better show offers and had their debut album Dura Mater ready for release. Then they were forced into a holding pattern.

“It was hard,” remembers guitarist and vocalist Katy Black. “We practiced pretty much the same amount as we did before the pandemic, but playing just for us for that long, it was hard to stay inspired. I missed the energy of the crowd. You didn’t have any idea when we were gonna play ever again.” 

Even without the instant feedback from a live audience, Spoon Benders soon found out how much people were still paying attention. Last July, they were tapped as one of the city’s Best New Bands in Willamette Week’s annual survey of the local music community. Thanks to that, the group was invited to star in an ad for a new line of Fender guitars. The buzz surrounding the band only got louder, so that when they hit the stage of Doug Fir Lounge for the first time in 18 months, Spoon Benders were playing to a sold out crowd.

“That ball continuing to roll? I don’t know what I can credit that to,” drummer AJ Herald says. “I think we all felt like we were getting pulled back into a catapult and that when venues were opened back up, we were just going to slingshot and burst out. And that’s what’s happening. And it feels wonderful and scary.” 

The speed with which Spoon Benders’ audience has connected with fans is especially remarkable considering that Black, the group’s principal songwriter, had never picked up a guitar before a few years ago. She was spotted by Herald at her coffee shop day job and, after a conversation about music, bluffed her way into jamming with the drummer. 

Soon, the pair were writing the rough-and-ready tunes that make up Dura Mater and fleshing them out with Buffy Pastor, a seasoned guitarist that brought a glammy edge to the band, and bassist Velvet–a musician that, like Black, is still fairly new to the musical game. That combination of skill levels gives a song like “Cut Behind,” the quartet’s latest single, an enticing tension. Black and Velvet’s blunt playing wedges within Herald’s swinging groove and the molten lead of Pastor’s leads. 

“When you have two musicians who are totally fresh,” says Herald, “that brings me back to what it was like when I was first learning to play. What Katy and Velvet can do now after only playing for, what, two years? Three years? It’s fucking incredible. And the way we all blend together, it seems like something cosmic, honestly.” 

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The stars are continuing to align in Spoon Benders’ favor. The group’s next show, a tour kick-off at Bunk Bar, quickly sold out and anticipation is high for the rest of their month-long run of shows along the West Coast. The quartet is also becoming the go-to opener for touring acts like Oakland-based rockers Whiskerman who invited the group to join the bill on their November 16 date at Polaris Hall. 

“We’re touring/finalizing and writing the next album, and hopefully we’ll spend the winter recording it,” says Black. “But then we keep getting offers for really sick shows. It’s hard, especially after COVID. I don’t want to say no.”

Another Portland artist receiving non-refusable offers these days is Kadren. Barely out of his teens and with barely a dozen tracks publicly available, the rapper/producer is starting to bubble up through the city’s already roiling hip-hop scene. And he’s about to get his most public boost yet with a spot performing at Mississippi Studios this Thursday. 

“I only have two songs out and somebody wanted me to open up for them. That says a lot,” Kadren admits. “It’s a great time to be doing what I’m doing right now. This is what I’ve been working for since 2017. This is what I’ve been grinding for. People are enjoying my music.” 

All the modern metrics that make or break artists today back Kadren up. The video for his single “Beast Mode,” released this past June, has racked up over 40,000 views on YouTube, and his most recent track “League of My Own,” a squirrelly little bop featuring a guest verse from Niro Gotti, another on-the-cusp local rapper, is well on its way to hitting similar numbers.

Kadren’s appeal isn’t difficult to appreciate. He’s an avowed acolyte of superstar multi hyphenates Kanye West and Travis Scott, and the connections of those artists’ work to his own are clear and present. The influence of the latter is there in the way Kadren pitches his voice up to a questioning timbre at the end of every line on “League.” And in his production work on these tracks, he echoes the former’s flexible yet sturdy approach to rhythm. 

In Kanye’s use of drum tracks, especially on 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, Kadren also heard the music that his father, the late percussionist and educator Chata Addy, played in concerts around the Northwest. “They were so different,” Kadren says of the West album, “but at the same time I understood it because of my heritage. At that time, you would be laughed at for being African or doing something like those kinds of drums. That made me feel like, ‘Damn, there’s some cool stuff going on.’”

Kadren.

Inspired by his dad and the beats his older brother was cooking up using production software FL Studio, Kadren started making his own work during high school. It took him some time to get up the nerve to add his own vocals to it. But as he developed his sound, the draw to rhyme became too great to ignore. “I didn’t really take it seriously until 2018,” he says.

The tracks he made early on were slow to emerge on the Internet, but his output has grown dramatically over the past 18 months. With the coronavirus lockdown giving him time to focus solely on music, Kadren has sped up the assembly line. His two EPs of instrumentals are, by turns, steely and liquid. His insistent beats are given a lift by the addition of a stinging guitar lead, a barreling piano line, or a melody that sounds as if it was being broadcast underwater. More recently, he dared to make some unofficial remixes of tracks by Rick Ross and Big Sean that paint each one in more psychedelic colors. 

This is, as Kadren puts it, “only a shave off of the sphere of what I can actually do.” When he hits the stage at Mississippi Studios this Thursday, the plan is to give fans the full picture. “You expect to hear what I really get into and what I really enjoy making,” he says. “Not that I don’t enjoy what I’ve put out, but I put more time and effort into this music you’re gonna hear.” 

Spoon Benders perform at Bunk Bar (1028 SE Water Ave, Portland OR) on Thursday, October 9 w/ The Macks. 9:30 pm. Sold out. / Kadren performs at Mississippi Studios (3939 N Mississippi Ave., Portland OR) on Thursday, October 9 w/ Fountaine, Heavygold, and Sotae. 8 pm. Tickets: $10. 

Kiefer @ Holocene, October 3, 2021

Like an improv troupe, a jazz ensemble only works if it’s made up of people that feel comfortable failing in front of one another. That’s where the really risky and exciting moments happen. So it was that, during a deep pocket take on the Crusaders’ “When There’s Love Around,” keyboardist Kiefer nearly got out over his skis. The young L.A. musician took the spotlight for an extended shimmering solo but kept losing the thread. Brief flickers of panic hit his face as he shot looks at the ensemble on stage at Holocene with him. Just as quickly, Kiefer found his way back into the song, dashing off quick whorls and flashes of glitter from his keyboard.

Kiefer @ Holocene, October 3, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Kiefer @ Holocene, October 3, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

Much of the hour-long set had that same exhilarating feel. These battle-tested players—Kiefer, saxophonist Lenard Simpson, drummer Luke Titus, bassist Andy McCauley, and keyboardist Jonathan Huber—kept daring to slip out onto various limbs, just to see what might happen.

Titus worked his way out of and back into a groove with stuttering off-beats and accents, and his long solo threatened to snap free of the song’s stem. Simpson shook Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” into a fluttering, synthetic sounding flight with a judicious use of effects pedals. And throughout, Kiefer kept pulling up, taking brief pauses to get his bearings as he crept further and further out during his solos. He knew if he tumbled down, the rest of the group would be there to catch him.

Kiefer @ Holocene, October 3, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Kiefer @ Holocene, October 3, 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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