That’s the sound I heard Monday night upon entering the SPACE Gallery to see the Lee Ranaldo Band perform songs off their debut album Between the Times and the Tide to what I expected to be a near-sellout crowd.
It was 8:25, and there were approximately six people inside a venue that was supposedly hosting an evening with a founding member of the seminal indie-rock group Sonic Youth, but by the looks of it, you’d think they were holding a wine and cheese tasting — or a convention for people who enjoyed the movie Howard the Duck. Surely, I was early, I told myself, and once again checked the time listed on the venue website for confirmation of my punctuality. No, I was on-time. “Show starts at 8:30,” it read.
It was 8:40 now.
“They’re coming,” I told myself. “They’ll come…”
They didn’t come.
I walked back in and situated myself off to the right, once again taking in the surreal scene before me. The opening band was taking the stage, and there were at most 10 people in the “audience.” Well, 12, if you include the bartender and that strange bespectacled fellow operating the merchandise table off to the left. Who was that guy anyways? Oh, just Steve Shelley, that other dude from that seminal indie-rock group Sonic Youth, casually chatting with fans and selling tee-shirts as if it were 1986. Bizarre. It’s certainly weird, when statistically speaking, a fifth of the audience of the show you’re at is comprised of members of Sonic Youth. Almost as weird as that time I saw the founding member of Black Flag at that warehouse in Portland. Where the hell was I?
Perhaps there was something I didn’t know, I wondered. Was Lana Del Rey opening? Did Lee trade in his Jazzmaster for an iPad in support of his new dubstep record? Am I really here, God? The questions continued to circle inside my head as I patiently waited for the show to begin. Surely there was something I didn’t know — surely this show was going to suck.
But I was wrong.
It was great.
As openers 200 years took the stage, I braced for the worst, but was unexpectedly taken aback by the simplistic beauty of their minimalist arrangements and haunting vocals, which expertly balanced the coy attitude of Courtney Love at her finest, with the vulnerability and soul of vintage ’90s era Cat Power. A lone guitarist provided gorgeous layers of somber guitar, supplemented on occasion by keyboard and other ambient effects, which helped to create a certain depth and presence to the duo’s stark sound. Even though there was a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon between the stage and the audience, their performance was fabulous, and those in attendance were absolutely attentive and respectful given the circumstances at hand.
Lee Ranaldo and co. took to the stage next, and the crowd shimmied somewhat forward to accompany the band. Don’t get me wrong, the environment was still the equivalent of an open mike performance, but as the band plugged in things became a bit livelier. Greeting the crowd, Ranaldo shared his affection for the city of Portland, saying that he’s becoming more familiar with the area after having played here less than a couple of months ago with M. Ward at the State Theatre, and remained friendly with the audience throughout the night, sharing his views on ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and other subjects. Perhaps this was the reason for the low-turnout, or the Of Monsters and Men show at the State Theatre, but for those of us who missed his previous performance, tonight’s show would gladly suffice.
Due to a shortage of original material, Ranaldo began by stating that the band would be performing several covers throughout the evening and kicked things off with a spectacular take of The Byrds “Everybody’s Been Burned.” Lee explained the song was a longtime favorite of his, and the unconventional tuning seemed right at home for the avant-garde guitarist, who alongside his cohort Thurston Moore has made a name for himself playing guitar in a wide array of tunings. Several songs later he would cover Neil Young’s ‘Revolution Blues’ and I would be more ecstatic than I could ever hope to properly describe in words.
While the covers were a delightful surprise, Ranaldo’s original material was equally impressive, and sounded pretty much like what you would expect from the guy who penned “Hey Joni” and “Skip Tracer” among other Sonic Youth classics. Songs like “Angles,” “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and “Xtina As I Knew Her,” carried Ranaldo’s expressive melodic style with every twist and turn you’d expect from a Sonic Youth song, and were as equally enjoyable as his previous catalog of tunes. Sure, at times, the songs ventured into slightly more straightforward rock territory, but he still played with the same passion and vigor that has come to highlight each of his noteworthy performances. He even busted out his trademark bow to whack on the guitar for good measure. Who could say no to that?
Perhaps I was wrong to assume that the mere mention of the words “Sonic Youth” would draw a crowd large enough to fill a Starbucks, given the fact Thurston Moore sold-out the same venue only months prior, but alas, that wasn’t the case. In the end, the Lee Ranaldo Band show at the SPACE gallery had all the makings of a great rock show: loud guitars, various multicolored stage lights, even a member of Sonic Youth. There was only one thing missing: an audience.