Switching between distorted synth chords and colorful piano tones, employing baroque pop flourishes as well as tastes of honky-tonk, Lia Ices’ set opening for the Sea and Cake played host to a variety of inclinations that rose to the fore live. Her first time playing in Portland, the New York-based singer-songwriter, onstage with guitarist Eliot Kessel, began with “New Myth” off early 2011′s experimentally-tinged Grown Unknown, her nine song debut LP. Trading the placid quietude of the album version for heavy wallops of synthesizer underlined by continuous deluges of drum machine and reverb, it was, if nothing else, an inventive take on the recorded material.
Grown Unknown’s first track, “Love Won” was next, also rendered quicker and with reverb spread thick, nearly excising the song’s subdued drama. Plucked from muddy depths in the tune, its organ line-chorus cut a swath through the haze, and together with the singer’s lively respirations achieved a clarity unheard elsewhere in the set, duly appreciated by the crowd. “Ice Wine,” a phenomenal and sparse chamber piece was rendered swirling and red-blooded, but seemed plodding as well, even as its prominently unconventional structure was hastily traced in wandering guitar licks and slightly overpowering synth strings. The staggered profession, “These fruits that we have grown have froze/ Heavy on the vine,” though, saw the duo capturing the crystalline artistry at work in that tune. Breezing through a newly-penned tune (“Be nice to it,” Ices implored,), a cover and Grown Unknown’s title track, their seven-song set concluded, Ices and Kessel made room for the Sea and Cake.
For all the enthusiasm shown by the crowd for up-and-comer Lia Ices, seconds after the show’s jazzy Chicago headliners took the stage, it was pretty clear who most of the sold-out audience had paid to come watch. The crowd erupting immediately in whistles and howls at the appearance of the quartet; several concertgoers began hurling mild personal insults as well as song requests, ignored or fielded by co-vocalist co-guitarists Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt. Mostly ignored, except in the case of a surprise dance-inducing rendition of “Jacking the Ball” (off their 1994 self-titled debut) that Prekop introduced halfway through the set with, “I’ll take what I can get.” But in terms of gain and contribution, Prekop, Prewitt, John McEntire (drums) and Eric Claridge (bass) brought more to bear than a willingness to appease listeners desiring them to dig deep into their discography (although they played material from several of their nine studio LPs). Wielding an almost preternatural unity on all 19 songs performed that night, the Sea and Cake had no trouble marching through a wide range of moods, from the lurching experimental valleys of earlier records to the tight, poppy strains of “Crossing Line” (from 2007′s Everybody), the latter enveloping Prekop and Prewitt’s capo tones on guitar and the rich brassy twang of Claridge’s bass.
The cheery, swaying “Afternoon Speaker” was also allowed onto the repertoire, rolled back melodically by Prewitt’s nimble guitar at the end of each measure. In nearly every case, each member played through an entire song without stopping at all, providing the loose framework each song relied on, and the commitment to frenetic output ensured every track was infused with liveliness and vigor. This unyielding momentum carried all the way to the open-handed, jangly chords Prekop adopted and the massive hammers Prewitt had on hand for encore closer “Parasol” (another audience request, from 1995′s Nassau). Speaking in a half-whisper above the thrum of bass and slices of guitar distortion, Prekop sang, “So it’s possible I am the ghost of this/ We are the barely slighted/ Real on time lay rest the sugar.” Typically oblique lyrics aside, all in all you could say it went well. McEntire’s crash cymbals and toms were put to good work tearing and skipping through the set at full tilt, and Claridge kept shaking out his hands between songs. Prewitt swung his guitar a bunch while Prekop mumbled into the pockets of his red flannel shirt, never losing composure or that which counts for concentration nowadays. Bold, confident, lionized, flexible in concert and still innovative nearly 20 years after first coalescing — the Sea and Cake still got it.