A good concert can transcend anything.
A good concert can transcend anything. When the dust settles on the memory of Colter Wall’s Portland show, I will likely not remember a new nadir of audience behavior, but rather the Canadian folk singer’s rapturous set.
Even before the lights went down, the guy in front of me had lit up his joint. He told a bunch of dubious tales: he was Wall’s roadie, he sold marijuana seeds for $100 each, that he had more money than he knew what to do with it. Despite a promise to pass this joint around the audience, this guy proceeded to puff the entire thing. Then, the lights went down and Wall stepped out onto the stage to play a solo set armed with nothing but his acoustic guitar.
Born in Saskatchewan in 1995, Wall’s songs carry a weariness that belie his young age. His voice, deep and smooth like well-worn leather, may be his most arresting feature; however, young Mr. Wall also plays a mean guitar and writes songs that rival his idols such as Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. In fact, nearly a third of Wall’s 90-minute set consisted of covers of songs by Van Zandt, Blaze Foley and Jimmie Rodgers. After a brief monologue about his recent tour in California, Wall kicked off his set with a version of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi.”
It should have been a quiet moment, yet the stoner dude was up to something, making crinkling noises from where he stood inches away from Wall. After fashioning a pipe out of a beer can, he knelt at the lip of the stage to smoke even more. All around me, people twittered with laughter. If Wall had noticed, and he must have, he didn’t break character, as he moved on to play his own songs such as “Thirteen Silver Dollars.” At this point, the stoned guy headed towards the bar, loudly offering drinks to anyone he passed.
During the solo portion of the set, Wall demonstrated his ability to play rhythm guitar while adding some riffs. He proved to be an engaging storyteller and struck me similar in appearance to a young Kris Kristofferson with his shaggy beard and prominent brow. As Wall laced lyrics from Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” into his own “Me and Big Dave,” the stoner dude came back, carrying two drinks, bartender in tow with two more. They lined the four beverages up on the stage and within minutes, he started shouting at Wall. Moments later, security arrived and told the guy he that needed to go, prompting one of the most sadly hilarious exchanges I’ve heard in a while at a show.
“You’re out,” the burly security guy said.
“No, I’m his roadie.”
“No, you’re not. We’ve thrown you out before, we’re throwing you out now.”
“One more song?”
With the stoner guy out on the street and Wall’s three-piece band backing him, things began to relax. “Kate McCannon” played out even more darkly in the live setting while the timely “You Look to Yours” juxtaposed well with a cover of Foley’s Reagan-baiting “Oval Room.” For all his stoicism, Wall can also cut loose. A lively cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” saw him insert the word “hipsters’” in the chorus in the place of “kicking hippies asses,” turning the song into an audience sing-along.
During most of Wall’s shows, the band finishes with “Sleeping on the Blacktop,” but after an ecstatic response, the singer returned with a solo version of the folk standard “Goodnight, Irene.” Rather than the obligatory encore, this cover felt well-earned. Even if the show was missing great new songs such as “Transcendent Ramblin’ Railroad Blues,” Wall impressed in front of a sold-out crowd. He will be a musician to watch, even if his “roadie” can’t seem to keep out of trouble.