The doormen were already turning people away as I walked to the ticket window at the Doug Fir Lounge, with SOLD OUT signs plastered over the glass and doors. Nevertheless, a hopeless queue was forming behind me. After all, Portland is exactly the sort of town to welcome both Department of Eagles and their opening act, Seattle’s The Cave Singers. Once in the comfortable lodge-like surroundings of the stage, I sat back and eavesdropped: aside from the usual (and justified) complaints of Ticketmaster’s seemingly 1000% service charge and hipsters judging other hipsters for either having too tight of pants or not tight enough, it appeared that as many people were here to see the openers as the actual headliners.
Both bands have supergroup pedigrees of the most indie sort. Department of Eagles is the product of college roommates Fred Nicolaus and Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, while The Cave Singers was formed by Derek Fudesco (of the late Pretty Girls Make Graves and Murder City Devils), along with Pete Quirk and Marty Lund, both Seattle staples. My companions arrived just as the lights dimmed and the floor began filling up; by the time The Cave Singers stepped on stage, we tall folk were beginning to be cursed out by our short brethren. Short people can be nasty, as the poet Newman once opined.
The trio of The Cave Singers apparently once performed in much more elaborate garb, in a pseudo-military style not unlike The Decemberists. They’ve apparently toned that down, as they looked like any three random members of the audience who wandered on stage. That is, until they started playing: Pete Quirk, the lead vocalist, sings with a raspy bleat that ranges from a gentle whisper to an unhinged howl, punctuating lyrics like “new birds have been winking/ And I dream of your hand/ I’m on drugs and there’s a mirror/ But I don’t need to stare,” with sudden yelps and growls. Fudesco sat atop a stool and fingered a classical guitar through the set; his guitar lines are the backbones of most of the songs, simple hypnotic riffs that stick in your memory long after the songs are over, while Marty Lund beat on a minimal drum kit and occasionally switched to a Kraftwerk-style synthesizer. In particular, the synthesizer chugged and shimmered beautifully on “Helen,” a beautiful, haunting song that sounds like the memory of a damp highway. Closing song “Dancing on Our Graves” was met with fervent cheers and with good reason: Quirk set aside his melodica for a maraca and tambourine and Fudesco unleashed his most sinister riff for this one number. Its album version is bracing; live, it’s chilling and maniacal.
After a few minutes, Department of Eagles took the stage amidst a bevy of technical issues. Rossen and Nicolaus were joined by an unnamed bassist (who bore the brunt of the tech mishaps, his bass sounding like a white noise generator for a while) and drummer, but began the show with a solo banjo rendition of “Balmy Night.” My companions took a while to warm up to the band, but slowly the gentle melodies and high crooning took them over; the whole crowd became that eternally strange sight of young immaculately dressed boys and girls not quite dancing, not quite swaying, only dreamily moving in vague time to the music. Rossen’s vocals sometimes verge on the affected, but the music is so delicately constructed: from their early experiments with sound collage and sampling, Department of Eagles has crafted a niche of not-quite-folk, not-quite-pop music, but something strange and blissful.
Throughout the show, audience members shouted requests at the stage, and after a while, I couldn’t tell if they were just random drunken phrases or actual song titles: “Forty Dollar Rug” certainly seemed popular, but “On Glaze” (or perhaps “Anglais”?) or “The Horse You Ride” could have been anything. The technical issues continued (at one point, Nicolaus pressed the bassist for his stand-up routine, at which point he queried the crowd for the differences between men and women), but superb run-thrus of “1997” and latest single “No One Does It Like You” were unhampered. The final encore, a new and unnamed song, was a highlight – Rossen quickly sampled his own vocals and performed acoustically, harmonizing with himself. It was a sudden, startling, and beautiful end to their set, Rossen’s voice wrapping around itself in a burst of applause.
Strange how things sometimes turn out – I’d been revved up to see Department of Eagles and had not heard a single note of The Cave Singers, but it’s the latter that still sticks most in my mind. There was a ferocity and simple presence in the opener that the headliner lacked (perhaps they can take a mulligan for technical accidents). Both of the bands are going to continue on my iPod with frequency, but if I have to choose between two shows in the future, I already know what I’m deciding.
[Photos: Melissa Chu]