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First of all, Portland loves cute and quirky. Living here, that almost seems self-explanatory, like having to state that Florida has swamps or New York City has a high sense of self-esteem in where it stands in relation to the other cities of the world. But Portland absolutely adores cheekiness, winsomeness and basically anything that can be described by adjectives that are themselves as cute as those other ones. So, of course, Portland loves She & Him. The musical partnership of actress Zooey Deschanel (Elf, 500 Days of Summer) and adopted son M. Ward, the duo’s second album (tellingly named Volume Two) sees the pair touring nationally with a full band, and sees myself in the audience for their first Portland show at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Despite both of their albums largely being recorded (the duo originally began as a series of emailed shared ideas) in Portland, She & Him had yet to play here in town and despite residing here and being a music critic/snob with loud opinions, I had yet to actually see a show at the prestigious Arlene Schnitzer, or Schnitz, as it’s apparently called. Having missed David Byrne at the same venue on his recent “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno Tour” (of which my editor gleefully informed me was one of the best concerts of his life), I was determined not to miss this particular show. However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the opulence of the Schnitz. Used to venues packed with pearl-buttoned plaid shirts and mustaches, it was a change to actually have assigned seats, ushers and balconies. Beers were served with caps and straws, nobody apparently was kicked out of the show and in short, it’s a classy establishment. Curtains, even.

After my concert companion and I had navigated our way to our seats and past well-wishers and other random PDX friends, the show began almost immediately. The opening act, rhythm guitarist and producer Mike Coykendall, looking like that weird old uncle who gets really into old LPs and alternate tunings, came on stage first, swiftly followed by a newly clean-shaven Ward and finally Deschanel herself, to thundering applause. Looking appropriately pixie-like in a short dress and tall boots (also because she looks to be about six inches tall), she launched into “Change Is Hard,” a winsome, pedal steel-driven number from Volume One. The dreamily weary, romantic mood was set from the first chorus of “Change is hard, I should know/ I should know.”

Deschanel and Ward alternated their original songs with covers throughout the course of the set, with nearly each song opening under cold, downcast lights and slowly warming and brightening to reds and oranges towards the denouement. A gentle duet of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” (minus the band) showcased the easy chemistry between the two, as well as Ward’s restrained, leathery vocals. The same went for NRBQ’s “Ridin’ In My Car,” which benefited from his too-few vocals.

Dressed in a hipster-approved red and black plaid lumberjack, Ward’s onstage charisma was relatively muted (at least compared to Deschanel’s spirited bounces and kicks across center stage) and his guitar was badly in need of a dose of volume, particularly on the burning solo to “In The Sun.” But the energy was there, particularly from back-up singers Lily and Abigail Chapin.

As the evening went on, a casual atmosphere seemed to take over the crowd and the band, with Deschanel quipping that the evening was going “not too shabby” and telling an anecdote about her Lake Oswego-dwelling grandparents. When she dove into a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” Deschanel hit vocal peaks that her records don’t even hint at. She may be the She, but she’s certainly not just another dabbling movie star.

(Photos: Ryan Dornfeld)

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