As six different people got off the #15 bus to follow me to Portland’s Holocene, I had to reflect on the kind of indie music dedication our city inspires. On a windy, rain-soaked Sunday evening, at least half of the population of this bus were willing to brave the damp and dark to observe the bedroom pop of How to Dress Well, a one-man music project specializing in lo-fi, R&B-influenced spookiness. But that’s the music scene we have and that’s the town I live in.
But first, opening act Grouper took the stage in the back of the venue. Although Holocene’s stage is relatively small (and its ceilings immensely tall), it seemed spacious indeed as a single androgynous individual sat behind a small bank of mixers and equipment, silently adjusting knobs and levels. The sobriquet of Portland’s own Liz Harris, Grouper plays a dreamy, droning variety of ambient music; her guitar is so heavily distorted and blurry that it became difficult to tell when she was strumming strings or when the occasional sample of keys drifted in. Similarly, the performer’s vocals were deliberately pitched somewhere between a croon and a moan, obliterating any sense of lyrics. Though I quickly found myself lulled into a series of yawns by Grouper’s music, the rest of the crowd warmly acknowledged her as she muttered “thank you” at the end of her set, the only words she clearly directed at the audience.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time to clear a small amount of gear and set up a single microphone (and seriously, one microphone on a decent sized stage, you couldn’t have had that already in place?), the lights dimmed and a gangly figure dressed in black stepped on stage. Though Tom Krell, the man behind How to Dress Well, has maintained a mysterious persona since coming to indie prominence through word of mouth and fervent blog praise, he certainly wasn’t shy on stage. While he seemed to prefer to lurk somewhat in the shadow, bending away from the floor lights and shielding his face from visibility as much as possible, he managed a steady patter of commentary between songs. Alternating between sincere thanks for the crowd (and sounding audibly nervous upon first addressing them) and a few wry jokes, Krell launched into the highlights of his debut album Love Remains. He opened with “Lover’s Start,” a promotional video on a projection screen behind him accompanying his vocals. Krell’s music fit the venue neatly, the spare beats sounding more rough than canned in the small space, his falsetto suiting the small echo of the high ceilings.
As the set went on, Krell managed to pause between nearly every song for some small comment, at one point dedicating the entire evening to “Clarissa.” However, before he could explain it all, he muttered that he hoped that meant he wouldn’t be dedicating a sloppy set of songs. But he shouldn’t have worried about it; tracks like “Can’t See My Own Face,” with its muttered vocal overdubs and ghostly synths, sounded as poignant as on the record. While singing, Krell was remarkably emotive, often twisting his arms around his head and torso, arching his body in a weird kind of awkward spasm of a dance. For the kind of distorted echo of slinky, sexual R&B that he creates, it seemed utterly appropriate. Between cool, haunting takes on “My Body” and “Decisions” (which he sardonically introduced as a massive “international hit”), he seemed increasingly comfortable and constantly grateful to be there. The man’s music may be distant and glacially beat driven, but when singing on stage, he seemed just as dedicated as his audience clearly was.