Would you rather see an extraordinary concert that lasts 35 minutes or stand through 90 minutes of a middling band?
Would you rather see an extraordinary concert that lasts 35 minutes or stand through 90 minutes of a middling band? That is the question I texted a friend the day after serpentwithfeet’s brief, yet exquisite, set at Holocene. For full disclosure’s sake, being guest-listed diminishes the sting of a show’s money worthiness, but when an artist puts on an atypically long or short performance, it raises the question of how much time/what sort of experience is commensurate with the price of admission.
I was first tipped to serpentwithfeet, Josiah Wise’s electro/gospel/confessional project, when the Brooklyn-based artist opened for Perfume Genius last year. Wise’s performance was emotionally profound and, unlike most of the opening bands I’ve seen, his music stuck with me. The woman next to me wept through his set. Months later, I was still intrigued enough to check out his headlining performance when he came to Portland in support of his debut LP, soil, now out on Secretly Canadian.
A lot of care went into the stage set up. A black Cabbage Patch Doll rested on the edge of Wise’s keyboard and white fabric hung from his tables. The stage was put together just so Wise could spend his set alternating between playing the keys and moving about the stage, dancing and singing.
Much of Wise’s songs deal with heartbreak, specifically the nuances of being queer and in love. Wearing a flowing white jacket and camouflaged hat, Wise impressed right out of the gate, showing off the impressive range of his voice and his dance moves. Watching a serpentwithfeet performance feels voyeuristic in a way, almost as if prying into the artist’s secret diary. Although this particular performance didn’t plumb the same emotional depths as his opening slot for Perfume Genius, there were plenty of highs and lows.
Wise spent some time between songs almost speak-singing about the need to spend time talking with a loved one, that relationships cannot be purely sexual. He recognized the difficulty in cultivating a partnership that can last, especially in the day and age of quick hook-ups. “Already I need you/ Someday I’ll plant seeds with you,” he intoned during “waft,” fully aware that without a care, his pairing may wither away.
The audience hooted and cheered when appropriate. A quartet of ecstatic dancers who dominated the floor during the opener’s set tried to spread out and steal the attention from Wise, but the packed-in crowd didn’t allow them the room. All the better; watching Wise was much more appealing.
In a day where the encore is something expected and not earned, it felt inconceivable when Wise left the stage after a brief 35 minutes and never returned. He gave no indication that we were a poor crowd or that fatigue had set in. When the lights came on, people looked around in disbelief and then began to file out. Maybe Wise simply felt 35 minutes of pure emotion was plenty enough.