Polaris Hall, Portland, OR

Kimya Dawson, tonally speaking, is always difficult to pin down. A hero of the anti-folk scene, her simple melodies enthralled a generation of starry-eyed, twee teenagers a decade ago with her contributions to the Juno soundtrack. She writes songs about love and farts, but also a capella songs about Black Lives Matter, and writes lines like “I will lose my shit if even one more person I know dies/ So please don’t die.” Dawson’s been largely quiet since the release of her last solo album, 2011’s Thunder Thighs, outside of Hokey Fright, her album with Aesop Rock as The Uncluded. When last I saw her at Old Church a year ago, she joked about recording her new songs in her bathroom with the members of Sugar Ray, and while funny, it made me worry that we may never see a full album from her again, at least not for a while. Even still, any chance to see her is worth taking, which meant a trip out to the depths of North Portland for a chance to see her.

Polaris Hall is about a year-and-a-half old now, but it still has some growing pains. Reminiscent of an underdeveloped Wonder Ballroom, the decor seemingly unchanged when it was adopted into the Mississippi Studios family. They could also take a lesson in how to divide the room, as the perplexing white picket fence separating the All-Ages section from the 21+ seemed five or six times smaller than that of the of age section, a confusing choice for an artist that thrives on young energy. The venue still sounds good, though, even if it felt like a segment of Portland’s queer community had stormed an Elk’s Lodge to stage an anti-folk show.

The show had a fluid, collaborative feel to it. Seattle’s Clyde Petersen – also known as Your Heart Breaks – opened the show, delivering the heartbreaking song “Our Forbidden Country,” from his newest record, Drone Butch Blues, a collection of songs about the LGBT+ community before the rise of HIV/AIDS. This is depressing subject matter, and Petersen graciously balanced out songs about riots and plague with songs about everything from his crush on his Film Studies professor in college to one about the (true) story of a swan who fell in love with a swan-shaped paddle boat.

Backed by a projector, each song got its own small video, largely comprised of found footage; one got a painfully long gay cruise, while the song about his professor got actual take shot in college: “Hoarding is cool – Fuck that Marie Kondo shit,” he declared when introducing the song. His demeanor remained warm and inviting in spite of the subject material, and did well to ignore the obnoxious, smug-faced twenty-something who felt it acceptable to repeatedly shout “ABOLISH ICE!” in an effort to get the choir he was preaching to to chant with him repeatedly through both sets. He was joined for the remaining four songs by Dawson, happy to be relegated to the role of “backup singer” for awhile, and the duo closed on Drone Butch Blues closer “Keep on Livin.’”

Never one to let her wholesomeness levels plateau too much, Dawson began her set by patiently waiting for an audience member who had requested a song to come sing backup for her. The wait paid off when it turned out that the person turned out to be a 5-year-old girl named Smokey, who had requested “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which she bashfully sand while sitting in her parent’s lap. In the space while she waited, though, she responded to the innocuous question of “How was your weekend?” by stating that her weekend included the funeral of Solvents singer Jarrod Bramson. Death of all types – of loved ones, of children from Dawson’s youth, of unarmed people of color – factored heavily into the set’s first half. A largely banterless Dawson sat, eyes closed, playing through her songs, the bulk of which recorded for the still-absent follow-up to Thunder Thighs. Even the darker songs from that show were accompanied by long, rambling stories that weren’t always about the songs themselves, making the lack of engagement jarring.

Halfway through, though, hospitality mode kicked in, and she realized that she had yet to invite the audience to sit down – “I couldn’t do that, my knees wouldn’t let me!” Her tone shifted, and she began chatting gleefully about the feelings of moms in her neighborhood on Facebook about their children using potty language (her response? To send them a Bandcamp link to her kid’s record, Alphabutt), the Hulu show she binge watched while making art to sell at the show (Ramy), and the lyrical errors of the Juno soundtrack songbook (for those singing “Tire Swing,” her yarns will keep her warm, not her arms). This portion contained the “Best-Of” for her, with “I Like Giants” and “Remember That I Love You,” perhaps in an effort to balance out the wave of sadness that came before. Petersen took the stage once more for a few songs, closing on a thoroughly-derided duet of “Anyone Else but You,” prefaced with both parties agreeing that the song is “incredibly stupid.” It was a sweet and silly end to a night that did well to strike a balance between the bleak and the absurd, and it was comforting that even sorrow can’t squash Dawson’s spirit.

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