Since releasing its eighth record, “All Across This Land,” in October 2015, Blitzen Trapper has played three Portland shows: one in Pioneer Square and two at Revolution Hall. This March and April, they’ll play 28 – all at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
The hard-touring, five-piece, Portland-based band is used to playing in lots of gigs, in lots of different settings. The Pioneer Square appearance was a free concert for Widmer’s “Hefe Day,” in front of a crowd that was mostly interested in beer and that afternoon’s Timbers game. The return visit to Revolution Hall was the final night of the band’s semi-acoustic “Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs” tour, which skewed toward cover songs (ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Smashing Pumpkins), and found the band’s normally laconic frontman, Eric Earley, sharing youthful memories and tales of rock ’n’ roll inspiration. In between, Blitzen Trapper fans could find the group everywhere from a Milwaukee coffee roaster to a Montana ski resort to the upscale City Winery venues in Chicago, Nashville and New York. That’s what it takes to be a viable working band in the age of mobile phones and music streaming.
“You’re basically a trucker,” Earley said.
“I like to think of it as performative furniture moving,” added Brian Adrian Koch, the band’s drummer.
But not for the next five weeks. During that time, Blitzen Trapper will never have to leave the Pearl District – and Koch’s drum kit will slide on and off the stage atop a riser, almost like magic. Such are the perks that theater offers over rock ‘n’ roll. Because if the location of the 28 gigs didn’t already give it away, the band is up to something very different, and unlike anything it – or Portland Center Stage – has ever done before. It’s a show called “Wild and Reckless: A New Concert Event With Blitzen Trapper,” starring the five members of the band, as well as actors Laura Carbonell and Leif Norby.
Commissioned by PCS as part of its “Northwest Stories” series (which has also included the plays “Oregon Trail” and “Astoria”) and co-directed by Rose Riordan and Liam Kaas-Lentz, “Wild and Reckless” is – well, nobody is 100 percent sure what it is, really. The first fliers around town billed it as a “musical event with Blitzen Trapper,” but even that may have led PCS subscribers to expect something along the lines of a twangy “Hamilton,” leading to the “concert” substitution.
“It’s not a musical,” said Riordan, and that’s probably a good thing. Rock ’n’ roll musical theater usually fails to be one or the other. “Wild and Reckless” doesn’t try solve this problem, and also sidesteps the eternal musical riddle of “why are these characters breaking into song?” It’s a Blitzen Trapper show in which the band performs a bunch of new songs. It also has characters and an impressionistic, loosely structured story.
“The big thing about this play – this event – is the sense of time that the audience will experience is a little different,” Kaas-Lentz said. “In a concert, you start a song, and then you sit in the song, and then you get to the end of the song, and you continue with the concert. Whereas in a musical, the plot drives into a song, and the song then drives the plot to the next point. Back to the plot, drive the plot, start another song; that song drives the plot.”
But with “Wild and Reckless,” he said, “It will feel like a concert with a narrative thread.”
The show’s title makes it a sound a bit more rustic than its story really is. Oregon’s natural beauty is part of its world, but so is the state’s history of exploiting all that beauty. It’s also set in the future, albeit, kind of an alternate-reality version of the future based on Portland’s past – the late ’90s and early oughts, formative years for both the city and the band. Earley’s songs and storytelling in the show touch on addiction and what he calls “Old Portland,” offering something of a chronological bridge between “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Portlandia,” with an extra dose of Williams S. Burroughs and a little bit of Edward Abbey.
Those latter influences suggest themselves because, as you might expect of any self-respecting artistic vision of the future – particularly when that vision also includes elements of prog-rock – the Portland of “Wild and Reckless” is dystopian.
The conceit of the show is that, sometime in the future, lightning has been harnessed to generate power: the latest chapter in mankind’s tendency to, as one character puts it, “tame the Earthly forces one by one, to our own short-sighted ends.” But there’s also an addictive byproduct from the “reapers” that harvest all the energy. Users of this “dust” are not only unable to kick (the “works” looks like a cross between a camping torch and a crack pipe), but are also prone to being struck by lightning, which, if they survive, leaves them with permanent, root-like burn scars.
As Earley put it, “What are the symptoms of a society that seeks nothing but power, in all its forms?” The metaphor’s not subtle, but when it’s fueled by loud guitars and Muscle Shoals grooves, it doesn’t have to be. And underneath this sci-fi frame is a much simpler and largely autobiographical story: Small-town boy moves to the city (four of the five members of Blitzen Trapper are from Salem). Boy (Earley’s character is simply called “The Narrator”) meets Girl (Carbonell’s character is, in fact, “The Girl”). They fall in love, and she becomes his muse, but she is also on the “dust.” Eventually they end up on the road, and then …
“I don’t know how much of the story I’m supposed to (give away),” Earley said.
Fair enough. But, to borrow from Chekhov’s famous theatrical truism, if you put a powerfully addictive narcotic in Act 1 of your play …
In a practical sense, Blitzen Trapper fans have Lauren Weedman to thank for the existence of “Wild and Reckless.” The writer, actress and PCS favorite (“BUST, The People’s Republic of Portland”) is also back in town this month with a new one-woman musical, “Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” But because it is a solo show, and Weedman lives in Los Angeles and has a school-age child, there was no way she could perform on the Armory’s big stage eight times a week. So the theater needed something to put on in repertory.
Enter Kaas-Lentz, who is also PCS’s production manager.
“He said, ‘I know a guy,’” said Riordan, the theater’s associate artistic director.
That guy was Kaas-Lentz’s fellow Portland State alumnus Koch, who, when he’s not behind the drums, is a theater person in his own right. Koch best known to Portland audiences as the writer, director and star of a live adaptation of the B-movie – and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” target – “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” and has also been in nearly all the recent Portland-shot TV, including “Portlandia” (way back in Season 1), “Grimm” and “The Librarians.”
Kaas-Lentz asked Koch if the band was sitting on a narrative piece, and Earley sort of was. He’d already been writing Blitzen Trapper’s ninth album, with a storyline about the star-crossed lovers that was based on his own life. Earley also writes (as-yet-unpublished) fiction, including a novel he described as “a huge blown-out work about heroin addiction, robotic science and Old Portland.” That and the music for the album were enough to reverse-engineer a theater piece, which the band workshopped last summer at PCS’s JAW Festival (the acronym stands for “just add water”), kicking off a long process of collaboration among Earley, the band, and Riordan and Kaas-Lentz. The album, also expected to be titled “Wild and Reckless,” is due out later in the year, though PCS will be selling a limited-edition sampler at the performances.
Some of Earley’s songs from the album went into the show as is. Some got tweaked with new lyrics, and some were written expressly for the show. The show also includes several of the band’s old favorites where they seemed thematically or dramatically apt (along with the aforementioned snippet of “Black River Killer,” “Astronaut” is particularly prominent). And in the four months between the JAW Festival and a new round of rehearsals, Earley couldn’t stop himself from writing songs in general.
“It’s my usual process,” he said. “Just keep making stuff, and it will all work out in the end.”
Just as the members of Blitzen Trapper bring Earley’s songwriting and home recordings to life in a different way in the studio and live, “Wild and Reckless” takes that process further, adding directors, a set and costume designer and modest special effects.
“You’re only focused on one thing making a record,” Blitzen Trapper guitarist Erik Menteer said. “It’s just the sonics of it. Whereas in the theater world, we have to make sure everything visually is working out and that everybody’s acting intention is correct.”
Besides Earley, three other members of the band have speaking roles. Menteer plays Joey, another “dust” user connected to Carbonell’s character, The Girl. Koch and multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis are, respectively, The Scientist and The Professor, who both serve as something of Greek chorus, filling in bits of the story. Michael Van Pelt sticks to his bass.
A big part of what Carbonell and Norby brought to the process was not just acting, but being able to fit in with the band as musicians. Carbonell plays quite a bit of keyboard in the show, and Norby learned how to play the congas.
“It’s been pretty intimidating for me coming into this gig, truthfully,” said Norby, who was also in “Astoria” and “Oregon Trail.” “Blitzen Trapper is not only an amazing band, but a fully rounded group of individuals, both musically and artistically.”
Having all the actors play an instrument adds to the sense that you are always watching a band as much as “characters.”
“We kind of get the best of both worlds,” said Carbonell, a Tualatin native who’s spent most of her acting career in New York. “We get to pretend we are in this awesome band and fulfill a theater dream at the same time.”
The overall effect is somewhere between British director John Doyle’s Stephen Sondheim musicals, in which all the actors also play instruments, and the The Who’s “Tommy,” though Earley says his own inspirations were even simpler. As a songwriter, his touchstones are Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt, but for the pomp and bombast of the theater, he looked to ’70s and ’80s favorites like Judas Priest, Queen and even Bruce Springsteen.
“What we’re doing is a sort of mini-arena show, with the lights and the projections and the movement,” Earley said. Most of the band is also using Tom Cruise-in-“Mission Impossible”-style wireless microphones, which is both delightful and takes getting used too (“my belches are amplified,” Earley joked during one early rehearsal).
Just having sets and a lighting designer at all makes the whole experience kind of a rock ’n’ roll fantasy.
“Usually we just go to clubs and there’s an in-house designer and they just wing it,” Koch said.
Earley’s character kicks off “Wild and Reckless” with a story that is basically his own.
“I’m telling totally true things,” Earley said. “The whole show is this kind of active, animated memory.”
During last fall’s “Songbook” tour, one of the songs Blitzen Trapper covered was Elliot Smith’s “Alameda,” and Earley would talk about the fact that Smith’s music was one of the things that inspired him to head up Interstate 5 and try playing music in Portland himself. “Wild and Reckless” harkens back to those years, as well as Blitzen Trapper’s breakthrough period – a spot on Willamette Week’s 2005 “Best New Bands” list, the release of the 2007 Pitchfork favorite “Wild Mountain Nation,” and the subsequent record deal with Sub Pop.
That peak creative time for Earley was also a time when he was basically living on the street, albeit of his own accord.
“Things were so different back then,” he said. “I made this conscious choice, like, all right, I’m not going to live anywhere. I’m just gonna kind of float.”
The band was rehearsing at what’s known in Blitzen Trapper lore as the “Telegraph Building” (originally the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Building) on Southeast Ankeny, which was somewhere between a storage space and squat.
“Half of it they were using; the other half, the roof was caved in,” Earley said. “So you kind of had to watch where you stepped.”
The building had been the home of Sally Mack’s School of Dance, where, coincidentally, Carbonell took classes.
Earley was usually up all night, writing and recording, and would sleep outside during the day. Then, as now, the Springwater Corridor and the knoll by the Japanese American Historical Plaza were favored spots. If it rained, he went back to the building. “Wild and Reckless” includes many references to places that were touchstones for Earley or people he knew during that time, from the punk rock club Satyricon, which was almost at its end, to the Hooper detox center.
During this period from 2005 to 2007, Earley wrote and recorded both “Wild Mountain Nation” and 2008’s “Furr,” plus two albums’ worth of largely unreleased material. (One of them is coming out as a limited-edition vinyl release in April, for Record Store Day.)
Then the band began its life of constant touring, which allowed Earley to be the same kind of vagabond, except now it was his job. Ten years of touring later, Earley can still remember the shock of coming back to a city that was changing as quickly as he wrote songs. “I can remember just being like, ‘What? When did they build this? That place is closed?’” he said. “It was kind of stark to us, because we were on tour all the time.”
And now the band has a career and gets to do something crazily ambitious and exceedingly well-funded – at least by indie-rock standards – in a beautifully renovated Pearl District theater. An Old Portland show for New Portland. Oregon is the lifeblood of Blitzen Trapper’s music and its vibe, right down to the dueling flags – blue-and-gold beaver and Cascadia – that Menteer and Marquis drape over their keyboards on tour. But success and touring literally takes you farther away from who you were, and literally farther away from home.
To the director, Earley’s lack of theatrical experience – never even seen a play – was a huge plus, because he had no habits, expectations or boundaries.
“I think the coolest aspect of it is the fact that he has never been to the theater,” Riordan said. “So the way he approached it was just, whatever he saw in his brain.”
She also found him egoless – someone who knew what he wanted and wouldn’t budge if something was important to him, but was still open to anything.
Blitzen Trapper has never even worked with a producer in the studio.
“It’s a whole different buy-in, (to have) these outside folks that are working with the band for the first time,” Marquis said.
But for PCS, it was like having a ready-made ensemble, so they just had to accommodate and nurture the band’s existing dynamic until they were a part of it. One thing Riordan noticed right away was how few words the band members needed to communicate with one another. Then one of the band members told her he couldn’t believe how they were having to talk to one another compared to in the studio.
Mostly, though, this “concert event” will still feel like a rock show. The “reapers” that dominate the set – rusted and old light fixtures, tangled in thick, black wires – blend seamlessly with the amps, strobe lights and projection screens. And rehearsals weren’t that different from sound checks, at least during the inevitable downtime, when different members of the band would reflexively switch into musical self-amusement.
During one tech rehearsal, six days before the first preview performance started, Marquis killed time vamping the opening of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” Van Pelt thwacked out a few familiar bass line bars of songs by Rush and Heart, then committed fully to Dee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart.” And the bass line to that song sounds similar to the classic opening bass line of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” so much so that Carbonell began singing it without even realizing what it was. By the time she asked, Earley and Van Pelt had joined in. Blitzen Trapper fans and theatergoers can always hope there’s an encore.
If you go
“Wild and Reckless” opens at The Armory at Portland Center Stage on Friday, March 24, and runs through April 30. Tickets are $25-$55, with discounts for students/youth ($30) and, via the “Arts For All” program, SNAP/Oregon Trail participants ($5).