In a manic dash, like rifling through a junk drawer in search of some lost treasure or bygone item of sentiment, Pennsylvania-based duo Blues Control banged on their instruments, pushing buttons, twisting knobs, furiously tossing sounds to the wayside, until they found the right ones. Their search seemed endless; my grimace grew. The night was promising neither blues nor control.
With this clatter set against stage props that included lifesize cutouts of a gorilla, cowboy, fairy princess, tiger, and scythe-wielding Death, I had no idea what I was supposed to be witnessing. The schemeless inanimate characters stared at me, almost mocked me, as if they smugly stood between me and the answer.
At last, coherent ideas congealed. Lea Cho, at the synthesizer (and occasionally bass), and Russ Waterhouse, guitarist and chief operator of said buttons and knobs, honed their unfiltered spasms and locked into steady electronic-blues grooves. Drums clapped thunderously on “Iron Pigs”, heating the air; in any other context, the song’s blasts of synthesized horns would have screamed “camp”. A chamber orchestra of male and female voices, again born of Cho’s synthesizer, laid the foundation of “Tangiers” and eventually began to sound like conventional percussion and electronic texturing.
As Blues Control have explained, much of what they do is live. Their music is sample-based in style but mannerist in execution. Seeing the artists’ hands contort not only ensures spectators of a greater live component to the experience but also diminishes the perceivable extent to which the artists rely on samples: with Blues Control, bongos and other miscellany rang in real-time rhythms, whereas conventionally, splatty, obviously digitized thuds would have pulsed with ventilator drab.
Blues Control exited in a scene that played like a horror film: Cho’s synthesizer shook as she wailed on it with her distressed little bird claws, like she was trying to beat a demon out of it. So volatile the exorcism was, it seemed to have swallowed time. By the end, the duo had petered out in a side-winding, sharp-toothed, guitar-blues jam.
Not that Blues Control seemed to have consciously given audiences something to watch, but Portland duo Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have played music long enough (twenty years as Quasi alone) to know their music can speak for itself. With jaunty blues-inspired rock, they’ll sing you sweetly to sleep and rock you back awake in a blink.
As Quasi eased themselves into “Good Times” with just drums and vocals, Coomes rattled his tambourine off of the side of his head – just a bit of the self-abuse I expected to follow based on having seen them open for alt-blues innovators Jon Spencer Blues Explosion exactly one year and one week before this show.
But Coomes generally remained calm; he didn’t grind, slither, writhe, or kick on top of, over, or under his Rock-Si, on his belly, on his back, upside down, or right side up. These were the slightly concerning actions for which I remembered Quasi most. But Coomes mashing the keys with his wrists was about as physical as he got this time – until one of Quasi’s final songs. While he still abstained from fish-out-of-water thrashing, by the encores, he at least delivered several hearty thumps to his keyboard – with his ass.
Humans are rhythmic creatures, which might explain why I delight in watching musicians such as Blues Control perform, their fingers at once limber, the next splayed and fluttering into blurs – hummingbird appendages. But while Quasi never took flight, they showed that real rock’n’roll doesn’t need to.
Watch Quasi’s video for “You Can Stay But You Gotta Go” off ‘Mole City’, released September 30, 2013 on Domino Recording Co.: