Saturday, April 26, 2008

Your Big Break, Little Lester

I get emails from time to time that say, "Jason, how can I become a music journalist just like you?"

I tell them to pitch the music blogs of the local weeklies, but I don't think they usually do that. Or maybe they do but they aren't persistent enough to get an assignment (editors sometimes need 2, 3, 25 emails to recognize your existence).

When I first started getting published, I'd sit around and go, "Man, I want to be a writer worse than anyone else. What's something I can do that no one else is willing to do? I know! I'll be a male stripper!" In fact, I still offer to do stuff like this. I pitched Mark B at Seattle Sound a story about breaking into the Crocodile in Seattle after it closed to enact my dream of singing a song on its stage. He didn't take me up on it.

But, this is where you come in, wannabe Lester Bangs. The Mercury is asking for someone to do something crazy for a story. How badly do you want to get your foot in the door? All you have to do is watch this 24-hour concert in a "vibe zone" and then the chance is yours to show your talent in the best goddamn review the Mercury's blog has ever seen.

You're not going to do it, are you?

You fuckin' wimp.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Yo Ho Ho Me Boy


Originally published in The Oregonian on April 18, 2008. By Jason Simms.

Unity is a punk cliche. It's more obligatory than anarchy and usually just as meaningless, because for every punk band with a song about unity, there's an accompanying micro-genre to further divide what is already a subculture.

Ben Taylor, who plays the bass mandolin or bouzouki for the local Celtic/pirate punk band Rum Rebellion, says the problem is the proliferation of the idea among punk bands that "you've got to do it differently exactly this way."

But his group has used the fact that they're essentially a micro-genre unto themselves in the Rose City to reach a wider audience. By playing with a variety of bands, Rum Rebellion has acquired an impressively large and diverse following for a local, unsigned band. Often their shows draw more than 100 people ranging from 14-year-olds fresh off their first Warped Tour to older, blue collar rock 'n' roll fans.

This Thursday, Rum Rebellion shares a stage with two hip-hop groups at a benefit for the Sisters of the Road Cafe. "It's an experiment for sure," vocalist Dave Noyes says, "but that's how a populace builds strength, by having common experiences and discovering what is the same about you."

Noyes imagines that hip-hop fans will also identify with Rum Rebellion's central concept: "The idea that you only live once, so live as free as you can. Pirates embrace that, and the Irish embrace that, too."

Onstage, the freest member of the group is Tyler Bennett, who, with closed eyes, plays the Irish whistle with an expression of complete delight. Both his serenity and his 6-foot-6-inch frame are exaggerated when he stands next to Noyes, who is 5-foot-3, and shouting punkified traditionals or traditionalized original anthems in a gravelly tone.

Noyes' voice and drummer Jack Morrison's quickened versions of traditional beats lend the band a roughness and intensity that make their sound more punk than their nearest mainstream equivalents, Flogging Molly, even though, unlike Flogging Molly, the only electric instrument in Rum Rebellion is Sage Howard's bass.

Their original songs, such as "The Rusty Cannonball" and "Raise Yer Glasses," mimic sea chanteys and pub songs, and even "Beer Run," about a lad who gets busted stealing beer from Safeway, seems traditional in its narrative structure. Taylor says the group once tried dressing up to match their lyrical approach but found it "too Disneyland."

But it's a fine line between honesty and masks for Rum Rebellion. Though you'd never know it, Noyes' whiskied vocal tone is entirely affected. "I could sing you an Italian aria or a German art song," says the elementary school music teacher and Portland State music department graduate.

Like Noyes' voice, Rum Rebellion's capacity to unify to deliver their message relies on their ability to make believe but make it believable. "Rambler's Road," the last original on 2006's "Cruisin for a Boozin," begins, "In my head there's a road and I don't know where it goes/ But I know it's the road to adventure." Without those first words, "in my head," Rum Rebellion would merely be gimmicky and delusional, but with that self-awareness, they are inspirational.

This is the original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive url expired.

Last Friday's Oregonian had a preview of a Rum Rebellion show tonight at Berbati's with a couple of hip hop bands, which is weird because they play Irish/pirate punk. I always find Rum Rebellion shows uplifting because they're really good at instilling a sense of, "We're all fucked so let's get drunk!"

Rum Rebellion at Sisters of the Road benefit, 9 p.m. Thursday, Berbati's Pan, 10 S.W. Third Ave.; $5, all ages; 503-226-2122,,

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Valkyries Always Win (But Neon Nights Put Up a Good Fight)

On Saturday morning, I woke up because there was a water fight outside my window. It wasn’t the neighborhood kids. It was two bands from Seattle, who’d passed out late the night before on everything from couches to skateboards.

But by 8 am, they were drinking again and filling up water balloons. They are true rock stars.

Of course, I would have said the same based on their performances alone, but I would have meant it in a different way. Both the Valkyries and the Neon Nights cut their already small crowd of about 15 people in half with their volume. Those who forgot earplugs watched from my porch through the window as the Neon Nights’ rhythm section beat the shit out of “Purple Haze” and their guitarist, Lou, played a better solo with his teeth than most guitarists can with their fingers. The Valkyries new vocalist, Stevie, slammed vodka out of the bottle and gave a performance worthy of an arena, while the band played tight enough for a recording.

So all that was impressive. But the water fight was downright awe-inspiring because it really represented who these bands are. There are a lot of alcohol fueled bands out there, and a lot of negativity follows most of them. But this pack of Washingtonians is pure fun.

The Valkyries won the water fight with a bag and a bucket, reaffirming their motto and next album title, “The Valkyries always win.” Neon Nights set up their gear again and practiced for no other reason than that listening to Megadeth made them feel like practicing. They truly love this music.

The next night at Kelly’s Olympian was the same story—small crowd*, epic performance. During my metal Shakespeare company’s set, Lou suited up in renaissance garb for a guitar duel which he graciously threw (although apparently he was told by the bar staff that he couldn’t sleep there moments before it began). Stevie joined us for “Holy Diver” and I broke my voice trying to sing like her.

And of course, they slipped out before I even woke up.

* It was almost as if these shows were cursed. There were enough people for it to be fun (25 paid the second night), but I was sweating it. The local papers tend to write up shows I book because, honestly, I only book cool shows. But they’ve written up way less cool shows than this one. I hyped these bands to everyone in sight for weeks and they all said they were coming. Guess they got sunburned and lazy in the nice weather. This dude Bobcat, who dates the Valkyries guitarist, Alison, said, “I have 5000 MySpace friends in Portland and none of them are here!” That’s pretty much how I felt too. And the other bands I booked (not mentioned above but no less awesome: Cull, Hey Lover and the Vivian) must have been in the same boat too. God bless the hardcore Metal Shakespeare Co. supporters and the other bands and their friends, and White Lightning for giving what I think are two of the best bands in the Northwest a chance. But in a way, I’m kinda glad the shows were small because it can only get better next time those bands come down.

Above: Robin, Stevie and Ginnie of the Valkyries take aim. Below: Jeff and Lou of Neon Nights with Ginnie outside Kelly's.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Still working at 89? Meet Shari's dynamo


Originally published in The Oregonian on March, 2008. Photo of Benson and text by Jason Simms.

Evelyn Benson greets customers, clears tables, fills water glasses and does just about anything else needed at the Shari's Restaurant on Northeast 122nd Avenue.

This wouldn't be notable, except for one thing: Benson is 89.

She not only works, she has fun doing it. The night after the Academy Awards, Benson's ball of white hair bobbed between booths faster than usual as she showed off a picture of herself in a red gown and feathered boa from a party at the Hollywood Theatre.

"I went to the Oscars last night," she kept saying.

During a sale on pies, she put on a sandwich board, giant clown gloves and a pie box on her head to go outside to wave in customers. And if you ask, she'll show you a photo of herself skydiving last year or tell you about her recent rafting trip on the Deschutes River.

As for the triple bypass a little more than a year ago, she says, "That slowed me down quite a bit." Temporarily? "You got that one right, sweetheart."

Co-worker Christina Zlobina, 19, says simply: "She's an amazing creature."

Benson, among the 4 percent of Oregon's work force 65 and older, according to 2006 U.S. Labor Department statistics, works to stay active, not for the money.

Others aren't so lucky. LaVerne DeWeese, a widow and retired Portland Public Schools custodian, works at the Interstate Fred Meyer in North Portland to pay the bills.

"The heat, oh, the heat," she says. "I remember when 100 gallons (of oil) was 50-some dollars, and now it's up in the hundreds."

Still, she is a model of serenity as she silently guides customers in and out with slow hand motions and a wide smile. As a young woman runs up, interjects a question and darts away, DeWeese smiles and calmly says, "No one knows how to say 'excuse me' anymore."

Pat Wright -- like DeWeese, uncomfortable with giving her exact age -- has the most unusual job of the three. She manages Magic Gardens, an Old Town strip club. Wright, the onetime owner of Patty's Royal Cafe in Southeast, took a couple of shifts there 15 years ago as a favor to the owner.

"I had never been in a strip club before that," she says. At the time, she adds, "it was known for drugs and being a really rough place."

But Wright, a small woman who's soft voice is almost inaudible in the noisy club, soon became the manager and was determined to turn the place around.

"I went to hiring girls that had a purpose for dancing," she says. "I'm very proud of the fact that we have three girls that danced their way through law school."

"She really developed that place," says Ted Papaioannou, owner of nearby Berbati's Pan. "Now it's a young hip place." While his bar has 13 bartenders on a busy night, Wright works alone. "She can outwork any bartender half her age -- one-third her age," he says.

Wright says the club is her pride and joy. But without a retirement fund after taking in a couple of grandchildren, working there is also a necessity.

As for being a grandmother at a strip club, she says, "What difference does it make? In 15 years, I've never been late. I haven't called in sick once in 15 years."

Back at Shari's, Benson says she moved to Portland at age 7. Her first job after high school was making coffin interiors during World War II.

She retired from restaurant work in 1991, when her husband died. Golf and bowling kept her busy during the day, but she was bored in her apartment in Northeast's Argay neighborhood at night.

So she went back to work, first as a Kmart greeter. She stayed 16 years, much of the time in costumes -- a pilgrim in November, Mrs. Claus in December. She left in 2006 after a disagreement with new management, and went just down the road to Shari's. Now she puts in 15 to 20 hours a week there at night and spends days volunteering at retirement communities.

"I help these little old people thread a needle and try to do things," she says.

Yes, some of those people are younger than she is.

This is the original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive url expired.

Last Thursday's Oregonian had a story I did on three women who, for different reasons, are working past retirement age, including 89-year-old Shari's waitress, Evelyn Benson.

One of the women, Laverne DeWeese, who is a greeter at Fred Meyer, mentioned that she has been teaching herself piano to have something to do since her husband is dead. After the story came out, she called me to thank me and asked me a few things about my life. When I told her I play music, she asked if I could teach her the Baptist chords on piano. Since I don't know what the Baptist chords are and I don't play piano, I asked if she'd tried Craigslist. She doesn't have the Internet. So I put up a post for her. Send an email if you know someone who'd be into hanging out with a cool lady.