Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard, the Wonder Ballroom
Portland, Oregon, January 23, 2009
According to its website, the Wonder Ballroom in Portland was built by The Ancient Order of Hibernians, “a group committed to immigration reform, civil rights for those of Irish descent and the preservation of the old Irish culture.” It opened September 10, 1914 and over the next 96 years passed through a variety of hands and served a variety of services. It was an American Legion, a Catholic Youth Center, a day care center, and now sits on the National Register of Historic Places. Fully rehabbed and restored, the Wonder Ballroom is a glimpse of the past struck new. What better place to see and hear Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard translate Jack Kerouac to an audience of skinny jeans and beard scratchers?
As is known around here, I am a big fan of this album Farrar and Gibbard put out. I love everything about it as a modern musical interpretation of Jack Kerouac‘s most heart wrenching novel. It features two songwriters so steeped in illusion and imagery that you might guess they’re lost beat writers caught in a worm hole and trapped 60 years from their homes. As an album, One Fast Move Or I’m Gone is about as perfect as they come for me. It has lyrics I can pore over and reinterpret and ponder, it has music that strikes me dumbfounded on a regular basis. It simply doesn’t get better.
So how would it do in a live setting, especially one that resembles a WWII dance hall more than a live music venue? Those high ceilings could wreak havoc on the sonic landscape and send a sound man into madness…if we were discussing lesser men, perhaps. But this was a night of pure professional performance and skilled stagecraft. No, Jay Farrar was not doing high kicks and spraying down coeds in the front row, but he did whip out some solos—at least that’s what a review of my Twitter reporting says. By the end of the night I was drunk on music and more than a few Maker’s Mark and Coke. I’ll be a little short on details, and I apologize for that, but the wash of the experience as it flashes back in hazy photographs leaves me as happy as I am sure I was that night. The swells of pedal steel and the carefully placed harmonies helped me along in my drunkenness and justified my goofy grin.
I have been to Big Sur just once in my life and it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. There was an energy in the air and the smells of the trees and lemongrass simultaneously soothed my soul while sparking my imagination. No wonder Kerouac went there to break his writer’s block. Too bad the story is that of his mental and physical deterioration. Kerouac’s triumph comes through 48 years later and everything turns out fine.