In the weeks leading up to Quasi’s New Year’s Eve performance at the Doug Fir Lounge in their hometown of Portland, OR, advertisements in the local papers promised more than a set of Who cover songs; Quasi, the adverts declared, would “perform as The Who.”
Anyone familiar with the NW music scene over the past two decades probably carries a mental image of Quasi as a scrappy two-piece consisting of Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes. As recently as a year ago, when those two musicians comprised the group, a Who tribute night would have been a rocking good time but would probably not have felt any more significant to the greater Quasi story than the spirited cover songs they have contributed to label comps over the years.
But Thursday’s performance was more than a celebration of outsized amplifier stacks and mismatched personalities. It was a gregarious challenge to an audience that has followed the band for sixteen years, an announcement that the group was turning a corner and an invitation to follow.
Most bands would have treated a hometown gig in advance of an extensive tour as an opportunity to rehearse untested material before a sympathetic audience. Quasi chose instead to perform a thoroughly ‘tested’ set, wrapping something new and unexpected into a familiar and comfortable package and warming up their audience for the February release by Kill Rock Stars of American Gong, their seventh studio album (QRO Upcoming Releases schedule).
While guitar has crept in and out of Quasi’s work over the years, Thursday night’s performance marked the first time that many fans have seen Roxichord-impresario Coomes play an entire set on guitar. Coomes has declared that, “from a player’s perspective, guitar is much more fun than keys.”(QRO interview)He may not have executed a full straight-elbow windmill while performing as Pete Townshend but his spirited shredding made it clear that the recording of American Gong, an album brimming with 60s-inspired guitar moves, did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for the instrument. That he refused to smash his axe at the end of the night only betrays his love the more.
The set also provided an opportunity to reintroduce new member Joanna Bolmes (also of Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – QRO live review – like Weiss). Although Bolmes has performed as touring member of Quasi since 2006, American Gong will mark her first recorded appearance with the group. Considering Bolmes’ contribution to that record, it makes perfect sense to think of her as the ‘John Entwistle’ of Quasi. While Quasi records have never lacked bass, it has often come in the form of blocky fuzzed-out organ chords. In Bolmes, the band has another melodic voice and, like her counterpart in The Who, a strikingly nimble one. From the descending melodies of “Little White Horse” to the rhythmic blurts of “Now What”, a performance that suggests “Boris the Spider” as a spiritual ancestor, Bolmes consistently draws the ear to the lower registers, turning in a “lead bass” performance worthy of Entwistle or Philip Moxham.
In addition to these instrumental elements (Coomes’ guitar, Bolmes’ bass, not to mention the mighty drumming of Janet Weiss), The Who performance and American Gong also share a certain relationship with rock ‘n’ roll history, particularly its excesses and apparent vapidity. References to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin jump out from song titles and the stew gets thicker yet within the songs themselves. In a single line from the album’s leadoff track, “Repulsion”, Coomes channels Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks and the Stone Roses (“I bang on the drum like a dum dum dum”). Immediately following this dead simple yet head-spinning performance of eight words, a chorus of voices declaims the song’s title in an Aerosmith drawl, effectively equating repulsion with sweet emotion, a rock n roll concept both timeless and profound.
The joy that the group evidently takes in reclaiming and subverting classic rock n roll tropes was worn quite literally on their sleeves on Thursday night. An audience member unfamiliar with The Who’s onstage apparel (and more accustomed to Ramones-style group identity) would be forgiven for thinking that Quasi had simply decided to dress ‘weird’ for the occasion. Accenting a stark white suit with glittery New Year’s accessories – flashy specs and 2010-antennae – Weiss took Keith Moon’s image to an appropriately astral place. In her skeleton suit, Bolmes managed to look even more like a fourth grader dressed up for Halloween than Entwistle did in his. The funniest and strangest get-up was the orange prison jumpsuit worn by Coomes, presumably as a nod to the white one-piece sported by Townshend during The Who’s appearance at the Isle of Wight, an apogee of early stadium-rock, yet with additional associations tempering the glamour of that era.
The provocative garment was a perfect choice for the evening, as the glamorous New Year’s crowd managed to spill enough beer and dance intrusively enough that the normally cozy Doug Fir was turned into something somewhat danker and nastier throughout the evening, perfect for an evening of stadium-rock subversion. The curtain of detachment was lifted several times throughout the set, generally during non-Townshend material such as the band’s performance of “Young Man Blues” (with a guest vocal by the group’s temporary Daltry, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney) and on two songs that sounded as though they could have been written by Coomes, “Armenia City in the Sky” and Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell”. While the former was played reverentially and tentatively, on “Heaven and Hell”, Quasi may have out-Who-ed The Who. That this thunderous performance came at the end of a set that included the drum workout “I Can See For Miles” in its first third says more about the band that has been working strong and steady for nearly two decades than any breathless write-up of American Gong.