This is a question I’ve been asking myself and fellow musicians for years. I’ve heard emphatic yes’s from musicians who claim it gives their talents an enthusiastic crowd they might not otherwise have access to. I’ve also witnessed colossal rants from song-writers who demand that the tyranny of the Clash be ended because it waters down the musical palate of the every day Portland music venue attendee. And in contrast to the zealous responses, members of the Portland music scene have also shrugged their shoulders and said, Maybe it’s a little bit good for the scene, or Maybe it’s a little bad for us.
Where do I stand? After playing in two Clashes and attending my dozenth or so Clash last Wednesday (Arcade Fire v. Vampire Weekend), I’d say it’s just a little on the bad side of the good/bad spectrum.
From a musical standpoint, Clashes can be hit or miss. When a Clash is on, it’s transcendent. Take the Temptations v. The Supremes encore Clash performance I attended a few years back. The rhythm section sounded straight out of the Motown Snake Pit. The vocals were Detroit clean. Men dressed in suits and women in mid-century modern dresses. The horn section sounded tight. Obviously the entire band had put in countless hours to get every hit, melody, and harmony right. I shared wide-eyed looks with strangers. Looks that said, Can you believe this is happening in our town? I left feeling that I’d had the chance to step into a time warp and listen to the music as it once was (though the members on stage were a bit pale-skinned for Motown).
When it’s on, it’s tribute music like no other.
But it’s not always on.
When it’s off the music is sloppy and under-rehearsed. The costumes fall short of class and enter into kitsch. I saw a Jackson 5 performance that was embarrassing to watch. The rhythm section sounded like the one played in your drunken neighbor’s garage. The afros were tacky and borderline racially insensitive. This so juxtaposed the class of the Temptations/Supremes performance, that I, like many others that night, got drunk and freely booed. On top of all this, there was a ten to fifteen minute gap between songs so by the end of the night the audience had only heard twelve songs. Overall, I felt we’d all been scammed. Bamboozled. Hoodwinked. Were the musicians on stage bad musicians? Hell no. Were they under-prepared to present this music to paying fans? Hell yes.
Maybe that’s the biggest flaw of the Clash series as it exists today. The product is rarely transcendent. I wasn’t around for the early years of the Clash when it resided at the Big Easy, so maybe once upon a time there was some real quality control. Before they exhausted the big guns to cover and had to begin to either thin out the lineups or recycle old ones. Now it appears to be running on auto-pilot, with Spencer Albee or whoever’s running it for the night popping in at the beginning to make sure the musicians at least showed up, then leaving for much of the performance, only to come back at the end of the night to thank everyone for coming and count the money.
With all this being said, I will give a big compliment to the musicians covering Arcade Fire last Wednesday (2.20.13). They knew the songs. They played the subtle moments from the album making their performance crackle and hum. They believed in the magic of Arcade Fire’s music, and as a result the audience believed.
They were young, and perhaps that’s what the Clash has to offer Portland other than a steady droll of cover music cascading into the boozy fan’s ear: it gives young musicians out of the top-notch USM music program a big stage and a large audience to live their dream for a night.
Mine is not a jingoistic, fist-raised Viva la Clash! nor a bombastic call to bring down the cover series. It’s an I’ll-go-when-I-really-really-love-the-music-or-the-musicians shrug.
Which makes me think: Shouldn’t we expect more in a city full of such great talent?