I’ve liked Portland’s Blind Pilot for several years now, but I didn’t know what I was missing until I saw them in concert last night. The group’s six-piece, fuller touring sound (lead singer/guitarist Israel Nebecker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski completed a two-man bike tour in the Pacific Northwest in 2008), the performers’ enthusiasm and energy, and the cross-genre intention of the band’s style made the concert one of the best I’ve seen in a long while.
The concert opened with an Omaha, Neb. band called Midwest Dilemma. Conor Oberst comparisons abound for Omaha musicians, but lead singer Justin Lamoureux, sounds a little bit like Conor Oberst, only with a more-solid pitch center and range. The band's addition of a flutist and a cellist were welcome, and many of their country-tinged bluegrass tunes were very impressive. Their intention seems to be to create historicist, old-fashioned tunes like “The Great Depression.” It’s a fine idea, but my only concern was that the historical characters were so aware of themselves, saying “I am doing this…etc…” That’s not the way to make a song unaware of itself as an artistic product. Still, I went home and bought their album.
Blind Pilot new line-up makes for a broader, bigger sound than could be achieved with only a guitarist and a drummer. Certainly, one cannot say that a fuller sound is absolutely better, but it does completely change the experience. When Nebecker played “The Bitter End” alone onstage, the audience got a sense of what a 2008 concert from Blind Pilot would have been like.
In the venue, however, I think that I preferred the bigger sound. Concert etiquette is—quite unfortunately—that concertgoers seem to think that their comments on the band’s awesomeness during that band’s stripped-down arrangement are completely appropriate. Simply for practicality, bigger sounds are better to shut out ignoramuses who pay good money to talk over talented musicians. Blind Pilot responded, adding Luke Ydstie on bass and backing vocals, Kati Claborn on banjo, dulcimer and backing vocals and Dave Jorgensen on keyboard, trumpet and an awesome harmonium (it looks like a accordion toppled over on its side). Ian Krist adds a truly-inspired instrument that gives an authentic reverberation: vibraphones.
Blind Pilot seemed to thrive on the audience’s excitement, while the audience danced and clapped and sang along with encouragement from the enthusiastic band. Nebecker is quite good improviser, and the rest of the band were able to follow suit.
Overall, the night switched from emotionally-impactful and thoughtful music to music that inspired hootenanny and seamlessly back again. Most amazing, though, it all seemed like it belonged to one band.