Portland came to Paris last night, with the kick-off of the Keep Portland Weird festival at the Gaîté Lyrique. The week-long festival attempts to embody the esprit of Portland and transmit it to an European audience through concerts, debates, and a variety of events organized in Paris and other French cities.
In general, the French are interested in American culture and enjoy imitating trans-Atlantic trends, often with humorous results (a current American-inspired craze in the French capital is sporting poorly fact-checked baseball hats that attest to the wearer's support of the “Los Angeles Reds” or the “New York Raiders”). Given the slightly amiss nature of these well-intentioned tributes to all things American, I was curious to see where the Portland-themed festival would fall on the spectrum of cultural appropriation.
Paris and Portland are two very different cities. In Paris, a vegetarian is regularly asked if they eat charcuterie despite what is seen as their unfortunate dietary limitations, biking has only recently become a popular mode of transportation in the city of lights, and the French don't even have a word for “evergreen” nor could they pick one out of a forest line-up. The Portland lifestyle may seem foreign to anyone living outside the Northwest bubble, but it is particularly alien to French urbanites. How and who could explain the raison d'être of Portland to a group of metro riding, first-hand clothes wearing Parisians?
Last night's show brought together an eclectic mix of ambassadors in an attempt to do some explaining. A line-up that included Michael Hurley, Rebecca Gates, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks was assembled to create an authentic Portland vibe. The mood was further set by the ersatz Portland that was installed in the venue's foyer. The makeshift Portland included a bagel bar (bagels are another French obsession, they are seen as quintessentially American and undeniably cool), a mini Mississippi Records shop, a slide show of Marion Seury's photos of Portland, and several bars (PBR, alas, did not make the trip over, so we were stuck sipping Carlsberg instead).
Led by Jicks drummer Jake Morris, Street Nights started the show with their scratchy vocals and buoyant rock. Their bassist, complete with a fitted striped sweater and untamed hair that partially hid his face, was a satisfying representation of the Northwest in a country where 12-year-olds still scribble Nirvana on their backpacks in permanent marker. The band was a refreshing change from the current French rock scene, which continues to be marked by the tradition of chanson française and remains focussed on lyrical creations over chaotic expression. Street Nights brought unbridled energy backed by musical talent to an appreciative audience. Fun and noisy, the band surprised the crowd with a their modern Northwest sound.
In stark contrast to Street Nights, Michael Hurley took the stage to play folk ballads accompanied by his guitar and a drummer. Hurley, dressed in colorful train conductor attire, made his French début by singing stories mixed with yee-haws and yodels to a swaying Parisian audience. It was at first difficult to reconcile Hurley's style with that of the opening band, but the transition wasn't too much for a French crowd to handle (the French, though reputed for snobbishness and pretension, make a surprisingly great audience, both appreciative and responsive) and we soon entered into Hurley's world of “jars, cars, and guitars.”
I don't mind a few clichés or descriptions of the déjà vu in folk songs if they still ring true, so Hurley's encouragements to “keep on trucking” or exultations of the powers of “malted beer” were totally acceptable reminders that one should take time to appreciate the simple pleasures of life, preferably “down by a river.” The high point of Hurley's set came when he performed “Portland Water,” which seemed to sum everything up: the city, the country, and even current affairs. Singing about smiling girls, beer that's sweet, and police that will “shoot you in the street” to an enthralled international audience confirmed that Hurley's craft has a home in any continent.
Stephen Malkmus was the last performer to take the stage and he made quick points with the crowd by starting his set with a shout-out to Jean-Luc Mélanchon, a favorite far-left candidate who was recently eliminated from the first round of French presidential elections. “C'est fini,” Malkmus stated, referring to the end of Mélanchon's campaign, the mourning crowd nodded their heads in response, oui.
When Pavement came to one of Paris' largest convert venues in May 2010, Malkmus was greeted by a huge crowd. Last night's turnout was significantly smaller, but it was great to see Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks in such an intimate setting, and they played accordingly. The band was clearly enjoying the atmosphere and threw in some showmanship including drumrolls accompanying stage banter, a half-hearted attempt at an Alice in Chains cover, and some pretty fancy fretwork by Malkmus himself. When he busted the over-the-head guitar solo I was sure the crowd was ready to award him honorary Parisian citizenship.
Last night's soirée did its part to keep Portland weird, and Paris seemed to welcome the guest city with open arms. I spoke with Barbara Stenfeld of the Oregon Tourism Office, who confirmed people's interest in visiting the city described as “belle” and “bizarre” in the pamphlets she was handing out.
“One guy told me that he's going to move there for a month after all he's seen here,” Stenfeld told me—an impulse that was surely encouraged by last night's first Intro to Portland course. The Gaîté Lyrique has done a commendable job of creating a temporary Portland for those who are curious about this far-away land, where you go for the bagels and stay for the bands.
[Editor's note: Now if only we had good bagels in Portland...]