It's difficult to articulate what we find so compelling about seeing music performed outside of official, sanctioned contexts—venues or clubs—because the appeal seems to be contradictory. We experience concerts on the street, in the park, and in the nooks and crannies of the public landscape as special because they are out of the ordinary; yet they are out of the ordinary precisely because they integrate live music into the mundane fabric of our daily lives. Such unexpected performances are surprising not because they facilitate art's intrusion upon the everyday so much as because they show us that art is a part of the everyday.
The equalizing, anarchic phenomenon of the guerilla show places the Beatles' legendary rooftop concert in the same tradition of public art as the teenage-runaway busker picking out Beat Happening songs by the bus stop. Between this populist function and the fact that site-specific concerts literally ground performers in a specific geography, it's no wonder that localism-loving DIY Portland has recently birthed the Penny Jam and Lost Gospel, two collectives that present bands in nontraditional, public settings.
Inspired by the Portland installment of the Burn to Shine DVD series, and by Menomena's appearance on French website blogotheque.net's Take Away Show—both of which feature footage of indie acts playing in non-venue environments like condemned homes and courtyards and elevators—local videographers and music lovers Scott Carver and Sean Whiteman decided last November to launch the Penny Jam (thepennyjam.com) and round up a crew to shoot Portland bands playing in various public locations—typically small businesses—collecting the resultant footage online. The carefully controlled, clearly recorded, and pristinely shot Penny Jam sessions now number 11, and include standout sets by synth-pop mutants Dykeritz kicking out jams in E Burnside arts 'n' ends shop the Grass Hut, and fire-tongued emcee Sleep rhyming on top of hiphop collective Old Dominion's Southeast studio.
While creating high-fidelity videos of Portland bands playing in unusual places is the central project of the Penny Jam, for the community-minded arts collective Lost Gospel (thisislostgospel.com), videos are just a means of documenting the interaction between band and audience at their elaborately themed, flash-mob-like public concert happenings. In one July weekend alone, Lost Gospel arranged for dance-pop trio Starfucker to play a generator-fueled set to a faux-pool party (Fun Noodles and all) in an abandoned Belmont lot, and for solo balladeer Glass Teeth to lead a mortality-minded processional from the Goodwill Bins to an abandoned railcar where intimate acoustic act Almost Nearly played several gorgeous songs as the cottonwoods shed. At both events, the highlight was watching random passersby stop, smile, and listen.
One of Lost Gospel's founders, Nilina Mason-Campbell, explained the events' origin: "I'd had the idea to have weird shows way back. I was talking to some guy about throwing a dance party with a DJ and generator on the MAX in late February, and then seeing No Age's guerrilla gig on Lamar Bridge during SXSW really enforced that this is the type of gig I want to see. There's magic in eluding authorities and just getting together with a group of people who all really want to be there and have gone out of their way to make something special out-of-the-norm happen."