IT WASN'T SUPPOSED to happen, but somewhere along the way, Alialujah Choir became a band.
Adam Shearer, Adam Selzer, and Alia Farah made some recordings back in 2008, solely for their own entertainment. Shearer (of Weinland) and Selzer (of Norfolk and Western) wrote a handful of tunes, and Farah did the arrangements, which involved impressive counter-harmonies and gentle folk backing. They recorded it on their own, with no one else present in the studio. And that was supposed to be it.
"Our original game plan was to not have anybody else in the band," says Shearer. "But our game plan was for nobody to hear the music, either, so when we started getting the chance to play—and obviously we wanted to do it—we had other people fill in. We made that first [self-titled] record and we were probably done with it in 2008, and then didn't really play it for anybody until 2012. I was on tour with Weinland and I played it for our friend, Mark Smith, who was filming it and he's the one who got excited about it. He basically pushed us into doing it. And we ended up playing shows and having a lot of fun."
Now Shearer, Selzer, and Farah have completed a second Alialujah Choir record, Big Picture Show, and this is the second time Shearer has played the album for me in its entirety. The first time was over a campfire in the late summer—that's a story for another time—but tonight, we're sitting in the empty Revolution Hall on a quiet weekday night, a couple of weeks out from the newly refurbished venue's "preview" weekend. It's a little strange wandering the locker-lined halls of the old Washington High School after hours, and it throws me back to my own high school days, when extracurricular activities and rehearsals would keep me in the building long after dark. But there's also a buzz of entrepreneurial excitement, as Mississippi Studios' Jim Brunberg is working round-the-clock to get the venue ready. Seating, it seems, is the current challenge. Many of the auditorium's existing wood-backed seats were designed for kids, so bigger chairs need to be made to match the size of the "teacher's seats," the larger adult-sized seats at the end of each row.
Audience seating aside, Revolution Hall's spacious stage should be able to accommodate an enhanced lineup of Alialujah Choir for the release show. "We're doing it in typical Portland record-release fashion," says Shearer. "We're trying to get everyone who played on the record to come play." That includes Luke Ydstie and Kati Claborn of Blind Pilot and Hook & Anchor, drummers Dan Hunt and Brian Adrian Koch, string player Amanda Lawrence, and trumpeter Cory Gray.
Having so many people involved breaks the core trio's original commandment, but Big Picture Show is all the stronger for it. Ydstie and Claborn joined the ranks when Farah and Selzer had to miss certain dates on a tour in which Alialujah opened for Koch's band, Blitzen Trapper; Farah, in particular, was happy to have others take over her parts, as she never got fully comfortable with life on the road. The group's sound is bigger, obviously, but not brash. It's lush and diverse, with Beatlesque pop tunes, Stax-informed soul ballads, and Neil Young-ish folk-rockers, each reaping the benefits of Farah's remarkable gift for vocal arrangement.
In other words, it's a perfect record to encapsulate both Alialujah Choir's current state of being and the unforeseen future of Revolution Hall, which is going to, with luck, have years and years of noteworthy musical performances bouncing within its immaculately sound-treated walls. "It's an interesting record, because it's not really repetitive," Shearer says. "It does a lot of different things. And a lot of records that I like do that."