Bring the music to the people. That's not the official mantra of the Penny Jam (thepennyjam.com), but it might as well be. The video podcast—like a localized take on the popular La Blogothèque series—gathers local musicians, places them in foreign scenarios, and then lets the cameras roll.
Laura Gibson vulnerably croons under the eerie shadow of looming Chinese dinosaur bones under the lights at OMSI, one-man dance party Mattress performs alone atop the Lafayette footbridge as the sun disappears into the West Hills, and the bilingual punk of Magic Johnson ricochets off the walls of the Dollar Scholar. These are just a few of the finer moments of the Penny Jam, whose basic template—take musicians, add an unorthodox locale, and turn the camera on to capture it all—always equates to an inspiring glimpse at Portland's thriving local music scene.
Producer Scott Carver explains how the Penny Jam's work is more than just a show without a stage: "Concert venues are great for live shows; the lighting is usually sparse, the sound is good, and you are close enough that you can actually see the musicians playing most of the time. When you shoot a video at a venue like that, the lighting is harsh and unless you want to interfere with the show by getting between the audience and the band, you probably aren't going to get good footage." He adds, "Mostly it is about making music accessible to as many people as possible—by adding Portland locations it creates a reason for people who live in the city to get into the series, even if they don't know anything about the music yet."
The revolving Penny Jam ensemble—which features a cast of a half-dozen contributors ranging from lighting to audio mixing—creates an ideal environment conducive to both their footage, and the performers themselves, while the audience is blessed with access to a website with 17 achieved episodes, and counting.
The stable of acts that have performed under the Penny Jam banner range from the rapid-fire hiphop of Sleep (clutching the mic atop an industrial Southeast rooftop), to the jazzy ballads of Derrek Wayne (performing while surrounded by the vintage stock at the Immortal Piano Company), and are primarily smaller acts, which is part of the initial mission devoted to sharing this music community with the masses.
"There is a certain element of 'bring it to the people' going on when we put together an episode," explains Carver. "It's partially motivated by the kind of satisfaction that comes with being part of an introductory process."
Although in recent months the Penny Jam posse has ventured out some: "Many have heard Starfucker, not many have heard Starfucker in a barbershop," jokes director Sean Whiteman when referring to the dance-pop group's performance amid the hair trimmings at Rudy's Barbershop. "Yes, we are the ones that finally put Starfucker in the barbershop, we triumphed where many have failed."
As for the lineup of performers captured by the Penny Jam crew, the list is growing. "I'd really like to gig it up with the Builders and the Butchers in some capacity," Whiteman admits. "Or the Decemberists playing the Bagdad while The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is silently projected behind them. Maybe Mirah singing in the corner of the Blazers training facility while the team is three-man weaving."
While not all of these ideas will come to fruition, the Penny Jam's willingness to try anything in the name of shining the spotlight on Portland local music is commendable. Or as Whiteman explains it, "I'm just pleased to be able to latch myself like a parasite to this community of artists. I don't have a beard and can't play the dulcimer, so this is closest I'll get to being part of a music scene."