San Cha has done it again. For many Portland art fans, her name is synonymous with longing—as her 2019 performance memorably packed Pearl District gallery, the lumber room, to capacity—creating a line of would-be audience members that snaked around the block.

Even at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA)’s larger, warehouse-like headquarters, the show sold out. Is it only a matter of time before San Cha is playing to massive arena crowds? I have no doubt she would pull it off with ease and plenty of style.

Last night, the Los Angeles-based singer and her bandmates wowed audiences once again with a set that slowly concocted a layer cake of emotion and drama—using little more than a guitar, a flute, and a voice. From that seemingly simple setup, San Cha coaxed unexpected heights (and depths) of feeling. It helped that the audience was fully on board, and the evening made for an exhilarating kickoff to this year’s TBA festivities.

When I arrived at PICA at 8:05 pm sharp (normalize being slightly late for everything!), the scene inside indicated we would be waiting a while—until I spied two lovely figures, dressed in sparkling blue bodycon minidresses and striding confidently through the crowd.

The tension: Approximately half the audience were lined up to buy drinks.

As the pair ascended the stage and began to play, without introduction, their gentle guitar and flute melody visibly altered the vibe, bringing the drink line back into the fold. Shy Portlanders assembled eagerly before the stage as San Cha appeared, dressed like a beautiful boss version of the two magnificent floral arrangements on either side of the stage.

To merely describe San Cha as passionate would be to gloss over the many shades, hues, and textures of what she summons forth with her songs. Cradling and caressing a bouquet of deep red flowers against her crinkled green dress, she sang a mournful tune that seemed to speak of lost loves—although sadly my high school Spanish didn’t help me at all in the task of real-time lyric translation.

With each subsequent song came a new layer, either of feeling or instrumentation: The tempo began to accelerate, from melodramatic ballad to rustic ranchera. By the time electronic drum tracks, dancefloor-friendly bass, and one smooooth saxophone joined in, the tone was ramping up into to a full-on party—almost without the crowd even noticing. Around me, audience members hopped in a sort of slow-motion Peanuts-style dance that I cherish and associate with Portland shows in particular.

Towards the end of her set, San Cha segued from tender to tough, screaming out lyrics of rage, desire, or some combination of the two. The knowledge that her influences include Mexican telenovelas along with popular music provided context for her theatricality. At the same time, it made the sincerity of her emotion that much more remarkable. 

San Cha’s bandmates, Lu Coy and Matías Anaya, served up phenomenal instrumentation and were, according to my date, “consummate professionals.” Coy’s vocals complemented San Cha’s impeccably. Anaya displayed real care for the audience: At one point, she caught a lone audience member taking video on a phone from a corner, flashed a thousand watt smile directly at them, and hammering up her performance.

At the show’s climax, San Cha threw her bouquet. She and her bandmates, danced their way through the sea of adoring fans and out of the venue. The intense, confrontational, and ultimately uplifting experience of watching San Cha and her crew primed the opening night crowd to cut loose. Portland DJs Dez Ramirez (DJ La Cosmica) and Diana Suarez (Buena Suerte) slid effortlessly into a set of '90s remixes, melting the room into happy bouncing that seemed likely to continue late into the night.

This review is part of an ongoing, annual series where the Mercury reviews performances at PICA's TBA festival. Can't get enough TBA 2022? Read our ongoing reviews of the performances and picks for the festival.