Musicians can be notoriously inaccessible, no matter which rung on the ladder of success they are at. The stereotypical musician treats a concert like a show – which it is, but it’s more than that as well.
Artists like Vienna Teng and Jenny Owen Youngs, who performed at Portland’s Mississippi Studios on May 13, tune into what a concert really is: not just a show, but a full-blown experience for musician and audience alike.
Teng’s majestic sound —a beautiful voice combined with mind-shattering manipulation of the piano keys— first amazed me when she opened for famous folk singer Joan Baez years ago in the Aladdin Theater. Since that time, she’s been back to Portland a number of times, each time building an even better rapport with her audience.
This time, she drew such a crowd to the humble Mississippi Studios that, with the originally scheduled concert having sold out in advance, she decided to perform an additional show earlier in the day.
If she was feeling any fatigue during the second of two consecutive shows in a single night, she wasn’t showing it. Teng beautifully performed a selection of songs primarily from her third and most recent album, Dreaming Through the Noise, as if she had only just discovered the joy of music.
This is all the more amazing considering that she and the other musicians accompanying her had been spending their days off volunteering for Habitat For Humanity — just one of the aspects of her environmentally and socially proactive “Green Caravan Tour.”
There are no words that can do justice to Teng’s darkly hypnotic music and lyrics, especially when it’s being played live inside of a cozy environment with moody lighting. There isn’t even a proper genre to describe her unique style: rock, pop, folk…somehow, every attempt at categorizing her sound falls short. Every attempt is proven wrong by the next amazing song.
And while Teng (who has only improved since that night at the Aladdin Theater) was extraordinary, Youngs was the surprise of the night.
I can count on one hand the number of opening acts that my musical ear has fallen head-over-heels for. Teng was one of them, opening for Baez. And now, Youngs joins those ranks through Teng.
Youngs performed alone; just herself and a guitar. The result was instantaneously entrancing, and I firmly believe that anyone who has the chance to hear her like this should snatch the opportunity without hesitation. Youngs even managed to achieve what I had believed impossible: she made me like the normally unbearable song Hot in Herre. Her cover of Nelly’s overplayed annoyance is sheer majesty.
Youngs was a good choice for an opening act; she fit in perfectly with Teng’s penchant for good music and friendly, often-humorous dialogue with the audience. Introducing the song Fuck Was I, she demanded that we —the audience— close our eyes as she weaved an image that included ’80s clothes, hoop earrings and mohawks (“because it’s Portland and, seriously, you guys have weird hair”).
The winding, comical narrative eventually led to turning around and beholding, instead of the song, Patrick Swayze waiting to sweep us off our feet in classic, ’80s-movie fashion. Youngs then told us to keep picturing the image she had weaved, and focus on that rather than on the fact that she was bashing us over the head with the word “fuck.”
That’s the extra appeal Teng and Youngs both have, apart from their amazing music: the chemistry they have with the audience. They have this innate ability to break down the invisible wall separating the stage from the audience, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Teng’s next appearance in Oregon is on August 5, at Millennium Plaza Park in Lake Oswego. Teng will perform as part of the Moonlight & Music Concert Series – the show is free, save for a can of food for the food bank.
Youngs will be performing tonight at 9 p.m. in Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge. Tickets, if they are still available, are $16.
This review first ran in Volume 40, Issue 23 of The Clackamas Print.