Field Report at the Turf Club, 11/16/12
with the Farewell Circuit and Kalispell
Turf Club, St. Paul
November 16, 2012
Chris Porterfield stood on stage at the Turf Club Friday night, his head bowed down as he tuned his guitar between songs. He and his band, Field Report, were in town for their first-ever headlining show in the Twin Cities. The room was nearly sold-out, but there was hardly a noise beyond the hum of the amplifiers.
"Sorry for being all thanky," Porterfield said, sheepishly. He kept his gaze fixed on the floor. "It means a lot that you're all here." Then he looked up, his brow sweating, and squinted into the stage lights. "I have a sneaking suspicion," he grinned, "that a lot of you are here because of the Current."
Field Report on Justin Vernon, Fergus Falls, and folk music
Emmylou Harris at the Minnesota Zoo, 6/28/12
It's true, of course, that Porterfield lives in Milwaukee, and for many years now he's called Wisconsin his home. But just the same, his visit to the Turf Club had the distinct air of a homecoming -- and not just because Thanksgiving was suddenly less than a week away. The singer and his band, for instance, were all dressed sharply in black suits, their collars opened loosely without neckties. Even the weather, cold and wintry, seemed somehow to be in synch with the occasion.
Yet, in a strange way, it was hard not to feel that the show, which inevitably put the spotlight firmly on Porterfield, revealed just as much about his audience as it did about the man himself. After all, this isn't the first show in these parts to prompt an audience to stand -- attentively, earnestly -- hanging on a singer's every word. Nor, for that matter, is the band's recent single, "I Am Not Waiting Anymore," the first slow, somber folk song to get frequent play on local radio. This time around, though, there was a palpable sense that the crowd wanted to claim the band as its own -- that, deep down, they felt this music was somehow really Minnesotan.
To a certain extent, that makes sense. Porterfield's songwriting -- unlike that of his former collaborators, Megafaun, or even that of Justin Vernon -- is rooted in specificity, in concrete images and gritty details. Characters deal with real problems, like alcoholism and unwanted pregnancies, and they sit on their porches drinking cheap beers, or choke up when they hear "Taps" playing over a loudspeaker. They even go to real places, like Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
Then again, it's hard to know just how much such things really relate to the lives of the people listening -- on the Current, or at the Turf Club. (And, frankly, the lyrics are the relevant part here, for the music itself is rather pedestrian beyond serving as a backdrop to the vocals.) These are blue collar songs about small town people, places with deserted iron mines and abandoned factory buildings. Even if the people at the show -- mostly college-aged students and thirty-something couples -- grew up in small towns, you'd imagine they live in the Twin Cities because they'd rather not be back in those places.
So, it may well be that the primary appeal of a band like Field Report (or insert any number of similar bands here) lies in a certain sentimental streak, even a vicarious one. That not only goes for a romanticized idea of the Midwest and its people, but also of nature -- witness the contrasting evocations of idyllic tamarack and dirty, crumbling buildings. To put it another way, it's not unlike folks who have no connection to the Midwest, but whom nonetheless find something quaint about the Hold Steady namedropping Minnesota street names. (Something which Minnesotans may never get over.)
To that end, if the lyrics' specificity lends Field Report some degree of authenticity -- or, at any rate, sincerity -- the same may well be true for Porterfield himself: while his old friends from Eau Claire have gone on to varying degrees of national acclaim, he spent several years doing the hard, unrewarding work of anonymous open mike nights. And while Justin Vernon blurs the line between himself and his image -- he may shoot hoops with Kanye and shred an electric guitar with Gayngs, but playing up the mountain man angle will still sell more records -- Porterfield is hard to separate from the people he sings about, and for.
Of course, whether or not Porterfield's work is actually as compelling as Vernon's is another matter altogether. Regardless, he did it justice Friday night with a heartfelt, if a little overly-self-serious, performance -- and a few needed touches of theater, too. When the band hit the final verse of "The Year of the Get You Alone," he slid off his guitar, rubbed his hands together thoughtfully, and leaned into the mike with his eyes closed. When he vowed, with the sort of resigned fatalism that characterizes so much of Field Report's material, that, "If we die, well, at least we made a choice," he all but shouted the lines. And, eventually, towards the end of the night, Porterfield pointed into the crowd, motioning for 4ontheFloor singer Gabe Douglas to join him onstage, and the pair duetted through a raucous version of "Fergus Falls" (when, coincidentally, Porterfield couldn't resist patting Douglas playfully on the belly.)
But it was at the very end of the night that Porterfield put a fresh spin on proceedings -- ironically, by taking a page out of someone else's book. He announced that, having played Field Report all the way through, the next song would be a Neil Young cover. Numerous voices whispered guesses about what it could be, but few probably saw the relatively obscure "Borrowed Tune" coming -- and, it must be said, he made it his own.
If Young's original was a drug-addled lament of life on the road, then Porterfield repositioned it alongside his own songs -- an ode, perhaps, to those who live amongst the open fields and frozen lakes of Minnesota. His voice, rather than brittle and cracking, was bigger and more powerful than at any other time of the night--more than enough, in fact, with only the aid of a plunking piano, to fill the whole room.
Critics Bias: "I Am Not Waiting" doesn't really strike my fancy, I'll admit.
The Crowd: Haven't I talked enough about the crowd already?!
Overheard in the Crowd: "You know you were on the Dean's List last semester, right? That you got a 4.0?"
Random Notebook Dump: Field Report's drummer was actually the first opener, playing guitar in a two-piece folk band called Kalispell. (He also played banjo at one point during the main set. What a renaissance man!) Locals the Farewell Circuit played in between, sounding a bit like they have Death Cab on the brain.
I Am Not Waiting Anymore
The Year of the Get You Alone
Chico the American