The haunting lyrics of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” play in the background as the fog machine rolls a blanket over the audience and Portugal. The Man claim the stage.
Lead singer John Gourley is wearing a shirt bearing Lou Reed’s face – a silent homage to the fallen rock-god who died that morning.
It’s Sunday night at The Observatory in Santa Ana and the band stands in front of a backdrop of jagged white mountain peaks onto which psychedelic projections are cast. The rainbow-colored stage lights alter the mood with each changing hue and the grotesque cartoons projected before us take the album artwork of their latest release “Evil Friends” to a whole other level.
But they aren’t sinister or psychedelic, pop or indie. Portugal. The Man lie somewhere in no-man’s land – deep in space, yet MTV-worthy.
They’ve released seven full-length albums since their 2005 debut – some on indie-labels, some self-produced, with their last two albums out on Atlantic Records. The anticipated “Evil Friends” was even produced by Danger Mouse, the famed technician behind The Grey Album (The Beatles and Jay Z’s underground mash-up). He is also the man behind collaborations with Cee Lo Green to form Gnarls Barkley and The Shins’ James Mercer to form Broken Bells.
How have Portugal. The Man changed since their debut album Waiter: You Vultures? They still experiment with their sound and fluctuate between soft melodies and rock-heavy shredding, but their sound seems more honed in, more deliberate. Their transcendental voyages continue, but their hooks and choruses are more catchy, more – dare I say, mainstream.
In concert, their songs are drawn out into long jam sessions where the band shows their true musical style outside the confines of the recording studio. Toward the end of the show they even threw in covers of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Hey Jude,’ showing their tastes to an appreciative audience and giving us a glimpse into their influences.
So they’ve changed over the last eight years, as all bands do in natural evolution. There’s less experimentation with sound bites and layering and more emphasis on the overall harmonics. Should we be worried that a formally independent, somewhat obscure band from Alaska might lose their street-cred by signing with Atlantic Records and putting out albums produced by Danger Mouse? In their song “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” they keep us wondering, “When I grow up I wanna be a rich-kid born celebrity. It’s not greed, but necessity… I just wanna be evil, I just wanna be evil.”