Portland Cello Project Slumps at Visual Arts Collective



More than a dozen people were corralled on the patio in front of the Visual Arts Collective June 22 waiting to get inside. A black sign suction-cupped to the window indicated that the doors would open at 8 p.m. It was 7:45 p.m., and the crowd had gathered to see Portland Cello Project play from its latest album, Beck, Brubeck and Bach.

When the doors did open, it was to a performance that ran the gamut of Western music, from songs appearing on Beck, Brubeck and Bach, to one hair-raising Pantera cover. But diversity isn't always a recipe for harmony, and though the musicians played stunningly, the performance wanted for an organizing element stronger than the cellists' stage presence—and they weren't helped much by poor lighting and a wooden vocal performance by Laura Gibson.

PCP started its almost 20-song set with a run-through of Rossini's "William Tell Overture," which PCP artistic director and frontman Doug Jenkins called "The Lone Ranger." It was met with loud, enthusiastic applause and whistles. Between each song, Jenkins rose, cello in hand, to the microphone for a little stage banter.

"What's the most important thing that's happened in Boise in the last year and a half?" he asked. The audience responded with a heavy din, indicating that quite a bit has happened since last PCP played the Treasure Valley. The call-and-response technique seemed to be Jenkins' tactic for judging the disposition of his seated listeners throughout the evening, as though hearing the voices of the people he was entertaining was his main assurance they weren't sharpening their knives between songs—despite the feverish applause that followed each song in the first half of PCP's set.

It was an anxiety that bled into the performance of singer Laura Gibson, who stood immobile while wringing her fingers during her several appearances onstage with the Project. In her delicate, Regina Spektor-like voice she sang Beck's "Rough on Rats" and "Why Did You Make Me Care?", taking a break when PCP switched gears to rip through a Pantera cover.

The sheer variety of PCP's material was more eclectic than novel, and the Project began trying the audience's patience after a brief intermission with Beck's "The Wolf is on The Hill", followed by a rash of down-tempo jazz tracks broken by a stilted cover of "Rolling in The Deep" by Adele. There's something really warm about Adele's vocals that you don't really achieve with a cello.

At one point, Jenkins called upon the audience to clap in time to Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance." The clapping quickly fizzled: In the midst of a string of slow songs, "Unsquare Dance" lacked the energy to keep the crowd actively engaged. The audience was definitely enthusiastic about the playing; it was the music that bucked them.

"You guys are setting the bar because this is the first time we've done this," Jenkins said afterwards.

It was in the second half of the set that PCP weakened its rapport with the audience. Despite the standing ovation that scored the audience an encore of "Last Night You Were a Dream," PCP played a set that resonated somewhere other than the audience. Though the cellos were played perfectly, those in attendance weren't.