James Orr sits behind his Mac laptop at the back of Neurolux, moving the usual post-show merch of T-shirts and CDs, bouncing and grinning to the music of the band that followed his set. He's all smiles with the small crowd that is currently ignoring the band on stage to hang out with Orr.
It's now obvious why, during his suddenly extended opening set for Starf**ker, Orr announced, non-ironically, to a hanging-on-his-every-word crowd that, sorry, he didn't take credit card payments until after he came off stage. That's because the same laptop that is essential to Orr's sound—layering looped tracks created with myriad instruments on stage into an indie rock pop-scape—also serves as his credit card machine.
Orr has just survived a scenario that, for most small-club opening bands, could have been rock-show death. Starf**ker, the main act, was still en route when Orr took the stage on March 13 in front of a nearly full house. After about five songs—what was supposed to have been the extent of his set—Starf**ker still wasn't there.
"No Starf**ker?" asked Orr from the stage. "I guess it's just the James Orr show tonight."
This drew loud cheers from at least a third of the crowd, and these cheers served to highlight the night's unusual dynamics. Rather than talk through his set, most of the Neurolux crowd, which, truth be told, is a little more office casual than your typical Neurolux crowd, seemed to be here expressly to see Orr.
When Orr played the first four bars of "City of Sin," the front third of the crowd exploded with whistles and claps of immediate recognition. That "To Chela" got a joyful, single-opening-note response from the crowd only serves to highlight the fact that Orr has spent the last five years cultivating a local, loyal fan base. And those fans will come out en masse to hear him play.
"A lot of it is that he's just a really friendly guy," said A.J. Freeman, Orr's lone roadie and merch vender. "He realized a couple of years ago not to over-saturate his market. Instead of playing once a week in front of 10 people, he'd rather play once a month or once every two months in front of a lot of people.
"And he gets everybody he knows to come out. He's just a nice guy. I would come out even if his music was shitty, you know?" Freeman said.
It's true. Orr is a friendly guy. As Portland's Guidance Counselor pounds away, a blonde in a leopard-print shirt leans over the merch table, deep in conversation with Orr. She's got a white James Orr T-shirt draped over her shoulder. Her friend, another blonde in tight jeans, shares glances with her as they chat him up.
Tanya Kutterer, who saw Orr for the first time this Friday the 13th, came away a fan.
"I thought he was a very tactile performer," she said. 'He's just up there using all of his body to make the music. He's running across to the keyboard and playing all these instruments. It was a very high-sensory experience. It was almost more than musical. It was beautiful."
Kutterer's friend, Amy Bowman, has seen Orr "many times over the years."
"It's like liquid," Bowman said, "kind of like the motion of water. I've always loved watching him stand up there with his toes, barefoot, pushing on the [looping] pedals."
Freeman said that Orr's fans are in the mid- to late-20s range, and that seems about right. A good lot of them make it a point to see him after the show, causing the ever-amiable Orr to apologize to this reporter for neglecting him.
"He's friends with everybody, and he really makes a point of letting people know when he's out doing stuff," said Dylan Martin, who's been coming to Orr's shows for five years. "He makes a point to hang out afterwards and get to know everybody."
Perhaps this really is Orr's draw: He is an exceedingly nice guy who happens to make very listenable, catchy indie-pop music. When you watch Orr on stage, he conjures up bits of riffs and beats that suddenly develop into a fully realized song.
Watching Orr is a little like watching a friend in his living room messing with different instruments, until you suddenly find yourself carried away into his looped, trance-like musical world. He is also a friend, of course, who'll sell you CDs and T-shirts with his picture within the letters of his name, and happily take AmEx, Visa and Discover Card.