What do you get when you cross Jeff Buckley with Hem, Over the Rhine, and Ray Manzarek?
A pretty groovy Christmas party, for starters.
The light in the room is yellow as beeswax, and the walls are all hung with art made from nature–pinned butterflies, drawings of flowers made on tree bark. It’s a tiny house with lots of people but it doesn’t feel crowded–I feel like that’s owing to the congenital deference of Northwesterners to individuality. They’ll always be kind, while always giving you your space.
There’s a child named Georgia wearing a knitted dress and peering intelligently at people through her almond-shaped eyes, before proferring her plastic cup to them and lisping, “Cheers!” Speaking of which, Brigid and Scott point out the drinks on offer–the centerpiece is a sort of greyish cream-of-wheat concoction that, they tell me, is called atole. One of their other guests brought the recipe back from Mexico–it’s made with cinnamon, unrefined sugar and hominy flour.
I elect cider, instead, into which Scott glugs a shitload of bourbon and floats a cinnamon-dusted orange slice on top.
I’m like okay, Portland, it’s on.
At which point the lights flicker and it’s announced that the music is going to start.
I confess to expecting little from a Christmas party house concert by church friends of the hosts.
Shows you what I know.
Sama Dams (a play, I imagine, meant to put some little distance between the lead singer’s name and the beer with whom he shares it) is a trio of music teachers who all hail from the midwest: Sam from Indiana, Lisa from Ohio, and Chris from Iowa. Sam and Lisa are married…like, to each other; their relationship was recently cast in an unnecessarily White Stripes-y light by a British review, where they were credited as brother and sister. (They didn’t correct it; Lisa says they thought it would be funnier if the review trickled back to their church friends.)
Their recordings are filed under “avant indie post noise rock,” and have a heavier electronic flavor than the mostly acoustic renditions they played at the Christmas party.
I know I’m biased–an Elvis over Beatles kind of girl–but being unplugged made their music hit even harder, especially when Sam channeled the Doors’ Ray Manzarek in his version of “We Three Kings,” which he admitted to having barely practiced.
From the opening bars of their first song, “Palm Sunday” to the collective hymn-sing they finished with, I was transfixed–and it wasn’t just because of all the bourbon in my cup.
Sam’s voice has the eerie passion and meandering tone of Jeff Buckley (to whom, yes, he gets compared fairly often); Lisa, when she trades Wurlitzer duty for the violin or mandolin, combines the resonance of Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist with the whispery sweetness of Sally Ellyson from Hem. Their two voices are held in a tenuous balance between the tightness of Chris’ precise, sparing percussion, and the drunken profligacy of Sam’s fugal organ riffs.
Based on Georgia’s highly satisfied declaration of “All done!” following each number’s close, I think she’d agree that the performance was unexpectedly powerful. I’ve listened to their two records several times and I have to tell you, as great as their melodies and arrangements are, the impact is lessened through headphones.
So I suggest you go see them when they perform at Buckman’s grooviest lounge, Doug Fir, on the 4th.
(Barring that, hear them at Amnesia in San Francisco on February 25…and say hi to my friend Brendan, who works the bar.)
Twist their arms, if you have to, but get them to play “We Three Kings”–it’ll invigorate your post-holiday malaise, I promise you.