'After a touching version of “Because,” singer Liz Bacon literally genuflected to John Lennon’s White Album portrait' (B. Campbell)
Other shows last weekend supplied abundant musical invigoration. The stage at The Julians’ Sunday afternoon concert at Portland’s St. Stephens Episcopal Parish boasted large posters bearing the visages of the iconic pop stars whose music they were covering. The all-star group of female singers, drawn from top-drawer groups like Resonance, Portland Symphonic Choir, PVC, In Mulieribus and more, channel potent pop and other music from composers from John Lennon to Kurt Weill to contemporary pop songwriters and make it their own — without the dreaded clueless condescension that often transpires when cabaret crooners or opera divo/as go slumming around in pop.
They’re sort of like the Portland Cello Project with voices instead of cellos — and, hmm, come to think of it, what a combination that would be. Each singer’s voice has real presence, and while their harmonies are as tight and spot-on as you’d expect from their resumes, they profitably exploit their voices’ distinctive textures.
From the opening old Tears for Fears hit “Mad World” through an encore of Bill Withers’ soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” The Julians sounded fresh and feisty, with smart, concise sometimes doo-wop-influenced arrangements (especially by Kristen Buhler) that added to rather than detracting from the originals’ beauty. Not that I’d ever want to forgo the pleasure of the originals by Lennon, Joni Mitchell, or even Leonard Cohen, but various interpretations can bring out different attractions in them. After a touching version of “Because,” singer Liz Bacon literally genuflected to John Lennon’s White Album portrait. In fact, in songs by some of today’s most original songwriters, like Bjork, Regina Spektor, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, the Julians’ pinpoint harmonies and restrained arrangements revealed sinewy structures sometimes obscured by electric or electronic pop studio wizardry. Voices are often the weak link in today’s indie rock, where any hint of polish or precision is taken as evidence of counterrevolutionary inauthenticity, and it’s a treat to hear great singer/songwriters’ words interpreted by quite different instruments, even if the Julians never make a fetish of their obvious training and talent.
Frequently garnishing their two-, three- and occasionally four-part vocal harmonies with light percussion (cabasa, maracas, xylophone, metallophone, glockenspiel, woodblock, claves), plus ukulele, piano, and Chris Fotinakis’s violin and guitar and Jon Stuber and Buhler’s piano, the group sounded completely natural in a startling range of repertoire: Brahms, the great contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, Greek composer Michael Adamis, a traditional Georgian ballad, and more, including popsters from Cat Stevens to Sara Bareilles.
The perhaps overly thematic program sought cohesiveness with a framework allegedly proceeding through the stages of love, and each section introduced by a line from Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese,” plus a theme of “he said” and “she said” — gender-determined differences in perspective on love. A few moments got a little (winkingly) steamy for a Sunday afternoon in a church; the audience gobbled it up like the cookies at the after-concert reception.
In the second half, each singer received a solo showcase preceded by introductions written in haiku from another ensemble member, and in one case, a literal boost onto the piano from Stuber and Fotsinakis for a smoky cabaret version of Spektor’s “Summer in the City.” Other highlights included a bluesy reharmonization of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Wizardly hit “If I Only Had a Heart” and a poignant cover of Weill’s “Stay Well.” When the pace threatened to flag, out came belters like “Hurricane Drunk.” The cleverly varied combinations and styles and quick transitions made a too-long program feel over too soon.
If bland and pretty too often represents the sometimes-enervated present of vocal music, I hope the Julians signal one exciting aspect of its future. They’re one of the most refreshing breezes to blow through Portland’s alt classical scene.