I rang in the first day of summer for 2013 by seeing Camera Obscura perform live. This is the fourth time I’ve been lucky enough to see them in person. Again, I am not one to write a lot about live music, though I just recently did (see Queen Elvis), but this is generally when something is strange or out of order about the night out - not specifically about the artist’s performance. This one is simply a case of silliness and what can happen inside one’s own mind when out at a concert alone.
In 1985, a handful of my friends and I went crazy over the synth-pop overproduced sounds of UK band Go West. We loved the oddly disjointed dance grooves of songs like “We Close Our Eyes,” “Call Me” (along with their many effects laden remixes), and the escapism and Rocky movie franchise worthy redemption song “Innocence.” So a bunch of us 14 year olds found a way to make the trek from the coast to Portland to see them live at the old Starry Night on an autumn night. We all spent loads of money on multiple cheaply made, but as expensive as all hell, T-shirts, sweatshirts, scarves, buttons and tour guides. There may have even been Go West shoelaces, sweatbands and sweatpants in the mix. It was a merchandiser’s wet dream. Opening the show that night, and not to be overlooked was Portland’s own Nu Shooz, who were huge in Oregon with their song “I Can’t Wait,” which was played 15 to 20 times a day on the ahead of its time (in a not so great way) pre-programmed, DJ-less, KSKD 105. This was about a year before the song was discovered by the Dutch and remixed by the Dutch using Madonna’s voice from “Into the Groove” as a synth melody line, turning the song into a world-wide hit. This was the night, when my good friend Eric decided that Nu Shooz singer Valerie Day had been “totally checking him out” during their set. None of us knew if he was kidding or serious, but we all were greatly entertained by the idea of a 25 year old front woman giving a 14 year old kid lost in a sea of faces the once and twice and maybe a thrice over. A similar instance occurred a year or so later, when a similar crowd gathered near the stage at the grand old basketball arena, the Memorial Coliseum, to see Eurythmics perform in Portland, riding high on their re-found chart success from the massive hit “Missionary Man” and their 1986 Revenge album. This time it was the two back up singers, who dressed, danced and swayed identically, that all 80s pop bands employed back then, who were checking Eric out from their platform to Annie Lennox’s left. Again, the rest of us were mystified, but highly entertained by this proclamation. I don’t mean to throw Eric under the bus here, because in retrospect, I admired Eric’s confidence and/or sense of humor, since I have always been incapable of believing that anyone could ever be ‘checking me out’ – especially from the stage. Plus, after having read Wendy Fonarow’s excellent ethnography Empire of Dirt – The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, and her detailed description about the interactions between band and audience and the built in sexual energy that the environment creates, the entire thing makes some sense, whether these women were indeed checking him out or not. There can be a definite sexual charge that overcomes people derived from music and performance. Why else have there been so many groupies over the years for any demented old bloke with a guitar? Why else would teenage girls be reduced to tears and screaming uncontrollably when seeing their pop idols in person? Why else would I feel like proposing to Gwenno after seeing the Pipettes live? A simple ‘yes’ would be nice Gwenno.
What does any of this have to do with seeing Camera Obscura on Friday, June 21, 2013? Not much, but please bear with me. The first time I had the opportunity to see Camera Obscura was in the middle of an incredibly hot July 2006 weekend here in the northwest. They played at the Doug Fir Lounge on a Saturday night after a couple of plus 100 degree humid days and everyone I knew who might have been interested in going to the show was out of town due to the uncomfortable heat. Surprisingly, the basement and temperature controlled confines of the Fir found this to be the first concert I had ever attended that was cool and comfortable compared to the outside. At any rate, I stood awkwardly in the middle of the maybe half filled floor amongst a few younger couples who had worked their way in tight directly in front of my already staked out position. Paul Simon’s mid 70s hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” was playing over the PA, which I not only had fond memories of, because my mom always loved Paul Simon’s music, but because it made me realize how fitting it was for an entrance song for the band. It was at this moment, when I overheard one young guy lean over to his young girl companion and tell her: “Hey, I just heard this song the other day; they’re a totally cool new band!” Being alone during their set allowed my mind to take in every detail of the band’s carefully constructed music, but started to wander when I felt like lead singer and main songwriter Tracyanne Campbell would not stop looking at me. She would glance in my general direction throughout key lyrical moments of each song and seemingly be staring at me, in the sparse crowd, during her occasional between song banter. The constant looks my way actually made me feel a little nervous, because I couldn’t figure out if she was looking at me in particular, and if so, why? If she wasn’t “checking me out,” what or who was she looking at? Was it simply a case of looking to a blank spot in order to avoid eye contact with anyone directly (as is often instructed to maintain stage fright), and it turns out that my fat head made for a good blank spot or “back wall” so to speak? When they played the atmospheric “Country Mile,” a song that always sends chills down my spine, I slowly moved my position. I didn’t want to continue to be in sight in case my emotions got the best of me. It didn’t work. Tracyanne’s gaze continued to spy me during the entire set. After the show, when stepping back out into a wall of stifling heat outside, I felt giddy from the great performance and silly from remembering Eric’s proclamations from 20 years prior and knowing that what I had been thinking was all in my head.
The next time I saw Camera Obscura perform was on the second leg of what must’ve been an extensive and exhaustive tour for their third album Let’s Get Out of This Country. This time, they played on Valentine’s Day 2007 at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom – a decidedly much larger venue. I had purchased a pair of tickets, hoping that a woman I had been seeing at the time would join me, but at the last minute, she cancelled. So, there I was again, standing near the stage, in a half filled venue and again feeling as if Tracyanne was looking right at me throughout their set. At one point, she and keyboardist and back-up vocalist Carey Lander, spoke to each other privately between songs, while both looking my way, before Tracyanne announced that since it was Valentine’s Day, they would be setting up a kissing booth on the floor after the show. My face filled with blood. This is when I knew that attending concerts alone is not a good idea, because I was losing my mind!
“People have been traveling miles just to hear us sing
It’s a February night I don’t want to feel anything
To get away maybe I could sell kisses
In Portland I tried my pretty hand at fishing”
These words come from the penultimate verse of “Away with Murder” from Camera Obscura’s 2009 fourth album My Maudlin Career and I couldn’t believe my ears upon first listening to the new album that spring time. This was getting ridiculous! This would only feed my insanity further! This tour found them landing in Portland again during the summer and on the same night as a Portland Timbers match (USL Soccer club at the time). It was a “Thirsty Thursday,” when the stadium served beer for much cheaper, inviting us all to drink even more of the terrible swill than one could ever consider buying in any other situation. The match went well and I witnessed a win and then quickly found my way to the Wonder Ballroom again just in time to see Camera Obscura take the stage. This time, the crowd was much larger and there would be no way for me to reach the front of the stage without forcing my way into tight confines and disturbing the delicate balance of the audience. I did have friends that were there, but they would’ve already found their positions up front, so I decided to stay near the back mini bar, purchased another beer and attempted to take my evening dose of immune suppressants to keep my kidney transplant safe (I do see the irony of this scenario). Unfortunately, for me, my little pill bottle that I always carry with me (making me sound like a Tic Tac enthusiast, since I rattle with every movement I make) spilled all over the floor. Being in the back, it was especially dark, and I needed to get those pills! I was able to pinpoint where they were on the floor, but the next hurdle to clear was how to reach them. In my drunken state, I was only able to dive bomb towards the pills like a crow attempting to swoop down onto fresh road kill on a busy city street. Eventually, with help from a nearby Good Samaritan, I had my pills back in possession and was able to enjoy the show. It was a sad display that ended my imaginary eye contact connection with Tracyanne Campbell.
So, how was the most recent show? It was fantastic! They performed what is now a very strong and deep greatest hits collection of songs from their last 10 years worth of material and they sounded pristine in yet an even larger venue – this time at the Crystal Ballroom - again, keeping me from my usual place near the stage. Such is the dilemma of being an early fan of a band with a continuously growing fan base. I do, however, find it interesting that Camera Obscura chose to record their latest album, Desire Lines, right here in Portland. I feel bad for Tracyanne, spending so much time and effort trying to track me down. I’m certain that between sessions, she could be found wandering the streets aimlessly, hoping to run into me. Maybe next time.