Wild and Reckless

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 29, 2017

"Wild & Reckless: A New Concert Event with Blitzen Trapper" at Portland Center Stage is a current of energy carrying a story. Called a "concert event," but more of a rock operetta, "Wild & Reckless" tells the story of young love and addiction through music.

If Bob Dylan were to sing in the style of Bruce Springsteen, if the E-Street Band lacked a saxophone, if Pink Floyd collaborated with Gordon Lightfoot to write songs about life and loss, you'd have something close to Blitzen Trapper. Compared elsewhere to Queen and the Grateful Dead, this band seems to be made from threads from some of the greatest bands of all time, but the resulting musical fabric is wholly their own, rich and compelling.

Blitzen Trapper's narrative songwriting lends itself perfectly to the longer story arc of a musical. It's hard to call this a musical, though, because it feels much like a storytelling concert. The male lead speaks the first lines of the show, telling the story of where he came from and segueing into a song about those origins. This is how the show goes, in and out of music and lyrics, with very little spoken. The songs are strung together loosely, with only glancing character interaction.

Because Blitzen Trapper was unfamiliar to me, I listened to some of their songs before seeing the show. I wasn't sold on their songwriting, however, until I saw them live; they are astonishing live. There's something that happens with their live that isn't revealed in their recordings, like the uselessness of trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

I'm a sucker for a well-written line, like "Heaven's right below the hurricane/hell's in every single flame" or "The open road feels like a song," or "Overpass like a river at night." Beautiful nuggets like these pop up in the middle of unusual and mesmerizing melodic and harmonic lines. These are intriguing songs musically and lyrically, and the strength of the songs carries the story.

Eric Earley as the Narrator/Guitarist is the definitive rock star; his demeanor is like Springsteen's, he's just there to serve the music, but at a certain point, he gets lost in that music and becomes something else altogether. That's the moment I live for in live performances.

The other players in the story are The Girl (played by Laura Carbonell, who also plays piano and guitar onstage), The Scientist (percussionist, played by Brian Adrian Koch, who poured delight and vigor into his performance), The Dealer, (Leif Norby, proving he truly can play *any* role), The Professor (Marty Marquis, keyboard), The Kid (Erik Menteer, also on guitar), and Michael Van Pelt on bass and percussion.

The Professor and Scientist serve to inform the audience about the prevailing science of the day; lightning is being harnessed as an energy source, and its residue (lightning dust) is a highly addictive substance around which an entire sub-economy has grown. The Narrator and The Girl fall in love, The Girl becomes addicted to lightning dust, and their lives spiral out of control.

The use of lightning as a narrative thread is genius; it works as an agent in the collapse of society around the couple, as an unstoppable force into which otherwise intelligent people are subsumed, and makes the music, as the voice of that energy, a part of the story. What could have been just another sad story about love lost to addiction becomes (pardon the pun) energized and fraught with peril.

The directors Rose Riordan and Liam Kaas-Lentz staged this show on a bare-bones set that works beautifully for this concert event. With the coolest mobile drum riser I've ever seen, the set has the feel of a grungy bar stage, hung with street lamps that frizzle when lightning strikes.

The lighting designer, Daniel Meeker, worked some serious magic throughout. The revolving graphic pools dancing across the stage enhance the feeling of being in a concert, and the actors were lit indirectly, as if wandering in and out of ambient light, like people do in bars or on the street. Late in the show, the music builds to a psychedelic-rock crescendo, and the lightning-strike electrification of the set appears to course through the musicians and actors. It's a moment of heart-stopping wonder and excitement.

"Wild & Reckless" is a hypnotic, entrancing piece of theater. From the composition to the rock performance to the staging, this collaboration of disparate elements has resulted in something thrilling and extraordinary.

"Wild & Reckless: A New Concert Event with Blitzen Trapper" runs through April 30 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW Eleventh Ave, Portland, OR, 97217. For tickets and information, call 503-445-3700 or visit https://www.pcs.org/wildandreckless

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.