These are interesting times for Menomena. Last night's show at The Gargoyle was part of the Portland band's second tour without founding keyboardist Brent Knopf, who left the group in January. This is not an inconsequential loss; Knopf's clear, high voice complemented his ex-bandmates' raspier lower registers, and he wrote some of the group's best songs. Menomena may run more smoothly without another cook in the kitchen, but it's hard to believe they wouldn't miss the songwriting talent behind "Wet and Rusting."
It's easier to believe they wouldn't miss Knopf on stage, however. In last October's otherwise excellent concert, Knopf played well but wore an apathetic expression that foreshadowed his departure and didn't jibe well with the rest of the band's enthusiastic stage presence. Knopf's lifeless performance also stood in stark contrast to his replacement Paul Alcott's expressive dancing. When combined with his generally sharp work on the keys and guitar, Alcott's passion made this Menomena show a looser, more-fun affair than last year's already great show.
After persevering through a wonky PA that cut in and out during opener "Strongest Man in the World," Menomena kicked into high gear with "Taos." The forceful rocker came off much better in concert than it does on Mines as Justin Harris' driving bass lines and strong vocals gave truth to his lyrics about growing more confident. Of course, everything has more kick on stage when Danny Seim is your drummer. Swaying and sweating profusely, Seim pounded out cascading beats while somehow also turning in respectable vocals. The gurgling, syncopated funk of "Weird" showed that Seim is capable of restraint, but it was such a blast to watch him go full-on Keith Moon that it was almost disappointing when he pulled back.
Perhaps this is why the harder songs fared best. It also could have been the many great jagged guitar leads from Harris, Alcott or Matt Dabrowiak, depending on the song (at one point the band joked about how complicated all the instrument switching was). Harris' always-welcome bursts of sax didn't hurt either. The intensity reached fever pitch during Dabrowiak's blinding slide guitar wailing in set highlight "Bote."
For the most part, Menomena's dense arrangements came out tight. Alcott's keys might have been a hair off tempo in a few brief, isolated moments but everything else came together like clockwork once the songs were put in motion. Starting the "really old" song "The Late Great Libido" proved humorously problematic for the band though, as they laughed off two false starts. Fortunately, everything past that point was ace, especially the climactic crescendo in closer "Rotten Hell" and the menacing encore of "The Pelican."
Chicago's Maps & Atlases put on an impressive display of musicianship in their strong opening set. Although they've trended toward more accessible folky songwriting as their career has progressed, the quartet's math rock DNA showed in guitarists Dave Davison and Erin Elders' skilled finger tapping and Chris Hainey's spazzy yet meticulously controlled drumming. Davison also wisely pairs his vocal lines with matching guitar parts on most of the band's songs, which help make his polarizing, froggy vocals easier to swallow. And Hainey's ability to juggle complex drum beats with one hand while playing glockenspiel with the other was stunning. (I thought the bells were pre-recorded until I got a better view). Maps & Atlases thankfully backed up their prodigious technical talent with solid songwriting that managed to make most of their tunes' many twists and turns hummable. The audience certainly appreciated the band, as Maps & Atlases left the stage to an unsuccessful chant of "One more song."
Menomena setlist: 1. Strongest Man in the World 2. Taos 3. Weird 4. Twenty Cell Revolt 5. Muscle'n Flo 6. Five Little Rooms 7. Bote 8. Queen Black Acid 9. Tithe 10. The Late Great Libido 11. Dirty Cartoons 12. Rotten Hell
Encore 13. The Pelican
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