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Aural Report

Surviving the audience-recession blues
High on James Low
by Kurt Dahlke

My brief journey to the tiny light that is Portland's North Russell District ends as I wedge into a tight spot, slide out the passenger's door (don't ask) of my overheating car and into the White Eagle.

Thirst soon slaked, I settle into the stone-cold deserted tavern. The scheduled band is not where I expect it to be. The two guys on stage bear only the slightest resemblance to the five-piece I came to see.

Kicking up a storm: James Low's joy at playing is proof positive. [photo by Basil Childers]

"Audience-wise, Portland is in a recession," says James Low, who was asked to fill in at the last minute.

"In my view, Portland has an extremely vibrant music scene. There are songwriters in this town whom I view as being of the highest caliber."

If the dearth of Portland audiences is a problem, it isn't due to Low and his ilk.

Working as a duo, Low on acoustic guitar and Lewi Longmire on acoustic guitar and harmonica, explain why they're there.

The scheduled act exploded in ugly acrimony only days before. But it's my good fortune, as Low and friend enthrall me and the one other guy at the bar.

"Portland media is somewhat responsible for the perceived lull in the scene," Low continues.

I'll do my restitution, then, and mention that though this is a last-minute gig, before long a good-sized group appears and enjoys the show. As for the other band, well, it's a cautionary tale for would-be musicos. Don't date within a band – and definitely don't trade partners.

Low, a regular on the local alt-country/folkie/old-timey circuit, quickly convinces that we're in expert hands. I'm far from disappointed with the unexpected change-up. Instead, I'm floored by Low and Longmire's easy command of their seemingly off-the-cuff repertoire, which encompasses moaning lost-love ballads, countrified rave-ups, stylish soloing and tasty harp playing.

There's an undercurrent of injustice deeply felt coursing through Low's voice and song selection, which includes Lucinda Williams' beautiful "Drunken Angel."

Low's own wordsmithery, however, rivals that of Williams. His "Worn Out," from a forthcoming release, sketches a heart-wrenching portrait of someone carrying a torch in just one line: "... fillin' in our dance cards with the shadows of the ones we really want."

Low's voice is sweet and clear; not ragged, but world-weary nonetheless – as if worn by years as the instrument of an old soul. The effect is dusty and fresh.

What draws so many contemporary writers to these defiantly non-contemporary styles?

"I grew up in John Day, a town of about 3,000 in Eastern Oregon," Low recalls. "The only radio station was AM and went off the air at six every night. When they played music it was mostly country, and while I hated it at the time, it must have gotten into my blood."

White Eagle

While most musicians treading the same ground grew up under different circumstances, all seem to share a reverence for the truthful, beautiful writing in old-timey music.

"I grew up in an environment that respected the song over any other element in music," says Low, whose songs – and his joy at playing them – bring proof.

I let my attention wander to a friend just back from an abortive attempt to move to Missouri. In his travels, he found Kentucky to be the most beautiful place.

And as Low and Longmire kick up a dust storm in the background, Kentucky sounds beautiful. I guess there's something to that old-time country music after all.

See James Low:
• Oct. 5: Boones Treasury, Salem, Ore.
• Oct. 12: Grand Lodge, Forest Grove, Ore.
• Oct. 19: Mad Hatter Lounge, Portland (w/trio)
Saturdays: Laurelthirst, Portland; 6-8 p.m. (w/full band)

E-mail Kurt at orangeandorange@msn.com, and don't miss his previous reports.

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