A few songs into the ensemble's set Thursday night, Portland Cello Project mastermind Douglas Jenkins explained to the packed Chop Suey crowd exactly what his group does. "Sometimes we bring friends on stage to play their songs with us," he said, "and sometimes we write our own."
The Portland Cello Project performed Oct. 22 at Chop Suey with Thao with the Get Down Stay Down.
What Jenkins didn't explain is that the PCP is far from the chamber ensemble their name might suggest. Instead, the group collaborates with indie, folk, and pop musicians, performing accompaniments to those musicians' songs. The PCP is also a band in their own right, performing cover songs and original compositions.
Even with a slightly smaller version of the PCP--there were five cellists on stage Thursday night but usually there are eight--the ensemble still pulled off some remarkable musical feats. There was a Pantera cover. And a version of "Hey Ya" by Outkast. They brought Olympia musician Christopher Francis on stage to sing "Like I Love You" but Justin Timberlake while the cellists recreated the music, even using tightly plucked strings to mimic the song's tinkling keyboards. They ended the set with a cover of a-ha's "Take On Me," performed with John Brophy and Brian Perez. The performance included whistling, a glockenspiel, and Brophy hitting that legendary high note at the end.And listening to any of these covers with yours eyes closed, it's unlikely you'd picture cellos creating the music. The crowd was actually dancing. To cello music. That's the talent of the PCP's arrangements: they sound like eight different instruments, not eight musicians playing the same instrument differently.
Aside from those covers, what the PCP does best make another musician's'already-great song even better. The set opened with a few songs by Justin Power backed by the PCP, and the cellists matched their performance perfectly to Power's. When his song were quiet, the cellists played more slowly and softly. Together, they sound like any well-practiced band, and it's hard to tell where Justin Power ends and the PCP begins.
For this reason, it was disappointing that Thao with the Get Down Stay Down didn't perform "Tallymarks" with the PCP. (Thao didn't perform the song at all Thursday night, for that matter.) It's on The Thao and Justin Power Sessions, the PCP's latest album, and the ensemble performed the song with Thao earlier this year when they played the Triple Door.
"Tallymarks" is a perfect example of how a handful of cellos can alter the mood and style of a song. Thao is a dynamic musician and charismatic entertainer in her own right, but she's also known for her overt sexuality. (If you've never seen her live, Thao pretty much sings and plays guitar as if she's constantly having an orgasm). When she's backed by a handful of cellos, she seems to calm down a bit--just enough to prove she's as much a musician as she is a sex symbol. It happened briefly during Thursday's performance; the PCP joined Thao on stage for only one song: "The Give." During a few moments, the cellos sullen sound matched the emotion of Thao's lyrics, filling in the notes between her guitar strumming. "Tallymarks" has the same quality, blending both Thao and the PCP into one musical unit--and a PCP set isn't the same without that song.