If the members of Portugal. The Man have any desire for the limelight, their stage show at The Independent Monday gave little indication of it.
Introversion was a defining characteristic of the band’s set; each member was in their own world, isolated from each other by complete lack of stage lighting save for the psychedelic projections coloring their faces with dark hues of pink and blue or speckled, dancing points of light and the occasional strobe.
The overwhelming darkness, just barely perceptible in the increasingly frustrated faces of the photographers in the room — “Someone put a goddamn spotlight on them,” you could almost hear them thinking — also created a gulf of emotional space between the band and the audience, which was overwhelmingly invested in the performance regardless.
It was an unusual emotional mapping, as the people in the crowd projected their love of the band onto the music instead. It felt like Portugal. The Man was trying to remove itself from the equation. Of the band members, only bassist Zach Carothers exhibited bodily dynamism or a willingness to acknowledge and interact with the audience.
While the band engaged in a jam band-esque set, threading songs together via interlude riffing that precluded any opportunity to talk to the crowd, its cool, removed veneer still broke down at a few memorable moments. At one point, keyboardist Kyle O’Quin ran from his station to take a hit off a joint from someone in the front row. And somewhere in the middle of the set, the band members missed a chorus entry and had to stop and restart at the chorus, laughing it off with the audience in their first spontaneous, human-feeling moment in the show.
In a way, those moments served as a reminder that the band was actually made up of human beings, perhaps even more so than the typical, forgettable rehearsed spiel a frontman is generally obligated to give. What’s frustrating is that for all the spontaneity of those moments, they all felt accidental, like a chink in the emotional armor the band members — lead singer John Gourley in particular — have built around themselves. Gourley himself never spoke a word to the audience; Carothers gave the only brief speech of the night, immediately before the encore.
None of this seemed to matter a bit to the crowd packed into The Independent. In fact, if there was any upside to the enveloping darkness, it’s that it was nigh on impossible to snap a clear picture or video of what was happening on stage; no phone screens were seen peppering the audience. And maybe that was part of the point. One gets the feeling that it wouldn’t really matter what was happening visually on the stage; Portugal. The Man is a band that has for the past decade built an extremely dedicated fanbase for their music, and it showed in the fervor of the crowd at the venue.
Certainly one reason for that is the nearly infectious danceability of their live set. A maxim of all modern pop music is that any song, and in particular any hook, must be instantly recognizable whether the listener has heard the song or not. It applied equally well here; if you were one of the 10 people at the show who didn’t already know every word, you’d find yourself singing along anyway. You’d be dancing too; whatever machination the band uses to take the indie-rock, psychedelic-pop, experimental-whatever category the band’s music might be and push it out of amplifiers at a concert just works. It’s not just heavier or suffused with guitar-solos — the live set is also tighter and uptempo, everything working in tandem to leave the audience thoroughly danced-out and exhausted by the end of the 100-minute set.
Thanks in part to all that crowd motion, the temperature at The Independent reached nearly intolerable levels as the set progressed, which normally wouldn’t be notable except that it became increasingly ridiculous that Gourley and his crew refused to remove their heavy fishermen’s jackets and hats. All things aside, you have to admire their commitment to their aesthetic vision, even if it leaves you wondering what exactly it all means.