On Saturday, Nov. 9, La Jolla’s Porter’s Pub stage had an Oregon state flag hung from the stage-right keyboard and a Cascadian Independence flag hung from the stage-left keyboard. It was set up for Portland-based Blitzen Trapper, a quintet playing in support of their new album, “VII,” seventh of their collection.
Lead singer Eric Earley is a small, compact man with black hair that flows into a full beard the same color. His eyes are often closed while singing, tucked under the shadow of his eyebrows. He plays banjo and guitar precisely, his thin, dexterous fingers know each instrument as a craftsman knows his trade.
The band played “Shine On” off “VII.” The song is an amalgam of influence — a gospel-sounding chorus, sung with the twang of Earley’s vocals, the pop keys from Marty Marquis, and the long rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos. Earley journeyed away from the microphone and the theme, to indulge his instinct to jam.
The band’s performance was like jazz — collective improvisation that adds layers to the structure, but eventually comes back to the chordal theme.
“Thirsty Man” was a perfect example of the band elongating the song and adding the textures of each instrument — electric guitar, synth, bass, drums — with band member contributing to the playground of space between the last verse and the last note.
While longwinded at times, the many solos of Earley were a marvel to watch, especially when he picked up his black banjo and began plucking as fast as he sang.
“VII” is distinctly more country than any other genre that’s been applied to Blitzen Trapper. It synthesizes the rock ‘n’ roll tendencies of Earley, drummer Brian Koch, and electric guitarist Erik Menteer into a country blues sound and evokes a sense of place in the backwoods of Oregon.
During upbeat “Neck Tatts and Cadillacs,” the pace of Earley’s vocals was closer to rap than country. Then the band slowed the tempo with “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle,” leaving no doubt that Blitzen Trapper is primarily a country band.
The band left the stage after playing 19 songs for the crowd of about 200 people. Earley returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and harmonica.
He played “Stranger In A Strange Land,” the most intimate song of the night. Earley sang from a place of contentment, sounding like a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Woody Guthrie — like a stowaway on a train riding through the West.
Blitzen Trapper played 23 songs total, each with consistent energy, each with a different twist from its recorded counterpart. Witnessing the process of songs being continually shaped and molded throughout the show was intriguing and refreshing.
It was the most songs I’ve ever witnessed a band play at a show. Blitzen Trapper finally left the stage after about one hour and 45 minutes of playing, but the crowd would have listened all night. And they had good reason to.