Emily Wells is the best individual performer I have ever seen. I’ve been to better shows, been in better crowds, but I’ve never seen anything as impressive as Wells behind her musical devices. She’s an artisan who handcrafts perfect melodies and weaves intricate background tapestries for us to enjoy.
The crowd on hand for this particular evening was large, but not too psyched. Multiple times the gentleman speaking for the Portland Cello Project mentioned how mellow everyone was. His band-consisting of five cellos, a flute, a French horn, and drums-played three songs by Watch The Throne and one by Lil Wayne. It was fun at first, but the novelty wore thin for me after they played “Niggas In Paris.” By the time they got to “H.A.M.” I was ready for them to leave. Not to say they aren’t talented. They are all very able on their instruments, but I’ve heard hip-hop on classical instruments before.
Then something interesting happened. They brought up a guy (Chris something I think) to sing a couple songs with them. Apparently he’s a karaoke legend in Portland, but has moved here where I guess his status is still in question. They did “Bottoms Up” by Trey Songz and “Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliott. I’m not the biggest fan of either song, but the room definitely had more energy when there was a charismatic vocalist to feed off of.
As Wells took the stage it was pretty obvious that her legion of fans had shown up to support her. Every few seconds I’d hear someone say “oh my god I love her!” or “Oh my god she’s so beautiful!” Obviously these people were going to have a good time even if the show was terrible. Luckily it was the exact opposite of terrible and everyone in the audience seemed pretty pleased.
She kicked off the set with “Mama’s Gonna Give You Love,” and one thing I noticed immediately was how much work she does with her feet. I guess I wasn’t paying attention to what goes on under the table in the videos that I’ve seen. Every time I’ve listened to her recordings I’ve thought that there’s no way she could do it live-it’s too much!-but she does, and if anything it sounds even better.
I had assumed that because she just put out a new record the set would be heavily geared toward those songs, but it wasn’t. She played a few off the new one, including the single “Passenger,” but she also played a few older tunes and three covers. One of the covers was “Wonderful Life” by The Felice Brothers. Before she played it she said everyone should know them, and I couldn’t agree more.
While most in the crowd were dumbfounded by that performance, they all knew the cover that came later. Starting about three songs in I started hearing requests for “Juicy” being yelled out. It’s her most famous song, I’m sure, but did you really come to an Emily Wells show to hear her play a cover of a song that was recorded when you were a baby? In my mind it was the third-best cover of the night behind Felice Brothers and Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”
She also played a song I’ve never heard before (though a google search shows she’s been playing it for over a year) called “We Got A Hole In Our Hearts” which was really good. I found it interesting that, even though that was the only song truly new to me, every song sounded completely fresh and original. It would be very easy for Wells to just travel around the country with all her mixes and beats stored in a laptop so she can show up and hit play. But she takes pride in her work, creating a new version of each song every night. Part of the interest of going, for me, was just to watch her build: first a vocal loop, then two violing parts, add in some drums, then sing over the mix. All while never moving from a three foot area on the stage. It’s really something special.
I would recommend checking out a concert by Emily Wells even if you have little interest in the songs themselves. It’s like watching Pollock splatter paint everywhere, and when it’s finished it’s this marvelous thing that you can see and understand. Her songs are truly works of art to be appreciated even by those who don’t like it. But I assume if you saw it, you would like it. I know everyone at Schubas did.