It’s so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of hype surrounding Girls frontman Christopher Owens—the drug addiction, his upbringing in the Children of Gold cult, etc.—that you might forget what makes the band so special. While so many bands hide emotion behind clever wordplay and manufactured images, Girls are raw, real and incredibly intimate. That’s what made the sold-out concert at Birch North Park Theatre on Friday, March 2, such a transcendent experience.
The evening began with a performance by Portland indie-rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The set started with a nod from the wild-eyed drummer Julius Ehrlich to lead singer Ruban Nielson, who was chomping on bubble gum and had his red Fender Mustang hanging precariously off his right shoulder. The trio promptly blasted off with the straightforward British invasion-era rock 'n' roll of “Nerve Damage,” with bassist Jake Portrait offering a funky backbone to Ehrlich’s slightly unhinged ferocity. Nielson’s voice changed from song to song—at some points he let out growls, but at others he took the audience by surprise with a high-pitched falsetto that seemed almost androgynous. But he eventually developed a satisfying rasp to accompany the throwback disco groove of “How Can U Luv Me?,” one of the band’s breakout singles and the highlight of their set.
When Unknown Mortal Orchestra finished, the roadies set about placing bouquets of baby’s breath, roses and carnations on the mic stands and keyboard, giving the rock show a distinctly fresh scent. The five members of Girls then strolled out in white Oxford shirts and khaki pants. Clutching his red Rickenbacker guitar, Owens smoothed back his hair—which was bleached blonde and dyed green—and began strumming to the melancholic indie-rock of “Alex.” Meanwhile, lead guitarist John Anderson wrought loud, mournful notes over the top.
The jubilant surf-rock of “Honey Bunny” and “Laura” got the crowd bouncing, but much of the set played out like the slow dance at a wedding reception. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Owens’s heartfelt crooning during songs like “Substance,” “Love like a River” and “Myma” caused the high-school-aged crowd who'd bunched together in the front of the venue to pair off. It was moving to see them slowly swaying to the music, their X-marked hands together, fingers intertwined, heads on shoulders, eyes closed. In the seated section, meanwhile, a bunch of hip couples in their mid-to-late 20s, some rocking glorious moustaches and fashionable tattoos, stood with their arms around each other. The low light reflected off their serene smiles.
For the encore, “Jamie Marie" (see a video taken by a concertgoer), Owens came out accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. He cut a striking image, standing stiffly with his eyes shut tight in the sole spotlight, as he slowly delved into the song’s intimate theme of loneliness and regret. As the show ended, the band tossed the flowers to the teenagers in the front, who grabbed for them over the thunderous applause, seemingly eager to connect their innocent feelings with something tangible.