If only all problems could be like this one. There are two fantastic shows happening on the same night down the street from each other in Portland. I’ll tell you why both of these shows are so worth your time. In the end, the decision is yours, but the good news is that both of these bands visit us enough that you likely won’t have to wait all that long to see them again. In fact, one of these acts now calls Maine home.
I’ll begin with the Providence, Rhode Island, trio Arc Iris. It’s one of those bands that bolsters the argument that we should just do away with genres entirely because it’s impossible to put into one. It says “indie rock” on its Facebook page, but the band also veers into the land of experimental and electronic. Genre boxes aside, it’s a fascinating band that recently released its third album called “Icon of Ego.” Arc Iris is vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player Jocie Adams, keyboardist and sample artist Zach Tenorio-Miller and drummer Ray Belli.
The “Icon of Ego” opening track is the six-and-a-half minute “$GNMS,” and it’s a mesmerizing whirlwind of a song. Rewind to Arc Iris’s 2014 self-titled debut album with the opening track “Money Gnomes.” That version is sweet and playful, and I think I hear a banjo in there (among several other instruments). Entirely enjoyable. Four years later, Arc Iris has nearly doubled the length of the song, messed with its name and pretty much the only two things the songs have in common are their lyrics, including: “I watch her fie the boiling sky, from deep beneath the wilted leaves/Her body screaming for his ploy, why must riches make us thieves?” “$GNMS” has Adams’s voice sinking its teeth in deeper, and Belli’s percussion is a cauldron of sound. Tenorio-Miller has turned his massive array of keys up to 11, and the song is like a determined skiff battling a wild storm – and winning.
For the fun of it, I proceeded directly to the last song on “Icon of Ego.” It’s a psychedelic tune called “Suzy,” and I held onto the magic carpet ride with both hands. Whizzing and whirling every which way, “Suzy,” at times, stops on a dime for a sip of tea and then dashes back into its trippy orbit, complete with Adams’ nectarous voice, wailing away like its life depended on it.
Permit me to rave about one more “Icon of Ego” track. “Everybody’s Counting on Her” is chill and slow-moving at first, then picks up some steam – and sound effects – as it progresses. A violin and cello take up residency in the song, and a chorus of six backup vocalists adds sinew to an already electrifying track. Just one more thing before I land the Arc Iris plane, and it’s a mother of a fun fact. Earlier this year, it released “Foggy Lullaby,” an imaginative reinterpretation of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 “Blue” album. The band incorporates audio samples from Mitchell interviews into the album and puts its unconventional stamp all over “Blue’s”10 tracks, adding beats and keys. As if this wasn’t enough, the opening act for this show is none other than Portland’s Armies, which released its second album, “Armies II,” a couple of months ago, with the song “Social Life,” about the perils of social media, becoming one of my favorite tracks of 2018.
8 p.m. Friday. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland, $15 in advance, $20 day of show. onelongfellowsquare.com
The Ballroom Thieves is the trio of Martin Earley (guitar, vocals), Devin Mauch (percussion, vocals) and Calin Peters (vocals, cello). It’s an alternative folk-rock act, technically out of Boston, though all of the members now live in Maine. I know this because I ran up to them at a Thompson’s Point show this summer they were attending and fan-girled them, peppering them with questions and declaring my love for them, all without taking a breath. Now, where was I? Oh yes, they’ll be at Port City Music Hall on Friday night and will have plenty of new music to share, having released a pair of EPs in 2018. First came “Paper Crown” with five gorgeous songs kicked off by “Only Lonely” with Peters on lead vocals. “I’ve been around and up and down this road before/I’ve eaten all the seeds you yearn to give/When I was born, she made a garland of the broken weeks/I’ve always worn it and forever she has lived.” The song shines at its brightest when all three of them are singing together, and you’ve never heard a more perfect howl then the one these three sing together. What’s more, they created a true piece of cinematic art with the song’s video.
“Do Something” is a two and a half minute country-ish tune, again with Peters on lead, and with superb backing vocals from Earley and Mauch. Just when you think the song is going to stay on the front porch swing and watch the fireflies, in come the horns, and Peter’s vocals reach a fever pitch before landing right back on that slowly swaying porch swing. Fire and brimstone, Thieves-style, comes in the form of “Can’t Cheat Death,” a foot-stomping whirling dervish of a tune with Earley and Peters sharing lead vocal duties. “Fistfight” is a love song at its boiling point, spilling over with stormy guitar licks and bass lines and ardent cello. “Paper Crown” ends with “Almost Love.” It earns the title of my favorite track on the EP, as it exemplifies why The Ballroom Thieves is such a great band: lyrics, musicianship and tremendous vocals.
The other recent feather in the band’s cap is the three-song “Covers” EP. The songs it tackles are Joe Pug’s “Hymn #101,” Bahamas’ “Lost In the Light” and Frighted Rabbit’s “My Backwards Walk.” While they’re all outstanding, the one that strikes me the most is “My Backwards Walk,” with Mauch on lead vocals. Mauch was deeply impacted by the death of Frightened Rabbit’s singer Scott Hutchinson, who took his own life in May. Here’s some of what he said about it on the band’s Facebook page in October: “I always felt a deep connection with the band’s anthemic melodies, their bold display of true Scottish rock with tender folk tendencies, and most of all, Scott Hutchison’s dedication to writing lyrics that reflected an honest relationship with his struggles with mental health. For the first time I could hear someone through the speakers seemingly speaking directly to me and my own experiences and struggles with depression and anxiety.” The band had recorded the song back in 2017, and its members debated whether or not to release it after Hutchinson’s passing. I’m sure glad they did. Mauch went on to say that them releasing it was not a response to Hutchinson’s death. “Our response is promoting more communication and education surrounding mental health in general. The conversations must continue and we must embrace the members of our communities who are experiencing the struggle in any form. Let’s show compassion and remind each other we are not alone. Let’s promote and fight for more research and education on the topic of mental health and make sure it’s taken as seriously as it deserves in our communities.” Lastly, if there’s one thing I love it’s a new genre name, and “cowboy soul” certainly qualifies. That’s how opener Odetta Hartman describes her sound. I gave a few of her tunes a spin and was intrigued. If you’re going to catch this show, consider yourself nudged to get there in time to catch her set.
8 p.m. Friday. Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland, $18 in advance, $22 day of show, $35 preferred seating., 18-plus. portcitymusichall.com