Lonnie Holley Keeps Portland Weird

If I say the name Lonnie Holley I wouldn’t blame you if you asked, “Who?” He’s not a household name and he lives in Alabama. I first encountered Lonnie Holley at an appearance in 2014 outside of the old Portland Museum of Modern Art which shared space with Mississippi Records. At that time, I was looking for direction. Lonnie helped me find it. There was something about seeing him that day that inspired me to start this blog. When I saw Lonnie was returning to Portland, it felt like a chance to come full circle. Seeing that Peter Buck was part of a group of people providing musical support was an added bonus. I documented my brief encounter with Peter that first time I saw Lonnie perform solo. I was curious to see what additional musicians could add to Lonnie’s performance style. 

It was interesting and mystifying to find the show was sold out. Lonnie’s not a household name. I can’t remember why I first checked him out. It had to have been the Portland Museum of Modern Art cachet. His recent appearance was a part of the After the End of the World series that had been organized by Mississippi Records. It’s fair to say this was a crowd drawn from the store’s customer base, rabid fans of the obscure, outsider and unusual. People know that Mississippi Records events are always worth checking out.

Peter Buck was wandering through the Hollywood Theatre lobby past the people in line for concessions. I happened to be heading to the bathroom. A half second earlier I would have smacked right into him. As I realized who I was encountering I noticed how tall he was, not super tall, but taller than me. He seemed to be looking at me like I might be somebody but I was just a guy trying to get to the bathroom. It all seemed surreal given my previous encounter with him the last time I saw Lonnie. If I had cornered him I could have at least got a kind of pregame interview going about the game plan for playing with Lonnie. I thought to myself that he probably remembered me from eight years ago as that weird guy who had run at and then by him at another Lonnie Holley appearance. I wasn’t the only one who spotted him in the lobby. I overheard a guy in line mention that the show was bringing out the fanboys.

We were seeing the end of the festival which had involved multiple shows. One included the Sun Ra Arkestra. Lonnie had been picked to end the festival by the main organizer Eric from the record store. He expressed a similar feeling, although one that came from closer contact with Lonnie, about the artist’s charisma offering him a sense of what he should be doing with his life. In his opening comments, Eric talked about the beautiful stream of consciousness Lonnie offers and the courage he has to be himself and create a better world. 

Comments from Matt, a friend of Lonnie’s, followed. When Matt listed some major museums showcasing Lonnie’s art, it dawned on me that he’s a bigger artist than I’d known. Matt set the stage for the performance explaining that it would be made up on the spot. “Lonnie wanted me to point out that like his visual art, his music is created spontaneously so if you’ve heard his critically acclaimed records, none of those songs will be played tonight.” After the laughter died down, Matt went on to say, “As Lonnie says, ‘I’ve already played those songs’.”

Lonnie’s songs begin as bleeps from his Casio keyboard. The song would build around his soulful singing. The only direction given was Lonnie’s mention of which keys he’d be using to start, announcing before each song whether it would be the white keys or black keys. I was surprised to see the musicians sitting down. There would be no scissor kicks from Peter Buck this night. He was partially hidden behind Lonnie and a mic stand obscured his face. I couldn’t tell what he was playing because his guitar was hidden from view. It seemed more drone than atonal so he wasn’t exorcising thirty years of R.E.M. riffs from my brain The group conjured up a bassless dub sound under Lonnie’s thought bursts. The pedal steel player drowned out any guitar sounds. It seemed absurd but Peter Buck was not the star of this show. There’s a humility in showing up to support another performer that made me realize Peter was the ultimate sideman. It was reminiscent of his recent appearance with Eyelids, although he was more center stage playing a pair of songs from his old band. His pal Scott was also there, on keyboard and guitar, adding to their renewed indie cred. Their willingness to show up and play for the love of music was inspiring. 

Lonnie has hours of patter. We heard a lot of it all eight years ago. The subject matter ranges from anti-technology, concerns about the ecology and living more in reality than in the digital realm. I’m not sure what his catch phrase “thumbs up for Mother Universe” really means but it sounds good. I was also mystified when he talked on stage about a three and a half month hospitalization when he’d been hit by a car at age seven. He said he’d come back from being declared brain dead. Mystery cements a legend offering a sense of how far he’s come to be on stage making up songs. 

Eric booked two bands to support Lonnie with the show broken into two sets. This created a dynamic which really showed off Lonnie’s range. The second band, The Tezeta Band, billed as an Ethiopian jazz band, showcased Lonnie’s Marvin Gay/Ecology Song in a blender aesthetic. They got funky and Motownesque. The horn section, bass player, and extra percussion didn’t hurt. Lonnie rose to the occasion, leaping away from the Casio, moved by the music. The Tezeta Band brought a cohesive sound to the proceedings taking the lead that Lonnie was willing to follow. 

If you wonder why I would bring up an artist that’s not from around here or detail a celebrity encounter with someone who probably doesn’t consider himself a celebrity, I can tell you that I really wanted to reflect on Lonnie’s visit and analyze what it all means. Consider Lonnie’s life. He described being the seventh child of a family of twenty-seven kids. That alone tells you he’s a survivor and his art reflects his ability to create his own world that led him to performing with some of my heroes. Even his message, which seemed simplistic with thoughts about being thankful and practicing self care, didn’t seem earth shattering until I thought about the power of the word thankful. It can stop you dead in your tracks. No matter what’s going on it’s nice to consider being glad to be alive. Then, while spending over a half an hour talking to a Comcast technician in the Philippines when I needed help getting our TV remote to work, I started to feel convolutions from not feeding my TV addiction and I thought of Lonnie. Technology has robbed us of real life connections. I’m not sure I needed a 73 year old man to tell me that but his message resonates nonetheless. This isn’t even as powerful as knowing we can all follow our dreams if we’re just a bit more like Lonnie.