Stuck in the middle: Wilsen live at Mississippi Studios, Portland

by Eric Evans

It’s a blessing and a curse to know that when you play a show in Portland, a good chunk of the audience will be other musicians. They’re a supportive and positive bunch, these Portland artists: regardless of genre, they show up early to catch the opener and cheer loudly when warranted. It’s not unusual to see the headliners out in the crowd for the opening acts, dancing and clapping alongside the punters. This means you can be sure to receive appreciation when you rock, but also that you’ll be called out when you don’t. It’s a good system for keeping performers artistically honest.

Being the middle band on a three-act bill, Wilsen was in a prime position to have a great show. Their smart, elegant music is a fine complement to headliner Matthew E. White’s soulful voice and their most recent EP, Magnolia, is their most accomplished work. The opening act, Chanti Darling, was something of an unknown quantity to the public at large, with no album or fanbase to speak of and just a single demo on SoundCloud. What became obvious once they took the stage, however, was that Chanti Darling was much more than some local group. It’s the new project by former Magic Mouth singer, Chanticleer Trü, featuring some of Portland’s most recognizable faces. Put it this way; when your backup singer is Natasha Kmeto, the hottest act on Dave Sitek’s Federal Prism label, you’re going to sound better than your average band. Chanti Darling’s soulful funky set, while short, electrified the crowd. Suddenly Wilsen had something to live up to.

As the band moved their gear into place on stage, there was every reason to think they were primed to do just that. Lead singer Tamsin Wilsen smiled and chatted with fans, leaning against the stage as she tested her effects pedals, and everything was seemingly in place quickly enough. Everyone understands that issues pop up and gear can be temperamental after being packed and unpacked day after day, but there was a longer than usual delay in getting the bass player’s digital effects pedal set up. It appeared to trigger a Macbook at the back of the stage. Would they be playing versions of the electronica-infused remixes of Magnolia tracks that have been showing up on SoundCloud? The longer the setup went on, the more residual energy dissipated and the more audience members retreated to the bar. Several musicians in the audience exchanged knowing glances. One commented that young bands often feel hamstrung by the wealth of technology available to them and fall prey to the temptation of the gear; another questioned why a band with their straightforward sound needed as much gear as they had.

By the time Wilsen started, they were in fine form – sounding exactly as they do on their recordings. They’re a traditional sounding group, the kind Lou Reed said can’t be beat: two guitars, bass, drums. Sure, occasionally Tamsin Wilsen would put her guitar down to drum on some specialty percussion, but this is not a group beholden to samples or sequencers. They’re a rock group, albeit a gentle one, and on this night they neither disappointed the audience nor exceeded expectations. It would be unkind to suggest that they squandered the energy of the crowd since their music isn’t of the fist pumping, booty shaking variety. Their set was tight and accomplished, but lacked the passion or showmanship necessary to get the crowd back to where they were, which is unfortunate. Every now and then the lineup on a bill doesn’t work to everyone’s advantage, and on this particular evening an otherwise promising group was sandwiched between hometown darlings made good and the name on the marquee.