Otis Heat Burns Up On a Frigid Portland New Years Eve

In a sudden twist of fate, my New Year’s plans were cemented. I’ve been staying in St. Johns, in northwest Portland–a funky little neighborhood with all the weird charms you come to expect in PDX. As it happens, Otis Heat, a band I wrote about back in 2009, is playing a four-band show down the road. My friend and recent transplant, Jayson, drives up from Salem and we dive into the night.

The show is at a place called Red Sea Church. It’s a beautiful place. The walls bow in, steeply up until they nervously meet–like a great wooden arc, cut lengthwise and reassembled backwards. All the pews are cleared away. The alter is moved aside for drum kits and amps. The relics are stripped away, but a sense of awe–the kind that fills your soul with timid reverence–lingers.

Two guys amble onstage. Dude in a newsboy cap picks up a guitar. His counterpart, a sleek-looking guy with jet-black hair, sits at the drums. They take a deep breath, and they let loose a tsunami of sound. They blast the timidity into a fine sand. I look around to see if anybody else is drowning in this terrific sea; the stoney looks tell me they’re drifting somewhere in the undertow.

I look to the merchendise table for some clue of who these sirens are–it tells me they’re called Irie Idea. I don’t know what it means, but if you translate the music, you get something of a funky blues-based jam. Their songs move from a crunching grunge–appropriate for the cruel Portland winter–and upbeat jams that start to thaw the crowd’s frigid feet.

They’re a two-piece outfit, but Irie Idea manage to fill the sound almost completely. They play tight and they play furiously. It’s an intimate, manic jam session between friends, and we’re standing witness to the beautiful storm.

The set ends and Jayson and I break for beer. The line winds through the small lobby–a jumble of Oregonians with suspenders, peacoats, slate-gray beanies atop bobs of silky brown hair. The beer tonight is free–for some beautiful reason–so we grab a couple lagers and look around.

I immediately run into a flustered guy with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. A sewn-on mechanic-style name badge reads “Tim.” He looks to be running the show. He catches my eye and walks up. “Are you Jamie?” he asks. “I’m Tim.”

Tim Scotten, officially, is the man behind the action. Tim has the cool, anxious look of a man with a plan–he’s running this show tonight, but you can tell he’s running a dozen other things in his mind. He tells me he heads a project called The Instigators with his partner Katie Shimer. They scout Portland for up-and-coming bands, he says, then shoot short documentary films for the web. When they cull a handful of bands, they throw a show to showcase them all. Tonight, as it turns out, is one of those showcases.

Back inside, the scene is getting hot. The free beer is loosening everybody’s limbs and people start to move. I catch the fever too. By the time Otis Heat takes the stage, my legs ache from moving with the beat. Nobody dares take a break now, because this act is the hottest act of the night–this party just got off the ground.

The three guys of Otis Heat take the stage and they rip it apart. The last I heard of these guys was their promising debut in ’09. They’ve grown into a hot outfit, cool and confident, crushing out the best funk I’ve heard out of uptight white dudes. Their shit is out of control. Songs hit us like hypnotic torture, forcing the captive audience to dance; we’re suddenly struck with Stockholm Syndrome and happily oblige.

The ring leader of this mad circus is frontman Sean O’Neill. He plays a sleek, stripped down bass guitar and croons like he knows it sounds good–because he knows it sounds good. His dark hair swoops neatly over his bespectacled face, like a funky Jason Schwartzman.

I’m mad with the fever–possessed with an unknown spirit in this hollow church of rock. A girl with short blond hair and dressed all in black–dress, fishnets, shoes–grooves next to me and I know she gets it. We dig on this crazy sound, two gone souls, until her guy struts up–uptight in dress pants and a vest–a great ape of a man who refuses to feel it. She tries to move him to the sound, but he balks and takes her away. I mourn the loss, but go on unrestrained.

Midnight comes and goes with a half-hearted mention–nobody seems to care about 2013. The show ends and we mingle with some folks at the taps. We ask a woman named Francesca what our next move should be. “Well if you want to get confused you can go to Marie’s,” she says. “I’m confused already,” I tell her.

We end up instead at a place called Slim’s, where more hot funk blasts through the walls into the winter night. Inside is a hot six-piece group who are blowing the place apart. A bunch of older black dudes are playing a set and they’re on fire. I jump into the game and dig the whole sound. “Yes!” I yell. “Go!” Dude on the vocals cracks a smile, and go he does.

He and this lovely girl on another mic serenade the crowd–a few groups of friends, a couple in formal wear, a dude in a wheelchair, and a tall blond in bright red pants, dancing with everybody. It’s a wild happening, but we showed up too late. The band ends their set, plays one more for the hungry crowd and bids us good night.

The crowd makes an exodus out into the chilly night. I offer the girl in red pants a smoke. She takes one and blows me off. I’m still running hot from the band, so I don’t really care. My phone shows 2-something or maybe 3-something, so we decide to take off.

As we meandered back through the dark streets of St. Johns, I can’t get over the wild night. Steam rises off my head as the air tries to cool me down. It’s below freezing in northwest Portland, but the scene boiled over tonight.

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