Seven musicians crowd onto the stage at Mississippi Studios in north Portland–they’re dressed in cowboy hats and bolo ties, a hipster take on the wild west. The frontman, a guy with light brown hair that swoops across his face, all the way down to his chin, steps up to the mic. He looks to the ground, purses his lips, raises his slanted eyes to the crowd and unleashes a long, lonely whistle. A tragic trumpet sings. A snare drum crackles. And the band begins to play.
This is Federale, Portland’s premier spaghetti western ensemble.
The house is packed tonight. Some don corduroy vests and flat top cowboy hats; flannel shirts under beige vests with tight jeans and black leather shoes. The crowd is made up of excitable young kids and worn-out 30-somethings in groups of four–double dates or friends on the town, all here for a singular purpose: to see a good show.
And of all the shows in Portland on this particular Saturday night, this show promises to be the best. Promoted by the media powerhouse trio of The Portland Mercury, Willamette Week and The Oregonian, it’s easy to get carried away in the cyclone of hype that surrounds Federale. But who are they? Who are these weirdos playing dark, lonely cowboy songs in the 21st century Pacific Northwest?
Legend has it, Federale was created in 2005 by Colin Hegna, bassist for The Brian Jonestown Massacre (most recently famous for the intro to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire). In a moment of ambitious inspiration, Hegna cobbled together a group of talented musicians from around town to play–of all things–Ennio Morricone-inspired spaghetti western.
To date the group has released three records: Their 2007 debut, La Rayar: A Tale of Revenge, which tells the story of a man named Santiago, “whose life descends into violence as tragedy destroys his world”; 2009’s Devil in a Boot, which “illustrates the clash between the wild west and the industrial age as symbolized through the encroaching railroad”; and 2012’s The Blood Flowed Like Wine, which is “equal parts Rock and Roll, Electronic, Classical and Old School Western.”
I would brand these records with the red-hot classification, CONCEPTUAL, but it would imply that the band, in its day-to-day life, is not conceptual, that they occasionally go onstage without their cowboy getups, and play good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. No, this isn’t an ordinary band doing conceptual records, this is a conceptual band just doing what they do.
Before the show I sat down with two members of Federale–Brian Gardiner (percussion) and Colin Sheridan (keys). I had scheduled a meeting with more members of the band (including Mr. Megna himself), but they were presumably too busy drinking moonshine or adjusting their bolo ties to talk. I asked the guys about their style–their cowboy schtick–and how they plan on turning people on with what many could call, and perhaps rightfully so, a novelty.
“It’s not your usual rock band stuff,” said Gardiner. “I know that certain people see us that way–as gimmicky.” That’s great for a few years, maybe enough to sell a record or two to an interested concert-goer, but how can it last? Is there a fear that Federale will be pigeonholed as “you know, those guys that do the whole cowboy thing”? Gardiner pauses, then confesses: “Personally, I have a very mild concern.”
Tonight serves as a great litmus test of the public’s impression of the band. During their set, I feel the pulse of the crowd. On their sixth or seventh lonely ballad, a guy behind me takes note: “The crowd seems stiff.” He’s right, but “stiff” isn’t the right word. I would describe the scene as respectfully eager–as if they’re attending the show out of reverence for these talented musicians, but itching to move.
The song fades out and the frontman steps up the mic. “That was a song about the battle between good and evil,” he tells the halfhearted applause. “And this song is just about evil.” Shouts and murmurs of excitement bubble up. The crowd’s heart rate collectively rises–as if an “evil” song will be somehow more exciting, more upbeat. The drums kick up, the trumpet flares, and another beautiful, lonely cowboy epic echoes through the building, dissolving over the crowd in a cool mist. The stiffness returns.
The band can feel it–they must. Gardiner and Sheridan told me they’re looking to go in a new direction, and they say it like it’s a long time coming. “I don’t know if we will ever do another direct story line, direct monster movie, direct spaghetti western again,” Sheridan said. “There’s so many new influences being introduced into the band by various members, I don’t know that we can devote ourselves to just one thing anymore.”
That’s a big deal. They call it a new direction, but for “that spaghetti western band” it’s more of a metamorphosis, or even a collective revolution. “Everyone seems to be getting a lot more proactive, a lot more involved in the whole process,” Sheridan says, a glimmer of excitement in his eye. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed to doing western soundtracks.”
The scene at Mississippi makes me wonder where this band truly belongs. How can they evolve, while staying true to their roots, while keeping their fans, while developing new ones? The guys told me they plan on releasing a new record this year or next, in addition to mapping out an extensive tour, to the east coast and maybe even Europe, for the first time. They’ll probably play more venues like Mississippi Studios but honestly, they’re above it. This sort of cinematic sound deserves a classier affair–a set at a university concert hall, or at the Grand Ole Opry.
Federale seems lost, like the hermitic cowboys they emulate, traveling some vast, lonely desert in search of a new direction. They take off their hats, wipe their brows with the backs of their hands, and stare into the horizon, unsure of what to do and where to go next. The path forward is uncertain, as it always is, but after eight years of repetition, of novelty and pigeonholes, it’s the only way to go.