Federale: Spaghetti Western and Beyond


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?

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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.

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