by Dan Radin
Few albums in the history of recorded music have received the critical acclaim of OK Computer, Radiohead’s 1997 cult classic. The experimental, transformative album is a strangely natural fit for The Portland Cello Project, who set out a dozen years ago on a mission to “play music on the cello you wouldn’t normally hear played on the instrument.”
Under the musical direction of arranger and cellist Douglas Jenkins, the PCP has toured consistently and risen to YouTube prominence, and the’ve been known to collaborate with artists across genres. The OK Computer iteration of the PCP included 5 cellos, a trumpet, an electric bass, and a drum set. I couldn’t fathom how the band would try to replace the rock God vocals of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for this concert. The answer came delightfully in the form of endearing singer Patti King, known both for her work with The Shins and as a solo artist.
The first of the two 60 minute sets, however, came up slightly short of expectations. The visual vibe of the performers felt stiff, and some lapses in timing made for a few moments that appeared under rehearsed. The cello quintet and trumpet mini-symphony blended better as the set carried, though King’s sugary indie-pop vocals were the true focus, mingled with Diane Chaplin’s quick runs and double stops high up the neck of the cello. PCP’s first set list included weavy, jazzy arrangements of Nina Simone, one of King’s original songs, and concluded with Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” and “How to Disappear Completely.”
As the lights dimmed again after intermission, I anticipated the distorted guitar riff of OK Computer’s opening track, “Airbag”. Instead, soft cello vibrato lines started laying atop one another. A few minutes later, King appeared onstage with the a loose jazz vocal delivery that dropped jaws. It reset the tone for the second half, as the low body of the cellos dancing around each other continued to evolve.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” soared on the strength of the smooth legato cello bow strokes. King broke out an acoustic guitar and sweetly sang a fantastic rendition of “Exit Music (For a Film)”. Conversational plucking of the cello pizzicato and a U2-like drum and bass were the driving heartbeat on “Let Down”. Farnell Newton’s trumpet boldly announced the opening of “Electioneering”, accented by a moving red and blue spotlight display across stage. King then amusingly mic’d her phone for the animatronic Speak n Spell vocals of “Fitter Happier” over cello lines that would have fit a John Cage composition.
King was sure to add her personal touch between songs. “The album means very much to me,” she reminisced. “It came out when I was 12. I saw the music video for ‘Paranoid Android’ when I was waiting for the bus. I made my mom take me to the Best Buy to buy the album. I took it home right after school and listened to it start to finish. When it was done, I wasn’t ready for the album to be over. So I listened to it again from track one. OK, I listened to it three times…. OK… Four times.” Many audience members giggled in agreement of their own first experience with the album.
“We’ve come to the last track on the record,” King announced after “Lucky”. If you guys are lucky, maybe we’ll start over at track one for ya.” The performers all came back on stage after a standing ovation, and proceeded to launch into the driving string opening of “Burn the Witch”. And if that wasn’t enough, they capped off the show with the song that broke Radiohead into stardom, “Creep.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t Radiohead, but the Portland Cello Project that delivered exactly what they said they would- a fun, imaginative rendition of one of music’s most beloved albums. King’s vocals were the perfect collaboration for the show, and Jenkins’ standout arrangements would have made even an ornery Thom Yorke proud. I did want to start over again at track one.
Paper Tiger – Beck
(Unknown) – Patti King
(Unknown) – Nina Simone
(Unknown) – Edward Elgar
(Unknown) – Dizzy Gillespie
(Unknown) – (instrumental)
The National Anthem – Radiohead
How to Disappear Completely – Radiohead
Set 2: Radiohead’s OK Computer
Subterranean Homesick Alien
Exit Music (for a Film)
Climbing Up the Walls
Burn the Witch – Radiohead
Creep – Radiohead