Light beams bounce from wall to wall. Wispy swirls of fog slowly engulf the room. Hipster hordes crowd the room, making just getting to the bar the most arduous task of the night. It’s a scene all too familiar at Holocene, Portland’s number one spot for long lines, “cool kids” and fairly pricey drinks. It typically packs to the brim on themed dance nights, usually dedicated to hip hop, oldies or “pop divas,” but the sell-out for February 13 was all due to one little lady from Canada and the New York producer/DJ that opened up her set—Austra and The Range.
James Hinton, aka “The Range,” opened the evening from the club’s secondary stage, atop a large white DJ booth fit with all the fancy nobs and soundboard switches anyone could ever ask for. A synth drum pad gave more depth to his performance, which spun songs off his acclaimed 2016 release Potential. Synth sequencers, drum pad sounds, and looped pianos set the backdrop for the heavily sampled tunes that pulled and spliced vocals from random YouTube videos to serve as lyrics. The Range pushed and banged his way through the R&B ridden “Copperwire,” and self-proclaimed favorite track, “Florida.” The overt Caribbean vibes of his closing track “1804” weren’t enough, however, to stop the audience from peeling away to the main stage before his set was finished.
There, the space quickly packed with little sardines of fans, tightly pressed against one another in hopes of getting close to Katie Stelmanis, the prime mover behind Austra. Stelmanis sauntered onto the stage in a ‘70s marigold jumpsuit, with her bass/moog player Dorian Wolf wearing auto mechanic coveralls and keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak in short shorts and neon orange lipstick. The stage was less exciting than their attire, sterile even, with plastic “Dexter on a murder mission” sheeting as the backdrop and lights that alternated between dark room red and bright white.
Austra began with a breathier version of “We Were Alive,” which seemed like too mellow a choice to start with a crowd this frenzied. Stelmanis’ vocals are an endearing mix between Sia and Kate Bush, so her flub into the beginning of second song “Future Politics” didn’t phase anyone. As one patron loudly proclaimed, “she’s so freakin’ cute!”
There, the space quickly packed with little sardines of fans, tightly pressed against one another in hopes of getting close to Katie Stelmanis, the prime mover behind Austra.
As they made their way through “Utopia,” “Forgive Me” and “Home,” it became apparent how the additional use of effects during the live set really upped the energy of the songs compared to the studio versions. The effects increased in volume throughout the set, helping mask Stelmanis’ loss of breath on the high notes. Her repeated jumping, along with Wonsiak’s delicate vogueing in between keyboard strokes, amped the crowd up even more. Teasing the end of the set with “The Villain,” made the audience scream for more.
Austra was only off the stage for about 45 seconds before returning for their encore. “Habitat” was met with the same pep as the songs before it, but “Painful Like,” had a dark melancholy to it that was just as weird to end a set with as “We Were Alive” was to start with. As she finished the words “We done lost too many/In the land that barely goes/Doesn’t your star look buried?” the audience looked confused, as electronic music is usually paired with clear (or nonexistent) vocals and sanguine song themes.
Despite the difficulty understanding Stelmanis at times, or the way her set began and concluded, the energy Austra gave the crowd was undeniable. Just before leaving the stage, Stelmanis declared Portland as the best place ever. The feeling was mutual.