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Offa Rex at the Aladdin Theater on Sunday evening
Offa Rex at the Aladdin Theater on Sunday evening
07/26/2017

Offa Rex at the Aladdin Theater

By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Combination of Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists was perfect for a Sunday evening

Offa Rex, the new collaboration between Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists, played the Aladdin Theater in Portland Sunday evening in their first live gig following the release of their first album "Queen of Hearts" earlier this year.

The show was captivating in every respect, carried by superb material, Chaney's delightful persona, and spot-on musicianship. Colin Meloy shared lead vocal duties with Chaney and served as the frontman for the evening, clearly at ease and enjoying himself in front of a hometown crowd.

So there's no misunderstandings, let's get this out of the way up front: Offa Rex is not The Decemberists with Chaney thrown into the mix. This is a legitimate project that stands on its own and with Chaney and folk music front and center.

For those who prefer analogies, think of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. The Decemberists are the chocolate covering for the deliciousness of Chaney's peanut butter mixture in the center, joined together into a new experience of goodness.

As might be expected from a collaboration laced in folk music, the evening was fairly laid back.

After performing "The Gardner", which required Meloy to pick up a harp, he commented, "This project is all about discovery. It is very hard to rock out while playing auto-harp. It is designed to be not to rock out."

Discovery, indeed, as I suspect most of the audience wasn't familiar with Chaney, who has made a name for herself in her native England. Her vocals were mesmerizing and she shined on quieter numbers like Flash Company and Dark Eyed Sailor. Her cover of First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Roberta Flack) was, in many ways, better than the original. The song also appears on the Offa Rex album, but reached new heights live in a room with plenty of space.

Chaney is also an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist and played guitar, keyboards, and a harmonium. The latter is often described as a pump organ, but it is easier to picture an accordion placed on a table with a flap that the player moves to facilitate airflow through the instrument.

Much to the delight of the crowd, a few Decemberists' songs were on the set list, including Shanty and Rox In the Box. These fit into the set perfectly, as did songs from Chaney's solo work: Waxwing, Loose Change, and Dark Eyed Sailor.

As might be expected, the musicianship from The Decemberists was terrific. Their music has always tended toward the folk side, but pairing with Chaney has taken them to new levels. The band clearly enjoys the project and it was nice to see their enthusiasm and comfort with the music.

The only person who wasn't completely comfortable was Chaney. While performing she was totally at ease and in her element. But between songs she admitted to being terrified. I just smiled while writing that sentence because it was part of what was so enamoring about her. The combination of this being the first gig for Offa Rex and being in front of the home crowd for The Decemberists had to be somewhat intimidating.

Her discomfort was absolutely delightful to watch because it brought a sense of authenticity to her and the evening. Early in the evening, Meloy joked that they were a cover band for the album. It would have been easy for them to approach these gigs in that way, but to their credit everyone was fully present and brought the music to life in a way that I found missing on the album.

The performance Sunday was part of a very, very limited run of five dates. Oregon fans can still get a taste of the project, but with a slightly different configuration. On August 19, The Decemberists play the Britt Pavilion in Southern Oregon with Chaney providing support. I wouldn't be surprised to see Meloy bring her on stage for a couple of Offa Rex tunes.

Whether this will be a one-off project remains to be seen, but I can only hope they continue the collaboration.

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