Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper

Around 11:45 p.m. last night, I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth—the horse being, in this case, Marty Marquis of Blitzen Trapper: the crowd of fans who braved last night’s ice-capped sidewalks to see BT and Alela Diane perform at the Black Cat was…”yeah, pretty stiff.”

Lounging by the soundboard after his band’s sold-out show, Marquis offered this answer to my question about the notably somber mood that prevailed throughout Blitzen Trapper’s no-nonsense, efficiently satisfying set. Marquis and his four bandmates, as well as opener Alela Diane, hail from the Pacific Northwest—Portland, to be precise—and the entire show reflected a sense of longing for a forsaken yet much wished-for home. At times, lead vocalist Eric Earley and his four fellow “Trappers” seemed to have been struggling to overcome a resistance to the crowd’s adulation—as if becoming popular and remaining authentic were mutually exclusive projects.

Critical consensus lauds the band for its ability to walk the line between earthy, old-timey folk themes and cutting-edge variations in rhythm and instrumentation. An introductory run-through of the band’s most recent album, Furr (2008), yields thirteen tightly produced songs, only one of which—the eponymous first single—exceeds four minutes in length. Although BT has moved away from the bold experimentation that characterized Wild Mountain Nation (2007), Furr’s atmosphere ranges from Tom Waits-style twang, on such songs as “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle” and “Black River Killer,” to the glam-rock audacity of “Love U.”

The history behind Blitzen Trapper’s wildly successful “spring tour” with fellow Oregonian Alela Diane is pretty standard: promising band self-produces a handful of albums (in BT’s case, three), gets picked up by a prominent indie label (Subpop), collects positive—if pompous—reviews from iconic music sources (Pitchfork doled out comparisons to Bob Dylan and Neil Young), and sells out venues across the country. With the giddiness of young children, Blitzen Trapper posts comments under the “Tour” section of its website—the listing for their February 19th show at Chicago’s Empty Bottle reads: “TWO SHOWS! 10pm and 7pm, both SOLD OUT. Holy crap! Thank you Chicago!”

Considering the frenzy of excitement currently circulating around this tour, the band’s austere performance was somewhat perplexing. Earley, the only band member to have foregone facial hair for this particular performance, hardly cracked a smile—except when prefacing his grandma’s favorite song, a folk ditty from the twenties about cocaine. Altogether, Earley plays as though he might be paying a price for something, or giving the audience members what they want out of some sense of reluctant altruism. This does, though, make for a good rock show. For all the kudos that the band receives for its willingness to blur genre lines, Blitzen Trapper plays most poignantly when focused on extremes: either the spare, plucky harmonization of a song like “Lady on the Water,” or the all-out rock degeneration of the show’s finale, which Earley titled “The Gold for Bread Suite.” The Trappers, evidently, are Renaissance men when it comes to instrumentation; Michael Van Pelt, on bass, added a plastic bird whistle to his ensemble to use during “Furr.”

If Earley and his boys had trouble accepting their audience’s thirst for a bit of throw-back country comfort, Alela Diane and her four backup musicians (one of whom happened to be her father) provided, as one fan professed to me, “power and inspiration.” From the moment that the Black Cat’s tightly packed crowd laid eyes on Diane and her gang of long haired, vintage-styled troubadours, a sensation of bi-coastal intimacy emerged, thanks not only to Diane’s remarkably soothing voice, but more so to the wonderfully casual, socially intimate manner in which her band invites the audience into its world.

Sticking mostly to songs off her new album To Be Still, Diane mesmerized the crowd to a degree that became almost uncomfortable. For a female singer-songwriter these days, the waters of indie rock celebrity are difficult to navigate, given the apparent similarities between many of the genre’s forerunners. Diane’s unpretentious manner—most endearingly, the way she giggles while triple-fisting bottled water, red wine and coffee in between songs—seems fragile, especially given the comparisons with Cat Power, Sandy Denny, and Joanna Newsom already abound. Call it a pleasant surprise, call it heroine worship—either way, the crowd received Diane gratefully. As a front-row fan explained to me during her set, “She fills me up. We are blessed to have her here. I am happy—are you happy?”