A packed crowd of bespeckeled yuppies clapped eagerly as Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, of the IFC hit show, Portlandia, took the stage this past Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club for two sold out performances.
Their “Portlandia Live” tour takes a variety show format, combining clips of not-yet-aired footage from Season Two, musical numbers from the show, other guest appearances (this varies by city — but this week’s DC shows featured Eleanor Friedberger, who ROCKED OUT (but more on that later), with stand up comedy vignettes, a Q&A period, and other general musings shared by Brownstein and Armisen.
It’s immediately clear that Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen are close friends, witty comedians, and talented musicians. Brownstein is well known for her work with indie girl rock band Sleater-Kinney and Armisen is a regular on Saturday Night Live, also with a musical background. But despite all this — and the genius of their cult hit sketch comedy show, as evidenced by the two back-to-back sold out shows– much of the evening fell a bit flat. The variety hour and a half felt meandering, unrehearsed, and even awkward at times.
Sure, that slightly off-kilter and awkwardly self-aware appeal is what hooked many of us on Portlandia’s particular brand of humor to begin with, but Brownstein and Armisen seemed either bored or nervous to be confronted by a live audience.
They began the night trying to chat up the crowd, asking questions like “What’s DC’s coolest coffee shop” (I CRINGED when someone yelled out a café in Virginia — NO.) and tried making ironic jokes about Georgetown being a hip, Portlandia-esque neighborhood, but the sincerity was missing. Maybe DC’s just not cool enough for them?
Or, more likely, I think, the 9:30 Club venue was just not conducive for the way the evening was designed; it would have been much better-suited to a smaller venue that allowed for more audience interaction, almost like a book tour, not a concert.
Certain bits of the show, like live vocals of “Dream of the 90s” and “She’s Making Jewelry Now,” as well as clips from future episodes (get excited for “Canoe Dance” — it’s Armisen’s physical comedy at its best) were great, and elicited serious applause and laughter from the crowd. Still, Brownstein and Armisen maneuvered clunkily through the different vignettes—video clips, monologues, banter, songs — onstantly marching on and off the stage without looking like they were having a lot of fun.
To this devoted fangirl, their nerdy awkwardness made them even more loveable and endearing. But critically, the whole evening felt haphazard and lacked much enthusiasm. This was strange, because the crowd was simply crazy about Fred and Carrie, applauding loudly, and yelling out already canonized cult lines like “Put a bird on it!;” “We can pickle that!;” and “A-O-RIVER!” Truth be told, I was impressed at how many other diehards were out there. Cacao.
After an uninspired Q&A, where Brownstein and Armisen fielded questions ranging from their favorite characters within the show to whether they are having sex (they decidedly sidestepped this one — lame), Eleanor Friedberger appeared out of nowhere—literally—materializing on stage to perform two of her own songs, including indie hit “Heaven.”
Friedberger’s size and sound dwarfed both Brownstein and Armisen, who slipped into the background to join the rest of the band and play supporting guitar as Friedberger sang. Unexpected, but not unpleasant altogether.
The evening ended abruptly as local artist, Mary Timony, joined the group on stage and strummed away during a cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” Friedberger clutched papers with the song lyrics, and Brownstein apologetically shared that this was their first time performing the song live. It was weird, but endearing.
After polite applause for the performance, Brownstein and Armisen thanked the audience and promptly fled offstage, ostensibly to go talk shit about the DC audience or slit their wrists at the idea of doing a second show that night. There was no encore.
All that said, I didn’t hate it. I laughed throughout. The performance was quirky and off, but it just made me want to be real life best friends with Fred and Carrie more than ever. They came across as real. They’re sketch comedians and writers, probably too awkward — l ike most of us — to pull off kitschy stand up.
They would have been more in their element with a coffee shop setting and format. So do I still love the TV show? Yes, of course. But was the live show worth my $40 dollars? Not really. Probably should have stayed home, re-watched Season One on Netflix, started an artisan knots collection and made some homemade pickles.