Erika Wennerstrom brought her tour in support of her solo album Sweet Unknown to the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Oregon on May 1, and though she performed for a captive audience, it is quite possible that she was the happiest person in the room. With a set consisting mainly of songs from her uplifting record, peppered with some welcome surprises, Wennerstrom displayed an infectious optimism and a great number of genuine smiles.
Wennerstrom and her crackerjack band opened the set with the rumbling percussion and feedback- and distortion-laden guitar of the album’s kick-off track “Twisted Highway.” Wennerstrom’s voice sounded amazing throughout the night, ranging from soft and lilting to bluesy and tough.
Between songs, Wennerstrom told how songs from Sweet Unknown came to be, and her comments felt like they came straight from her heart, sounding quite unlike rehearsed stage banter told night after night. It was a refreshing feeling, and her repeated remarks about feeling grateful for the evening added to the sincerity of the proceedings.
Besides her main four-piece band, Wennerstrom invited special guests up on stage, including a pair of fiddle players, Decemberists member Chris Funk on banjo, and Drive-By Truckers member Patterson Hood on guitar. She also debuted the brand new song “A Beautiful Life” playing by herself, remarking that the finger picking style of guitar on the song is something on which she is still working. No apologies were necessary, though, as the song sounded gorgeous.
Along with the Sweet Unknown tracks, Wennerstrom played a few cover songs, including “Had to Go” from her longtime rock band Heartless Bastards, and Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here to Love Me.”
The performance had a celebratory feel about it, punctuated by the final encore of the night, a cover of the Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black.” For such a lyrically dark song, this reviewer can’t imagine anyone having more fun playing it than Wennerstrom and everyone who had appeared on stage with her that night. Her broad, winning smile shone as brightly throughout that song as it did all evening, and the Portland audience was demonstratively appreciative of Wennerstrom’s outstanding performance.