Being at Mississippi Studios this Wednesday night in May is like exploring a parallel universe of what life would have been like if I had gone to the same high school as the Harpers (we attended the same middle school, about which I have fun little anecdotes irrelevant to this review). I might be standing with some of the backing band’s girlfriends, and I have a great view of the stage and crowd, who remind me of middle school classmates who grew up into people able to afford good skincare, getting jobs without their parents’ influence, and apolitically wearing Adrienne Vittadini. Someone is definitely wearing too much Britney Spears perfume, and for once in my life it isn’t me. I’m wondering who else in the audience knows someone who grew up with a “movie theater” in their home. I would bet money someone in this audience had their childhood home featured on The O.C. that time where Adam Brody yachted away to Portland to live with his class bully for some plot-relevant reason. One man here in particular looks like a stock villain from a 2003 skating movie featuring Adam Brody.
When I hear the cheer for Vancouver later in the night, I remember the few hometown house parties I ever attended. The Vancouver house parties I attended as a college dropout ranged from La Center trailer parties where I’d talk to the only other out gay guy over Mad Dog, to lounging poolside with 4-Loko while someone’s Fisher’s Landing parents were away. At the worst of these parties, I would hear Christian dubstep, and not ironically. At best, I would probably hear someone on the guitar inspired by John Mayer. Back then, though, John Mayer was losing social capital over Twitter and Playboy interviews. He might be the first guy Taylor Swift wrote a song about, before Kanye West “made her famous.” Mayer’s major label debut was already quietly turning ten years old; that touchstone in his career is now 15 going on 20, and sees him visiting Portland in July. New generations have grown up around Mayer’s catalog, not to mention to discography of other musicians my idiot peers and I reductively scoffed off, like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, One Direction, Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande, to name only a few contemporary pop acts made more compelling by the cracks in their marketing façades. I mean hello: Zayn Malik’s eating disorder and Azealia Banks beef! Ari the target of Islamic terrorism! The many, many rap-themed misadventures of Miley and the Biebz! All of this and more sprawling back to before Harper or I were born! The endless continuum of personality-based art and media consumption! Corey Harper is youth and mine is shriveling away in the wind, like chaff from wheat, and I’m so into it! I’m not writing this to make fun of Corey Harper, his fans, or Vancouver: it’s hard to write about my home town without feeling attached to it, or responsible for it. I can’t write anything about Corey Harper that I can’t write about myself. He’s pretty, and damn it, so am I.
Before he disappears backstage for the night, Corey Harper and his older brother Drew approach me to thank me for coming to review this show. They haven’t yet read the preview I wrote about tonight’s show and Corey’s career up to this date. They’re both charming and pretty; I feel like one of those skeezy Vanity Fair writers who wrote about Margot Robbie and rightfully got read to filth for being sexist and gross. Ignore your penis and focus, I tell myself. Your dick is not tonight’s target audience. Just focus on the relentlessly intimate Vancouver references, and the music.
Corey Harper’s opener, Dustin Ruth, reminds me of the type of guys who lead worship service at their contemporary Hockinson church focusing on “spirituality over religion.” A quick glance of what I think is Ruth’s Facebook page shows someone from Battle Ground with over 2,000 likes. Ruth’s out here tonight supporting Corey, and he knows it. Adam Brody Villain Man is getting way more into it than anyone else. I can’t tell if he’s putting up Jay-Z hands or the Christian arm swaying I haven’t seen in years.
What separates Corey Harper from Dustin Ruth and all the other Vancouver boys is that his craftsmanship in jazz and funk-inspired guitar and singer-songwriter sensibilities are expertly honed. At his age, Corey is now figuring out to merge his technical proficiency with effortless personality. When Corey and his band do take the stage, everyone is excited. Corey, who is about to play Sasquatch, Bottlerock, Bonnaroo, and a slew of Southern shows over the summer, says that Mississippi Studios is twice as full as the last time he played, before he opened for Bieber last year (the venue is just about at capacity, though there’s still room to walk up to the bar), and that he looked forward to coming back to play more Portland shows.
As Corey Harper and his band progressed in their show, they became more physically comfortable playing their set. Corey played his original songs “I’m on Fire,” “Charlotte’s Wine,” “Angel of Montgomery,” “California Sun,” “No Good Alone,” “Beneath,” “Keeping Me Alive,” the titular “On the Run” from his debut E.P., his new single “Favorite Part of Loving You,” and a new song he hasn’t released yet, “Stranger,” which he co-wrote with Drew. For some reason, this detail sticks out to me when Corey covers John Mayer’s “Who Says,” and becomes strikingly, transcendently personal when I perform the necessary mental adjustive acts we queers get to do when interacting with straight society: “It’s been a long night in New York city / It’s been a long night in Baton Rouge / I don’t remember you looking any better / But then again I don’t remember you / Who says I can’t get stoned / Call up a girl that I used to know / Fake love for an hour or so / Who says I can’t get stoned.” It’s like he’s authentically singing from my, or Drew’s, perspective without living it. Isn’t that the mark of a great singer-songwriter, someone who can masterfully interpret someone else’s words?
The brothers have written and spoken of each other fondly in my interactions with them, and their bond is genuine and evident tonight. Corey seems most confident on stage tonight when the crowd matches Drew’s visible energy. Having done drama club with Drew, I know this is more than the acting passion that launched him to New York City. No matter what show, I absolutely love seeing family members wholly supporting each other and being the loudest cheerleader on the squad. He’s louder than Adam Brody Villain Man, but sincere. Corey Harper ends the night playing numerous covers, including his well-received rendition of Sasquatch marquee-mate Chance the Rapper’s “Same Drugs.” When he is at his most comfortable, I wonder what Corey Harper will add or subtract as his live shows become more polished and professional, in front of crowds filled with strangers. Will we get a bigger band, maybe even a brass section, or will it stay intimate to keep the focus where he has earned it: on himself? Tonight, Corey doesn’t have to answer that question. He ends by talking about the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert. He and Ari, so too as Justin Bieber, have intermixing crews of people they work with, which added a personal connection to the tragedy. He ended by saying something like what he tweeted shortly after news of the attack broke. It didn’t come off as elegantly as in the tweet, but honestly, I’m not going to begrudge someone under 25 for not having the perfect response to a terrorist attack. At least he wasn’t “unpresidented.”