Good, good vibrations
Ross Beach gains an appreciative audience in Portland
Give Ross Beach credit for defying description.
One listener compares the singer-songwriter to Depeche Mode. An audience member once told him he sounds like the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir.
'I've gotten a lot of comparisons over the years, but I don't necessarily see how those fit,' says Beach, whose work as a solo artist and with backing band the Hellpets is far closer to Marshall Crenshaw and, thanks to his Louisiana-tinged accent, early R.E.M.
The disparate comparisons, though, indicate that the 28-year-old Beach is one of Portland's more compelling musicians. After two years of living here, he is developing a devoted Portland fan base for his hard-to-describe catalog.
That said, his style does fluctuate, depending on where he's playing. With the Hellpets, Beach rocks, his winning tunes highlighted by the rolling keyboards and dead-on harmonies of Audrey Grettie.
As a solo act, the gangly and blond Beach is far closer to Robyn Hitchcock than, say, James Taylor. His baritone timbre mixes well with his agreeable guitar work, and his songs combine catchy standard pop changes with lyrics that run the verbal gamut.
'I like the fact that he's honest and clever at the same time,' said Dave Klopfenstein of the Portland band Sauvie Island Rocket Factory. 'He's just trying to give you a story. Plus, he plays for the joy of it, versus whatever potential financial rewards he might get.'
On the other hand, Beach is also capable of dashing off gems such as this from 'Those Days are Over' on the 2001 album 'Teddy Bears Gone Bad':
'I really enjoyed turning a phrase, way back in the days I was capable of talking/I enjoyed just strolling through the Louvre, back when I could move without the help of Stephen Hawking.'
'I followed a girl'
After singing in several church-related choirs, Beach began taking classical guitar lessons at age 16. A high school music instructor persuaded him to play bass in a jazz improv combo, and Beach subsequently began indulging his love for pop music, recording regularly for the last 12 years.
Beach moved to Portland in early 2000 ('I followed a girl,' he says with a laugh) after living most of his life in Louisiana. He eventually took a job as a computer applications developer. 'There's no nondorky way to describe what I do,' he says.
Upon settling in the Rose City, Beach enlisted the Hellpets to record 'Teddy Bears Gone Bad,' his sixth full-length disc. 'Teddy Bears' is a tremendous record, packed with pop nuggets and an unusually optimistic spirit. The Crenshaw-ish 'Those Days are Over,' the frantic opener 'Sink or Swim' and 'Evil and Bad,' a They Might Be Giants-like look at an obsessive relationship, highlight the disc.
A living legend?
Beach mainly distributes the disc at his frequent shows around Portland. Lately, he's teamed with Klopfenstein at such venues as Tennessee Red's Restaurant & Lounge. With the Hellpets, he's more apt to tackle larger stages such as those at Ash Street Saloon and Blackbird.
As he does, many fans approach him and note his college-day connections to the Elephant 6 collaborative, a loosely connected group consisting of musicians (mostly in Athens, Ga., and Denver) who swap talents and recording expertise.
Fans of the collective include R.E.M's Michael Stipe and film director John Cameron Mitchell.
Beach's contributions came early in the collaborative's history: He played in several early bands that would go on to form the Elephant 6 seeds. Which, in a way, makes him a legend.
'If I'm a legend, I'm a legend that no one knows,' he says.