The versatile cello covers sounds as high as those of a violin and as low as an electric bass guitar. Even so, some of the sounds Radiohead achieves in the studio are non-replicable with string and woodwind instruments. But the Portland Cello Project always comes up with creative approximations.
"We have really, really strong cellists who have the chops to play all the funny rhythms," Portland Cello Project's artistic director Doug Jenkins says.
Arranging the setlist for the ensemble's touring Radiohead tribute show was a subtle endeavor, he says. Reinterpreting the groundbreaking British rock band's songs was about using the right textures to convey different soundscapes, and recreating details without resorting to mimicry.
"'Let Down' was incredibly difficult to arrange. We probably rewrote it 10 different times and performed it a few dozen times before we felt like we had something that clicked," Jenkins says. "The soundscapes in that song are so unique and we don't make those sounds naturally, so you have to find a way to translate that and make it your own."
Honoring the signature yowl of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is up to singer and multi-instrumentalist Patti King of the Shins. Jenkins describes her as a "chameleon who can play or sing anything."
"She's able to do the Thom Yorke thing where it's possible, and where it's not possible, we just do it instrumentally," he says.
Having toured the show for about a year and half, Portland Cello Project has had plenty of time to work out the kinks for its upcoming Spokane performance. Over the past year or so, the group's backing band has solidified and the Radiohead show "has gelled so much," Jenkins says.
Jenkins is one of nine performing cellists in the ensemble. The group originally got together for a one-off show at Portland's Doug Fir Lounge in 2006, but slowly evolved into a touring group featuring a rotating cast of cellists and classically trained woodwind, brass and percussion players. Over the years, they've built a repertoire of more than 1,000 songs, including an array of pop hits.
One of Portland Cello Project's most-viewed videos on YouTube is a haunting rendition of Radiohead's "Karma Police." For years, Jenkins had purposefully avoided Radiohead because he didn't know how to approach songs which are, in his opinion, perfectly arranged to begin with.
"We were really careful about how we did this," Jenkins says. "We made sure we had the right people who were going to put in the work to nail the feel of these songs."
The supporting band includes trumpeter Farnell Newton and drummer Tyrone Hendrix, who's held down the beat for the likes of Prince and Stevie Wonder. Fun fact: Hendrix grew up playing church and gospel music, and had never listened to Radiohead prior to joining the ensemble.
"It was really fun, watching him learn the songs and get really into it," Jenkins says.
One of the group's guiding principles is to take the cello to strange new places — bars, nightclubs, dance parties, or really wherever strikes their fancy. In the same spirit, they embrace music that wouldn't traditionally be played on the cello. No artist is off-limits, not even Prince:
Having tackled Radiohead, Kanye West and Elliott Smith, the band's next tribute show is titled Purple Reign.
"One interesting byproduct of doing this show, especially with Tyrone on the rhythm section — I mean, we're hearing stories about Prince all the time — is that we've been inspired to do a Prince show," Jenkins says. "We'll be doing that next year, basically going for Prince and seeing what happens."
The creative process for rearranging Prince songs has been "100 percent different" from Radiohead, Jenkins says. The Portland Cello Project hasn't had much time to pull it together, either, trying to keep the current show sharp while rehearsing new material.
"You always want to make sure you do things right, so we've had nonstop rehearsal," Jenkins says. ♦
The Portland Cello Project • Sat, Nov. 23 at 8 pm • $32-$48 • All ages • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague • bingcrosbytheater.com • 227-7638