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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012

Field Report's Moment

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In what may be remembered as one of the most fruitful breakups of all time, DeYarmond Edison's Justin Vernon went on to record solo as Bon Iver following the Eau Claire band's mid-'00s split, while three other band mates relocated to North Carolina to form the avant-folk project Megafaun. It took the band's pedal steel guitarist Christopher Porterfield, however, a bit longer to find his path. Porterfield moved to Milwaukee, where he settled down with a wife and a home and tried his hand for the first time at writing his own songs, performing them in relative anonymity at open mics under the stage name Conrad Plymouth, and eventually to a modest but growing audience with a band of the same name. After five years of trial and error, songwriting realignments, aesthetic overhauls and lineup changes, Porterfield's time investment was beginning to pay off. He had marshaled his band into a stable, six-piece lineup he truly loved and had begun writing songs he was completely proud of, and people outside of the city were starting to take notice. He was finally ready for some of the spotlight his old DeYarmond Edison band mates had achieved years before, but first he needed to attend to one last piece of business: He needed to kill Conrad Plymouth.

"I had to assassinate him," Porterfield explains. "That name created a lot of confusion, and not in an interesting way. People didn't know whether Conrad was me or the band, and a lot of people I met in Milwaukee were under the impression it was my actual name, so I began to feel like I was deceiving people. To me, Conrad was just sort of a catchall for the music I was making at the time. As my stuff got a little bit better and more sophisticated, and as the playing improved—not only mine, but everybody in the band's—I realized it was time to make a shift to show this band was a true collaboration." He rechristened the group Field Report, an anagram of his last name.

Taking Vernon up on an offer he'd extended to Porterfield while in town for Bon Iver's shows at the Riverside Theater last summer, the band drove to Vernon's new April Base studio in Eau Claire to record their debut album in December, their compact cars barely managing against the snow on the ride up. Over the six focused days they spent there, recording 18 hours a day with producer Beau Sorenson, Porterfield realized that making a complete break from Conrad Plymouth was harder than he'd hoped. He'd wanted to bury the old band's songbook entirely, but he was, in his words, "coaxed into re-recording some Conrad songs," including the group's signature number, "Fergus Falls," a finger-picked short story that plays a bittersweet epiphany as a joyous triumph. With its fantastic payoff, the song is a consummate album closer—it capped Conrad Plymouth's self-titled 2010 EP—yet it pointedly opens Field Report's self-titled debut album.

"We made 'Fergus Falls' the opener not necessarily because it ties the record together or because it's the perfect opening salvo, but mostly just to get it out of the way, because I didn't want it to be the low-hanging fruit," Porterfield says. "It's weird when we've tried to play the record live, in order, because we're blowing our load right away with that song. Everything else gets quieter and moodier after that track."

Quiet has become the band's mantra. Despite some early speculation that Field Report would be Conrad Plymouth's more rock-minded continuation, "we are not a rock band," Porterfield insists. "Whenever something that's perceived to be an individual project or something folky grows into a band, I think the immediate assumption is that it will be more of a rocking band, but that's really not the case. It honestly takes six people to make this band as quiet as it is."

Porterfield was persuaded to re-record a handful of old Conrad Plymouth tracks after being convinced that Field Report was likely to reach a far wider audience than that band ever did. That's already been the case. The group has received supportive nods from Rolling Stone, Stereogum and Pitchfork, as well as "band to watch" honors from too many publications to list. Uncut gushed over the group's debut, out Sept. 11 on Partisan Records, awarding it a 9/10, and Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz told American Songwriter magazine he was so enamored with the album that he missed a flight listening to it in his car. That interest led to a tour with the Counting Crows this summer, which Field Report is following with a full tour schedule this fall, including festival dates, an album release show in New York, and a three-week West Coast swing opening for Aimee Mann. With all those shows secured even before the band put out an album, the reality of spending the foreseeable future on the road is beginning to set in. "I had to resign from my job in order to make those earlier tours happen, so it's game on," Porterfield says. "I'm blown away by the willingness and ability of everybody else in the band to do this with me. As daunting as it is, this is an exciting time for all of us."

It's in part because his schedule is filling up so rapidly that Porterfield will be playing the album's early local release show at Linneman's Riverwest Inn this Saturday solo, well aware of the contradiction of maintaining that Field Report is a band and then performing alone under the name. It was the only date that worked, though, and with Field Report's pedal steel player Ben Lester on tour with A.A. Bondy, there was no way to get the full band together. "I don't ever want to play an incomplete show billed as Field Report, especially now," Porterfield says. "It's really important to me that people understand this band is these six people, and it's that united approach that makes us different from anything Conrad Plymouth was."

Christopher Porterfield plays Field Report's debut album in its entirety on Saturday, Sept. 1, at Linneman's Riverwest Inn at 9:30 p.m. with guests Old Earth and Aero Flynn. The $12 admission includes a copy of the CD.
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