Dark winding roads lined with old dirty snow banks, led through a seemingly endless maze of rustic Deschutes River Woods neighborhoods, eventually brining me to my destination—a house concert by Portland duo The Ascetic Junkies a couple of Friday nights ago.
It had been a while since The Ascetic Junkies had visited Bend. November 8 the group—then a foursome—played The Horned Hand in their second to last performance as a full band. That show marked the end of an era of sorts.
Over the last four years, Central Oregon had grown to love the roots-y, bluegrass version of The A.J.’s take on indie folk rock. From playing Silver Moon during the venue’s early days of offering live music, to taking the stage at festivals like The Bite of Bend, The A.J.’s punk-infused songwriting paired with banjo and synth was that perfect blend of downhome music and forward thinking arrangements.
But with the change in lineup first from a five-piece, then to a quartet and finally paired all the way down to just husband and wife Matt Harmon and Kali Giaritta, The A.J’s have taken on a brand new persona. One they’ve been delivering to the country via two nationwide tours in the last year.
While their songs have always had depth of meaning, the dance-worthy nature of their concerts was the dominate feature. Now, it’s the lyrics. Not a surprise considering that as a duo, their instrumentation is largely just Harmon’s guitar and a few pedals with minimal percussion and keys added by Giaritta.
I’ve always found their lyrics to be powerful, but new songwriting efforts I picked up on after a show at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge in the summer of 2011 prompted me to write a blog post. In that post I claimed the songs Harmon and Giaritta were writing at the time—songs about the end of the world—qualified as the most important pieces of music coming out of the Portland scene.
After Friday night’s house concert, I’m even more convinced that I was right.
About 25 people gathered at very cabin-like home further out into DRW than I had ever been. And even though I didn’t know anyone there, it was like stepping into a music loving family of strangers as soon as I opened the door. Friendly atmosphere is an understatement and the toasty woodstove burning right next to The A.J.’s set up added to the warmth.
With only Harmon’s guitar hooked up to a small Vox amp, the rest of the sound was acoustic. The open common area with an overlooking loft allowed Giaritta and Harmon’s impeccable pitch-perfect voices to fill the space with heartfelt lyrics from songs like “Good News”—perhaps their best of the new material. As songs ended and applause ensued, the words “just beautiful” were uttered by several people in the crowd on a regular basis.
It was a new, more flowing sound paired with the same non-conventional songwriting of the past. And something Harmon and Giaritta understand needs a new name. I talked with the pair after the show and while they aren’t entirely sold on an idea they already have for a new name, they know one is coming. They also said that they’re just a little tired of explaining what “Ascetic” means. For the record Merriam-Webster says it is: “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline.”
They’re headed home to Portland for the first time since November. They have music that is recorded and pretty much all mastered by Harmon himself. But come April, they’ll be back out on the road again. I just hope that before that happens; we get that new music on an album. The songs it will contain are very special. And I will use it to recreate that house concert in my own home as best I can.