You could hear it from the chapel steps.
As the volume of the acoustic guitar and the lone singer’s wavering, vulnerable voice subsided, it was overtaken with thunderous applause of close to 500 people seated in pews and lining the balcony in the Lawrence University chapel. Many of those clapping likely hadn’t heard of Christopher Porterfield before he’d made the 100-mile trek from his West Allis home to downtown Appleton to help close out Mile Of Music’s second of four nights. The kind acoustics of a structure built to house hymns having earned his trust and, now, the audience having done the same over the course of the previous 45 minutes, the stranger—his weathered red retro Milwaukee Bucks hat clashing with both his formal attire and his perceived singer-songwriter persona—asked the full house of worship to supply background vocals to a song they’d never heard.
Some 16 hours after the concert-turned-congregation carried “Summons” to its almost religious completion in the college’s church, Porterfield is playing the same song just blocks away to a much different response. He still wears the red cap from the previous night, but it’s tipped a bit lower this time in a concerted effort to block out the glare of the mid-afternoon sun beating down on the sports bar patio doubling as the troubadour’s stage and, perhaps, to obstruct the half-attentive glares of patrons looking on between sips of cocktails in plastic cups.
The only similarity stitching these two utterly disparate scenes together is Porterfield, who is no stranger to this type of artistic duel citizenship. As the last original member of Field Report (which just released is sophomore album, Marigolden, October 7), Porterfield has played in amphitheaters in support of world-renowned acts. He’s learned his personal limits along the way, and as the captain of a ship with no clear course, he’s doing his damnedest to make sure it—on the sails of what he considers a make or break album—drops anchor somewhere nice.
“It’s my only shot. If this record doesn’t do better than the first one, people in the business can smell that, and I can feel it,” Porterfield says. “This is it.”
To his band’s credit, Field Report’s self-titled 2012 debut wasn’t exactly a stinker. The album earned critical acclaim from respected national music publications, and an eventual spot on Partisan Records. Narrowly removed from building the formidable Field Report from the same parts which Milwaukee folk band Conrad Plymouth was constructed, the young group was tabbed to open for Counting Crows on just its second tour ever (which actually started before the album was released).
“I think that set us up for some unrealistic understanding of how this whole system works,” Porterfield says. “I think getting thrown into that world and to have our hands held—I mean, it was a great experience, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to any of those places again. Being called out on stage by the Counting Crows every night and playing to thousands and thousands of people, it was pretty surreal.”
From there, the sturdy rookie record yielded tours throughout the county, such as opening slots for noted acts like Emmylou Harris, Josh Rouse, and Aimee Mann.
“The most thrilling thing for me was on the Aimee Man tours when I would get to sing with her every night. She would call me up and we’d do a duet off her last record, Charmer,” Porterfield says. “We’re, like, locking eyes and we’re syncing in together. She was so kind, and it was just an incredible thing.”
Amid the opportunities and unparalleled experiences over the course of the two years Field Report spent almost exclusively on tour, the rigors of the road began to take a toll on the band and, specifically, on Porterfield.
“That’s when I was drinking a lot…I think as a means of trying to wrap my head around all this stuff and figure out how to do it,” Porterfield says. “I was often not easy to be around. I recognize now that I was certainly complicit in some of the other guys’ individual decisions to continue or not.”
Some decided not to continue by the time the grueling Field Report tour cycle had concluded, and were replaced. The rest ventured up to a remote studio in eastern Ontario last December to record Marigolden with Robbie Lackritz, who’s best known for his production work with Feist. By that point, the Field Report front man was two months sober. Though he says he wrote some of the record while he was still drinking, the theme of sobriety is clearly drawn throughout the record—never more than “Ambrosia,” an emotionally wrought piano ballad Porterfield considers an unconscious cry for help issued in his waning days of alcoholic indulgence.
“A lot of things coalesced, and it became clear like a week after I wrote that song that I wasn’t going to be able to continue trying to have it all,” Porterfield says. “I didn’t even realize how tragic that song was until I had a little bit of distance from it and some clarity.”
The song—for which he recorded the piano and vocal parts in just one take—finds Porterfield referencing a true story about an addict he grew up with committing suicide on a golf course, and pondering his own fate, admitting “I keep spinning my wheels / Maybe something’s gonna change / Maybe nothing’s gonna change.” Other songs illustrate a narrator who cashed in a 30-day chip for a kiss in an air conditioned bar, someone making due with coffee and tonic water, and a crushing lyrical description of a desperate man using a church-issued crutch to aid his balance to delay his eventual impact at rock bottom.
“When we did this record, I didn’t intend for it to be a sobriety record. I didn’t, but that was where my head was at,” Porterfield says. “I think about drinking every day. I think a big theme on this record is that you’re never on the other side, and you just have to keep wrestling with it.”
Though alcohol was no longer a factor, two more members departed between Marigolden’s recording and its release. First, pedal steel player Ben Lester left to focus on backing S. Carey. More recently, original bassist Travis Whitty (a holdover from Conrad Plymouth) departed amicably to focus on a career in animation.
“That removed the institutional memory of the first two years of this project,” Porterfield says. “Suddenly, all of those stories and experiences, those are just my own private memories now. There’s no more of that discussion in the band anymore—like, ‘Remember when…’”
Porterfield and second drummer Shane Leonard brought in bassist and keyboardist Thomas Wincek (Volcano Choir, All Tiny Creatures, ex-Collections Of Colonies Of Bees) to address the latest round of resignations. Porterfield doesn’t seem worried about the new member’s abilities.
“Tom is a programming genius, in addition to being an incredible musician. He’s literally one of the best in the world at sequencing and triggering things live,” Porterfield says. “We’re essentially a really fucking tight six-piece band with three people. It’s going to be a totally different feel.”
Unaccompanied and addled, the Field Report bandleader might be left to erratically walk the fine line between patio playing and cathedral captivation. However, with a crystal clear focus, songwriting that’s somehow even better than his band’s celebrated debut, and a more-than-capable new cast of collaborators beside him, Christopher Porterfield is going all in on Marigolden, with sights on greater things. If all goes to plan, maybe something’s gonna change.
Field Report plays its hometown release show for Marigolden Wednesday, October 22 at Pabst Theater. Advance tickets are $12.