“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we lay open-eyed, watching it all…”
Welcome to Night Vale
On April 21, the McDonald Theater in downtown Eugene hosted a live performance of the popular surrealist podcast Welcome to Night Vale. A near-capacity crowd filled the historic theater to bear witness to a stand-alone story titled “All Hail,” performed live by the actors who lend their voices to the characters on the podcast. The performance included live music by electronic multi-instrumentalist Disparition — who provides the soundtrack to the podcast — and special guest musician Mal Blum, a New York-based singer-songwriter.
The brainchild of writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale is performed in the style of a community radio broadcast from the small fictional desert town of Night Vale. Virtually every episode of the podcast is anchored by the velvet baritone voice of Cecil (pronounced CEE-sil) Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin, who provides the fictional community with periodic updates on the increasingly bizarre and surreal happenings of the town. Since the podcast’s launch in 2012, its universe of recurring characters, settings and existential brand of dark humor has expanded considerably and garnered guest appearances from celebrities like Wil Wheaton and James Urbaniak. Live performances of the show, however, are standalone stories set within the Night Vale universe, separate from the main storyline of the series and crafted to better suit the live setting.
Though the series is renowned for its paranormal and often absurd characters and settings, many of its stories touch on themes of gender identity — several characters on the show are identified as gender non-conforming — sexuality and political oppression.
“All good stories are based in truth,” Meg Bashwiner, who emceed the live performance and lends her voice to several characters on the podcast, said. “I’ve never lived in a world where trans people don’t exist, and Joseph [Fink] tries to reflect that in his writing.”
“ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY GLOW CLOUD”
The live performance of “All Hail,” centered around the Glow Cloud (all hail!), a sentient and apparently malevolent cloud with telepathic abilities and one of the most popular characters from the podcast. Cecil Baldwin, in character as community radio DJ Cecil Palmer, took center stage to narrate the surreal tale of the Glow Cloud. To his right, behind a table piled with synthesizers and computer gear, sat Disparition, clutching an electric guitar. The dark and atmospheric soundtrack added a looming gravitas to Baldwin’s already deep voice. Throughout the night, several recurring characters from the podcast appeared on stage, including Deb, a sentient patch of haze with a thick New England accent played by Bashwiner and Tamika Flynn, a sixteen-year-old City Council member and resistance leader played by Symphony Sanders.
“And now… THE WEATHER”
Every episode of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast features a segment called “The Weather,” a musical interlude near the end of the episode featuring a different artist performing one of their songs. According to Bashwiner, creators Fink and Cranor originally used The Weather to spotlight artists they were listening to at the time, but has since grown to include notable artists from dozens of genres. In the nearly six years the podcast has been running, The Weather has featured songs from artists like The Mountain Goats, Explosions in the Sky, Against Me! and Jason Isbell, as well as songs written and performed by Fink and in-house artist Disparition.
For the live performance of “All Hail,” the show tapped Mal Blum — whose song “Robert Frost” appeared on episode 108 of the podcast — to open the show and perform an extended segment of The Weather. Blum, a native of New York, performed a stripped-down solo set of a selection of their songs, including “Robert Frost.” Though they typically perform with a full backing band, Blum’s set lost none of its gritty indie-punk edge playing solo, thanks to a cranked-up electric guitar and the superb acoustics of the McDonald Theater.
“Until next time, Night Vale… goodnight”
For long-time fans of the podcast, seeing a live performance of Welcome to Night Vale represents an opportunity to interact with other fans of the universe Fink and Cranor have crafted over the past six years. Yancey Cantrell, a native of Salem who drove down to watch the performance with friends, bounced with excitement as she stood in the merch line after the show.
“I’ve been listening to the Night Vale basically since it started,” Cantrell said. “But I’ve never seen a live show. I was worried putting faces to voices would’ve taken away from the weird stories, but I couldn’t be happier.”
“All Hail” is finishing its run of tour dates on the West Coast, then being retired. The podcast releases new episodes twice monthly, most recently on April 15.