September 29, 2009

Festival Review: MusicfestNW

Portland, OR // Sept. 16-20, 2009

Portland as a city has always held an interest for me. Even though I live in Seattle and the rest of the country presumes the two are more or less identical, Portland has always felt like Seattle with less hang-ups. With that in mind, it didn’t take much to convince me to go down to the city to cover the relatively young MusicfestNW, a five-day festival run by the Willamette Week that’s closer in execution and style to a SXSW or CMJ than the nearby (in date and location) Bumbershoot. It was an opportunity to further explore a city I’ve considered living in, to investigate their venues and get a better grasping on the seeming dichotomy of one of the most heavily artist-populated places in the nation doing double duty as one of its largest concentrations of strip clubs. 

I admit I went in with doubts about the need for MusicfestNW at all and was more interested in what the town had to offer; as a journalist it’s almost impossible not to question the role of yet another Pacific Northwest music festival, well-stocked as the region is with Bumbershoot, Sasquatch and even The Stranger’s Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle. I don’t know that the event outdid Sasquatch in terms of relevance or uniqueness, but it did prove itself far more interesting and well-executed than several of its peers, with the benefit of the daily changes in scenery keeping festival exhaustion at bay longer than is usual. 

Bless This Tiny Alley: Day One

The first day of MusicfestNW is also its thinnest. All of the evening’s shows are at Berbati’s Pan, which quickly proved itself to be one of the worst venues taking part in the festival. Berbati’s flaws are twofold: it’s poorly ventilated, creating a humid, withering atmosphere and it seems to be home to Portland’s most obnoxious hipsters, more interested in fierce debates at the bar than whatever show is going on. Wristbands for MFNW went for $60. That’s the equivalent of the cover for 10 or 12 small shows. Which means that somewhere out there in Portland are dozens of people who wasted what would be a year’s worth of shows for some people talking over the sets of a handful of singer-songwriters who were stuck playing a club that didn’t know to mix their live sound well enough to drown out the twits at the bar. 

I was staying with my friends from Spectrum Culture for the extent of my stay and we moved as a team, trying to coordinate our efforts and defenses. They were intent on seeing Will Sheff from Okkervil River perform a solo set so we landed at Berbati’s early, still unsure of how capable our press credentials would be at keeping us out of lines. Any fears were unfounded: the MFNW crew were excellent at moving the lines and answering any questions, which is an unbelievably rare occurrence at these types of things. We stuck around to catch Damien Jurado, but soon left since it was difficult to make out his performance between the obnoxious bar chatter and Jurado’s tendency to curl himself up on his stool on stage, making it almost impossible to even see or hear him in a good venue let alone one like Berbati’s. Jurado is from the school of singer-songwriters who seem to be absolutely terrified of performing, making their performances more awkward and uncomfortable than entertaining or transformative. 

Sheff, by contrast, was the consummate showman, all shaking hips and ecstatic expressions. Though Okkervil River never did anything for me, sounding to my ears like the pretentious rich man’s Old 97’s, I could easily understand why people are drawn to Sheff- he’s a master at making carefully calculated moves seem spontaneous and adventurous even as his often ridiculously pompous lyrics should alienate more people than they draw in. Sheff didn’t convert me, but I came away with a new appreciation for the power of the right moves paired with the right lines.

It was too early on to determine whether MFNW would wind up being all that memorable, but the first night was undoubtedly a wash. Nonetheless, the next day held much promise, with a Fat Cat Records showcase at Dante’s and the Dirty Three closing the night at the dreaded Berbati’s.

Peering Through Open Windows: Day Two

When I reviewed We Were Promised Jetpacks’ debut These Four Walls earlier this year, I hazarded a guess that their live show would far outstrip their recorded output. I’m extremely pleased that the group did not disappoint in the slightest. I shocked the Spectrum crew by choosing the young Scottish band over the much-hyped Cymbals Eat Guitars, performing in the same time slot elsewhere, but I stand by the decision. Jetpacks, to their credit, are an incredibly earnest band, seemingly filled with the desire to save lives through rock and roll, regardless of how hip that is or isn’t. They look like friends you have, with bad haircuts and unassuming outfits – the closest they got to being stylish was the guitarist’s Goo-referencing T-shirt. The lead singer will most definitely never fit into skinny jeans, and bless him for that.

Beginning, as the album does, with the anthemic “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning,” Jetpacks were hellbent on converting the masses from the get go. A look around at the faces of the rest of Dante’s confirmed that they seemed to be succeeding with things reaching a climax when the band launched into their ferocious single, “Quiet Little Voices.” With its hooky “oh oh oh” chorus and fist pumping guitars, it’s truly only a matter of time before the band is two steps away from world domination. Their set never let up on the energy, the entire band positively soaked in sweat only halfway through, evidence that great music doesn’t have to be complicated or revolutionary to be inspirational.

The Dirty Three may have seemed like the antithesis of Jetpacks on paper but in terms of performing they were on equal ground. Led by the incredible Warren Ellis on violin, whose playing revolved around breakneck transitions between explosive bursts of avant noise and more traditionally beautiful melodies, the Dirty Three offered up what was quite possibly the best performance of the festival and ample proof that instrumental outfits aren’t necessarily lesser than their more “normal” counterparts. Much of this was due to Ellis’s crazed stage persona, his look somewhere between natty pirate and debauched dandy, with a flowing open dress shirt and gold medallions clashing with his long, stringy hair and Charles Manson-style beard. Ellis taunted the soundman throughout the night, demanding that he make Ellis sound like various dead rockstars. At one point he explained a song as being for “when you wake up one morning and stare into your bowl of Cheerios and realize Jim Morrison’s stolen your mojo.” 

Though the Dirty Three are a somewhat simple outfit in structure (just violin, guitar and drums), they unleash epic walls of sound that don’t seem like they could possibly be coming from what’s on stage. Ellis plays his violin through a Marshall half stack, treating the feedback and distortion it creates as an art form unto itself, his arms windmilling and his pelvis thrusting into the decay. While the drums and guitar try desperately to contain the proceedings, Ellis lets loose violin lines that may begin beautifully but are certain to turn ugly on you in a heartbeat without any hesitation or warning. And it’s wonderful.

Finding the Beauty in the Bass Line: Day Three

An issue I hadn’t thought of concerning MFNW popped up on Friday. Most large festivals, geared as they are to college crowds and the like, are completely all-ages but the majority of venues involved with MFNW are decidedly not. Even at SXSW you can be underage and go to more or less every show, since Texas doesn’t have the same archaic, idiotic alcohol laws that the Pacific Northwest seems to have in spades. This meant that somewhere like Dante’s or Berbati’s Pan, both of which featured a huge portion of the shows going on at MFNW, was off limits to kids. As a result, Backspace, a combination venue/cyber cafe, was a mecca of sorts for the under-21 set. 

The bills at Backspace reflected this as well, composed largely of bands who at least partially owe their success to the underage crowd, like the K Records roster on Friday and later Titus Andronicus. I’ve worked extensively with the all-ages community in Seattle for several years now and what struck me more than anything was how, well, tame the all-ages crowd in Portland seemed to be. Friday at Backspace began with a scheduling mix up that had Karl Blau going on before No Kids. When Blau took the stage, the crowd was still seated cross-legged on the floor and they would not get up throughout the sets I saw at the venue. 

It should be noted, though, that the Friday set at Backspace was uniformly disappointing. Blau in particular looked and acted more like an exile from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! than the incredibly hyped K artist he has been for the last few months. What was described to me on paper concerning Blau’s sound seemed immensely promising: lo-fi artist meets world dance music and joins it to more traditional K tropes. What happened in actuality was anything but promising, with Blau full of all the charisma of an overly anxious open mic performer. With his pig-tailed mullet and seemingly unironic outfit of high waisted jeans and dirty truck stop shirt, Blau was an alien, dependent on a projector that displayed his lyrics on the walls of the club apparently more for his own ease than any sort of crowd interaction.

Worse, Blau didn’t have a backing band, just an iPod he’d attached to the venue’s less-than-stellar sound system. His backing tracks mostly inaudible and his voice weak enough to make Calvin Johnson seem classically trained, it’s safe to say Blau was an all-out disaster. But No Kids weren’t much of an improvement. I’d been anticipating their set quite a bit, expecting them to be at least as capable with a crowd as their comrades Paranthetical Girls. Instead, the group came off as anxious and out of their element, even though Backspace was about the smallest, most intimate club taking part. Comprised of just two singers/keyboardists and Mt. Eerie’s Phil Elverum on drums, No Kids were thin sounding in the worst way. I grew bored and wandered over to the Crystal Ballroom, where the much anticipated Sunny Day Real Estate reunion show would be.

For a lot of us, SDRE were the first band that mattered, their music a clear contrast to the macho posturing of grunge and what came after; it was still heavy, but it was intricate and detailed, Jeremy Enigk’s voice both angelic and strained even as the rhythm section were the most finely tuned onslaught you ever heard. Maybe I’m too needy but the Crystal Ballroom itself was on the verge of ruining the experience of seeing a band close to my heart perform together after nearly two decades of separation. All those intricacies, all those delicate pieces holding together the storm of the music were lost in the wash of the venue’s atrocious sound. The Crystal is a void of noise, its acoustics causing everything to bleed together, the guitars all scream and terror in the space of the hall, the kick drum a low rumble threatening to bring down the walls themselves. Enigk’s voice was a soul adrift at sea, appearing occasionally but mostly disappearing beneath the murk. 

Performance-wise the band appeared to be at the top of their game. “In Circles” and “Red Elephant,” from what I could glimpse between the lackluster production, were as vital as ever, the quiet moments offering hints of what things would be like in a better place. I couldn’t stand it, so I left, which I realize seems like a common theme here but the truth is that any time you count on a wide variety of venues and crews to make your festival happen, you run the risk of having huge discrepancies in sound. The likelihood of MFNW even be able to fix this or counteract it in some way is slim, of course, but it’s worth noting that there were alternatives to both of the venues that were the worst of the offenders. Berbati’s Pan is only a midsize venue and there were literally dozens of others in the city that could have taken its place, though its issues had more to do with its specific sound operator appearing to be considerably out of his element; the Crystal Ballroom, by contrast, seemed to have been chosen mainly for its size but the other large venues that were part of MFNW had excellent sound, most notably the Roseland.


The Roseland was where I went next, to catch the last bits of P.O.S.’s set. From what I caught, P.O.S. seemed to have put on a ferocious, breakout performance, playing a set that his peers could learn from. Where so many hip-hop acts spend so much time posturing for the crowd (even if it is tradition, it’s still boring as all hell), P.O.S. let the power of his performance move the crowd, who it should be noted were eating out of his palm. Even though he was flanked only by a DJ, P.O.S. had the energy of an entire band himself, taking the audience to frenzied heights. The mix in the Roseland was incredible, the bass immensely powerful but still clear, every word of P.O.S.’s delivery easy to grasp, the lights adding another level as well, to the point where P.O.S. and his DJ even took time between their set to thank the lighting operator for doing so much with so little notice or time.

The excellent sound and lighting carried over to the Bad Brains’ set, but the energy did not. Despite their legendary reputation amongst the D.C. hardcore community they pioneered and influenced, Bad Brains seemed to be on autopilot throughout their set, sounding less like a groundbreaking band and more like a watered down group of pretenders. Though their more dub-inflected songs, like the classic “I and I,” still had much of their potency, the bulk of their set was comprised of dumbed down, obvious takes on their more hardcore-rooted catalog. It wasn’t much of a disappointment, then, that the Spectrum staff and I had to leave early to head across town to catch a secret party the Thermals were set to play.

The Thermals

Though it wasn’t officially part of MFNW, the industry party at Bodyvox was one of the better moments of the week, dubious though it was with its epic amounts of swag and tacky banners everywhere advertising a mind-blowing number of sponsors. It was difficult to tell who the party was even for, or in honor of what conglomerate, or whatever the purpose was. There were free drinks named after bands at MFNW, like the vodka-stuffed Sunny Day Real Estate, and there were boutique sandwiches and coffee in the corners. Most of the crowd at the party didn’t seem to care about the Thermals, their concerns apparently more suited to schmoozing and being seen, so when they went on around after an hour or so, it was like the Thermals were playing for friends. 

Which was fine by me. With a set composed of a good sprinkling of all of their albums, the Thermals played like their lives were on the line, just like they always do. Fan favorites like “Our Trip” and “No Culture Icons” had even the most cynical critic pogoing like mad, fists pumping in the air and dozens of voices screaming every word. Even though I didn’t make it out until after 3 that morning, I was still so excited by the performance I couldn’t even sleep anyway. It was a reminder why I even do this in the first place, an acknowledgment that even in the weirdest of settings during the most exhausting of events a powerful performance has the ability to cut through all the crap and leave you full of hope for the potency of music.

Fucked Up

This Ain’t No Holiday: Day Four

I honestly cannot even tell you how good Fucked Up actually are as a band because it is almost impossible to stop watching their frontman, Pink Eyes. A huge, hulking mass of a man, easily over 300 lbs., Pink Eyes is a spectacle in the best sense of the word. Watching him fling himself across the gigantic Wonder Ballroom as his band dutifully tried to tow the line behind him, he’s the type of performer who draws your eyes like a magnet. Even though the Wonder was far too large for the band, whose Pitchfork-approved climb in popularity seems to have gone as far as it can go, Pink Eyes worked it like we were all in a basement, watching the post-hardcore group doing what they do best: tear shit up.

Fucked Up

On album, it’s clear that Fucked Up are more than just a dangerous front man and a group of anonymous musicians, their brand of post-hardcore aggressive and incendiary, sure, but also full of personality and subtle additions of carefully crafted counter melodies and build-ups. Even their simplest, most obvious songs, like the addictive “David Comes to Life,” have a certain something to them that forces you to listen over and over looking for the secret ingredient. In the live setting, though, everything revolves around Pink Eyes, who is both terrifying in his size and scope and hilariously charming and sweet, taking time out of the set to help people find iPods or glasses lost in the pit. He’s also impossible to escape, forcing everyone to take part in the show, refusing to let anyone stand back and just observe. I was bear hugged, the Spectrum crew shook hands with him in the middle of a song, the guy in front of us wound up having Pink Eyes tongue the plugs he had in his ears. It was a blast even if I can’t really remember the exact details so much as I’m still grasping a feeling and washing off the sweat.

Titus Andronicus

It also required an immense break, none of us feeling up to the task of watching another show until Titus Andronicus’s set several hours later at Backspace. Titus Andronicus thrive on a different kind of chaos than Fucked Up. Their sets are just as sweaty and frenzied, but it’s a communal thing centered around the music itself rather than any one ingredient. Like Jetpacks, Titus are a group concerned with the transformative power of rock music itself and its ability to save your soul. 

Backspace was the perfect venue for the Jersey-based act, full of kids in desperate need of salvation and the sound suitably gritty and driving. It didn’t matter that the vocals sounded like a mess, or that the bass was barely there half the time. All that mattered was that your ears were ringing and you had someone’s elbow jabbed in you at all times and your senses were overloaded with the smell of a hundred sweaty fanatics. The band was perfectly sloppy and haphazard, the guitars all over the place, You listen to the album to catch the dizzying number of literary references, you go to the show to feel alive, to wonder how the guitarists aren’t unplugging each other constantly as they leap into each other’s space, to question whether the drummer’s or your heart will pop first. 

Maybe that vitality, that energy spoiled me but Black Francis’s performance at Dante’s just felt lackluster and dull. The Pixies frontman was performing a solo set with just himself and his electric guitar and though this may sound obvious it just seemed like something was missing. Francis was fine, and the takes on Pixies classics as well as his own solo material were interesting, but they just didn’t move me, not the same way finally seeing the Pixies on their first reunion tour did, or even the times I’ve seen him perform with The Catholics. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it merely existed. 

Funnily enough, we left Black Francis deciding to just catch an early night and let the festivities end. But we wound up stumbling into Someday on a whim after hearing what turned out to be a joint performance with Josh Martinez and Sleep. Josh Martinez is a Vancouver-based MC who is as notable for his singing voice as his flow, but Sleep was unknown to me, though he wound up stealing the show. Based out of Portland itself, Sleep is an MC who has both a phenomenal speed to his flow but also a near perfect knack for the rhythms of language. The duo were flanked by a live drummer and a DJ who spent the entire evening dressed in a business suit and pig mask. 

Between Sleep’s finesse on the mic and the drummer’s mind blowing virtuosity, the set was one of the best of the festival, even though it was sadly sparsely attended. It helped that Someday had someone on the mixing board who perfectly understood how to mix hip-hop, just the right amount of low end rumble but with clarity on the vocals and samples. But it really all came down to the intense understanding every single one of the performers on stage had of how to interest a crowd. Martinez and Sleep seemed to have a telepathic connection to each other that was enthralling, and their rhythm section were pouring their very life essence into the music. Afterwards I found out the four had formed a supergroup of sorts called Chicharones and if their new album is even half as passionate as their performance was, they may very well be the hip-hop crew of the year.

I let my MFNW experience end there, skipping the Modest Mouse/Love As Laughter double bill happening the next day. I’m still not entirely sure I understand what MFNW’s role is, since it lacks the industry culture and focus on new artists that SXSW does or the epic scope of Sasquatch, but there was something about freely roaming a city and occasionally stumbling into something like the Chicharones set, something that felt worthwhile and inspiring. It was an exhausting week, with not too many surprises and less confirmations, and the hefty price tag for weeklong entry seems both counterintuitive and intimidating. But with even Sasquatch invaded by the unwashed masses now, maybe there’s something to be said for an event that brings live music back to where it really matters, the small, local venues and promoters. MusicfestNW would do well to focus on that aspect of itself, shedding the Crystal Ballrooms and Nike-tagged debacles and getting back to its roots and limiting the parts of its bills that don’t even fit that NW descriptor anyway. Until then, it’s just a slightly better than average event trying to stand out in a sea of them.

-Review and photos by Morgan Davis

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