Here’s how it works: Every September, for the last 10 years, each and every place in Portland that could feasibly host a band becomes a part of Music Fest NorthWest (MFNW). No venue is too outlandish, from the internet cafe Backspace, to the Greek restaurant Berbati’s Pan. For 2010, one special location was added to the roster: Pioneer Square, the very heart of downtown Portland, which would lay host to two promising shows: The Decemberists (in an all-too-rare home show), and The National. You can buy tickets for whatever venue you’d like, as though it were any other show, but if you want to see more than one band, you would do well to buy a wristband, which will, for one low price ($75 after service fees) get you into every single venue during the five days of the fest. For $100 more, you’re guaranteed to get in, and you get beer. Where’s the problem?
How could I pass it up? I took five days off of work, kissed my wife goodbye, and embarked on an odyssey of sight and sound, the likes of which my body has never encountered before.
Here’s a blow-by-blow of the bands I had the pleasure of seeing over the span of five days in Portland, biking across bridges to catch all-too-fleeting moments of glory that packed the weekend. Instead of the typical “review” style of review, what I have is a chronological account of how I felt about everything I saw, no matter how unprofessional and anti-scholarly my wording might be. It’s a long one, but I hope you enjoy!
Devonwho is basically my greatest inspiration, based on looks alone. He’s not too tall, fairly pudgy, and on stage in a gray sweater with a laptop and some knobs and buttons. Essentially, he is me, in 20 years. His beats are nothing I haven’t heard before, but he seems two goddamn overjoyed to care if it’s not innovative. Panda Bear is the polar opposite: looking 15 years old and standing almost motionless at a tangle of pedals and knobs, with a knock-off Stratocaster, he unwittingly delivers the single loudest performance I’ve ever seen. The crowd is overjoyed, as they should be; Noah Lennox probably doesn’t fully realize the joy he flows forth from his music (see: 2007s Person Pitch), but he manages to capture all of that joy on-stage. Also, “Comfy In Nautica” still rocks the shit live.
Past Lives are your typical punky affair, though by no real means memorable. Their meek performance is obliterated once Ted Leo & The Pharmacists blast right into The Brutalist Bricks opener “The Mighty Sparrow,” which blows everything going on out of the water. The TL/Rx moshpit is still volatile and fun, and “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” still makes everyone lose their punk rock minds, and I still love chanting the breakdown as loud as possible. But even Ted Leo can be one-upped, and it happens right off the bat when The Thermals break out The Body, The Blood, The Machine stand-out “Here’s Your Future.” The band is clearly happy as can be to be playing to their neighbors and friends; every note is wonderful, and every single fan in the house is chanting every last word just for them. It’s magical, though by no means the only magical moment of the week.
A moment of story: Day Two should have been bigger than it was. However, it was ruined by misinformed volunteers who cut Washed Out, Phantogram, and Ra Ra Riot out of my itinerary by thinking that only people with VIP wristbands could get in. However, they wised up, and I caught the face-melting Male Bonding, fresh off their debut hype, and happy as can be to get to play a packed venue. Surfer Blood followed, and while their surf rock may sound like a dream on record, their live performance obliterates it by pumping it full of noise and feedback, none of which do anything to detract from how much promise the young band shows. Catching them was a treat, and I’m happy to know that, to quote utter bullshit, “I saw them when.” I then ditch out before Black Lips go up to see what Fort Collins, CO’s Candy Claws sound like…and am promptly met with some of the most beautiful music mine ears have heard in a terribly long time. Their sound is almost timeless, and if they don’t go places, I will no longer have hope for indie rock. It’s as though someone bottled the Merriweather Post Pavilion sound and spread it on a pop band instead of a noise band. Astrology, the new project of Charles Byron Salas-Humara (formerly of the wonderful Panther [RIP]) follow, a few months into existence. You could never really tell that they were new: not because their sound is very fleshed out, but because Salas-Humara is a showman through and through, and manages to take the focus off the relative “tightness” of any given performance, and brings the focus on how fucking fun their shows are. AND SPEAKING OF FUN, how fucking fun was that Wampire performance? I met their drummer (Cyrus Lampton) at PDX Pop Now! when he told me he liked my Parenthetical Girls shirt, and thus I cancelled my plans to see Let’s Wrestle for his band. IT WAS WORTH IT. I have never been present for a crowd-surfing-inducing dance pit in an internet cafe, but my god was it joyous. For those of you outside of the greater-Portland-hipster-bubble, take heed: a cool wave of pop joy is headed your way.
And speaking of pop joy, Magic Kids were there too. A few people have thrown around the comparison to Arcade Fire, a comparison which I can’t quite understand. However, they make fun and engaging music, which worked (surprisingly) well in the small packed room that turned out. I decide to skip out on trying to get into Okkervil River across town and opt to see what the fuss is over Abe Vigoda. The fuss is this: punk rock has stopped being fun, a trait you may not think belongs in punk, but Abe Vigoda definitely bring back an element of happiness to noise, where you know that they don’t give a shit if you like it or not, they just want it to be heard. They deserve all of the buzz they get, and they may not ever truly travel past their L.A. Smell roots, but who cares? If they keep making engaging music, I’ll keep listening.
Blah blah blah folk rock bands! Weinland are up first, and they essentially do what folk bands do, and play some interesting tracks, but don’t ever really take off, save for their raucous cover of “Carry On My Wayward Son.” Blue Giant follow, and like Weinland never really soar past their folksy roots and engage me as a concertgoer. I know that this criticism is complete bullshit, but there’s something about live folk rock that just doesn’t truly engage me. That’s why Laura Veirs is here, to be cute and engaging, and just plain-and-simple be wonderful! Veirs follows the same path as the two bands before her, but actually soars past the trappings of singer-songwriter folk jams, and injects a terrible amount of love into everything that she, and her backing band (dubbed The Hall Of Flames), touch. But, no one’s energy this weekend could possibly be outdone by the raucous and emphatic Colin Meloy, when he took the stage and declared to a packed Pioneer Square: “Hello everyone, we’re The Decemberists, and WE’RE FROM HERE!” They launched into a career spanning set, including every (almost every; I didn’t get the chance to scream as though being devoured by a whale) crowd-engaging song in their arsenal (the la-de-da’s of “16 Military Wives,” the singalong outro of “Billy Liar”), and even brought Laura Veirs back out for her part of the duet on “Yankee Bayonet”. They closed the night with a truly awe-inspiring and heart-shaking performance of “Sons & Daughters,” completed by the all-too-meaningful (note: this all took place on 9/11/10) chant of “Hear all the bombs fade away,” where I, for the first time, actually cried because of 9/11. Maybe it was because every Portlander in Pioneer Square knew every single word, and made sure to sing as loudly as possible. It was, simply, the most moving performance I’ve ever seen.
BIKE INTERLUDE! I race away from Pioneer Square to mount my bike to get across town, and catch the last two songs that Tu Fawning have to play. I first saw them three years ago, in the very same venue, supporting the same band, and boy have they grown. The only band of the weekend that deserves the Arcade Fire comparison, they have grown past the two people that I first saw way back when (there are four in the band now), and they sound great. But, the joy of seeing them again is overdone by the showstopping power of Akron/Family. After a day of folk rock, I was prepared for fucking folk rock (as I had been told Akron/Family was), but was treated to a blissed out sensory barrage that left me, for only the second time of the festival (see: Candy Claws): Really, it was impossibly joyful, impossibly sweaty, and someone played a vuvuzela into a microphone. I danced my fucking ass off. But the seizures of happiness would not subside yet! Menomena was up, a day into their tour for their career-topping third (I’m not fucking counting Under An Hour, that’s silly) record, Mines. They’ve borrowed one of Tu Fawning’s members to flesh out their sound, and it’s truly light night and day. Where in ’07 their sound was created mostly by foot pedals, the addition of a forth member allows their sound to be more evenly distributed, and everything that once popped now dazzles: the syncopation of “Weird” is even more infectious, and Mines track “TAOS” blows minds and creams jeans all throughout the Crystal Ballroom. The only disappointment: only one song is brought out from their debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster! (“The Strongest Man In The World”) One day, Menomena will get what they deserve, and those who haven’t caught on will wonder where the fuck they’ve been for a decade, and I will simply smile.
It’s nearly over. Talkdemonic‘s dense beats somehow sound wonderful in the open air, and signal the beginning of the end of this wonderful weekend. The Helio Sequence follow, and what they lack on record comes into play live: they sound nothing short of generic on wax, but on stage the duo sound assured, where every note is in place for a very specific reason. Bonus points for having a drunken fan screaming every word whilst spilling her two (!) beers everywhere. Every band has these fans. IT IS FACT. The Walkmen, like Talkdemonic, sound wonderful in the square, and are simply dazzling: Hamilton Leithauser plays like a modern day Sinatra, and the vintage sound that is so embedded in the Walkmen sound, inexplicably, comes out even in a live setting. And, yes, they played “The Rat.” Hey, and speaking of Sinatra, the end finally came once the lights went down, Matt Berninger took the stage, and The National brought it all to a close. Though he may be accompanied by the most melancholy lyrics imaginable (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find”) and a bottle of wine (which he gives up on pouring into a plastic cup around the beginning of the encore), Berninger is actually a truly funny and engaging man. For “Secret Meeting,” glow sticks were passed out to the crowd. After the song, he pipes up: “Hold on to those, kids. One of them is full of crystal meth. Little do you all know, I’m wanted in Seattle for the exact same crime!” Though the band is not as engaging as The Decemberists the night before, everyone is no less into it: I’m not the only one who knows what the rest of the band is chanting in “Secret Meeting,” and I wasn’t the only one ready to scream “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November,” when the moment came. Nobody wanted it to end, but it did: The National closed their set out with “Terrible Love,” which was everything I had hoped for (read: just as good as seeing “Fake Empire” live [read: so very, very beautiful and wonderful]), and…
we all went home. Though I missed my wife terribly, I won’t forget how wonderful it was to see how many people are just as crazy about these bands as I am. For the indie rocker who is at odds with everyone in their life on what music should sound like, $75 was less a pass to see 20 great bands, and more a pass to converse with people who get it, whatever that might mean. It’s an alternate reality where you don’t get empty looks for talking about every band you adore, but instead get grins of complete and total understanding. Nothing beats the safety of knowing that you’re in a room full of, at least, 100 people who know exactly how you feel about your favorite band. And that, moreso than any performance during the weekend, is magical.