MusicfestNW: Day 1

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009, 8:03 pm by Ben Salmon

(Each of the last three years, I’ve traveled over to Portland for MusicfestNW, a multi-day, multi-venue music festival that features some of the best bands from around the world. With a roster nearly 200 acts deep, MFNW 2009’s schedule included rock, punk, metal, hip-hop, jazz, Americana, electronica, and who knows what else. One thing’s for sure: You can’t get to every show. But I saw my share of them, and here’s my report on the first night, Thursday. My Friday and Saturday reports will come in the next couple days.)

Festivals are supposed to build from no-name acts to those you anticipate the most.

But the 2009 version of MusicfestNW didn’t work that way for me. I started out with the anticipation, and ended with a whimper, quite frankly.

When we left Bend around noon on Thursday, Sept. 17, the show I was most excited about seeing was that night. It was the second show we – that’s me and the lovely Mrs. Feedback – would see all weekend.

It was the pairing at the Crystal Ballroom of Portland-based, one-man ambient noisemaker Eluvium and Texas post-rock kingpins Explosions In The Sky (aka the “Friday Night Lights” film score band).

First things first, though.

After arriving downtown and checking into our hotel, my wife and I ventured north to the Wonder Ballroom, where Nike sponsored a series of free afternoon concerts it called “Bandz N The Hood.”

Given the semi-rough neighborhood around the Wonder, I thought it was an odd, almost insensitive name for the shows. But I mentioned this to several people and no one seemed to agree. Maybe it’s just me.

Thursday’s first shoe-sponsored set was by the Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog, a five-piece that just makes solid, throwback pop, a la The Beach Boys meets The Band.

These guys are really, really good at what they do. Their songs have a cool, vintage vibe, as if you’re listening to recordings from decades past, and their three-part harmonies represent an attention to songcraft detail that you just don’t see in many bands these days. Plus, they wear sweet hats.

Dr. Dog performs at MusicfestNW last week. Sweet hats! Photo by Ben

Dr. Dog performs at MusicfestNW last week. Sweet hats! Photo by Ben

The effervescent tune “The Old Days” was a highlight, as was “From,” with its “Hey Jude”-referencing harmonies. I don’t remember any of the other songs, primarily because I haven’t given Dr. Dog’s records the time they deserve. But as I watched them, I thought to myself, “I hope these guys are together for decades.” Because if they are, they’ll split someday with one heck of a songbook.

They were followed by The Helio Sequence, but Mrs. F. and I headed back downtown toward the Crystal Ballroom. I said we should stop and eat something, because I didn’t think there’d be a line to see two weird post-rock bands in a 1,500-seat venue on a Thursday night. My wife said we should just go check out the scene. (We wanted to grab seats in the balcony and needed to get in ahead of most folks to ensure such a thing.)

Mrs. Feedback was right on this one.

When we showed up two hours before showtime, the line already stretched a block. I was shocked and took a seat on the sidewalk while my wife went to the Burgerville mobile truck to get us some dinner.

Other folks were shocked, too. My place in line was right on the corner, and I watched countless people reach that corner and drop their jaws (or mutter an expletive) when they saw the line stretching down the street.

Explosions In The Sky is a much, much bigger draw than I realized, apparently. I knew they were well-known, but didn’t know they were that big.

Once inside, we found seats and were eventually surrounded by people who’d come down from Seattle just for the EITS show.

After another hour of sitting, the lights dimmed and one-man band Eluvium (aka Matthew Cooper) walked out onstage, sat in a chair, and began wrangling noise out of his guitar.

Cooper is a challenging artist, I think. At times, his music is gorgeous, pastoral piano compositions, almost like modern classical music. Other times, he chooses to create ambient, seemingly endless drones on his guitar. And sometimes, it’s somewhere in between, or even further out on the fringes.

But I love it. And I loved the guy’s 40-minute set, in which he’d create sounds on his guitar, loop those sounds, and play some more, layering noise upon noise with the help of his laptop. The guitar pieces generally lasted five to 10 minutes and were separated by short, beautiful piano interludes.

Cooper stayed seated the whole time and barely acknowledged the room full of people watching him create. Only when he drew the last bit of noise to a close did he stand, smile and wave to the crowd.

It was great, though I understand it wouldn’t be for everyone.

Explosions In The Sky has a slightly broader appeal, I think, but they’re not exactly the Jonas Brothers. These are four dudes from Texas who command dynamics as well as any band in the world.

Again, I have no song titles for you. But that’s because I just don’t think song titles mattered here. After a short, spoken introduction, EITS catapulted into a dramatic, cinematic wonderland of sound that was equal parts soft and loud, small and big, delicate and confident.

It was emotionally moving and aurally punishing, back and forth, all night. Sometimes both.

I was stunned at how good this band was. They shifted fluidly from near silence – a single, ringing guitar note – to a crushing wall of sound that, at times, would’ve qualified as metal. Their music is like traveling to or from Earth, rocketing from the exhilarating and terrifying G-force rush through the atmosphere to the quiet, star-speckled float through space and back again. It is terrific to watch.

After an hour, I was exhausted. So was the band, which never spoke a word, but threw its collective body into each and every crescendo. More than once, the guys out front – the guitarists and the bassist – fell to their knees during a particularly grand section, involuntarily, it seemed.

Explosions In The Sky destroy the Crystal Ballroom during MusicfestNW. Photo by Ro Tam /

Explosions In The Sky destroy the Crystal Ballroom during MusicfestNW. Photo by Ro Tam /

Drained, my wife and I left the Crystal with EITS still on stage and headed back down West Burnside toward the main cluster of venues. The idea was to catch a couple bands before seeing Scottish roots-rockers Frightened Rabbit at Dante’s to cap the night, but the line to get into that show was so long, Mrs. Feedback headed back to the hotel and I waited it out.

Frightened Rabbit was great, too. The band’s 2008 album “The Midnight Organ Fight” is a bitter, love-torn piece of work, all about relationships ripped apart and all the crap that comes after (and during). Its songs are insidious; when I first heard it a year or so ago, I thought it sounded pretty good. In the months since, though, the songs have just kept pounding on me, urging me to put them back in my ears.

The best of the lot, “The Modern Leper,” kicked off the Rabbit’s set. This tune is seriously classic. (Hear it here.) From there, the band wound its way through most of “Midnight,” dedicating its least-sour tune – “Old Old Fashioned” – to a couple getting married.

I fear for that couple’s happiness.

Frightened Rabbit fills Dante's with sad songs during MusicfestNW. Photo by Ben

Frightened Rabbit fills Dante's with sad songs during MusicfestNW. Photo by Ben

Drenched in sweat, frontman Scott Hutchinson was a charismatic leader, cracking jokes and complaining through his thick Scottish brogue about the bad Chinese food he’d eaten. By the time the band wrapped with “Keep Yourself Warm,” a devastatingly sad song about sex, a very steamy Dante’s had rendered me as sweaty as Hutchinson, and ready to hit the hotel to rest up for a Friday night with twice as many choices.

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