(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 my third and final night, Saturday. My Thursday report is here, my Friday reports are here and here.)
The preamble: MusicfestNW wrapped up more than two weeks ago. At this point, I should forget about writing up my Day 3 experience, because (1) no one cares anymore, and (2) I can barely remember Day 3, and I sure didn’t take great notes. However! I am going to push forward, because (1) I committed to covering the festival top to bottom and and want to keep that commitment, and (2) I think my Saturday night at MFNW provides a valuable lesson for all you festival-goers out there. Also, I love doing these little things: (1) and (2). I like making lists. Makes me feel important.
The lesson I learned — well, not learned; the lesson that was reinforced for me — on Saturday, Sept. 19 at MFNW has roots at Rontoms, a small bar on East Burnside Street that hosted an all-day-and-night showcase of bands on the Bladen County Records label. Before the festival, I had only heard of Bladen County, and had never actually heard any of their bands. So I spent part of my Saturday afternoon on various MySpace pages, discovering what I quickly realized was a fleet of wonderfully straightforward pop-rock bands. And hey! I love pop-rock. (Note: The fine folks at Bladen County put together a mix of their bands and it’s still available for free download as far as I know. Grab it here.)
So with no other MFNW shows scheduled till later in the evening, I walked across the Burnside Bridge to Portland’s east side to take in rapid-fire 30-minute sets from Bladen County bands. I skipped this showcase last year, and I will never make that mistake again, because the three or so hours I spent hanging out on Rontoms’ gigantic patio was one of the highlights of the festival for me.
The place was crawling with hipsters, no doubt, but it was a pretty loose atmosphere. Two stages were set up on opposite sides of the patio for maximum rock ‘n’ roll. Everyone seemed to know each other except for me. And I think every cigarette smoker in Oregon was there.
Here are the bands I saw, in chronological order:
-The Monarques: According to the frontman, this was their second show, and they’d been together only for a few weeks. Which is scary, because they were my favorite band of the showcase. These guys and gals played perfect, sunny throwback rock that was equal parts Beatles pop and Motown soul, coated in a layer of “oohs” and “aahs” as thick as 180-gram vinyl. (The band’s MySpace cites Holland-Dozier-Holland as its only influence.) Watch out for The Monarques. Seriously. They could be huge.
-Radiant Silvergun: Not my favorite set, but they were fun to watch. Buzzy, angular post-punk, sorta like Guided By Voices, but without Bob Pollard’s knack for melody.
-Ages: The other highlight of the showcase, along with The Monarques. Ages is the new project from Tim Perry, formerly of the now-defunct, almost-broke-big band Pseudosix. I don’t really know what Pseudosix sounded like, but Ages makes delicate, melodic folk music, a la Beirut without the Balkan fetish. In Ages, everyone sings and everyone plays something, whether it’s drums and bass or a little noisemaker. Perry’s choir of good-looking vocalists passed around hand-held percussion instruments throughout the set, which was compelling from beginning to end. This is another band to watch; if The Decemberists and Fleet Foxes can be huge, so can Ages.
-The Skinnyz: Sunglassed, ‘tude-fueled haircut-rock, nicked from the ’70s. I wasn’t feeling it.
I also saw a song or two of Oh Captain My Captain, but by the time they were rolling, I was getting hungry and decided to bail on Bladen County’s showcase and head back across the Willamette River to prep for my final evening of MFNW fun.
And that, looking back, was a mistake.
Here’s why: For the rest of the night, I chased the music. The laid-back, you-can’t-do-everything attitude I took on the first two nights of the festival escaped me, and I spent Saturday night fretting about what was happening at the venue around the corner, and it messed up my night.
Oh, I saw a couple good bands. I stopped by the Roseland Theater and caught the Australian pop act Youth Group. Their made-for-TV music is Coldplay-ish in nature, and quite toe-tapping. They were enjoyable. But then I got out of there (no interest in seeing headliner The Get Up Kids) and hit up Berbati’s Pan to see a few minutes of high-school-aged L.A. band Avi Buffalo, whose members look old enough for middle school, not high school. They were good, too, in a Flaming Lips/The Shins sort of way. The lead kid was particularly charming. Then it was over to Dante’s to see Seattle psych-twangers The Moondoggies, who spent about as much time soundchecking and complaining about the sound as they did playing. It rubbed me the wrong way, and the music was kind of boring, so I bailed and headed to Backspace to see Portland’s Panther, who apparently played a 20-minute set and was done when I arrived. So I walked a couple doors down to the Someday Lounge to get some hip-hop into the diet via Luck One, but he was nowhere to be found. A DJ was spinning. So then, back to Backspace for a few songs of New Jersey punk studs Titus Andronicus, whose energy was commendable. So was the main guy’s beard. But by this time, my night was spinning down the drain a bit, so I wandered back over to Dante’s to see Bobby Bare Jr., a former fave of mine in whom I’ve lost interest in recent years. His set did nothing to rekindle my love for his music. And when he was done, it was time for a solo set from none other than Black Francis, legendary frontman of the Pixies, one of my all-time favorite bands.
Finally, my night would be redeemed, I thought. The old man would come out and blow my mind with a rare solo set of his very best stuff, including a bunch of awesome Pixies songs. I even positioned myself right up front, just feet from his microphone.
But Mr. Francis was dreadfully boring. He walked out, gave a little nod to the crowd, grabbed his electric guitar and started playing weird, woozy versions of his stuff. Sometimes he took no break between songs, and sometimes he did. He did golden Pixies oldies like “Cactus” and “The Holiday Song,” but they were devoid of any sort of energy or feeling. The highlight was “Los Angeles,” though I suspect it was the highlight only because it came early in the set, before I realized how little effort the guy was going to put into this.
I stuck it out for 40 or 45 minutes, afraid to leave for fear of missing something amazing. (Francis has one of the greatest canons of the past 20 years to pick from, in my mind, so it was a legit fear.) Eventually, though, it became clear that this was the show: Black Francis, lackadaisically strumming his way through his songs, paying no attention to momentum or dynamics, much less to the audience. While I was there, he never talked to us. Barely acknowledged us. Just slogged his way through tune after tune, never straying from the same middling pace. He seemed totally indifferent.
It was a bummer of a way to end my 2009 MusicfestNW.
The next day, I realized something: I should have never left Rontoms and the Bladen County Records showcase.
I was having a perfectly fine time there; the music was good and the scene relaxed. There was an entire night’s worth of solid bands set to play, many of which were/are right up my alley.
A lot of good stuff was happening there in that one spot.
But instead, I chose to head back into the heart of MFNW and chase the full festival experience. I thought I wanted to hurry from venue to venue to catch some big-name bands. I was motivated by greed; it was my last night in Portland, and I wanted to cram in as much as I could.
I couldn’t have known, of course, that my Saturday would go downhill after leaving Rontoms. But if I had it to do over again, I’d stay right there and enjoy whatever other unknown pleasures Bladen County wanted to throw at me. It worked for The Monarques and Ages; I’m sure it would’ve worked for the bands later on in the evening.
Oh well. Chalk it up as a valuable lesson, one to remember next year.