(Thanks to a busy schedule, it’s been a month since MusicfestNW took over Portland and I still haven’t published daily recaps of my experience. My bad. Still, I think seeing 20 of the coolest bands going over three days is worth documenting, even belatedly. So below, you’ll find Day 1, and be sure to look for Day 2 on Sunday and Day 3 Monday. And if you’d like to read my overview of the festival’s highlights that ran in print, click here.)
I spent several days prepping for my fifth consecutive MusicfestNW: perusing the schedule, listening to bands, sketching out a plan for each hour of each night. I tracked down details on all the free day parties and the live sessions for KEXP and OPB and used Microsoft Excel to create a customized schedule for three days (Sept. 8-10) at the third largest indoor music festival in the country.
But when you put that kind of effort into planning, it’s also a good idea to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances.
My first scheduling casualty came exactly 30 minutes after I checked into my hotel in downtown Portland when I decided to skip a chance to watch Blitzen Trapper tape a live set for OPB and instead grab a couple of pork tacos from the La Jarochita food cart. Blitzen Trapper is a fine band but they’ve gotten a bit predictable in recent years, and the tacos were terrific, so I feel comfortable with my decision.
With a belly full of carnitas, I hopped in my car and headed to the Aladdin Theater, a venue I had never visited during MusicfestNW. (This would become a theme.) There, a night of old-school soul was planned, starting with Portland’s Monarques, followed by legendary Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey and this year’s R&B comeback story, Charles Bradley.
Monarques — who I discovered at MFNW ’09 — were sharp as usual, all oohs and aahs and bouncy ’60s vibe. This is such a fantastic band that sounds authentically vintage but totally cool. If Portland bands like Typhoon and Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside are playing David Letterman’s show, Monarques should be too. Let’s hope that in a year or so, they are.
The middle man in the Aladdin’s lineup was Dennis Coffey, a relatively obscure guitar virtuoso who has played on like a billion hit soul, funk and R&B records over the past several decades. He came out looking good in a suit and dark sunglasses, ready to shred while his beast of a band powered through one trunk-rattling funk number after another. It was all very impressive, certainly, and I stuck with it long enough to fully understand Coffey’s affinity for the wah wah pedal. But after about 30 minutes, I was ready to make my first crosstown dash of MusicfestNW.
I’m glad I did. I zipped two miles up Grand Avenue and arrived at the Doug Fir Lounge in time to closely watch electro-pop duo Purity Ring put together its bizarre stage setup. On the right, there was something like a lantern hanging on a hook, plus one bass drum five feet in the air on a stand. At left, Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick was dialing in some kind of DIY contraption made of several pipes that had been joined together, adorned with lights and connected to a mixer.
Then the lights dimmed, and things got weirder. Roddick and his musical partner in crime, Megan James, emerged and launched into one of the best sets I saw all weekend. James prowled the stage at a snail’s pace, occasionally carrying around the lantern or banging the bass drum, but mostly providing the high-pitched, hypnotically ethereal melodies on songs like “Belispeak” and “Lofticries.” Meanwhile, Roddick pounded on the pipes, triggering sounds from the mixer, which he also used to create stuttering beats and to chop up James’ vocals. He really shined while manipulating samples on “Ungirthed.”
It may sound silly, but it honestly felt like taking a small peek into the future of music. Not that Purity Ring is doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but their sound — an addictive mix of indie-pop, hip-hop and dubstep — is at once both beat-driven and beautiful, dispassionate and dramatic. More than any other time at MusicfestNW, when I watched Purity Ring perform, I felt like I was watching something that was next-level cool.
Next, I made a quick stop at the Crystal Ballroom to watch reunited indie heroes Archers of Loaf with hundreds of other bearded, thick-in-the-middle thirtysomethings. We bobbed our heads to “Web In Front” and rocked out to “Nostalgia” and pumped our fists in time with the “THROW THE BASTARD IN THE RIVER” line from “Greatest of All Time.” It was glorious, and the band sounded solid, if not exactly spectacular.
Post-Archers, I faced my first big decision of the festival, with Southern metal band Kylesa playing Dante’s and the veteran Australian power-pop band You Am I at Mississippi Studios. Musically, I was torn, but given You Am I’s scarcity in the States, I headed north to see them.
Reports from Dante’s were that Kylesa was amazing, but so was You Am I. Tim Rogers was a quintessential rock star, snotty and swaggering and strutting around, dressed in all white except for parts of his saddle shoes.
You Am I is truly one of the mystifying stories in popular music over the past couple of decades. Rogers is simply a hook machine, a prolific power-pop songwriter heavily influenced by bands like The Jam, The Kinks and The Who. And his band is a big name in its native Australia, but has never quite caught on in the United States, despite playing exactly the kinds of songs that would be huge on rock radio if rock radio had any taste at all.
For more than an hour, Rogers showcased his impressive cannon, tearing through irresistibly bouncy numbers like “Good Morning” and “Soldiers” and “Berlin Chair” and “Cathy’s Clown” and … oh, you might as well go ahead and settle in, because the list could go on forever. Pretty much every You Am I song is irresistibly bouncy.
The highlight of the set was an absolutely furious take on one of the band’s punkiest songs, “Gunslingers.” If the goal of a night full of music is to end on a high note, You Am I helped me get there. It was a tremendous end to my first day at MusicfestNW, and a nice appetizer for Friday and Saturday nights, when the schedule shifted into high gear.