(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 2; find Day 1 here and be sure to look for Day 3 on Monday. And if you’d like to read my overview of the festival’s highlights that ran in print, click here.)
When you attend a large music festival like Portland’s multi-venue, multi-genre MusicfestNW, you have to know going in that such events cost money, and therefore they’ll be pursuing sponsors, and so you’re likely to be bombarded with corporate promotions and logos when all you’re trying to do is go see some rock shows. It’s just the way it is.
Still, it felt a little funny to me to be sitting and waiting for Ted Leo — one of the most staunchly independent punk-rock figures of the past two decades — inside a Dr. Martens store, surrounded by former- and faux-punk fashion staples and eating free barbecue-flavored popchips and drinking free berry-flavored vitaminwater, both grabbed from giant bins full of product meant to get me hooked on popchips and vitaminwater. (Did those two companies lose their shift key and space bar or what?)
When he took the stage in front of a packed house, Leo announced that he was playing the show because Dr. Martens revived its vegan line of boots, which at least made the whole thing make a little more sense. He then launched into a solo set that included pretty much all my favorite Ted Leo tunes: “Me and Mia” and “The Sword In the Stone” and “Under the Hedge” and “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” Here’s that last one:
I’d somehow never seen Leo play, but the set showcased all the things that make him great: sweaty intensity, lyrical sincerity, a sharp sense of humor and endlessly catchy songs. I saw more than one tweet praise him as a “national treasure.” I can’t disagree with that. And any time you have an opportunity to see a national treasure play an intimate show for free, you have to do it, even if you have to wade through a targeted marketing blitz to do it. (Yes, I could’ve declined the popchips and vitaminwater, and I didn’t. What can I say? I’m a tool of the man.)
For me, the end of Leo’s set meant I was set adrift in downtown Portland with a couple hours to kill before my next show. I stopped at the retail shop of Tender Loving Empire and checked out their floor-to-ceiling collection of amazing handmade art, music and more, then bounced down to Santeria, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican place that shares a bathroom with a strip club, where I had three pork tacos, including one so hot it nuked my face for a good 30 minutes. Next time, I’ll be sure to read the menu more closely.
At 7 p.m., I entered the fast-flowing river that would take me over a waterfall of music for the evening. First up: Portland-based Archers, a band of five young fellows who make precarious pop-rock that lands somewhere between The Who, Weezer, Guided By Voices and Pavement. If you know me, you know that this sounds pretty much like my dream band, and while Archers aren’t quite there, they certainly have that kind of potential.
I fell in love with this song, oh, a year ago or so, but haven’t had the chance to catch Archers live yet. Boy, are they a blast, an intriguing mix of boundless energy and nonchalant cool. Frontbros Mike and Chris Cantino bounce around like lottery ping-pong balls, while the bassist (who I’m confident has a name but I don’t know what it is) looked like he had just come from a day at the beach and the keyboard player (also probably has a name) reminded me of the keyboard player from “School of Rock” (fast-forward to :50 here).
Archers’ songs are woozy and wobbly but they always hold together, thanks no doubt in large part to the band’s knack for a killer hook. It’s like watching a dilapidated train shimmy and shake down a track, and just when you think things are about to derail, it finds its footing and sails smoothly off into the sunset. And guess what? That’s when rock ‘n’ roll is at its best. I would encourage you to see this band and buy their tapes and records if you get the chance and you love rock music.
My next date was with one of my favorite artists of the past couple years, the mesmerizing Shabazz Palaces, inside the Roseland Theater and opening for rising Seattle superstar MC Macklemore.
I’ll keep this short and sweet: For the second year in a row, I was disappointed in Shabazz’s live show. Last year it was in front of 50 people at a small jazz club. This year it was in front of 1,000 at a cavernous concert hall. Both times, both places, the futuristic genius of Ish Butler’s music simply didn’t translate in a live setting. There are a few obvious (to me) reasons, but I think I may save them for their own blog post in the future. (Short version: The heavy bass of live hip-hop overwhelms what’s interesting about his beats, and he needs to hand the laptop over to someone else and step out to play a more traditional MC role.)
It suffices to say this gig did not go well for Butler; 20 minutes into his set, Macklemore’s bratty fans were voicing their displeasure by chanting the headliner’s name. Butler handled the heckling well (“Y’all know he’ll be out in a minute,” he said), but then played one more song and bolted, quickly, without a word and with 10 minutes left in his allotted stage time. It was such a bummer, because the tracks on Shabazz Palaces’ two EPs and one LP are among the best made by anyone anywhere over the past couple of years (and certainly better than anything Macklemore has produced, but that’s not really the point).
To be honest, my next hour or two was kind of lost in a haze of disappointment (in the Shabazz set), annoyance (at Macklemore’s fans) and indecision (that’s my own fault). I hiked up Burnside Street to the Crystal Ballroom to see Sharon Van Etten, a New Jersey-based songwriter whose beautiful, confessional “Epic” was one of my favorite albums of 2010. She was good, but I didn’t connect. I believe the saying is “It’s not you, it’s me.” So it wasn’t you, Sharon. It was me. Anyway, here she is doing “Don’t Do It,” one of her prettiest songs.
Then, I scrambled over to watch a few songs by Portland singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller at Jimmy Mak’s. The guy writes beautiful, delicate tunes that remind me of Sufjan Stevens: catchy and compelling, but at the same time idiosyncratic to the point that might drive some less adventurous ear-owners away. Their loss.
(If you liked that one, watch this one too.)
I wish I had skipped out of Van Etten earlier to see more of Waller, but oh well. The truth is, I didn’t know it at the time, but this whole evening was just build-up to a life-affirming set at the Doug Fir Lounge by the Louisiana-based band Givers. But first, I got to the Doug Fir in time to see one of my favorite Portland bands, AgesandAges, do two songs, including this one:
The depth and quality of Portland’s music scene is ridiculous. For every Decemberists and Blind Pilot, there are a half-dozen (or more) great bands just waiting to break out.
Now, on to Givers. For efficiency’s sake, I’m going to swipe what I wrote in print and use it here:
I’ve had “In Light,” the debut album from Givers, in heavy rotation for a few months now. But it did not prepare me for the live power of (the) band.
For two solid hours, Givers was explosive, emotional and totally satisfying. The fresh-faced quintet — led by Tiffany Lamson and Taylor Guarisco — is a joy to watch, and they flavor their indie-pop with African and Zydeco sounds, like a female-fronted Vampire Weekend that oozes Southern charm rather than Yankee smarm. Bouncy tunes like “Saw You First” and “Ceiling of Plankton” are pleasant on the record, but on Friday night of MFNW, they turned the normally chilly Doug Fir Lounge into a sweltering, exuberant dance party. It was the best and most surprising set of my weekend.
This video of “Ceiling of Plankton” does not do the show justice, but you should watch it anyway.
Seriously, there is little better than going to see a band and having that band blow your expectations out of the water, and that’s what Givers did for me at MusicfestNW. Even a month later, I listen to “In Light” and I think, “Yeah, these are good catchy songs.” But I still don’t think they hint at what I saw at the Doug Fir. The facial expressions of Lamson and Guarisco alone were worth the price of admission. The never-ending stream of insanely catchy pop songs was a bonus. And the fact that this band kept it up until 2 a.m. and only stopped because of the Doug Fir’s curfew was the icing on the cake.
I’d hoped to top the Givers set on my third day at MusicfestNW, but — spoiler alert — I didn’t. It was the best thing I saw this year, and not by a slim margin.
Late-night grub: A few tasty treats from Voodoo Doughnut. Because when in Portland, do as … the tourists do? Whatever, they hit the spot at 2:15 a.m. And here’s a hint: Avoid the downtown location at all costs. The lines this year were just straight-up silly. Go out to the eastside location at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 15th, where your wait will be a fraction of what it would be downtown.