(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 3. Day 1 is here and Day 2 is here. And if you’d like to read my overview of the festival’s highlights that ran in print, click here.)
One of the great things about events like Portland’s MusicfestNW is the shoulder-to-shoulder variety. You can see a funk legend and then a futuristic electro-pop duo and then a throwback ’90s indie rock band like I did on Day 1 of this year’s festival. Or you can see a local pop-rock band followed by a white-hot hip-hop artist followed by a quiet, heart-wringing female singer-songwriter like I did on Day 2. (And that’s without venturing out to the venues that focused on electronic, metal, jazz and country!)
Or you can do what I did on Saturday night of MusicfestNW 2011 and see seven bands that all fall somewhere on the post/punk/psych/rock/metal/drone spectrum.
The part of me that digs that particular musical spectrum has been growing over the past few years; after a lifetime of pop-rock, twang and hip-hop, I have found myself increasingly attracted to the sludgy, spacey, squealy sounds of good ol’ psychedelic rock bands. So I was excited for Saturday’s lineup.
That excitement was tempered, perhaps, by two things. 1) I was tired. By Saturday afternoon, I’d grown cranky and indecisive; I skipped a bunch of sweet day parties with free music and food in favor of shopping for records and sitting, quietly, in a Big Town Hero with a Diet Coke and an alt-weekly in an effort to chill. I am not proud. And 2) That night’s headliner at the Doug Fir, the fine British pop band The Vaccines, canceled just days before the festival because of health issues. There are a lot of great acts at MusicfestNW, but that cancellation took out one of the bands I was most excited to see.
Anyway, Saturday began at 4 p.m. at Pioneer Courthouse Square, “Portland’s living room,” as it’s known, in the middle of downtown. There, one of my favorite artists ever — Matthew Cooper, aka Eluvium — had the unenviable task of playing ambient music for a mid-afternoon crowd on what might have been the hottest day of the year. I loved every second of it, but I can certainly understand how passers-by (and even many folks who showed up early to get a good spot for the evening’s headliner, Explosions in the Sky) might’ve thought, “What the hell is this noise?” Well, that noise is some of the most mind-bendingly beautiful music being made these days by one of the most inventive musicians of the past decade. Here’s a long sample; please note that all I did for most of the time was hang the camera from my wrist while filming. Whatever you see here was the intent.
MusicfestNW has hosted its biggest headliners in the square each of the past two years and I have to say, it’s a stunning place to see a show. After Eluvium, I skipped out on Typhoon and The Antlers in favor of wandering around downtown, but by 7 p.m., I was back in time to see the lights and heights of surrounding buildings creating a perfect backdrop for the Explosions in the Sky‘s epic, chiming post-rock crescendos. The band was amazing, as always. To wit:
Amazing, yes, but I did bail early to deal with the toughest challenge of the festival, in my mind: Whether to catch Eugene doom metal band YOB or Portland’s finest psych-rock jam creatures, Eternal Tapestry, who were on different stages at the same time, followed by a decision between the space-rock sledgehammers in White Hills and cinematic soundscapists Grails.
Truly a back-to-back, two-hour Sophie’s Choice for the bearded, hopeless, music nerd set.
I nixed YOB altogether because it was a slightly longer walk and headed to Ash Street Saloon, where Eternal Tapestry was already locked into a stoney journey to the depths of the collective soul. For 15 minutes the song — nay, the riff — continued, and when it finally did stop, the band put down their instruments and left, as one member announced: “We’re Eternal Tapestry and we don’t have anything for sale because we’re (something something something).” I couldn’t make out the last part.
Next up: White Hills, a New York band that appeared with a face painted silver and a bassist in tight, shiny red pants and glittery shoulder armor. Totally glam!
Here’s what I wrote about ’em in print:
The band did not disappoint, cranking out thick, swaggering slabs of heavy psych that burrowed down into a subterranean groove and stayed there until it was time to blast off into space aboard one of Dave W.’s limber solos. It was noisy. It was pummeling. It was awesome enough that I bought a White Hills T-shirt that won’t fit for more than I should’ve paid. It has some sort of weird mushroom world on it.
White Hills pulls off an interesting trick: Their music finds its way to both ends of the sonic psychedelic planet: low and throbbing one minute, skyward and shimmering the next, often within the same song. A power trio if ever the term was deserved, these folks plugged in and peeled the paint of the tavern’s walls in a way that not only shocked me, but damn near knocked me over. It was a marvelous sight, and one of my favorite sets of the weekend.
With no Vaccines to anchor the evening, my MusicfestNW ended with a whimper, honestly. Agog at White Hills’ majesty, I was late getting over to the Roseland for Grails, so I only caught about a song and a half. I then drove out to the Hawthorne Theater to catch OFF!, a band of hardcore punk veterans (from Circle Jerks, Redd Kross, Black Flag, Rocket From the Crypt, etc.) who make punk rock that’s abrasive, explosive and confrontational, but also catchy in its own way. I had about three minutes left on my video camera, which was enough to get three songs, I think.
OFF! was tight and tough, an aural punch in the teeth that stirred up the most violent pit I’ve seen in years. In between songs, though, frontman Keith Morris turned into a teddy bear. I stuck around long enough to hear him complain about people who take too many items into the “15 items or less” line at the grocery — now that’s raging against the machine — before dragging my weary feet down to Rotture to see my final band of 2011, The Soft Moon.
I find the bleak, dispassionate goth-trance-rock on The Soft Moon‘s highly praised record to be just OK, and it’s even harder to love live. When you endeavor to make your music as cold and unfeeling as possible, I suppose you can’t be surprised when people don’t warm up to it.
So anyway … that’s it. I don’t have an ending. No standout performance to cap the weekend. No denouement to bring it all together. No analysis of what my MusicfestNW 2011 experience means for the future of the music industry.
Just a bunch of bands that I saw, some awesome, some not as much. I can’t wait to do it again next year.
Late-night grub: I ALMOST FORGOT. I went back to Potato Champion on Saturday night for more of that
crack-cocaine poutine, and guess who I saw there? Fred Armisen! It was every bit as “Portlandia” a moment as it sounds. It was all I could do not to ask him if he wanted to put a bird on it after he ordered his food. Because I am hilarious.