Features | Festivals

Luckily, I'm Adorable: MusicfestNW 2009

By Dom Sinacola | 9 October 2009

(Before we get into this, check out CMG’s Twitter @cmgzine for what I was live-tweeting all throughout the festival; scroll down until you find it: I guarantee it’s much more fun than what you’re about to slog through; I addressed testicle sudor.)

For the uninitiated, MusicfestNW, now in its ninth year, is a five-day swarm of shows—being: bands and alcohol—palling, gnat-like, over the wonderful, progressive City of Portland’s core. “The important thing here,” Willamette Week‘s music editor Casey Jarman tells us via mass pamphlet, “is that you take a big ol’ hit of this city and don’t exhale until you’re good and high.” That sounds about right: it behooves us to trust WW, it being the major proprietor/dealer of the festival, but it’s much harder to question what, exactly, we’re supposed to be toking.

MusicfestNW is a success because it exists—survives, really, as it lives up to its name, pulling in with simultaneous breath regional acts, both legendary and fledgling, and canons from around the globe. Semantically and spiritually, MFNW is exactly what it sells: a music festival that takes place in the heart of the Pacific Northwest and a music festival that some could interpret as a coherent medium for defining the scene that calls its home the Pacific Northwest. To both it prescribes with open arms; no surprise it happens in Portland.

This is Portland: sponge and rind both, halfwayish between Seattle, Washington something and Bay Area, northern California something else, all reddening fallout and those in self-imposed exile. Which is a nice way to describe something that doesn’t make much sense. As anyone paying attention could attest, a lot’s happening here, but there isn’t much to say about what’s actually occurring. This is the unfortunate nexus of black and white, where Portland and a festival it breeds can totally absorb the flavor of surrounding areas as fervently as they can reflect the same.

Menomena, Talkdemonic, Mirah, Nurses, the Decemberists, the Thermals; K, Kranky exiles, Kill Rock Stars hopefuls, a twee Tender Loving Empire—between the frontier of everything “lo-fi” north and the scabs of garage, surf, and fulvous (ugh) “chillwave” clumping, legion-like, up from the south, Portland’s character is a glabrous pastiche of the new, the big, and the bright. In other words, it could get tedious attempting a trenchant exploration of Portland’s roots—“have you head of the Wipers?” I’m often asked, as if I should know where the discussion goes next—when there’s already so much to keep up with, and in turn the festival knows it’s got more ‘splainin’ to do than it’s able. So it represents the “NW” and takes advantage of the copious venues and relatively close-knit accessibility of Portland’s available space, relishing how friendly and sympathetic this place can be. Leaves it at that, sopping up what it can get.

Of a possible five nights, I spent three swamped with music; out of a potential seventeen-plus venues, I stood, shifting uncomfortably foot to foot, or popped a squat in only five; out of literally hundreds of shows, I experienced a paltry fourteen—and within these stats a healthy swathe of our continent was represented (not to mention the UK and Australia; a bit sourpuss I am for missing Dirty Three, but they played at like 1 a.m. on a Friday morning and some of us in this city, for fuck’s sake, have eight-to-fivers), from Ontario to Brooklyn to Chicago, from Austin up to LA and, further, of course, to Portland and Seattle. The Glib, writhing and greasy beside the fireside of a predictably packed Rontoms Saturday afternoon, even hail from “Middleboro, Massachusetts”; they could be from Brooklyn, from Wicker Park, from the Hawthorne District here in PDX’s SE—I heard in them Kings of Leon, Les Savy Fav, Bowie, U2, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana of course, and still had energy to be unimpressed. Not because they weren’t talented—even bandleader Pete Chompsky had some wicked pipes on him—but because I had nothing to grasp onto, just a giftbag of post-everything handed to me with my festival pass and a pedal-happy guitar player that appeared to have used elmer’s gluestick as hair product.

Rontoms provided a clean microcosm of the festival—its Bladen County Records showcase spanning nine and half hours of overlapping acts—an unassailable font of new music you’ve never heard and I’m lack to describe. Hence, Portland’s romance: there is, essentially, something for everyone here; if there isn’t, there’s room for you to bring it, young fresh-faced, unrelenting art-forager. (And thus, a sort-of hip-hop night! Which is something I think I bemoaned a lacuna of last year in the riparian frenzy of festival-going. Big ups go to the Hawthorne Theater, which, as of this writing, has the marquee advertising Soulfly and Saliva. I didn’t attend or anything, not too geeked about Swollen Members and “dark rap,” but it was nice to know that was happening at all.)

But leave it to the Crystal Ballroom to taint whatever romantic notions I harbored last year about what the sweetly optimistic MusicfestNW could mean as a template for similarly aspiring festivals. All because of some lanky behemoth playing hacky sack in what must have been steel-toed chucks combined with McMenamins’ loving embrace of old buildings that have heaving floors. In that same place last year Vampire Weekend fans, identified by phrases like “I wonder when Vampire will come on” and “This sounds nothing like Vampire,” ruined two perfectly entertaining sets from Lackthereof and John Vanderslice. The only way to possibly hear over that din of terrible mustaches was to get as close as possible to the stage, but that positioned one’s body in the nadir of the concavity that was/is the treacherously nauseating pirate ship floor of the Crystal Ballroom. We left, cloverleaf-faced, before Vanderslice even finished.

This year, Thursday night of September 17th, we headed straight to the balcony before an Eluvium/Explosions in the Sky double bill. From up behind the chandelier, we grimaced to make out Portland’s own Matthew Cooper spending a pleasant 40 minutes swiveling between guitar-based loops that expanded until everyone shut up and seemingly half-finished piano pieces that continued until a synesthetic haze of chatter got bored enough and turned mustard-gas yellow over the crowd, under the chandelier. I remember hoping Eluvium’s simmering ambient pieces would forego their mood quicker, swell faster to overtake the room instead of try to calmly define it, allowing me to actually enjoy the music’s enchanting pace instead of just acknowledging something I had no real access to. Here was no evening to tempt anyone’s patience. The six-foot-four “kid” with tumors for feet who wouldn’t even stand still fifteen minutes prior to the performance already proved anything slow-building would not be tolerated by this mewling crowd.

Explosions in the Sky headlined. Explosions in the Sky have been making the same fucking music for like a decade now—they’re a band that practically milk the term “post-rock” for every shiver it’s worth and slow-building can only begin to encapsulate what the band’s built from. Assuming, after Eluvium had walked, that because the majority of those in attendance had never paused to stop flapping their gum-holes those in attendance were there to see Explosions in the Sky, I was surprised by the consistency in which conversation was carried into the succeeding set. The band was on melodramatic point, tight and enthused to be there, but if I could have sincerely shared in the dynamics, even between soft and loud, that drew me to them out of anywhere else in the city in the first place, I probably could have appreciated what was dangled carrot-colored in front of me instead of just craving it. I actually shushed someone standing next to me; I never do that. Luckily, I’m adorable.

People that play hacky sack on the under-21 side of an undulating ballroom floor before an Eluvium show are, after all, those that make a festival like MFNW possible, but they also say “shitgaze” and I hate their beards. I covered more ground this time around, and in doing so covered more crowds, knowing that in the end that’s what I’d be doing—covering these people, writing apologies for them as I deride everything they are—but in the down-, the low-tide-times I found myself most tuckered out, patience dissipating quickly in a thousand loud sighs, I wondered about the simplest of ratios: how much of these people was Portland and how much everywhere else? I’m in the cadre of “everywhere else”; am I whitewashing this city?

Midwest emigrants like me, Yourself and the Air initiated a strangely familiar, sometimes paroxysmal lineup Friday the 18th at the Holocene. Biggest draws, at least as far as the city was concerned, were Explode Into Colors—second-in-command underneath Brooklyn Apple-biters Chairlift—a band we’re reminded is composed of three females, which seems superfluous information until it becomes clear how every impulse in the band is endowed with awe for the Slits and ESG, then only slightly less superfluous. Some months ago, WW deigned them as the best new Portland band going (previously awarded to Menomena, natch); since then (and probably before), they’ve been jostled with buzz, been signed to Kill Rock Stars, been lauded as a live band to catch before they’re uncatchable, and so filled the Holocene to capacity, as far as the drunk audience was concerned—yes, all were drunk—allowing blemish to befall the small venue’s typically urbane, white-washed chic. Beheaded before the crowd could climb onto stage, a tradition I’d witnessed via YouTube in that very same room then proceeded to read about in any profile published about the young group, EIC ruled surreptitiously, as if conceding their dubious worth over any other band that night. Singer Claudia Meza began the set by barking, finished jaw snapping, songs devolving from annular sprees of addled, syphilitic art punk to straight-laced beat fodder; drummer Lisa Schonberg only had to show up that night to prove she’s fantastic, her position certified and her band entelechial, as if: it was about time, Portland.

But it was Yourself and the Air that surprised and, in turn, most cleanly entertained, a band out of Chicago (recently touted by Daytrotter) and a band, compared to everyone else on stage, faceless. Their steez was awkward, twitching pop; their haircuts right angles. When an attending turd yelled statement more than question, “Yeah, but from where in Chicago?” the response was a suburb and an apology. So I intruded: “Shut the fuck up and let them play!” which I recount not to emphasize how cat’s pajamas I am, but to wonder aloud if any skinny little Chicago band indebted to Cap’n Jazz is actually, atavistically, from inner-city Chicago. Mostly no. Similarly, the carousel of popular Portland acts emerging recently from basements and alley-clubs in the past couple years are rarely comprised of genuine Portland natives. I mean, I’ll give you, say, Kelso/Longview, understanding that no one in their right mind under 35 with half a lysosome hungering for new music would stay there, but asserting that Portland is anything, as far as MFNW proffers, other than a brimming, peachy assimilation of Northwest trends, recent history, and the proclivities of the ex-pat majority betrays why Portland has been re-imagined as such a hott cultural destination.

Take the Prids, the salami between Air and Explode, 4AD devotees oblivious to the ugly din of their organ and the distracting heaviness of the drums. Theirs was an unnerving half hour, the distance between their dream pop intentions and relentlessly mis-mixed obtrusions a gap pushing two subcutaneously tight sets further and further away from one another, the horizon no longer visible by the time a nearly unrecognizable Guided By Voices cover floated somewhere above the crowd only then growing to welcome Explode Into Colors. Mostly the Prids sounded like Chairlift, the headliners for the night, give or take a fluttering tempo or two, and Chairlift is the perfect confection of the Cranberries, Duran Duran, and my libido, meaning lead singer Caroline Polachek took off her smock towards the end of the set and had on some sparkly/reptilian halter-top dress thing and there were some drunk “woo”-ings and that was that after they bent over and played their “Bruises” hit. Mostly the Prids sounded in transit, dissatisfied with being a Portland band, potentially dissatisfied with wherever they end up next.

Saturday the festival continued as planned, ineluctably, hangovers nursed by PBRs and gin and tonics at, oh, 11:30 a.m. At the Wonder Ballroom, after eating through Mariachi el Bronx and the Bronx (apparently the same people) in the restaurant downstairs, staring through the ceiling-abutting window at the asses, all shapes and sizes, of people street-level considering whether or not to design their own hoodie care of Nike, who was sponsoring the night, which was free, my attending group of journalists and impresarios scuttled upwards to the venue to observe some Fucked Up. Sadly, we marched right into the heart of an undernourished floor; as with Les Savy Fav’s show last year, also under the auspices of the swoosh and free, here was a live show by what I figured was a popular band garnering a reputation for putting on a fever of a live show overtly underappreciated after some much dumber opener (2008: Ratatat). As with fat, naked Tim Harrington, fat, naked Fr. Damian trolled around the apoplectic crowd, strangling some chumps with his microphone cord, giving others piggy-back rides, and generally balancing a genial audience rapport with a frightening countenance. After a brisk 40-something minutes, he put his shirt back on like a struggling four-year-old; they played “Son the Father” much too early in the set.

Then to Rontoms to get Glib’d and more liquor, then finally to the Doug Fir right down Burnside to see what amounted to a Holy Mountain showcase, plus Grouper, who could fit onto that weird little Portland label’s roster if she ever decided. Lords of Falconry began, their saucer pupils visible even in the basement venue lit like a poolhall, stuttering through some winnowing psych guitar licks slowed to molasses time; there was no form or function to what they were doing, just endless reams of unsettling, apotropaic noodling and subhuman incantations. My sidekick Phil whispered, “Holy heroin, Batman.” I patted him on the back for calling me Batman. The band appeared ancient and tired, as if they once survived a weekend at Joshua Tree with Aleister Crowley and have yet to recuperate. With a gnarled knuckle the gong was bonked and then Lichens began to drape rugs over everything.

Lichens I know from Chicago and from the 90 Day Men; also from that one time he waited on me in the café next to the Empty Bottle on a particularly understaffed night. He was very cordial. His hair is, proportionately, as tall as his upper torso, something to behold. He also played for twenty minutes—practically on the dot—something most likely improvised built from voice and subtle guitar, a patient but powerful “song” that found catharsis just before it stopped, suddenly, and dude got up to collect his rugs, which took just as long to lay out as he did to perform. For half the set his eyes rattled around inside his skull, his cheeks drawn back and mouth gaping, the visage sinister. Had Lords of Falconry not already removed all sense of humor from the room, Lichens would have been some droll shit. Instead, Grouper came out, hair in her eyes, somnambulant and ready to go all lavender perfume on our tired lumbar regions. I fell asleep standing up and then did that thing I used to do in grade school where I’d suddenly shake awake, startled, shouting a half-word borne out of that purgatory between consciousness and not.

Modest Mouse played Sunday night, which is worth mentioning, I suppose. I also supposed that after a year in this city I’d be more attuned to the character of Portland’s music scene, more plugged in to what is nominally an aware, inviting community of artists. But just as Portland’s drivers will stop at stop-sign-less corners to let pedestrians with no right-of-way cross, snarling traffic behind, perhaps this community is too friendly, too welcoming. It’s not MFNW’s fault that it will inevitably fail at providing a glowing stanchion for Pacific Northwest music, let alone for Portland output—it’s the fault of every smiling jerk that Oregon trails it thisaways with no prejudice for what’s popular, accepted, or needed ‘round these parts. No, at the heart of every festival is, I believe, a muscle inherently good; at Lollapalooza even. And while, for the uninitiated, MFNW is a bulging vein to experiencing burgeoning stars and future independent darlings, local or no, MFNW is still bulging, much too big anymore—if it ever was small enough—to assert in future generations of Midwest exiles and optimistic outland so-and-sos what makes Portland more than a jambalaya Mecca and more than the still respectable battlefield reenactment of greater analog adventures.