Features | Festivals

Musicfest Northwest 2010

By Dom Sinacola | 27 September 2010

In most cases, Musicfest Northwest is as it’s always been: four-plus days of acts, of acts big and acts small, of acts new and acts people have been waiting decades for, of acts tossed like pennies at Portland’s vintage jukebox and left to jangle down vacant slots where or when they may. It’s a Rip City wet dream, a major regional event demonstrating the fecundity of Portland’s music scene while validating the City’s ego—and meanwhile doing away with acknowledgment of all things real, i.e. sleep, budget, liver, 9-to-5 employment. MFNW pretends that nothing else exists in Portland except the music. This is idealism in Portland. No Portland music fan would have it any other way.

But sponsored by the likes of Heineken and Nike, weighted with over 100 artists spread throughout 20 venues, including the city’s seemingly ubiquitous Pioneer’s Square (where halo’d names like the Decemberists, the National, and the Walkmen blew their big sonic wad all over the downtown skyline at dusk)? Heralded by huge billboards greeting all those to cross the city’s bridges? Assembled by the city’s largest free weekly and hailed by TIME as one of the 50 “Authentic American Experiences”? Well, that may be an act too big for idealism.

Which is why I feel compelled, in relaying the magnificent idea of MFNW, to mention what no one seemingly will: that this festival is broken. In celebrating not just Portland music but Portland, and the greater Pacific Northwest, as a cultural hub, MFNW transforms that which it celebrates into an unflagging spectacle. Some things have changed (the Pioneer’s Square shows; more consideration paid to typically ignored genres like hip-hop and noise) and some things have stayed the same (the Crystal Ballroom will forever be a terrible place to do anything but hate thy fellow man), but very little things were imbued with the intimacy and accessibility that makes Portland so wonderful for musicians and fans alike. Instead, MFNW says one thing about Portland music and one thing only: that there’s a lot of it.

The festival started on a Wednesday at the Crystal Ballroom. The honors of kicking it off fell to one Noah Lennox, a diminutive, child-like duder who’d never performed solo in Portland. As such, the venue was packed, a throng of chain-smoking cardigans and unisex fedoras with pigeon feathers waiting around the block to determine if it was a better idea to just buy a ticket to the night instead of counting on the MFNW wristband, which, so it was marketed to us, granted the holder admittance to everything.

But this year, wristbands came with a few choices: would you rather see the Decemberists, hometown heroes, wield their jangle in Pioneer’s Square on Saturday, or would you prefer to witness the National, the Walkmen, and once-revered-but-shamefully-forgotten Talkdemonic take up the gauntlet on Sunday? Wouldn’t you rather see both? Would you like instead to pay over $100 more for a green VIP ‘band, which helped you, in some situations, forgo lines?

One choice no one had was how to obtain an affordable wristband. Whereas festivals past optioned a cash purchase from a Jackpot Records location, this year the only way any human being could claim a wristband was through an online exchange, which automatically added twelve dollars to the base $65 fee, or through a TicketsWest outlet, which loosely defined a “convenience fee.” That more than one attendee within the circle of my social ken wrapped their skinny wrists with a photocopied forgery was nothing I wasn’t expecting; that the Willamette Week and their Pyrrhic PR army so obviously sold more wristbands and passes and single tickets than was adaptable, pretty much barring any blue-collared wristband holder from a huge chunk of the festival simply because capacities couldn’t accommodate more than those elite with green wristbands and those second-class citizens who waited in line for two hours and became resigned to going to no other venue, left little chance to checking out the Smashing Pumpkins show.

So cram we did and crammed we were into the labyrinthine confines of the Crystal Ballroom, respite from the masses only marginally achieved in the balcony area where people talked loudly over the music they were there to see. There’s not much to relate about Lennox’s set: wreathed in shadow, guitar slung over his lithe frame, he pressed a few buttons that triggered a set of mostly new, sleepy Tomboy cuts in front of a batch of vaguely connected blobs of visual smack. When he played “Comfy in Nautica,” people stopped talking, briefly. Mostly he sang, his warble as powerful and mournful as I’ve ever heard it, and this is what he does now, as Panda Bear, alone on tour—mostly he sings; he strums out a chord here and there; he pokes a button now and then. Around 12:30 am, as he was wrapping up whatever extended, blipping wash he set in motion ten minutes before, one could detect those that had to work the next day by the guzzling of their bland McMenamins “micro” brews just to stay upright.

It was a fitting enough beginning to the festival, more bluster and branding than actual music experience, young twenty-somethings talking about people leaving before Panda finished, how those departing didn’t “get it,” as if getting it involves enduring a long and mostly boring set while straining to hear through a din of people braying derisively about those that finally gave up to go to bed. It was a fitting beginning because the festival ended the same way: at the Crystal Ballroom, unable to hear much.

That ending was Saturday, when Tu Fawning opened for Akron/Family and Menomena. Tu Fawning is notable for harboring Menomena’s newest member, Joel Haege, he of the blisteringly overrated 31Knots, and for sounding as sweetly indebted to the spirit of anything Michael Gira has a hand in as one could hope from a band armed with some sort of antiquated brass instrument conspicuously devoid of a brightly colored medieval coat of arms dangling from its long, skinny body. They played something amounting to funereal sylvan pop, and, as reluctant as I’ve been toward Haege’s stuff in the past, I was totally engaged throughout their brief set, despite the gibbering moron next to me who explained he was being loud because the band sucked and because he wasn’t on the actual floor of the Crystal Ballroom and so, no, he was not committed to hearing anything and would not “keep it down.”

Akron/Family wiped the slate clean by going all wish fulfillment on my brainmush and sticking a guitar straight up that guy’s ass and squeezing out a fully automatic round of rainbow-flavored artillery. It’s clear the Fam are now long done with their formative years under the auspices of Young God, committed to the kind of hippie jams that made Love Is Simple (2007) such a departure from Meek Warrior (2006), but live this translated to a full-on massacre of happiness, clapping and singing and hootin’ and hollerin’ into the hearts of a preternaturally unimpressed lot. Quite simply, they ruled, bitch-slapping the roomsound by being all the more rowdy, clamorous, and excitable.

Menomena, riding high on a whole new level of notoriety and adored by seemingly everyone in this city, demurely entered the stage, which was immediately dwarfed by the band’s physical girth, especially in the wake of the stout and noticeably shorter, less hairy Akron/Family. They were tight; they killed; they exacted almost every song off Mines (2010) with the intensity of a machine programmed to prove its mettle to larger, oilier machines. Since only a few days before the Willamette Week made the band (“Portland’s best band”) a cover story focusing largely on how they kinda hate each other—how Brent Knopf and Justin Harris are barely on speaking terms, how Mines was almost never completed and how Ramona Falls was an excuse to do something while Mines dicked around in Limbo, how the fact that Menomena is even still around, not to mention still awesome, is something of a minor miracle—their concision was eviscerating. When an encore took a mighty stab at “Intil,” beefing up that typically spare song with a small share of calamitous drums, and when this was preceded by “The Strongest Man In the World,” I found myself beside myself. With glee. It’s hard not to stand and cheer for a band this good.

Of course, Menomena was punctuated by guffawing, squealing, blabbing; even a revered Portland act is apparently useless against the inconsiderateness of a Crystal Ballroom crowd. If it weren’t for that, Menomena would’ve easily taken the cake for the best show all weekend. Instead the honors fell to Portland’s newest favorite, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, which we were able to catch on a stressless string of local shows Thursday night. Ford, unassuming in an old-timey dress and thick glasses, doesn’t sing so much as unsheathe an invisible blowhorn and capture, praying-mantis-gumming-lover’s-head-style, all breath in the room. Her bandmates, quietly at hand, armed with a bouncing guitar fill or bouncier bass line spun from the beat up curves of an upright bass, seem to know she’s their meal ticket, and so throughout they eyed her with the respect of pupils just happy to be in the shadow of someone with talent to burn. And burn she did: their brief stint at Berbati’s Pan, following a thoroughly ignored set by mopey Mbilly, brought all in arm-shot close and lit their flesh on fire. The room smelt of spent lye. With a debut LP still in the works, here’s to hoping Ford doesn’t go the route of similarly worshipped Explode Into Colors and exhaust too soon.

Sallie Ford’s was only one of the many local bands MFNW hosted, and they were by far the easiest shows to actually get into. In cruising from the Power Point bliss-out of Deelay Ceelay, two drummers in ugly smocks playing to a loaded, pre-recorded track and dual projectors (think MGMT flirting with Battles) at the Roseland to Ford at Berbati’s Pan, and then across the river to watch the Italo-shitball antics of Reporter (the wet fart in the otherwise clean bed of up-and-coming, potential PDX-ports) at the Holocene, one could sense MFNW as it should be: navigable, varied, open, venues and bands coming and going at a pace both fierce and unrushed. When my weekend saw the likes of more local names in Wampire, And And And, and AU, as opposed to bands I had intended to see and wanted to write about but couldn’t and so can’t (Big Freedia, Man Man, the Tallest Man on Earth, the Gories, Surfer Blood, Smashing Pumpkins, the Decemberists, the National; the list is pretty fucking long—you get the point) due to poor scheduling or impossibly hopeless lines (Man Man was an especially disappointing debacle, confirmed by the manager of the Hawthorne Theater actually apologizing to the dregs of those of us left to hear the band’s muffled squealing through four or five walls, a noxious tease of what we wasted our time hoping to attend), the divide between MFNW as an authentic American experience and MFNW as a typically American one became too obvious to ignore.

In other words, unless a festival attendee was totally resigned to staying at one venue all night and lining up early enough to guarantee a spot, the only shows accessible were local bands that any Portlander could see on pretty much any week at a much more work-conducive time for, at the most, a ten dollar cover. In breezing through the show listings in the next couple months, I found practically every one of the local bands I saw at MFNW playing in some cheap venue or another in the Portland metro area for a measly morsel of the price of a wristband. Couple this with two separate individuals (the aforementioned, conciliatory manager of the Hawthorne Theater and a disgruntled employee of Jackpot) encouraging me to take my gripes to the Willamette Week because, indeed, the situation was mishandled bullshit, MFNW became, in the throes of a year of great music and rampant fandom, yet another festival too big for sentiment, too big to hold anything back.

Musicfest Northwest is no longer about the Northwest, it just happens to be here. And as it appears to be heading down the same path of similar American festivals no longer obliged to be about anything, it’s foolish to think that in future incarnations acts will become more specialized, or lines will shorten, or ticket prices will drop and access will no longer be an issue. Because these are things that make or break a festival of this scope. Perhaps MFNW has simply outgrown its beginnings—do people question the merit of Portland’s music scene any more? Did they ever?—which isn’t a terribly bad thing. Perhaps MFNW’s beginnings were too small from the start and the festival was always meant to be more for non-Portlanders than those of us who know well enough what’s at our fingertips every day.

I sure as shit don’t feel represented by MFNW, and even though I know more people lazily milking a lax unemployment system than actually trying to find a job, people for which MFNW’s schedule would fit snug as a weiner in unforgiving jeans, it’s hard to relinquish the thought that MFNW is supposed to. Unfortunately, that’s what MFNW strains from the Portland music scene as a whole, from all the years of angst and ambition and competition and risk necessitated by a scene oversaturated with talent and burdened by considerable growing pains: four-point-five days of passive aggressive disarray.

Look only to And And And, Portland’s answer to Titus Andronicus, whose catchiest song lifts a simple chorus above its human centipede of racket: “I want more alcohol.” Which, as the lyrics go on to explain, is a reaction to Portland, to the hidden depression latent within a town popularly known for being fertile, sweet, and close-knit. That’s more the Portland I know and love: a real metropolis, a web of one-ways and dead ends, of bridges both pretty and not, of neighbors jealous and neighbors welcoming, of weirdos sincere and weirdos dangerous, of bustling, inconsiderate, stupid hipsters and people resentful they can be called nothing else, of gangs at the fringes, of scandals involving 17 year old interns, of economic disaster, of waking to a rainstorm that has washed the streets of all but the smell of something new, of a river that divides us in half. The Portland I know and love is at my fingertips, and its only ideal is keeping that reality, in all its contradiction and noise, safe.

But by now MFNW seems like an apology for Portland more than anything. It’s become a tourist in its own town, started emulating the illusion of Portland instead of embracing the conflicting, irascible nature of a city blessed with an incredibly fucking strange population. It’s deserved the growth it’s garnered; it’s deserved the accolades. But so does Portland—it deserves a festival as it’s always been, as ambitious, difficult, and ultimately touchable as the region at its heart.