Ed. Note: The following is a condensed version of Aamir’s musings and adventures from this year’s Musicfest NW. Essentially, Aamir was tasked with checking out and reporting on as much musical madness as he could in three days. Here’s what he saw and heard. Also, he admits to being a slut for The Oh Sees. Aren’t we all?
By Aamir Malik
Years ago someone in Portland, OR came up with the idea of trying to mimic the dynamic and success of our country’s premier music industry festival, Austin, TX’s South by Southwest (SXSW). Being clever, but not subtle, they called the new music festival North by Northwest. Years later, and for whatever reason, that name has come and gone. In its place the city of Portland is now host to a yearly event called Musicfest NW (MFNW). This year I had the privilege of attending for the first time, and the opportunity to discover a bit of what it’s all about.
MFNW is five days of concerts, mostly at night, at venues spread out around Portland. In addition, there are lots of industry events, free shows, parties, live radio performances and the like, that are worth the effort to discover and attend if one is able. Some of the performers this year were Sebedoh, Iron & Wine, Explosions in the Sky, Archers of Loaf, Band of Horses, The Horrors, The Kills, Phantogram, Ted Leo, Brand New, Olivia Tremor Control, and the list goes on…
Each night of the festival, from Wednesday to Saturday, the number of shows and venues increases, and then Sunday there is one large finale downtown starting in the afternoon.
The biggest problem with MFNW is a good one to have, I guess. There’s just too much cool stuff happening all at once. On Friday and Saturday nights for example, every hour on the hour there were sometimes as many as six shows I would have liked to have attended! Having to decide where to go and who to see was often times difficult, ultimately leading to some frustration and putting a damper on my experience. Having no access to a self-duplicating machine however, I eventually gave in to missing bands, and went with the flow as best I could. Not getting overly worried about doing the most possible seemed to facilitate an overall pleasurable outcome, and ultimately got me the most out of my stay in Portland.
The first night there were really only three venues to choose from. I chose The Bunk Bar where an old friend and former Chico, CA citizen Kelly Blair Bauman was performing new songs with a full band. I’m sorry to say the other bands I saw weren’t very memorable… The sound at the venue wasn’t the best, but it was a good show, and one of the most crowded throughout the whole weekend.
On Thursday night the shows I wanted to see were too spread out. I took some deep breaths and chose to just stay downtown, starting my evening with a free non-MFNW event at Al’s Den, in the basement of the Crystal Hotel. In residency for the week was Mike Coykendall, a great musician (works and tours with M Ward and She and Him) and super nice guy who had asked different people to perform with him each night of the week. This night’s guests were the local band Old Light and the aforementioned Kelly Bauman. The room was intimate and classic, and the musicians all highly skilled. And since it kicked off a full hour before MFNW shows, I conveniently didn’t miss any of what the festival had to offer!
I spent the rest of the night at The Crystal Ballroom seeing Viva Voce, Sebadoh and for the first time, Archers of Loaf.
I actually hadn’t even heard Archers of Loaf before, so didn’t know what to expect. Their sound was huge, aggressive and they put on a great show. I now totally understand why their fans are so dedicated and outspoken!
Friday started earlier with a show at the Dr. Marten’s retail store downtown where I saw and heard Ted Leo for the first time. I enjoyed his songs and really liked his style of playing guitar. He sounded very English, or even Scottish to me, and because of this I confronted him after the show and accused him of not really being from New Jersey, to which he confessed he was of Irish blood. This might also explain his mid-show reference to U2’s “New Year’s Day” video, and the amazement he expressed upon discovering that most of the youth-filled crowd had no idea what he was talking about. But most importantly this day I learned, because he said it many, many times, that he is heavily in support of (and is now supported by) Dr. Marten’s new vegan shoes.
This is important because I was ignorant that shoes came in that flavor, and now concur with Mr. Leo that if you think you may one day get stuck having to eat your shoes (a fear every touring musician inevitably lives with), vegan is obviously the way to go.Friday was also great because I was able to see my new favorite live act, Thee Oh Sees. They played at the Star Theatre, a newly refurbished place.
The guy next to me jumped up on stage early on and did a stage dive. The audience was always shifting, and there was nearly constantly someone riding the crowd atop fingertips. Despite my position in front, which enabled me to assist with the lead singer’s tangled guitar cords (a constant occurrence during his frenzied performance), I kept worrying the next big audience shift in my direction might crack my ribs against the stage. Or worse, I might actually wet my pants as I’d joked about having done when I saw them days before in Seattle. Thus I excused myself to the restroom and enjoyed the rest of the show from the balcony. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone consciously missing Thee Oh Sees after being seduced by their live sound.
Racing out of there at the end of their set I was able to stop by a few small clubs to see some random bands, some interesting, some sad, on the way back to The Someday Lounge where the Athens, GA band Olivia Tremor Control, of the famed “Elephant 6 Collective,” were next to perform. They have a great sound, but hardly kept my attention after what I’d just experienced. I happily remembered that there was another venue a few blocks away with a band that had traveled many miles to reach Portland.
So I cruised over to Dante’s and was justifiably pleased. The Horrors, from England, provided probably the most unique spark of distinction to the sometimes monotonous array of bands on display at MFNW.
They’re not original by any stretch of the imagination. Dressed in black or black and white, all with shaggy black hair, they serve up a big keyboard-heavy sound reminiscent of the 1980s. Their performance and their music really summoned the feel of an era past, and I felt blissfully transported to another time and space (Mighty Boosh reference for those who know…!) for every bit of their set I witnessed.
Saturday was my “big show” day. Despite my wrist band pass to the festival, the brains behind MFNW arranged three separate headliner shows in Pioneer Square downtown, all of which required separate tickets. My pass allowed me to choose one so I picked Saturday. I missed the first band however, because I attended an off-the-grid free block party hosted by Cravedog, a company that touts itself as “a bands best friend”. They make CDs, DVDs and do assorted printing for artists.
By the time I got out of there and found my way back downtown, having to be significantly detoured once onto I-5 due to a closed bridge over the river, I was able to catch the very end of a locally popular band called Typhoon.
The sound at this open air stage was really loud, and the bass tones were enough to make you nauseous at times. But I liked the photo pit up front where I got to meet and chat with others covering the festival. I met a real nice guy from Oregon Public Broadcasting, and assured him I would cover the next band, The Antlers, for readers back home. So here it goes, my official review:
“All the guys in The Antlers have really nice hair. Except for the drummer (he is bald).” That’s really all I feel it necessary to say, but I will add as clarification for any that don’t catch my drift that this band made my skin hurt.
After getting as far away from the stage as possible, I suffered through their set and made it until the next band, which I was really looking forward to: Explosions In The Sky from Austin, TX.
The success of instrumental rock bands is of real interest to me. Mostly because I’m not sure if people are really thrilled and overwhelmed by the records, as they confess, or if they think that being an aficionado of these bands makes them instantly intellectual somehow? Regardless, the audience was packed.
Their live show was a force to be reckoned with. They clearly travel with their own lighting guy because the lights were too perfectly timed with the music to have been anything but meticulously rehearsed. And the sound from the speakers was epic rock and roll. I challenge anyone who dislikes their records to see them live. What I heard embodies the essence of what drums, a bass and some electric guitars are all about!
Because that show started early there was still plenty going on that night. After my share of Explosions I walked over to the Crystal Ballroom for some of Black Prairie (so-so), and then descended back down into Al’s Den for another taste of Mike Coykendall’s last night of free music (awesome). I then found my car on one of Portland’s criss-crossed streets, after a frantic search thinking it had surely been towed, and headed back across the river to a place called Rontom’s and The Doug Fir.
I saw a great band I’d never heard of, Finn Riggins, and got a few moments of pleasure out of the Loch Lomond set. But the thrill of the night was discovering Thee Oh Sees were about to play in a dark underground hole called The East End (they themselves told me after I found them smoking in a mini-mart’s parking lot). So I skipped the concluding MFNW shows that night and paid an entry fee to see them again.
At this point, dear reader, let me take an opportunity to clarify a few things. Yes, I am a slut for this band. No, I do not have an un-healthy crush on their one female member, Brigid. Yes, this show took place in a dark, wet pit where people might catch STDs just by being in the audience.
No, the sound down there was not horrible or too loud; it was freaking amazing! Yes, the situation was definitely a fire hazard. No, I did not wet my pants, but did get wet in other ways. And yes, I will gladly do it again the next chance I get.
Afterwards the band kept telling me (as I schlepped their gear and generally fawned over them) that I had to see the band about to play called OFF!. With a former member of Black Flag, they were the real deal I was told. Awful noise to me I’m afraid, and I couldn’t make it through one song. So after a quick goodbye or two, and a life-lifting smile from Brigid, I returned to my crash pad and a good night’s sleep.
Sunday was the last day of MFNW, and there was only one official show, downtown at Pioneer Square, which required a separate ticket. Luckily I was informed of an all day free show at Rontom’s. I was surprised and excited to see a young musician from Redding, CA on the bill: Wesley Jensen! Now adding “and the Wildcats” to his band name, I made sure I didn’t miss it. He did a commendable job, pleasing the crowd, and later told me that him and the band had traveled all the way from Redding for just that show at the invitation of the show’s host and sponsor, Marmoset Music, a company specializing in music licensing.
All the bands at the party were enjoyable, especially Pancake Breakfast, but my hands down favorite was Dolorean. I love all their records and had only seen them once, years ago, before I was familiar with their songs. Their music is essentially the voice of one man, Al James, pictured here livin’ large (with the bottle of homeopathic throat syrup, or so he said, sitting upon his amp, which he sucked on throughout the show).
With his Archie Bunker presence, and confused rock star demeanor, I could totally dig it. He reminds me of Aaron Neville a little, with his sweet songs that don’t quite match the image we see. He really impressed me with his ability to rock out on songs which have a soft feel on the records without making them sound wrong. As the last show I attended, it was a wonderful conclusion to the week.