by Carrie Johnston, who lives in Portland, Oregon where she openly enjoys laser-harps, cat-pianos, and bourbon.
Photos by inger klekacz
There are fantastic reasons for not going to concerts. The standing, the waiting, the crowds, the noise, the heat, the late-night hours, the cost, the fact that your friends might not go and…who goes to concerts alone??? Concerts, to most people, are a pain, or at best, something they’ll only do if the band risks breaking up or dying. And those of us who are addicted to live music are alright with the extra room at the venue. But with the music industry at the mercy of free Internet streams and downloads, live shows are are often the only way musicians can get a tangible sense of their fan base (and some dough). Events like MusicFestNW remind the concert-neglecter that living, breathing, screaming, chanting, strumming, stomping, crooning, dancing human beings chiseled those songs out of thin sound waves to be enjoyed whenever, wherever. The least we can return the favor by popping in to one show…or fifteen.
Tuesday, Sept. 3
MFNW”s opening night had Black Bananas firing their weapon of bass, fuzz, and grit. Lead vocalist Jennifer Herrema swaggered across the stage in a lazy hunch like a resurrected Nancy Spungen (likewise painted in snakeskin boots, skinny jeans, and a disheveled mop of hair that may as well have been a Disneyland costume head piece for all it did for her sight radius). Her scratchy vocals dissolved in the instrumentation which rose up like a hardcore band battling a rapper at bowel shaking volume. Any discernible tempo was toppled by guttural bass and screeching steel strings. It was entirely possible that Herrema was singing about Downton Abby and how much she adored shopping at our new City Target as her lyrics were totally indiscernible. There was structure somewhere; maybe some blues, possibly some Rolling Stones riffs, perhaps a clever blend of forgotten hair-band metal and new wave synths, but for the odd festival drifter or anyone unfamiliar with Black Bananas’ previous ensembles (Royal Trux), the show was simply weird and loud; which was probably the way they wanted it.
Los Angeles’ Redd Kross set us up next with a long break between sets and knocked us down with powerful, driving punk-pop rock. Their thirty-plus years producing albums and playing shows alongside major acts like Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Sloan (!!!), and Dinosaur Jr. showed in their stellar stage presence (it takes at least ten years to perfect a jump-kick power chord). Though up there in age, you wouldn’t know it from their high energy kicks, jumps, goofy expressions, and catchy hooks.
Wednesday, Sept. 4
When we think of the Portland music scene we think The Decemberists and Pavement, not, at least immediately, any hip-hop. Sadly, the scene just isn’t thriving, as evidenced by non-blockbuster acts such as TxE playing a hometown show to a moderately enthused audience of fifty or so people. In a city so hitched to rock, it’s a tough endeavor to gain a following as a hip-hop group (but hey, it’s been done). Both Chill Crew and TxE had to pull teeth just to get a response from the crowd on Wednesday night. Clobbering the close-bys with tee-shirts and swag helped but Hawthorne Theater’s back-of-the-room bar split the audience in two, countering the consolidation that this genre thrives on. Both acts did everything they could to garner enthusiasm by jumping, waving, yelling, and reprimanding. But it was clear that even for hip-hop in Portland, as they say, ‘the stakes is high.’
There was no shortage of indie-rock patriotism up at The Crystal Ballroom that night, however. The room was bloated and humid with a thousand plus Deerhunter enthusiasts giddy to let front-man Bradford Cox mesmerize them to death amidst a shower of blue and red lights. Despite the predicted abundance of shoegaze-fuzz and white noise hiatuses, the high attendance energized the environment, making it feel like the official festival jump-off point.
Thursday, Sept. 5
Thank God for Toronto. A true melting pot of culture, art, good hair, and DIANA; friends of Austra and fellow Torontonians who dazzled everyone at the Star Theater with their jazzy, soft-rock electro pop and charming personalities. Front-lady Carmen Elle’s crystalline voice, masculine movements, and intense gazes elevated the chill mood of the music to something commanding and important. Oh, and her hair-flipping skills were something to aspire to.
Austra conducted themselves like a bunch of possessed choir girls in a séance with vocalist Katie Stelmanis as the enlightened cult leader. They cycled through most of their recent release, Olympia, and left the original hits like “Beat and the Pulse” and “Lose It” for last. The crowd obeyed, and lost it. Dance-offs happened near the back of the room, and plenty of smartly dressed folks lost their composure after five or six drinks. Austra’s twin backup singers lent something special to the visual appeal, splitting up the focus on Selmanis. Symmetrically placed on each side of the stage-front, wearing white silk robes, the singers kept the audience spellbound with a kind of sonic sign-language; dipping and swooping their arms around while whispering, softly echoing Stelmanis’ lyrics and never forgetting to hold their blissed-out expressions.
Friday Sept. 6
Friday night was a tough call with so many bands playing at the same time all across the city, but nestling in at Bunk Bar for the night turned out to be an excellent choice. The Lonesome Billies had everyone riled-up with rowdy, sing-a-long, outlaw country songs and a cover of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” which at least made this heart beat a little happier. The boys had an infectious onstage rapport, and even took the time to toast with the audience twice.
In a very un-riff-raffy fashion, Hooray For the Riff Raff played a stripped-down set with Alynda Lee Seggara on guitar and Yosi Perlstein on fiddle. The setup caused a deeper stir in our souls as Segarra’s New Orleans-sweetened vocals rung through the windows and seduced the people outside enough stamp out their cigarettes and grab a close view from the sidewalk. The Bunk staff kindly pulled back the curtains and opened the windows so they could hear better.
Frank Fairfield played next. But first, a preface: if you visit the little mining towns of South Dakota, complete with saloons, gold panning expeditions, and those quarter machines with the robotic cowboys that tell you your fortune, you’ll be lucky to get a flake of gold’s worth of what the American West felt like in the 1800’s. If you watch Frank Fairfield play the fiddle or banjo, you will leave the modern world entirely. The man is a time traveler, and he’s taking some unlikely people with him. He is more than an old soul, he is a breathing fossil of American roots. I’m going to crawl out on a lonely limb here, but Frank Fairfield, unaccompanied by glitter, colored lights, amps, backup singers, makeup, costume, or innovative arrangements, was hands down the best performance of this year’s MusicFest NW. But don’t let that sway you from staying home the next time he comes to town…
Saturday, Sept. 7
Then again, sometimes it’s nice to be blown away by glitter, colored lights, backup singers, amps, makeup, costume, and innovative arrangements. As proven by old-timers Shuggie Otis and Charles Bradley, who unquestionably blew us away on Saturday night at the Crystal Ballroom. Otis strutted around in white ruffled cuffs, black sunglasses, and a multi-piece suit, but whether your view was from the front or back of the room, that man’s smile was his most prominent feature. After a long, uncomfortable wait, The Menahan Street Band arranged themselves on stage. For a while, it seemed a completely different act was preparing to play, as the seven piece group looked like recent jazz school graduates destined for contracts with Jagjaguwar. But, as it turned out, they were indeed Bradley’s band, visually mismatched, but definitely not musically. Bradley did a fine job of arrogantly building up the anticipation, but when he starting performing, all was forgiven. During “How Long?” he heaved the mic stand over his shoulder, fell to his knees, and hobbled along the ground like a chain-gang prisoner. Suggesting the chronology of his own troubled life story, he later rose up and performed a surprisingly energetic and tantalizing ‘striptease’ (minus actual garment removal) during “You Put The Flame On It.” His pained expression throughout, somehow even when he was smiling, enhanced his message of struggle and triumph, and there was no disputing the depths of emotion that his voice could penetrate.
Sunday, Sept. 8
Pickwick played a raucous outdoor set on a sunny, Sunday afternoon with lead singer Galen Disston gyrating and pacing all over the stage like a caffeinated, R&B-singing kindergartner. His vocals were almost too big, too refined for an unassuming dude in jeans, a tee-shirt, and an aspiring afro.
It was hard to remember much else from Sunday’s Pioneer Square show after Neko Case‘s between-song improv “comedy show” with her backup singer. Before the halfway point of their set, the topics of turds moving through plumbing, peeing all over the floor on the first date, bags of cocaine caught in one’s throat, and “all the people having sex around us right now…” were discussed. It’s good that she separates the two sides of her persona; leaving the the serious stuff to the songs. And this maybe why her new verbosely titled album, The Worse Things Get, The More I Fight, The More I Fight, The More I Love You, is in the spotlight right now. She has discussed publicly how her history of depression has influenced her songwriting, but coupled with her extraordinary talent and reputation as a delightful, albeit irreverent, live entertainer, the exposure only made her more lovable. Her voice against the backdrop of blue sky and rooftops in the heart of Downtown Portland marked the close of MFNW, and allowed the hundreds of musicians who had already made their impressions earlier in the week to wander around the square anonymously, steeped in the heightened sense of the Northwest as a time-honored sanctuary for smart, independent music.