The Inaugural 8-Track Relay Festival (PDX)

Nurses at 8 Track Relay in Portland, OR
Nurses at 8 Track Relay in Portland, OR

Photos by inger klekacz

[R]unners can run to rock, but can rockers rock to runners? Sure, there is a longstanding marriage between live music and sporting events (i.e. Super Bowl), but does indie rock jive with competitive sports? Does it want to? Regardless of who wants what, somebody boldly joined the two worlds at the inaugural 8-Track Relay festival. The idea was to have a themed 24-hour relay race with an 8-track cassette used as a baton alongside a music festival comprised of regional bands.

After the pre-race openers, Helvetia and Lost Lander, Lemolo took off “running” at 2pm alongside the relay. Meagan Grandall and Kendra Cox’s enchanting voices echoed through the park as tall socks and sweatband-clad runners zigzagged around near the stage, filled up on water and stopped to hi-five teammates before they headed back to the starting line for the handoff. Non-runners lounged on the grass, sipped on beers, and slurped Hawaiian-style yakisoba while the sun painted their pale skin pink.

Ages and Ages dominated the stage next with their ten-person lineup and a brigade of clever noisemakers including a pair of shiny silver spurs. Mid-set, someone floated the idea of a “band-van race” where all the bands would race around the track with vans and trailers fully loaded.” An addition for next year, perhaps.

Twenty-year Portland rock veterans, Quasi, cleared-off the stage around 4pm for their minimal-people/maximum-noise, no bullshit, driving alternative rock that once characterized the Northwest music scene. Flinging naughty words, tambourines, drumsticks and dirty looks at the sound guys, Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes literally pounded out a smattering of jams from new and old albums alike, topping it off with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”. The dream of the 90’s was so alive during their set that Portlandia’s Fred Armison even swooped in to cheer it on.

By this point in the evening, the audience hadn’t swelled to any more than forty or so members, but the next act, Cave Singers, were best experienced outdoors and up close, so no one complained. Vocalist Peter Quirk went through his “storyteller” motions, periodically throwing in a harmonica or melodica, and guided us through new and old songs like the clappy-stompy “At the Cut” from Welcome Joy. No Northwest music fest would be complete without their reliably captivating performance.

Talkdemonic followed up at around 7pm with their untamed symphonic pop. Meanwhile, dinnertime lines at the food trucks multiplied. At this point the festival seemed to be well attended, and the food truck workers managed the sudden swell by slinging burgers, wraps, and dogs to all who demanded them, just in time for Menomena.

Menomena’s performance was unquestionably the most rambunctious of the night, and the cozy 8:30pm time slot assured them a plump crowd. Sporting a sleeveless tank, Lead singer Justin Harris showcased his biceps as he swapped between baritone sax, various stringed instruments, and mic duties until a startling explosion from the bonfire ignition yanked everyone’s attention to the opposite side of the campground.

This bonfire which allegedly could be seen from outer space was at least seven feet across, fueled by hundreds of logs and a liberal dose of flammable liquid. In case our senses weren’t already blown by the sheer amount of fire that melted our sunburned faces, approximately 1400 shells of fireworks started to explode in the sky above us, giving the city’s 4th of July show proper competition.

Nurses continued the curious marathon(s) into the night with catchy but never-predictable psych pop while the runners’ headlamps bounced by in the distance. Some went home, others retreated to their tents, and a few night owls stayed up late enough to catch Lovers, DJ Beyonda, Magic Fades, and Bubblin DJ’s.

Day 2

The uncomfortably early wakeup time required to catch Morning Ritual at 6am garnered five whole fans bundled in blankets (two press people, two friends of the band, and one Michael Hurley). But we were rewarded with a special intimate performance from some uniquely talented R&B musicians. They ended with a song appropriately titled, “So Cold.”

Michael Hurley performed afterward alongside Lewi Longmire; two musicians whose longtime status put Quasi’s ‘veteran’ title into relative terms. They played a short set summoning the likes of Fats Domino, George Jones, rolled cigarettes, and country tunes on the jukebox. Out in the audience, an alarming amount of denim started to flood in – on the backs, as we discovered later, of alt-country and spaghetti-western-soundtrack members of, respectively, Denver and Federale.

With their cavalier magic, Denver lured the last of the sleepy campers out of their tents and into the stage area with catchy, straightforward country songs about fallin’ from grace, dancin’ with the moon, and stumblin’ out the door. And where Denver conjured images of the modern cowboy; heartbroken and reckless, Federale reached deeper into history, painting a vast and colorful landscape of the American west circa 1800.

Draped in an elegant poncho, Clint Eastwood style, vocalist and gifted whistler Colin Hegna strummed one chord, blew a lonely whistle and everyone in earshot was immediately transported. And if that didn’t stop everyone dead in their tracks, Maria Karlin’s operatic vocals ensured that even the most stubborn jaws were dropped. If you were running with Federale, it was because some bandits shot your horse.

The Builders and the Butchers followed, sharing songs from their new album, and of course, some oldies that a few of us sang along to. Thankfully, front-man Ryan Sollee said what some of us were thinking, “…this is a very crossover market; people who love the Builders and the Butchers, and people who love to run. Maybe they’re running away from us.” And admittedly, all the prior night’s bravado (Fireworks? Really?) lacked depth. What was with the hyper-scale festivities? To commemorate the marriage of indie rock and athletics? I’m not sure everyone was on board with that one considering the second-day lineup a number of musicians who were decidedly non-athletic and whose music does less encouraging of wholesome activity and more lamenting of the heartbreaks and horrors of the world. When a jolly gang of day-glow-active-wear clad runners comprised a dance party in front of the stage during The Builders’ set, whose aesthetic does not exactly purport an Oprah-esque “Change your mind, change your life!” message, it was safe to say that this festival would have made more sense if the electronic and hip-hop musicians, tucked away between the hours of 1am and 6am, had supplied the daytime dance tunes.

Next up were Wild ones, and as it turned out, they weren’t so wild. They toned down the relative “wildness” of the previous two bands with modest, electro-pop highlighted by vocalist Danielle Sullivan singing in a pixie-pitch (reminiscent of The Sundays) as she bowed away from the microphone and covered her mouth as if she was about to laugh or cry; and amidst the soaring and crashing mood of their music, it could have been both.

Lake continued the cool temperament with the sun just breaking through the morning marine layer and their soft-rock jams feeling like Hall and Oates one moment and a deadpan, minimalist pop-funk outfit the next.

Coinciding with the official end of the relay race, Thee Satisfaction shimmied and shook all over the stage with little choreographed dance routines to go along with their songs. Seeing them play without of hundreds of other people was a treat. In fact, having all of the aforementioned bands ‘all to ourselves’ per se was the best part of the festival. At no point did anyone have to struggle to get close to the stage, and it was a rare opportunity to see local, well established musicians play with little to no ‘star’ treatment. Before and after their shows, the musicians wandered about with everyone else, completely exposed with no crowds to serve the dual function of either clobbering or disguising them.

The music and marathon were kept spatially separate, and in the end, this seemed appropriate. The two were oil and water; naturally opposed. Certainly Portlanders know a thing or two about strange juxtapositions, but the rare points at which these two fused over the weekend proved, at best, unhealthy, as illustrated by the man who between laps, stretched his legs on the grass while he smoked a cigarette and made small talk with an unsuspecting Quasi fan. Or the woman who vomited near the end of her lap on Saturday night; who was most likely purging not the recommended digestible carbohydrates and proteins, but fatty, fried, processed, or alcoholic food-cart (bless them) fare. Burgers, dogs, and greasy noodles are perfectly acceptable for resting bodies but threaten to cause a literal shit-storm for anyone pushing their physical limits. We can combine a lot of things and make it cool in Portland, but as always, these bold experiments need a few more “runs” before they’re perfected.