Rocking the Clubs

Memories of MusicFest

By John Chandler and Robert Runyon September 24, 2009

Hipster messiah: Girl Talk leads his followers in a dance party.

The annual relay between venues known as Musicfest Northwest came and went this weekend, leaving behind a wake of tired music fans, with some wondering if it was worth it to stay out until 2 AM to see some theater-kidcore band from Boise. (Hint: it wasn’t.)

First off, audience expectations for Explosions in the Sky at the Crystal Ballroom were relatively unknown to me. Usually a concert is about dancing, looking cool, and occasionally singing along. The rock symphonies from EITS have no words, and would require Twyla Tharp to choreograph. Maybe I could hum to the tremolo-soaked guitars? These questions about expectations disappeared upon entering the room, as I was hypnotized by the band’s sonic precision. The only downside (if it can be called one) to EITS is that the Friday Night Lights score ruined them for me–I can’t listen to more than five minutes without images of Tim Riggins and Tyra Collette dancing in my head. Time to move on to the most anticipated act in the evening: Girl Talk.

Great idea from the MFNW planners: school buses for moving concertgoers between venues. Saves time, money, and keeps drunk driving to a minimum. Bad idea from the MFNW planners: not indicating exactly where the bus stops are. Jogging over to the Roseland, I saw the building was ringed by a line well over two hundred people long, most of them accessorizing in day-glo. Inside, the Girl Talk experience didn’t disappoint. Flanked on both sides by helpers holding toilet paper spewing bazookas, Girl Talk (aka, Gregg Gillis), clad in gray sweats with a headband, invited a crowd on stage to dance with him throughout the show, giving it the appearance of a hipster version of the Last Supper, with Gillis in Jesus’ role, working out on two saran-wrapped laptops instead of the Holy Grail. He’s one of the savviest DJs working today, and the crowd responded with unabashed adoration.

The Twilight Sad show at Dante’s was the complete antithesis to Girl Talk’s energy overload. The Glaswegians, whose studio albums are wonderful, saw fit to stand around and play their Scottish-brogued folk ballads even while the vocals were drowned out by the feedback from the guitars. It was time to go to sleep.

Night Two began at the Wonder Ballroom with the Like, an all-girl group whose sound recalls the best of mid-80s girl-band pop (you know, Bananarama/Go-Gosesque). They’d be selling out arenas if they were born in 1960 instead of 1985. The 80 percent male audience waiting for the Arctic Monkeys wasn’t terribly responsive.

Speaking of not terribly responsive, the Arctic Monkeys seemed bored to be in Portland for the first twenty or so minutes of the show, strumming out their Britpop without even glancing up from their instruments. Then, I imagine, the beer (or something) kicked in. They were the loud kids that went from playing basements to national heroes in the UK in under a year. Lead singer Alex Turner impressed as he maintained his amphibian croon throughout the hour-and-a-half set, moving through the fast and alliterative lyrics.

John Chandler steps in:

Having caught the tail end of last year’s Monotonix dust up at Satyricon, I knew what I was in for at the Roseland. It’s all spectacle baby—the music is an afterthought, or, as we say in the journalism profession, a sidebar. Drummer and guitarist set up in the middle of the floor and crank out rudimentary riffs while the singer incites a benign riot and shows his supple ass to the crowd. From the balcony it was all quite a sight, a swaying, pulsing sea of flesh with occasional flashes of band personnel. I should have maintained a safe distance: when I ventured into the periphery of the juggernaut, a tumbler took my legs out from under me and the next thing I knew, I was on the bottom of a dog pile. I still can’t recall a note they played, but as a social experiment in group dynamics it was passably interesting. Funk-punk-reggae-metal maestros the Bad Brains came up next and proceeded to phone in their performance. Lead singer HR couldn’t even be bothered to take his hands out of his pockets. Look up the word “perfunctory.”

Sean Croghan represents! Over at Dante’s, the twitchy singer and guitarist from such venerated Portland groups as Crackerbash and Junior High has apparently abandoned his axe to front the Rapids, a band of mature punk rockers who can burn with the best of them. As for Croghan, I firmly believe that his guitar was holding him back all these years. Freed from the responsibilities of playing chords, he seems liberated onstage, flopping and flailing around like a cross between Iggy Pop and a marlin that’s intent on destroying a fishing boat. I look forward to more.

Earlier in the evening I dug a few choruses from Lake over at Satyricon, an adorable ensemble that I just knew couldn’t come from anyplace but Olympia. Dressed in their most precious ragamuffin duds, they tossed out some genuinely winning pop chops, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they all lived together in a charmingly tumble-down house and slept in one big bed. I also tarried a moment to listen to a troubadour dude stationed at the corner of Sixth and Couch, armed with a 12-string guitar play “Sara Smile” by Hall & Oates, followed by a fairly inspired rendition of “Hotel California.” Someone should sign that dude—like yesterday.

Back to Robert:

The after party that night was at the new BodyVox studio in Northwest, and featured perennial Portland favorites, the ever-anthemic Thermals. Pre-show entertainment was provided by sandwiches from Bunk, featuring the most tender roast beef I’ve eaten in my life. Who knew roast beef could melt in your mouth? Hutch Harris, Kathy Foster and their newest drummer (Their fifth? Their sixth?) Westin Glass sounded like they had been together from the beginning. Then again, that could just be an illusion based on Harris’ and Foster’s infectious chemistry (well over a decade together in various bands). They knocked out all their hits, and “Here’s Your Future” still hasn’t left of my head.

I spent Saturday over on the east side, hitting Rontoms for the Bladen County Records showcase, and the East End later. There I was greeted by Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, my new favorite Portland band. They sound like your grandparents’ favorite band when they were your age; incredibly new with deep roots in the past. “Danger” could be an international hit if it could get any airplay. It’s enough to make you wistful for the days of payola.

The rest of the showcase consisted of various combinations of able folk-pop-rockers (you know, pop-rock-folkers, rock-folk-poppers, etc.) in various combinations of tartans and flannels (including the crowd, there was more plaid here than at the Highland Games) all sounding a bit like Fleet Foxes.

Over at East End (which felt like it was either a speakeasy or an S&M club in another life), I was dragged to see Finn Riggins based on the recommendation of a friend. My anticipation grew through the performances of freak-folk collective Gratitillium and the devastatingly deft pop from Church. Unfortunately, this show was more anti-climactic than a Dan Brown novel. Finn Riggins was a disappointment.

The last night brought Modest Mouse at the Crystal Ballroom. There’s no way to describe these guys that hasn’t already been done. Seeing them on stage makes you realize how scarily proficient they are. Brock, dressed in his flannel finery, belted out his Waits-inspired shanties
about loss in that familiar underwater-scream wail of his. Behind him, the band walked the fine line of experimenting with sound while maintaining their dynamic stage presence. And the interplay of the two percussionists put me into a very satisfying trance. A highlight moment was Brock playing the feedback from his acoustic guitar as a saxaphone.

A major worry I had beforehand about Musicfest Northwest is that as it has grown in size and scale, with the resulting big names to match, its original ideal—giving exposure to lesser-known local bands—has disappeared. After three tinnitus-inflicting nights out, listening to acts from across the country and around the world, that worry disappeared. It’s not the out-of-towners I think of—it’s our local rockers: the Thermals, Modest Mouse, and Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside. Okay, Monotonix too, but the fact remains: for every great foreign band, there were three or four locals ones to match. It was a festival from Portland for Portland. That’s success.

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