Live Music

Slide Show: MusicFest NW

Our intrepid reporters relive their favorite sights and sounds from Portland’s most all-encompassing annual music festival.

September 12, 2011


Witch Mountain
Dante’s, 10pm

“When was the last time you swung your hips at a metal show?”, I ask you. Never. I had never swung my hips at a metal show, either—not until Thursday night at MusicFest NW, when I pedaled through early drunk-traffic toward Dante’s, like a bat into Hell, to catch local sludge/doom/stoner metal staple Witch Mountain. Lead singer Uta Plotkin first grabbed my attention a couple years when I saw Aranya, her other earth-loving/pagan-metal band. (Talk about a gal with a full datebook. “What? Dinner this Friday? Sorry, love, I can’t, I’m playing a gig with my other amazing metal band”.)

Around since 1997, Witch Mountain was already a solid and original act, but adding Plotkin in 2009 has clearly turned these metal gods golden. Live, she can shift from a rich, soothing voice that dances with hints of bluesy-gospel, then kick into a throttling, shrill incantation over sandpaper guitar riffs that cut so deep through the floorboards it’s like being dragged through jagged ice. Truly, this is metal that sticks to your ribs, and possibly other bones. Support their local shows, buy their album, then go see your naturopath to get all the toxins sucked out. (REW)

Black Cobra
Dante’s, 11pm

With all the concentrated focus of a 15-year-old Metallica fan getting the rhythm part of “Enter Sandman” just right for the first time, lead singer Jason Landrian of hard-shredding duo Black Cobra did not disappoint. If you thought it was hard to get people to dance in Portland, try being a death-metal band, where the most you can get from even a steadfast, dedicated audience is some loosely energetic head-bangs. These guys are truly thrash-worthy, though, and in a crowd of predictably long hair, tight black pants, and scruffy neck-beards, many a devil’s horn was thrown into the air on this unholy night, including my own—even though I had to leave a couple songs before the end because it was, as our mothers would put it, “a little too much.” Lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of metal (you could probably place me at “beginner-intermediate”) it’s hard to say how original these guys are…they’ve got the hair, and they’ve got the drive, but can it propel us all the way to Valhalla? Time will tell. (REW)

Holocene, Midnight


In a loosely-packed room of dorky thirty-somethings, the crowd appears simultaneously awed like they’re looking at a Rothko painting for the first time and terrified like they’ve just bumped into the gorgeous punk girl who scared everyone in high school. That woman grew up, evidently had an early-twenties misadventure in California, and became the untouchable Erika M. Anderson, frontwoman for EMA, a project that developed after splitting ways with former drone-folk trio Gowns. Ranging from hushed, sultry whispers to a heroic war cry, many place Anderson’s voice and presence somewhere in between Kim Gordon and Kim Deal—if you left them out in the sun for a while and gave their bandmates 12 effects pedals and a handful of quaaludes (do people still do those?).

Seriously, the band’s range is all over the place. Between Anderson’s own pounding guitar style, the psychedelic leads of another lady guitarist, an intuitive drummer, and requisite nerdy guy alternating seamlessly between an electric violin and a keyboard, the moment you realize there’s no bassist is the same moment you realize there’s no need for one. Hollow, droning-but-psyched-out distortion couches many of their songs like decorative noise pillows, which are then decimated by sharp, danceable choruses that come quite close to kicking you in the face (literally).

My hope is that the crowd was merely stunned into a familiar Portland silence rather than unimpressed, because her funny, engaging stage presence and banter definitely seemed to fall a little flat with the room—that is, of course, until she won everyone back with a masterful, raw cover of The Violent Femmes’ classic, “Add It Up”. One of my absolute favorite performances of the weekend, EMA is one keep your eye on in the next year. (REW)

Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside
Pioneer Courthouse Square, 5pm,

Sallie Ford and her band aren’t folking around—on Friday they proved once again that they could wail the blues and pick the guitar with the best of ‘em during their stint as the opening act for one of MFNW’s most anticipated line-ups. The audience couldn’t quite match their energy—a herd of concertgoers milled about the square or lounged on the steps, grazing on snack-stand chow and guzzling Heinekens. There was a group of fans that clumped around the stage and even danced a bit, but for the most part people failed to offer anything but polite engagement. The venue felt too vast for the local band, and they must have lost some of their regulars due to the show’s 32 dollar ticket price and the fact that the standard red MFNW wristband wouldn’t get you past the laughably large security presence at the Square’s entrance. The band’s performance seemed to transcend their environment. They were earnest yet distant, warm yet stirring. And what could serve as better backdrop for the Sound Outside than a balmy summer sky over an open-air stage in the heart of their city? (KD)

Markéta Irglová
Pioneer Courthouse Square 6pm

Czech singer/actress Irglová knows how to charm an audience. The Academy Award winner (Best Original Song, “Falling Slowly,” from the film Once) introduces her songs in a soft accented voice and a hush comes over the crowd. When she sings, the Square becomes an intimate courtyard. Accompanying her is the hypnotizing Persian-influenced Aida Shahghasemi playing a traditional Daf drum. Irglová’s deft piano playing and delicate warbling voice soothes and enchants everyone present, from the well-dressed couple who look like they strolled over from their loft in the Pearl, to the swaying hippies who came to mellow out. "This song is about falling in love,” says Irglová, and a woman lies down on the bricks and closes her eyes, taking in the melodies while someone nearby in the audience murmurs, “This music is putting me to sleep,” and smiles. Irglová’s music is serene and peaceful, but it is also sincere and mesmerizing. She is simply pleasant to listen to, and her fans know it. (KD)

Iron and Wine
Pioneer Courthouse Square, 7:30pm

It’s twilight and Pioneer Courthouse Square is brimming over with audience members, many of whom have been drinking in the beer gardens since 5. Sam Beam of Iron and Wine steps out in a tailored suit and takes the stage with… surprise guest M. Ward?! The crowd proceeds to freak out as the indie power duo picks up their instruments. The stage lights flush purple and the fog machine billows smoke as the bearded Beam starts to play to an enraptured crowd. But, then, another surprise to onlookers unfamiliar with Iron and Wine’s recent direction—Beam and company start to play funky, rhythmic songs, some of which are even danceable (whoa!). During “Wolves (Song of The Shepherd’s Dog)” the band is positively jamming out, and sounds of feverish sax and synth fill the air. But what was the most memorable moment of the show? When, after starting to play his own take on “Freebird,” Beam smiles mischievously into the microphone and spits, “You asked for it, bitches!” at a cheering, laughing crowd of very happy Portlanders. (KD )

Sharon Van Etten
Crystal Ballroom, 10:00pm

By this point in the weekend, I figured out why MFNW shows are so expensive: all of the venues were doubling as saunas. Throw in a groupon for mirodermabrasion-facial-homeopathic-doggie-daycare-wine-tasting, and the ticket prices would make so much more sense. This show was packed. A line wrapped around the corner of 14th street as folks struggled to make it in early to see Blitzen Trapper. Downstairs in Lola’s Room, stragglers in glittery ponytail get-ups trotted into “80s Night”. I took my place in the sweat-lodge of Crystal’s main room. It seemed like most of Portland was there, including several handfuls of grumpy older businessmen-types who gave me the stinkeye for edging forward with my camera. The room was enthusiastic and responsive; teenagers spinning around madly in the middle of the room and snapping pictures of each other’s moves.These factors combined to create a mildly stressful and overwhelming environment (which could also be said for the whole of the festival). But with all the sweetness and grit of a leftover apple pie, Van Etten’s vocals quickly soothed my heat-stroked nerves and reminded me why I was there. Her warm personality and doleful, soulful singing reek pleasantly of a fine-tuned heartache, and her backing band has developed a knack for Americana comfort songs that served as the perfect speed and mood for a steamy summer night.

The Thermals
Backspace, 10:45pm


If I had to pick a venue to see the Thermals in, it would most decidedly not be Backspace. What with the sixty-ish person capacity, the load-bearing column in front of the stage, obscuring the performers from sight for about half the room, and an awkward lack of danceable space, it seemed like a much more suitable environment for any number of quieter, sit-down-and-sway indie folk darlings on the MFNW roster; not a hugely popular local dance-punk trio like The Thermals. That being said, dang if they didn’t make the best of the evening and put on a lively, fist-pumping show. The spot filled up with eager fans of all ages moments after “opening” the door, and everyone from teenyboppers to craft-beer-drinking dads to punky-cute style mavens (ahem) were rocking out to familiar, raucous numbers and the spastic pitchman voice of lead singer Hutch Harris (“He’s dreamy!” I would swoon, if I were 15 and still naive enough to dig rock stars.) No doubt about it, people love these guys, and why shouldn’t they? There was kind of a mosh pit, and their latest video stars Carrie Brownstein. Howd’ya like them apples? (REW)

Mississippi Studios, 11pm

It’s rare to find a hair metal band with a female vocalist, especially one that snarls with as much feral primacy as former Royal Trux singer Jennifer Herrema. The crowd at Mississippi studios perks up when RTX starts to shred and Herrema, shrouded by a wild mess of blonde hair and animal furs, growls into the microphone and stomps her cowboy boots to heavy drums. The audience is barely moving except for two head-banging hip-swiveling girls with hair similar to Herrema’s standing next to the stage. The set is over too quickly and the band storms away. It’s times like these when I wish MFNW didn’t have to stick to a tight schedule and Portland audiences were more comfortable with rocking out. (KD)

The Stepkids
Dante’s, 11:30pm

OK, so if you were wondering where Devendra Banhart has been lately, I have your answer: someone shot him into space, where he landed on the moon and started a math-rock disco band. He’s not literally in the band, but his freak-folk spirit lingers close in their nervy, artless vocals. These guys are effing bizarre! At first glance, I thought I had accidentally stumbled into a TBA event: dressed head to toe in pure white outfits, they are accompanied by psychy, swirly light projections against a white backdrop. Although they possess a Mars Volta level of insane energy, it was chaotic to the point of confusion and hard to keep up much less tap a foot to. At the end of the day, it was a little too space-jammy for my taste. It fell a beat too short to be palatable experimental rock, and lacked the confidence to be performance art. Hopefully these guys will fall through the right crack and find their niche. (REW)

The Horrors,
Midnight, Dante’s


Who knew experimental psychedelic goth could be so darn catchy? The Horrors’ punk roots come through in their frenzied performance and tight black uniforms, but their movements look almost choreographed. Every hair flip and boot kick is as stylish and tailored as their look, and boy, do they look great. They are modish without being dated and macabre without being contrived. Years after starting out as a three-chord garage-rock outfit, these dandy fops ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and drove their Vespas into a shoegaze dimension which may or may not contain new lifeforms. Particularly dashing was bassist Rhys Webb, who somehow managed to sashay energetically across the stage while glaring like he had a grudge against the audience. Despite the somber facials, his expert playing added a funky, fluid level to the din. If you can catch a glimpse behind their sweaty mops of hair, you can feel these dreamy Londoners staring right into your soul. Besides an obnoxiously unnecessary strobe light and minor technical difficulties, this was a riveting show that left a packed room of fans dancing and gasping for more. Is it weird that I want to wear an ascot now? (KD & REW)


Kelli Schaefer
Bunk Bar, 10pm

Where has this band been all my life? Portland-based Schaefer’s voice was like a slap across the face as I walked into a medium-sized crowd of upscale patrons, politely nodding with mixed drinks in hand. Her wrenching vocals glide from smooth to brain-defying, but are always classy, falling somewhere on the rock continuum between Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and the Raveonettes’ Sharin Foo .The stage presence of Shaefer and her comparably-astounding bassist combine to form the punch of a punk act with the eloquence of a fierce, unsentimental singer-songwriter. While the other three band members provide a scope of individual talent, it’s obvious that they go by her name for a reason; this woman is, in a word, phenomenal. If you want to get a feel for her aesthetic, watch the video Black Dog off her new album Ghost of the Beast, which feels like being stuck inside the pages of every manic-depressive teenage girl’s sketchbook. In a good way. (REW)

Branx, 11pm

Confession time: before this show, I hadn’t listened to much YACHT, and had never been to any of their frequent, much-heralded local shows. I’m so glad I jumped at the opportunity to see one of the craziest, passionate, and fanatical shows of the festival. Somewhere between the body of Annie Lennox, the posturing of Grace Jones and the manic skittishness of Karen O, co-lead singer Claire L. Evans takes the stage in her hands and wrings it to life. Talking Heads? The Cars? I struggle to think of anyone this synth-funk-portable-dance-party-collective sounds like. If the No Wave movement from the early 80s could resuscitate itself into a better-organized and less broodingly wanky conceptual performance troupe, it would still only sound half as good as these guys. (REW)

Dangerous Boys Club
Rotture, 11pm

The aliens have landed, and they sound a lot like if Joy Division had been around long enough to get into circuit-bending. With music as disorienting as their laser-lights-show-fog-party performance, these guys are definitely not for the epileptic or those with virulently anti-goth sensibilities. In other words, a pretty straightforward shoegaze-tinged goth-electronica act with heavy, kooky synths and kickin’ rad drum machine beats. Say what you will about dudes who still rock the industrial look into their thirties; they know how to command a stage in a way that draws every audience member in—even the quizzical-looking ones—to hover near the stage and stare into a near-lethal combination of fog and sweat-mist—as though Voyager had just landed in the backyard. It should also be noted that their Facebook page describes their genre as “romance” and their interests as “GUNS, GIRLS AND ESPIONAGE”. Too cool for grad school? Yes. (REW)

Big Freedia
Dante’s, 1am

Big Freedia, The Queen Diva, The Heart Eater, you betta’ believe ‘er. Who’s that? Oh, just a queer rapper from the projects of New Orleans who’s been dominating the world of “bounce” music over the past 15 years, laying it down by the fire and turning it into sissy bounce, an intensely queer(ed), sexual exaggeration (and extension) of the genre. A powerhouse of the stage, Freedia plays about six days out of the week in her hometown, and even more when she’s on tour. Adored by our dance-hungry, booty-starved youth, she graced Portland once again with her glammed-out dance theatrics.

Having gained popularity from frequent touring and word of mouth, the crowd seems to get bigger and more diverse at every show. Dante’ s on a Saturday night was no exception. As per usual on Burnside, stumbling club floozies, backwards-cap-bros, and homeless dudes with chihuahuas cold-shouldered drunkenly past the massive line that built up an hour before the doors opened. After much waiting and obnoxious entry/wristband politics, the gates opened to let the flood of eager people converge from one sweaty mass into another. Those who knew what they were in for at a Big Freedia show seemed to possess sly, anxious grins, and everyone else just seemed drunk. The two “Dolls” from “CJ and the Dolls” were in attendance, clad only in facepaint and what I think you would refer to as “lace body stockings”. Mercifully, I ran into friends to dance with, and was not left alone to be uncomfortably back-straddled by strangers. Within the first two songs, the whole room was grinding like crazy.

Onstage, Big Freedia has a performance style every bit as explosive as her in-your-face persona. With baggy jeans, sneakers, and a flashy side-do, it only makes sense that the Queen runs her own successful interior decorating business when she’s not performing. While you can feel from her energy that she’s dedicated to delivering an individualized performance every time, I almost feel like my experience was more enhanced by the surrounding audience than by the performance itself. The environment created by Freedia’s presence alone—the nature of who she is and what she represents—is a brief, set-long taste of awesome, nasty sexual freedom that I’ve rarely experienced outside of half-naked living-room dance parties. She gathers up audience members to join her on stage, then hand-picks people for ol’ fashioned bounce-style booty shakin’ competitions, which adds some much needed audience participation to her short sets that usually cap out at 25 minutes.

Wrapped up in the all-inclusive dancing, there’s an unspoken feeling at her shows that inspires being free to be whoever you want: queer, straight, andro, butch, femme, bro, whatever. And while these categories don’t magically disappear, they do go by the wayside a little when a safe space is implied by the performer’s weirdness, queerness, and generally all-accepting veneer. While I’m sure many attendees didn’t know much about Big Freedia before the show, it was clear that the majority of the audience knew who they were there for, and were pumped to see her. Still can’t believe a Dante’s staffer made me put my shirt back on—how Un-American! (REW)

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