MusicfestNW 2010
“That was rock ‘n’ roll. Like, the real shit.”

I moved to Portland only a couple of months ago, so I entered the week of MusicfestNW with the possibly self-centered and probably delusional notion that the whole thing was being held in honor of me. That’s almost certainly not true. But anyhow, that was my mindset. The bands! The parties! The booze! It was all part of the welcome wagon! Portland, you know how to greet your newcomers. So let me just start off by saying: Thank you — I appreciated it.

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WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8

The shebang kicked off Wednesday night with a crowded Panda Bear show at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. McMenamins is this big local conglomerate that owns like half the clubs — hell, half the real estate — in town. Portlanders like things that are local, even if they are essentially local corporations. Anyway, Panda Bear was not so good. I’ll admit I lost interest in Animal Collective after Sung Tongs, and though Person Pitch briefly caught my ear a couple years back, his set here was like very bad karaoke. I don’t know what I expected, but I was underwhelmed. The hordes of sorority-yippies in chillwavey-gravy headbands sure dug it, though.

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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 9

On Thursday and Friday, KEXP put on these daytime shows at the Doug Fir Lounge, which is this charming little club that’s all decked out with logs and comfy couches. It reminds me of the Great Northern from Twin Peaks. (Actually, everything in the Northwest reminds me of Twin Peaks.) Thursday morning, I stumbled out of bed and jetted down to the Doug Fir to catch Laura Veirs perform. I’m a big fan of her atmospheric folk-pop, and her scaled-back acoustic set did not disappoint. Accompanied by violinist Annalisa Tornfelt, Veirs ran through several songs from her recent and remarkable July Flame, as well as “Spelunking” from Year of Meteors, and a Mississippi John Hurt cover. Awesome! It was a perfect bunch of tunes for a sleepy grey morning. You can hear the set here.

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Guess who played later in the day? Motherfuckin’ Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, that’s who. I hadn’t seen Ted Leo live in five years or so, which I quickly realized is far too long to go without seeing Ted Leo. This dude fronts possibly the tightest and most energetic band in the biz. The Doug Fir is dark and cavelike, and the Pharmacists made 2:30 in the afternoon feel like 12 hours later. The group opened with longtime personal favorite “Timorous Me” and segued neatly into the jittery “I’m a Ghost.” Was I back in freshman year of college? No, I was at the Doug Fir, 2010, and Theo Leo’s voice was ripping through my skull, in a magnificent way. I was cleansed. Later that night, I caught these dudes again at the Crystal Ballroom. It was no less inspiring, though I must admit I longed for the earlier show’s more intimate setting.

The Thermals are Portland famous, but soon they’re gonna be everywhere famous. Musically, they’re airtight. They sing about politics and relationships. They sound like John Darnielle fronting Green Day. What’s not to like? Their headlining gig at the Crystal was jam-packed and kinetic. This was, in fact, the first time I’ve ever seen a Portland crowd go absolutely apeshit. See, Portland crowds are usually really polite and quiet; almost offensively so, at times. Make some noise, ya hipster jerks! You won’t get in trouble, I promise! The crowd at this show, though, made a whole lot of noise. Also, I don’t want to start any rumors, but I’m pretty sure the entire band was on cocaine. Either that, or it was youthful energy. Maybe it was youthful energy. Anyway, it was a lot of it, and it worked for them. They closed with a rousing cover of Weezer’s “My Name is Jonas,” which was pretty much perfect. Whaddaya know? I like the Thermals!

I closed Thursday night with a trip back to the Doug Fir to catch David Bazan. I had planned on seeing Baroness, but the massive throng of burly, bearded men and drunken, tattooed girls with probable labia piercings spilling onto the sidewalk from that venue was enough to dissuade my tired ass from entering. Lame, I know. Turns out, though, that old Pedro The Lion tunes are the perfect way to end a long, loud day. As Bazan and his band ambled through the crushingly bleak “Options,” I marveled at how little this guy’s morose music has changed over the years and how little that’s mattered. I’m a sucker for a good bummerfest, and Bazan delivered with miserable aplomb (the poor bastard).

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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10

Back to the Doug Fir on Friday for a mid-afternoon set from The Tallest Man on Earth. I had seen the wee Swede once before, a few months back at Atlanta’s Earl. For going it all by his damn self, Kristian Matsson is one hell of a showman. He does his thing with a palpable and genuine sense of appreciation for his audience, which is refreshing to see. His daytime set was brief (check it out here) but awfully pretty, and included four new songs, all of which were about birds. “You are a very quiet and polite crowd,” Matsson told the catatonically reverential pack in between songs. What did I tell you?

My lady and I made the short trek to Holocene on Friday night, where we were greeted by the indie-rock sounds of local outfit Swim Swam Swum. When I say “indie rock,” I mean Indie Rock. If someone asked you to describe what indie rock sounded like, you could just play this band’s record and they’d instantly understand: yelping, high-register boy/girl vocals; a jagged, fuzzed Telecaster; jumpy, over-caffeinated drums, etc. It’s a formula, but Swim Swam Swum work it to their advantage, crafting catchy little nuggets of taut musical energy, like a fussier version of very early Modest Mouse.

Portland avant-electro duo Nice Nice were next next. They were also kind of dull dull. I was looking forward to seeing these guys, having checked out some of their recorded jams prior, but unfortunately the magic didn’t quite translate to a live setting. It wasn’t bad, just a tad sterile, like how I imagine seeing Tortoise might be. Anyway, I pussed out and called it an early night. See ya Saturday!

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SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11

Why hello, Saturday! It’s 9/11, but Laura Veirs and the Hall of Flames didn’t cover “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” like I had hoped they would. Lame. Veirs’ band, which includes Friend of Phil Elverum, Karl Blau, and Veirs’ baby daddy Tucker Martine, seemed under-rehearsed and under-motivated. Maybe it was just the atrocious outdoor sound quality, but either way, the performance lacked the emotional fire of Veirs’ acoustic set earlier in the week.

The Decemberists are one of Portland’s great modern success stories, and they proved their mettle with a sundown show at the outdoor Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was the first of two MFNW headlining gigs (the second would be Sunday’s National show), and it was more or less worth its semi-top billing. I’m not super passionate about this band’s music (is anyone?), but I gotta say I was duly impressed by their dynamic stage presence. They also premiered a few new tracks that exuded an air of Harvest-esque folk-country. Not too shabby.

So. Let’s imbibe, y’all. Over at Backspace, young PDX troupe And And And were absolutely killing their short opening set and reminding everyone that yes, music is supposed to be goddamn fun. I’d never heard of these guys before, but I’m glad I caught them. Live, they exhibit a ton of unbridled, raucous energy, but it ain’t all dumb power; there’s a definite melodic pop current running beneath the crusty surface. Plus, they all look like they’re fresh out of high school, and how adorable is that? Seriously though, this set was a blast. My ever-astute girlfriend had this to say: “It’s nice to see a band before they realize that, you know, they’re in a band.” She also said something, according to my notes, about a summer-camp talent show. She said a lot of things that night. We were drinking.

Back at the ol’ Doug Fir, I caught JEFF the Brotherhood, who were wowing a sizeable crowd with their zealous brand of Southern-tinged, Ramones-meets-Motorhead, chugalug garage rock. Jake and Jamin Orrall look and sound like they just stepped off the set of Dazed and Confused. The music they create is appropriately and unapologetically anachronistic; but it’s also totally timeless. Sidestage, an inebriated couple engaged in a constant bump-and-grind throughout the band’s set, drawing a remark of admiration from Jake, the band’s guitarist and singer. As the penis-having half of the dry-humpers explained after the performance, “That was rock ‘n’ roll. Like, the real shit.”

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Um. Free Energy. Who are these guys, and where did they come from? And can they go back there now, please? Everything about these dudes is a little bit off. Remember Stillwater, the band from Almost Famous? Yeah, Free Energy is Stillwater. To be fair, their music isn’t god-awful (“Fever Dog,” anyone?). It’s just so incredibly predictable and insipid. Whereas JEFF the Brotherhood respectfully and convincingly embrace the 1970s cultural mystique, Free Energy turn it into something resembling an American Apparel ad. I gotta say, though, the more I drank, the better they got. Dunno if there’s a correlation there. Someone should do a study. At set’s end, the crowd was divided: “One more song!” chanted a few up front. “Fuck off!” responded a gentleman in back. These are the days of our lives.

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I really can’t say much about Japandroids’ set, other than Well, Holy Shit. This band is ca-RAY-zy live. I enjoyed Post-Nothing , the band’s estimable full-length, but it didn’t prepare me for their MFNW set. It was, I think, the loudest and most insane thing I saw all week. Album centerpiece back-to-backs “Heart Sweats” and “Crazy/Forever” got the crowd really pumping, while a cover of McLusky’s “To Hell With Good Intentions” drew a wild response from those in the know. The swirling, early-90s emo-leaning “Young Hearts Spark Fire” capped off a truly transformational set. Also, I was directly in front of guitarist/silly Canadian accent-haver Brian King’s THREE monstrous full stacks, so I am now deaf.

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SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12

Mercifully, though, I could still hear well enough to take in the final show of MusicfestNW: Sunday’s outdoor finale featuring indie mainstays The Walkmen. Neither my girl nor I had seen this band before despite being longtime fans (I a casual one, she slightly more fervent). Frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s gravelly yowl, it turns out, is just as captivating live as on record, and the band’s relatively calm onstage demeanor belies its rousing, energetic sound, which is big but not gratuitously grandiose. Musically, the band reached back to its beginning (playing the loping “We’ve Been Had”); into its rock-hard midsection (crowd favorite “The Rat”); and showcased the here and now with a handful of cuts from the new and pretty damn good Lisbon. Unlike the blundering Laura Veirs set from 24 hours prior, this was fitting music for the time and place.

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Sidenote: Do you guys know Spike? Spike Can Dance, and Spike Was Dancing all over the place at Pioneer Square this night. It was inspiring, to say the least.

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And so it was time for the grand finale. I’ve gotten increasingly into The National over the last few months, having previously and unfairly relegated them to Brooklyn blog-band purgatory. There’s something about the way singer Matt Berninger’s deceptively evocative voice meshes with the rest of the group’s feverish buzz that’s nigh irresistible. But you know this already. As TMTer Joe Hemmerling noted in his Lollapalooza recap, The National have a knack for transforming a massive performance into something infinitely more personal. Live, even headlining a weeklong festival on an outdoor stage in front of thousands, they managed to create something approaching intimacy. They were charming, self-effacing and, above all, they sounded absolutely fantastic. Berninger’s tic-y stage behavior is more endearing than off-putting, though it certainly straddles that line; like a child who wants something but doesn’t quite know what, he paced back and forth across the giant stage in search of some intangible prize. Berninger was an interminable ball of nervous energy that exploded at exactly the right moments, like the strident ending of “Mr. November” (which, he noted, was “still about Obama”), or the frenetic finale to Alligator standout “Secret Meeting.” As dark began to envelop Pioneer Square, the band handed out an admittedly measly couple-dozen glow sticks to the crowd’s front line. “We’re like the Flaming Lips,” Berninger joked, wine bottle in hand. It was the end of a long and beautiful week; I felt at once weary and refreshed.

[Photos: Kirsten Pardun]

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