MusicfestNW 2011
[Portland, OR]

My generation is truly lost. Most people feel isolated some time or another, but in our case, everyone seems to feel this way all the time. What do any of us have in common, besides the internet and the sickly persistent desire to always be connected? But to what? And to whom?

The MusicfestNW 2011 lineup boasted anachronistic names like Archers of Loaf, Butthole Surfers, and Sebadoh. Now, before we get too far, I should note that I didn’t see most of these bands. They don’t interest me much now. If it were 1994 or 1989 or whenever, I’d be all about it. But it’s 2011, and these are not our artists, as much as we want to think they are. Never before has a generation so lustily consumed the culture of its forebears. It’s one big memory daydream, like our whole society’s turned into one big nostalgia pit ready to open up and swallow it all.

So it was with a warrior’s countenance that I approached MFNW, with the constant nagging mental backdrop of time, time, time…

 

Some of the bands I saw at MFNW, as previously mentioned, are actually of another time — big reunited guns or those who’ve kept chugging throughout the years to some miraculous, unstoppable beat. Of these, Sebadoh seems to have aged the best, bringing supreme visceral energy. Lou Barlow is at once self-effacing and kind, and Jason Loewenstein is excitable as ever in a ratty pair of camo shorts.

I must confess to a bias regarding The Olivia Tremor Control. I’m a product of Athens, GA and a lover of most things Classic City-related. (This includes Georgia football.) Still, after witnessing the OTC’s packed MFNW performance, I think anyone would reasonably conclude that having these guys around playing music again — and new music at that! — can only possibly be a good thing for our art-strapped epoch. The best part? They sound amazing. Tight, joyous, and totally present.

There are those who cling to bygone eras with white-knuckled zeal, wistful perhaps, or worse, with the cloudy intention to recreate something they weren’t around to witness. I never thought I’d lump Iron and Wine into this category, but Beam & co. stunned me with a strange brew of a set, a Muzakish meld of Earth, Wind and Fire-style funk-pop and In a Silent Way extended playing. I dig the bolder direction Beam has been heading with his recorded stuff, but who knew he’d taken it this far? Even his older firelight-folky material was given an upbeat MOR makeover. He’s testing the limits, I guess, but I’m quite honestly not sure what to make of it.

Austin trio Ume fared better in the hero-cribbing department. The band is unabashed in its admiration, lifting its chord progressions and general energy from grunge and hardcore god(esse)s past. The 1990s fuckfest that’s been budding in indie rock has come to a head; there are those few bands who have it right, and those who just don’t. Ume is one of the former, and besides all that, frontlady Lauren Langner Larson (or Trip-L, as I now dub her) is a great secret waiting to be revealed, wild and vital as anyone around.

 

The guy is responsible for one of my favorite albums of the year, but Cass McCombs does not possess the pizzazz for an outdoor headlining slot at a festival such as this. I think he’d even tell you that. It was an odd move by festival organizers that marred an otherwise fine performance from the L.A. transplant, whose recent work reflects that city’s patina and vaguely sinister understructure with a foggy lounge singer stance. His band was grand. The crowd, however, was nonplussed. “The band before Band of Horses,” as one concertgoer named them, left the stage quickly to an underwhelming ovation.

White Hills are one of those psych-rock throwback bands that you sort of want to dislike in theory but that shoves it back in your face with a fierce and sudden passion. Long-haired frontman wearing silver face paint like some Tim Leary Tin Man? Check. Damaged blonde playing see-through bass and swaying in the sweet mind-breeze? Check. Face-pounding drums, incoherently delayed vocals, stratospheric guitar solos, everything louder than hell and as brain-burningly scorching? Checkmate, and I’m out. But I’m in. ‘Cause White Hills is the shit.

Then there’s EMA, a.k.a. Erika M. Anderson, a.k.a. the amazing musician from Gowns, whose set was both blissful and confusing, a mess of ideas not perfectly executed yet all her own. Her band doesn’t seem to have quite congealed, and the sound was often hazy, but her songs are incisive set pieces that tell every story and none, that float vaporously around and attack violently without warning. Excellent things are impending, I do believe.

And ladies and gentlemen, it’s Mr. Charles Bradley, the Screamin’ Eagle of Soul, the Black Swan, who has come to save the world. Bradley’s band is as soulful and affecting as his backstory (look it up), which is amazing, given the group’s median age (mid-20s) and their race (mostly white). I know, white guys can have soul too, but you get what I mean. You don’t expect a bunch of Brooklynites to be as on-point as this. But it’s Bradley who’s the man, all white sequined suits and baroque body-movin’, all James Brown screams and existential angst. My ears are split, my spirit spent.

The best of the best, of course, are always those who manage to capture the now without pretense, without self-awareness, with regard to the past but with an eye on the prize. These acts are badly outnumbered in the larger musical populace, and it was so at MFNW. Shabazz Palaces suffered from an unappreciative crowd (eager, Red Bulled teens shouting for headliners Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) and a beyond-horrible venue (Roseland, where handsy security guards and fire-hazard crowd containment combine to create a truly prison-like atmosphere), but the duo’s music is intensely forward-thinking, as inventive and exciting as anything in hip-hop right now.

Eric Bachmann’s back in the spotlight with Archers of Loaf, but the real Bachmann brilliance is to be found with Crooked Fingers. Performing as a duo for the festival with southern songbird Liz Durrett, Bachmann’s songwriting feels revived, alive again for the first time, less focused on mortality and loss and fresher for it. The guy still knows how to break a heart; he’s just learned to do it gently.

 

There are few bands less exciting in concept than Band of Horses; conversely, there are few more appropriate festival headliners than the roots-rolling rock stars. At twilight on a cool Sunday evening, outdoors with thousands of smiling music lovers, I found myself once again unwittingly drawn to the group’s reverb-y arena tilt, their effortless Carolina charm. Their songs run together, but there’s something underneath, a certainty missing from most things these days. Their fading din sounds right heard blocks away, echoing through empty city streets, an indistinct soundtrack to a cluttered and confused age.

[Photos: Kirsten Pardun]