MusicfestNW 2012 Portland, OR; September 5-9

This is my third summer living in the city called Portland and my third year of experiencing MFNW. Each year has been a surprise of acts that I love, especially bands whom I never thought I would ever see. My first year here I saw Sleep and The Gories; the next year brought The Olivia Tremor Control (which I feel even more blessed to have seen in the wake of Bill Doss’ death).

If there’s any kind of didactic diatribe I’d like to bring to this piece, it would be one outlining how incredible it is to experience a festival that takes place in a city proper. Rather than ushering oneself to a manufactured place to see half sets by stacked-up big names, the festival in a city allows you to experience venues, people, musicians, waitresses, local drunks, and local bands who make up a part of a very real and thriving music scene. It’s a cross section which says, “Hey, this isn’t temporary; it’s always like this.”

Without further ado, my coverage of MFNW, broken down day by day.


Hot Snakes, not Hot Shakes

Choosing Wednesday night’s small set of shows, I decided upon seeing Hot Snakes at the Roseland Theater. Opening the evening was a heavy swamp-psych set from local group Hungry Ghost. At some point a rabid fan shouted out for Red Fang, to which singer Andrew Price declared, “You’ll get your Red Fang; you have to deal with us first.” Their set was slow in tempo, but heavy in sound and dedication. I am often gladly caught offguard when I see bands express real enthusiasm; this would be a harbinger for the rest of the night.

Knowing Red Fang is a steadily solid live act, I was generally of the mind that they would play a tight set. However, I was in no way prepared for how far that expectation could be pushed. Coming off a recent tour of Europe that included Russia, Red Fang surpassed my highest expectations, so much so, in fact, it merited the question of, “Why sit at home and listen to their records when you can see them play better live?” Dangerous financial territory for a band’s label, great for a (very enthusiastic) band and crowd.

Hot Snakes (labeled on the marquee as “Hot Shakes,” fortunately not the Pepto Bismol house band) followed Red Fang and surpassed my even-higher expectations. Their set was a full-blown fury; they probably gunned through about 75 percent of their material, even playing a cover of Drive Like Jehu’s “Bullet Train to Vegas” during the encore. Hot Snakes’ energy and enthusiasm had a visible effect on everybody. Taking pictures from the security barricade, I turned around to see a rather excited fan screaming along to every word.


Oh, you Men

Thursday was awesome in some ways, but sucked in a lot of other ways. For one, the organizers stacked up a lot of musicians that I really wanted to see. Sacrifices would have to be made, and I chose to see The Men at Star Theater. I have no regrets for the path chosen, but I can’t help but think the stacked evening took away from what would have been much more appreciative audiences.

The evening started with Lansing, Mich., band The Peoples Temple, whose OK-enough psych felt a little underwhelming. They were followed by locals Mean Jeans, who sound like a Ramones influenced, 1990s-era Nickelodeon game-show house band (I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad). Songs like “Ready 2 Rip,” “Slime Time,” and “Hangin’ Tough” were gimmicky to the max, aided by singer Billy Jeans’ penchant for screaming/screeching the name of the song before playing it.

The Men came on, sans gimmicks, and delivered a set of refreshing earnestness. Not to say they represent the crowning point of “authenticity” (with their penchant for being expert thieves and source translators), but their set was by far the best of the night, personally one of my favorites of the whole festival. Adding another member playing slide and occasional bass, their instrument-swapping antics and sonic attacks have gotten tighter since I last saw them in June. They played only one song (that I remember) from 2011’s Leave Home, but made up for it with a good chunk of new (newer than this year’s Open Your Heart) material.

After their set ended with a semi-reluctant fuzz-buzz encore of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Foggy Notion,” my girlfriend (who was a fantastic companion for the insanity of MFNW) and I decided to try and hurry ourselves over to the Doug Fir to catch John Maus’ set. We arrived about 10 or 15 minutes after his start time, missing most of it, but still got there soon enough to see him power through a short selection of songs while jumping, clawing at his face, and singing his heart inside-out. He neglected the crowd’s pleas for an encore (after what totaled 25 minutes of a set), deciding to walk out and talk to fans instead.


The light & the Wolfe

With the access of a universal wristband, I decided to make Friday my musical-Pokémon, ‘catch as many as one can’ kind of night. Location prevented me from seeing Old Man Gloom, but in turn I was able to see Arrington de Dionyso play a noise-based set at Backspace. Using a modified PVC super clarinet, a bass clarinet, and a piezo mic Franken-duct taped to his neck, Dionyso (looking like a proper disciple of Don van Vliet) produced some of the most intense, lowest-of-low frequency sounds I heard the whole week.

Leaving Backspace, I headed back to the Star Theater to catch Moon Duo and Daughn Gibson. I didn’t mention this before, but the choice of house music the Star Theater’s sound guy decided on felt rather depressing/distracting. It was the sound of somebody setting Spotify to “Top 40” without paying the 5 bucks to rid of the commercials, all blasted out at performance volume. Nothing like having Mumford & Sons followed by a toothpaste commercial, blasted at you before you see Daughn Gibson or The Men.

Moon Duo played the grooviest set of the whole fest. Their fuzzy psych-funk was well matched by a black-and-white image swirling over the spectacle of their swaying stage demeanor. It took a song or two for them to find their groove, but by the time they hit “Sleepwalker,” from their upcoming album, they had brought on a trance that led me and a small group of others to perform some potentially embarrassing dance moves.

Daughn Gibson came on afterward, and channeling Nick Cave via Morrissey, he left a rather intimidating impression on the crowd. I mean this in a good way; his songs were by no means the loudest of MFNW, but they ranked high on the intensity scale. He also wins for having some of the best stage banter, at least that I heard, of MFNW.

Leaving the Star Theater before the house-music assault began, my girlfriend and I went to Ted’s (which used to maybe be Berbati’s Pan; this caused some confusion). Being lost, accidentally entering the wrong bar, and the distraction of a taco truck caused us to miss a few songs of Crystal Antlers’ set. It was at this point I realized why every show I had been to had horribly mismatched lineups. Friday was (for the most part) “showcase” night. Backspace was a K Records showcase, Star Theater for Eleven magazine, and here at Ted’s was a Captured Tracks showcase.

The problem with showcases is that they make for some confused crowds. Following the bar band-ish set that Crystal Antlers put on, some asshole thought it was OK to yell, “I want to party with you” at Chelsea Wolfe. This was among a series of unfortunate events distracting her set, including a sound engineer unwilling to raise her vocals (poorly buried by over mixed instruments, matched by a loud bar) when asked, causing her to strain her voice at times. Wolfe’s set was much along the same lines my night had been following; less on the loud/screaming, heavier on the emotional and performative weight. These distractions passed, and getting lost in the moods of her music was pretty easy.


Put on your 3D glasses, it’s Swans

KEXP, a radio station in Seattle, had set up a series of free daytime sets at the Doug Fir. I caught Dinosaur Jr. at noon Saturday, as I would be skipping their evening set to see Swans.

“Holy shit, there’s a baby in front of my amp!” These were the first FCC violating words to come out from Lou Barlow, and it was true. A couple with a baby had positioned themselves in front of Barlow’s bass amps. The baby had earplugs, and concerns were met with, “We already brought him to Purity Ring.”

Dino Jr. played sans set list, taking cues from the crowd as what songs to play. All songs were at least 20 years old (if not older), not a single note of their brand spankin’ new I Bet On Sky, which they presumably played some of in their evening set. They acted goofy between songs, the parents bounced their baby, and others around me openly questioned why they were subjecting themselves to such sonic blasts this early in the day.

Swans’ set was what I was most excited for, of all the action at MFNW. Seeing them meant not seeing Sebadoh, Dino Jr. again, Red Kross, and Kishi Bashi. I missed their Portland show of last year for reasons I no longer remember, and were probably far less important than they were perceived. This fact, and incredible release new album The Seer, added to my enthusiasm.

The set was just Swans, with Xiu Xiu as an opener. Jamie Stewart’s solo set flat-out represented, using a small arsenal of instruments that included a delayed out autoharp, a DS-assisted synth, a punch-drunk Theremin, and a slingshot/tiny gong combo. All this was playing over a low, teeth-shaking rumble that went through the entire set.

Our own Matthew Phillips likened Swans The Seer’s difficulty to Moby Dick and Michael Gira to Ahab. Nowhere was this more apparent than on stage. Gira is a man both frightening and admirable, someone you willingly follow into doomed territories. Entering the beginning of “The Seer” and knowing you won’t come out until 30 or 40 minutes later was like waiting for morning in the evening of a storm, fully exposed. Intense is too weak and canned of a word, and as uncomfortable as a visual and sonic display of power can be, it feels impossible to be anywhere else but as close as possible to the stage when they play. At the end Gira announced they aren’t the type to play encores, and decided to talk and mingle with the crowd instead.

There might have been a chance for me to catch the ends of either Dino Jr. or Red Kross, but I felt content with ending my evening (and essentially my MFNW experience) with Swans.


Pictured here: Atlas Genius, plaid, “emotions”

I had two options: Earlimart at Mississippi studios, or Silversun Pickups at Pioneer Square. Having not seen the festival’s biggest stage, I decided to punish myself and go to Pioneer Square.

I had promised myself to try my best and be a good sport, but with no friend willing to accompany me, and tiny glasses of wine at six dollars, I had no way to distract or self-medicate. This rendered my designated task difficult. Watching openers Atlas Genius play on an over-produced stage while delivering a canned performance that reminded me of a tuna salad I ate earlier, I learned from someone I asked that they had yet to release an album, riding their way onto the higher-paying slot by way of a Top 100 single. Their music feels designed to help you become emotionally invested in purchasing jeans, no coincidence because Levi’s sponsored this stage.

This made it even harder to approach School Of Seven Bells in a context outside of commercialism. Their ‘shop ‘til you drop at Urban Outfitters’ sound made me hard for it to believe that this band was once being lumped in with Crystal Stilts and other Brooklyn based neo psych/post-punk acts. Which is not to say that I disdain success, the price tag just seemed awfully burdonsome.

Toward the end of their set I threw in the towel. Seeing halfhearted performances in a crowd full of half-dedicated fans felt wrong after four days of both musician and fan dedication and high intensity. I didn’t imagine Silversun Pickups were going to be any better, so I left, wanting to keep my MFNW 2012 experience on the generally positive side.

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