Originally founded in 1995, Portland’s Music Fest North West has gone through several different stages of re-imagined incarnations over the past two decades. In some ways this year seemed like a step backwards. The South By Southwest format of having hundreds of bands play at multiple venues around town was abandoned this year and replaced by having 20 higher grade bands play at two main stages on the waterfront. But frankly, I’m a big fan of quality over quantity so I was stoked for the new format. It is interesting to note that the inaugural Project Pabst festival, (yes, that Pabst and of course, this city,) will be taking place on the same weekend in September that MFNW was held last year and will feature the multiple bands in multiple clubs format, so… I guess you just can’t fuck with the blue ribbon in PDX. The only people that really lost out on the new MFNW format were those that thought it was a good idea to buy a VIP ticket. Last year it meant guaranteed entry to every venue in town, this year it meant standing in a corralled section in the hot sun. I guess the beer lines in there may have been a few heads shorter, but if I had paid an extra $150 for one of those tickets I’d be demanding my money back. Anyway, let’s talk music.
Saturday felt rather disjointed. Admittedly, I did get a slow jump on the day and ended up missing Thundercat, Shy Girls, and Man Man – but whatever, it was fuckin’ hot out there so the musical sacrifice was worth the extra liters of sweat that managed to stay within my body. By the time Future Islands hit the stage at 5:30, frontman Samuel Herring had already fully soaked through his shirt. That didn’t slow him down at all, but there’s something so intimate about their sets that it didn’t fully click on the larger festival stage. I’m sure the late night club set was a whole other story, but in the late afternoon the consensual reaction seemed to be “I can check Future Islands off my list – that was fun – what’s next.” Run The Jewels came next and put on a great showcase of what a modern rap show can and should be. Killer Mike and El-P‘s stage banter is hilarious though, and I overheard more than one comment from the non hip-hop oriented portion of the crowd saying that they would rather have just heard them crack jokes for an hour.
Phantogram then put on what was probably the best set of Saturday. They’ve come along way since I first saw them in a small Vermont club and they were known as Charlie Everywhere. I was unaware that the duo had fleshed themselves out to a full band with a live drummer, and it was a pleasant surprise. In my opinion, live drums can only add to the power of a synth-oriented act, and hopefully Sleigh Bells catch that drift soon. Sarah Barthel’s unique voice held the majority of the crowd in a serene rapture, although there were light chuckles every time she talked and we all realized that the breathy softness of her singing voice is the same as her speaking voice. It was a solid set overall, although again the band presents itself with a degree of intimacy that doesn’t fully translate to the festival stage. Girl Talk was up next to close out the night, and that was my signal out of there. I admit I do take pleasure out of listening to his albums, but I really have no desire to see 100 doof-wads dance on stage while a dude hits play on his laptop and toilet paper gets shot over the crowd. Not my thing – on to Sunday.
I arrived early in the afternoon for The Antlers, and if I had been planning ahead I would have brought a blow-up mattress. It was incredibly hot, their set was incredibly boring, and I was incredibly jealous of everyone passed out on blankets in the shade. Thank God Fucked Up was on next. I’m not the biggest hardcore fan, so despite their indie leanings I haven’t had too many casual listening sessions for Pink Eyes (Damien Abraham) and crew. After Sunday’s set, I’m still not ready to rock their album in the car, but I surely won’t miss them playing live at any given opportunity. Their set was magical. It was hard to see the band through the dust storm in front of the stage that the mosh pit was kicking up, but it didn’t really matter since Abraham spent nearly the entire set in the crowd. And I don’t mean he was up front in the pit, I mean he fully tested the limits of his wireless microphone – taking laps past the soundboard, kissing babies, hugging fans, leaning over the fence to the folks listening for free outside – it was hilarious, and awesome, and incredibly heartwarming. You’d lose track of him half way through the song, only to realize he was actually standing right behind you the whole time. Good dude. Good band. But they still fell well short of the female domination on the horizon.
Ok, so tUnE-yArDs blew me the fuck away. Merrill Garbus is a force to be reckoned with. I’ve been amused by her albums the past few years, but for some reason I wasn’t aware of just how awe-inspiring her live gigs are. Dressed head-to-toe in neon, she gives off the impression of a SoCal valley girl that loves to do nothing more than eat acid and listen to The Talking Heads. But no shit – she’s from my home state of Connecticut? Well what the fuck do you know? While she has a couple backup singers who add extra punch to the whole scene, the real power comes from her incredible control of her loop pedals. Simple pulses mutate into pounding attacks, and her vocal layerings reach a harmonic intensity on par with The Beatles if they were actually whales and living on the moon. Even the most cynical head nodders were drawn to full on attack gyrations. Most importantly, she gave off a sense of total control and domination that none of the male performers had been able to match during the weekend. With the pussy power flowing, Haim took the stage as the sun began to set.
So listen, I friggin’ love the Haim album. I dig the tunes, I like their sound, and I straight-up just dig their scene. Still, I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love their set. First off, it’s a huge relief to see a female band that doesn’t have a fashion stylist running their existence. That is, unless Alana Haim is paying someone to tell her which random t-shirt and jean shorts to wear at each gig. Secondly, Este Fucking Haim not only rocks the meanest bass face in the game, she never lets it go. That girl is is full snarl mode from the get-go, and it makes Gene Simmons look like a massive wuss in comparison. Their set was huge. Each song was stretched out a little bit, they had a total powerhouse blues jam segment, they engaged the crowd with every passing moment, and the crowd was ten times more raging than for any other set of the weekend. I danced like a complete fool and felt more comfortable than I would dancing like that in the shower. The girls are the real fuckin’ deal folks. Seeing them after tUnE-yArDs was surreal – easily two of the greatest female acts on the planet back-to-back. And not only that, but they were easily the two greatest bands of a stacked festival lineup.
However, this doesn’t mean that Spoon weren’t incredible to close out the weekend. I’ve been listening to the band since Kill The Moonlight came out in 2002, and that means I’ve got a solid catalog of the music ingrained in my internal playlist. Still, I had forgotten that “The Way We Get By” and “Don’t Make Me A Target” are two of my favorite songs from this millennium. In a way I had shelved Spoon as this great but non-essential group. But throughout their set, I kept remembering how much I loved Britt Daniel’s songs, and his voice, and his whole friggin’ band. For a warm summer night on the Portland waterfront, after seeing two female powerhouse acts, I’m not sure if I could think of a better band to make the night seem so perfect. They were tight when they should have been, but loose when they needed to be, and the setlist was ideal. In all actuality, can you think of a shitty Spoon song? I reached full bliss on Sunday – hopefully this festival keeps the ball rolling in 2015.