by Josh Bis
on Wed, Sep 11, 2013 at 8:42 AM
My favorite thing about Musicfest Northwest (MFNW), the festival that once again lured me to Portland last weekend, is that it feels like an excuse to ignore Labor Day as a signpost of the last weekend of the summer. Hopping from the highly-concentrated and action-packed Bumbershoot weekend to laconically browsing scattered shows across various neighborhoods feels like a simultaneously familiar yet exotic escape through the looking glass (decorative pickles instead of taxidermy, a network of quiet streetcars). Further, although it's a citywide event, MFNW seems to infuse rather than overwhelm Portland with musical possibilities while leaving plenty of time in the day for not being consumed by showgoing.
However, the excellently programmed collection of bands remains the main attraction that's made the event an annual tradition. By this point, I have enough faith in the festival to book a room months in advance of a lineup announcement, and have yet to be disappointed. This year was no exception. Below, a little photo diary of an always delightful weekend in the city of roses.
Welcome to Portlandia
Although the festival technically started on Tuesday, we didn't start our adventure until Thursday's Seattle thunderstorms had subsided. We missed all of the traffic and arrived in time to pick up our wristbands at the Willamette Week's offices where we met our first of many vessels of free KIND bars. Despite my previously-stated affection for PopChips as festival foodstuff, the #kindawesome branding marks a huge upgrade. I endorse that hashtag morning, noon, and night.
Unfortunately, the rain and wind were hot on our tails, scaring us off from an outdoor Youth Lagoon and into the warm embrace of Racion's tasting menu and it's parade of so many sous-vide delights. Although it was a bummer to miss Trevor Powers's burbling and cinematic soundscapes, what more appropriate welcome to Portland than a Fred Armisen variety show at the Crystal Ballroom?
Opening the show in the costume and character of a Thatcher-era brit-rocker backed by an all-star band that included Michael Benjamin Lerner (Telekinesis) and Rebecca Cole (Wild Flag), he proceeded to mix observational comedy (noted as "MORE TALKING" on the setlist), videos, and special musical guests (Bob Mould dropping in before his own show elsewhere and more surprising/incongruous appearance by Leigh Bingham Nash to sing her Sixpence None the Richer hit, "Kiss Me" along with Fred and the band).
As the set devolved into a Q&A, we skipped out to catch an outstanding set from Austra at the Star Theater. Sated with their witchy dance vibes, morbid curiosity got the better of me and I hopped a Car2Go to the Wonder Ballroom to see if Diplo would re-attempt a twerking world record.
Although the rain outside was falling at a fairly respectable rate, the atmosphere inside the venue was far more humid. Sweaty shirtless kids staggered out into the night air catching their breath as I forged ahead into the show. I only lingered in the human-powered steambath for a few minutes among the reveling crowd before retreating back to the comforts of my temporary home at the Ace. Friday: Pioneer Courthouse Square
Dan Deacon, trust-builder, party-maker.
The absence of an aggressively programmed dayshow agenda gives the festival an ultra-relaxed appeal. After brunch at Tasty n Alder, (the new "___ & Sons spin-off) where family-style sharing was mandated and a loungy afternoon, we started our musical program at Pioneer Couthouse Square where the mainstage was sponsored by Oregon's effort to get its citizens enrolled in ObamaCare via whimsical drawings and clever catchphrases. There, Dan Deacon was wrapping up his glitchy compositions and feel-good team building at eye of a closely huddled crowdstorm on the brick courtyard. The positive vibrations extended for a long, occasionally noodly set from Animal Collective who brought their inflatable teeth with a side of psych-jams and back-catlog hits ("My Girls", of course, but also a spazzy "Purple Bottle" with what I'd swear included a little Lionel Ritchie cover in the middle).
Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
My next stop was through the metal detectors at Roseland for the first of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's two festival shows. I thought that staying to the last drop of Animal Collective had caused me to miss a chunk of the show, but like the informed and empowered citizen's struggle against entrenched military industrial corporatist greed, that Godspeed show was neverending. Unauthorized drone strikes would've been required to dislodge the band from its intense collective huddle in the shadows of a large split-screen production (classified documents, burning film stock, protest footage, the usual) by the [likely incorrectly] advertised end time. Not that I'm complaining — it was a glorious affair with all of the post-rocking symphonics that sometimes felt like a guided meditation. Although some of it is vaguely doomy and interspersed with menacing pulses, there is definitely some soaring romance among the tattered ruins, particularly for the selections from Allelujah! Don't_Bend! Ascend! and for "East Hastings" as part of the crescendoing finale, which absolutely killed. When it was all over, a pop-up anarchist bookstore alongside the merch table in the back of the showroom to provide inspired fans with late-night reading material to stoke the flames of revolution.
A long line stretched past flickering torches and down the block for Ty Segall at Dante's. Inside, his set was more acoustic than garagey, but fully engaging enough to merit the full house. Afterwards, we grabbed snacks at a taqueria whose bathroom was situated inside a strip club. #ohPortland.
KEXP sessions at Doug Fir
Overcast skies abandoned Portland on Saturday morning, motivating a trek across the Burnside bridge to spend some quality time on the Doug Fir's patio. In the courtyard, Portland's poster artists staged a mini-Flatstock and downstairs, KEXP concluded a series of live broadcasts from MFNW that opened with Titus Andronicus. Though the noon start time may have befuddled the band ("Is this a concert? It it the radio? Is it the Internet? Are we not supposed to swear? Oh, fuck!") they tore through a series of short songs and brief commentary to maximize their allocated half hour on the radio/internet/video session. Later, the recently reconfigured Dodos and Portland punk royalty the Thermals played energetic sets worthy of heading underground during a sunny afternoon.
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
The Head and the Heart
the Head and the Heart
That night, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down and the Head and the Heart held court at the square, the former cracking wardrobe jokes, the latter teasing selections from long-gestating new album amid singalong-inspiring jamboree classics. Crystal Ballroom
Branx Back at the Crystal Ballroom, time-traveling soul pirate Shuggie Otis emerged from hibernation and packed the bouncing floors. Branx
Because I'd just seen Charles Bradley at Bumbershoot, we left before his set, convincing a weary taxi driver to spirit us to what he questioningly deemed an "industrial area of menacing gay clubs" to close out our evening with a shimmery summer laptop dance party powered by Seattle's own Odesza. Pioneer Courthouse Square
This was, by far, the quietest day of the festival. We sandwiched a little bit of the Moondoggies and Pickwick between delicious dollhouse brunching at din din and more Portland patio tourism (Double Dragon, A Roadside Attraction, Departure's roof) before responsibilities and the call of the road caused us to miss Neko Case's headlining performance in favor of retrieving our luggage and returning to Seattle ahead of the waves of Breaking Bad tweets hit the West Coast too hard.