I'll admit it: After last Friday night, I was preparing to write PDX Pop Now's obituary. Or at least a lengthy think-piece about the shifting tides of Portland youth culture. The all-ages local music festival was created 11 years ago to galvanize a flourishing music community and engage a demographic often shut out of the scene, and it's been one of the city's most anticipated annual traditions since. But the crowd the first night of this year's edition—the first I've been able to attend since 2011—appeared much thinner than I'd ever seen it. Had the city's under-21 population abandoned an institution created specifically for them? Was there not enough EDM on the bill to draw them out, even for a totally free event? Was I misremembering scenes like the time in 2009 when there were so many people packed into the alleyway outside Branx that I got crushed against the stage during Explode Into Colors' set? Could people simply not find the venue, tucked under the Hawthorne Bridge, next to the Audio Cinema production studio? (Even Google Maps thought it was on the damn bridge.)
Or could it be that Portland's music scene, once so envied it inspired a festival in Paris, isn't what it used to be?
As I hung out over the next two days, though, many of those fears were assuaged. Though the demographics certainly seemed to skew older (the beer garden, a first for the festival, proved awfully popular), the size of the crowd grew—perhaps not to the levels of years past, but attendance certainly improved from Friday night, and the response for the likes of Hustle and Drone, Sama Dams and Myke Bogan was downright rapturous. In the last few years, the festival has gone away from booking big-name, nationally recognized headliners like Menomena, instead putting its trust in true local heroes like Wampire, Summer Cannibals and Minden, and its paid off in ways you really can't measure by a simple headcount.
Like any festival, the macro view of PDX Pop Now is always the most inaccurate. To really know what it was like, and what it means to a town undergoing constant, rapid change, you've got to break it down to its most essential moments—the good, the great, and the totally friggin' absurd. Here are ours.
Best Theremin Solo: Cambrian Explosion
Cambrian Explosion's heavy, heady psych-rock already had the crowd nodding out—in a good way—before the band's percussionist (who looked all of 14 years old) busted out a damn theremin, which some of the younger members of the audience had clearly never seen in action before. Once he realized what was happening, the shirtless bro next to me started wooing loudly, either out of excitement or in an attempt to mimic the sound coming out of it. MATTHEW SINGER.
Best Pants: Purse Candy
You expect to see great pants from a band like Minden, who rock the glittery spandex nearly every show. But Purse Candy frontman Matthew Ellis hit the PDX Pop Now stage with a pair of attention-grabbing, sparkling gold pants, looking like shimmery chainmaille with disco-era flare. My roommate described them as "honeycomb pants made by fabulous bees," and that's a fairly accurate description. There wasn't a lot about Purse Candy that wasn't fabulous on the Outdoor Stage on Friday night. Laying the '80s electro-funk vibes on thick, the quintet busted out a groovy, synth-laden set backed by four-on-the-floor beats, solos from an awesome bearded saxophone player, the occasional cowbell and breathy, falsetto vocals. At least three of the crowd members attempted Michael Jackson-style spins throughout the show, and set to Purse Candy's brand of smooth dance jams, it's hard to blame them. KAITIE TODD.
Best Flapjack Friday: Wampire
It's still surprising to me just how well-oiled the Wampire machine has become. A few years ago, Eric Phipps and Rocky Tinder were the court jesters of the basement-show circuit, playing catchy, psyched-out synth-pop tunes on an iPod while stripping to their underwear. Now look at 'em: label deal with respected indie Polyvinyl; super-tight backing band; the undying love of former MTV VJ John Norris; an awesome debut album (last year's Curiosity) under their belt. Hearing them close out night one, the band made its pitch for being among Portland's best, delivering a set of funhouse-Strokes tunes with a precision that bordered on mechanized—and not just because of the Kraftwerk cover. But just because Wampire's gone pro doesn't mean it still can't get goofy now and then. For instance, for its PPN set, the band invited some buddies to hang out onstage and make pancakes, which they then handed out to the crowd. You're probably wondering how they tasted. Well, if you think I was going to eat a flapjack made by two guys who were chain-smoking over the griddle the entire time, you've severely overestimated my dedication to participatory journalism. (MPS)
Best Wake and Bake: Hands In
As the day was just starting to heat up, Erick Crosby, aka Hands In, played an appropriately chill noon set. Crosby claimed to have just woken up, but by the sight of the audience tapping their feet in unison to his dreamy songs, maybe he plays best just after first opening his eyes. Crosby's vocals and guitar were accompanied by a tastefully used drum machine and other various electronic equipment. His groovy set was a pleasant surprise for everyone eager enough to start their day at the festival. LYLA ROWEN.
Best Mid-Set Yoga Session: Psychomagic
Before moving to Portland and starting Psychomagic, singer-guitarist Steve Fusco used to perform semi-regularly at a children's museum in Tampa, Fla., which explains both the charming playfulness of his band's vintage psych-pop and his ability to influence crowds to do his bidding. After delivering one of the weekend's most endearingly high-energy sets—highlighted by the swirling, organ-fueled "Mutated Love," a classic '60s-style garage ballad that's got to be included on some alternate-dimension version of Nuggets—Fusco hopped offstage and implored the audience to crouch down to kindergartener height, which they happily obliged. Then he dropped to his own knees and arched backward, Iggy Pop style, while not so much playing his guitar as frantically tickling it, making those of us the audience struggling just to stay bent down for two minutes jealous of his flexibility. (MPS)
Best Hot Dwarves: Zirakzigil
As the sun blazed across the Northwestern sky, three bearded young men unleashed a frenetic volley of metal on the unsuspecting crowd. Two brothers and a cousin, Zirakzigil are named for a dwarven peak from Lord of the Rings, and their epic songs crescendo for 15 minutes at a stretch. The first track was culled from the group's Battle of the Peak demo. The latter song was a brand new debut from their as-yet-unrecorded album due later this year. The crowd sweat and thirsted profusely during the hottest part of the day, and Zirakzigil proved to be Saturday's penultimate band on the Indoor Stage, most of the rest of the festival being set in the slightly cooler outdoors along the train tracks. It was fantastic to see so much support for metal at PDX Pop Now, with at least 100 dedicated fans rocking out and giving the horns to this high energy, progressive, heavy rock group. NATHAN CARSON.
Best Timbales Slayer: Papi Fimbres
I was surprised to only see the typically omnipresent Papi Fimbres onstage twice, during the weekend first with his cumbia orchestra Orquestra Pacifico Tropical, then at the end of the festival playing percussion with Minden. I mean, you can create an entire festival around the bands he currently plays in alone. (Definitely something to consider for next year, booking committee.) One thing that didn't surprise me, though, is to find that, no matter what instrument you put in front of him, Papi plays it the same way: with raging intensity. Even while staying fairly faithful to the traditional sound of cumbia, with OPT Fimbres whacked at his timbales with the kind of virtuosic force he brings to bands like Sun Angle and Mascaras. It's one of the reasons why the 11-piece outfit sounded bigger than any rock band I heard the whole weekend. (MPS)
Best Distraction: Rigsketball
Cheering and hollering at sweaty basketball games under the hot sun isn't something I normally do, but thanks to Rigsketball, I now love it. It was the best distraction from my mid-set blues, where I usually hover around water fountains or stare at my shoelaces to avoid eye contact with that person I sort of, kind of know. Sitting on a concrete ledge, feet dangling as the basketball nearly hitting passersby, I've never been happier to hear the filler music in-between sets. Sure, it distracted me from the bands' performances a bit, sitting front row for the game and on the sidelines for the live music, but the Outdoor Stage was in sight and easy enough to get to when something caught my eye. Watching casual basketball in the heat was a variation on the summer innocence PDX Pop Now brings every year, after all they were still bands "playing." LYLA ROWEN.
Best Guest Star: Vinnie Dewayne
Let's be honest: In the past, PDX Pop Now has regarded Portland hip-hop with a certain level of tokenism, interspersing one or two rap acts among the typical indie, folk and punk bands. Perhaps as a reaction to the fallout over the Blue Monk incident in February, this year's lineup featured more hip-hop than ever before, and in a lot of ways those performances defined the festival. Hyped-up sets from Stewart Villain and Tre Redeau—both members of the Soar Losers collective—evolved into full-on parties, with their entire entourage crashing the stage, while the Resistance's gritty mid-afternoon set perfectly complemented the industrial surroundings (even though their beats should've been bumping a few decibels louder). But the artist who took the greatest advantage of the heightened platform for hip-hop wasn't even on the schedule. St. Johns prodigy Vinnie Dewayne made cameos with Redeau, the Resistance and Myke Bogan on Sunday night, and apparently would've been four-for-four if his scheduled appearance during Villain's set hadn't been derailed "due to some weird shit," as he put it on Instagram. (Note: It didn't involve the cops—word is Villain's DJ didn't have the right instrumental on hand—though the police did happen to conveniently show up whenever a rapper happened to be on stage. Sheer coincidence, I'm sure.) Clearly, St. Johns Scholar, the long-awaited followup to his 2012 breakthrough Castaway, can't arrive soon enough. (MPS)
Best Shoes: Colin Jenkins of Rio Grands
Full disclosure: Colin is a good friend of mine (not to mention the commissioner of my fantasy basketball league), so it's probably poor journalistic form for me to praise Rio Grands' suave set of well-groomed lounge-pop. Thus, I'll let my colleague at The Oregonian, David Greenwald, praise the band for me. I will not, however, apologize for spotlighting the man's gold loafers, which he spraypainted himself. Stating their awesomeness is not a conflict of interest, it's a goddamn fact. Just look at 'em! (MPS)
Best Headgear: Audience Kids
Did you see the dad up front with his two kids? One was like, 3, and they were both wearing those over-the-ear ear-plugs drummers wear. I saw more little kids listening to loud music than ever before, and they all had really nice ear plugs. Next year let's bring some seniors, give them fancy ear-plugs, and we'll really have the all ages spectrum covered. (LR)
Best Dancing Silhouettes: Hustle and Drone
Hustle and Drone's Saturday night set simply refused to change pace. Recently upgraded from a duo to a trio and with a new full-length, Holyland, on the way, Ryan Neighbors' synth-pop unit confidently stuck to crunchy, medium-speed beats for the whole half hour and shouted out their hooky melodies with refreshing earnestness. While their eager brand of pop had the packed crowd nodding along—sometimes a real feat for a Portland audience—it was the visuals that tied the set together: The band was backlit by door-sized panels that flashed red, blue and green with the music and turned the trio into shadowy figures straight out of a mid-2000s iTunes commercial. Neighbors' Bee Gees-esque falsetto is coming into its own, and his spastic bobbing and shaking was so entertaining by itself that the band could've been banging tin cans and still put on a good show. TREE PALMEDO.
Best Failed (and Saved) Attempt at Crowd Surfing: Summer Cannibals
It's always rough to realize that a crowd surfer is going to hit the ground before they do. This was common occurrence throughout Summer Cannibals' set Saturday night, when the audience got about as wild as the tunes, and half the stage dives ended up eating the pavement. The quartet itself delivered its usual breakneck, guitar-powered brand of rock, led by singer-guitarist Jessica Boudreaux's signature snarl. Hitting mostly songs from last year's full-length, No Makeup, the group also debuted a song off of its upcoming new album, due out later this year. Spurred by the quartet's raw, garage-y sound, the late night crowd got its first taste of moshing during the set, and also its first taste of painful bystander cringing. After two epically failed attempts at crowd surfing—in which you could see the crowd part ways and half-heartedly attempt to catch the jumper as they fell—Boudreaux stepped in. "I think three tries and you should probably give up," she said with a laugh. Not three songs later, guitarist Marc Swart launched himself off the stage, and upon his successful return sent his guitar out into the crowd, leaving it to the finally supportive hands of the audience to play the last notes of the set. (KT)
Best Eerie Under-The-Bridge Vibe: Blouse
Listening to the mesmerizing sounds of Blouse as the wind blew down the corridor, stage lights illuminating singer Charlie Hilton from behind, a calm went over the audience—nevermind the beach balls being tossed around. Their set closed out the night in quietly haunting fashions, with the audience's eyes fixed on their focused performance as vendors packed up and the whistle of the midnight train blew nearby. As I left the festival, Blouse's eerie sounds played through my car's speakers thanks to KBOO and I drove slowly through the SE Industrial district taking in the lights flickering off dark windows and shimmering puddles. (LR)
Best Show-Within-The-Show: The Not-So-Secret Secret Show
I didn't approve of the emo-y indie band that played the rehearsal room inside Audio Cinema on Sunday (Grandhorse, who I do like, played there later). But the "guerrilla set" is a staple of PDX Pop Now, and while this seemed a tad more stage than ones I've witnessed in the past, it's good to see that tradition continue...even if advertising a "secret show" with a giant sign that says "Secret Show" and arrows pointing toward the door seems to defeat the point. (MPS)
Best Debut: Gulls (MPS)
Jesse Munro Johnson has been kicking out the hypnotically pulsating jams as Gulls for years now, but here, the founder of the experimental groove label Boomarm Nation unveiled a new four-piece live band, playing trance-y, dance-y, dubby space-funk built from congas, a stripped-down drum kit, sax and Johnson's programmed beats (and occasional trumpet). It was the funkiest set I witnessed all weekend, and as someone who'd actually seen or heard much of lineup previously (I mean, it's kind of my job), also the biggest surprise. (MPS)
Best Dancer: Tai-Chi Guy
I first spotted him during Wishyunu's mid-afternoon set on Sunday: an older guy in shorts and a tropical shirt, doing what can only be described as rhythmic tai-chi to the band's wispy dreampop. Then I kept seeing him through the day—writhing to the chilled-out electronica of Philip Grass, air-guitaring to Souvenir Driver, interpretive dancing to the speedy aggression of Lunch, who gave him a shout-out. PDX Pop Now is geared toward the younger generation, but if you ask me, this dude was clearly the soul of the festival. (MPS)
Best Earlobes: Prometheus Wolf of Lunch
I've said this before, but Lunch is Portland's best new punk band, effectively distilling bits of every great post-punk act neither myself nor the band members are old enough to have experienced in person into bracing and infectious blasts of noise. I saw several little kids holding their ears during their Saturday afternoon set on the Outdoor Stage, which means they were clearly doing a great job. On top of that, awesomely named singer-guitarist Prometheus Wolf looked the part of a throwback punk frontman, wearing all-black, plus shades, bandana, big '80s hair and the coup de grace, stretched earlobes that practically reached his shoulders and dangled in the wind as he sawed his guitar. He looked like he should be hanging out in a cave with Keifer Sutherland and the rest of the Lost Boys, and I mean that as a great compliment. (MPS)
Best Ukulele: Sama Dams
Sama Dams, whose hard-hitting set ushered in the dark hours of Sunday evening, could have qualified for a lot of superlatives. With stuttering beats, blasts of guitar noise and the elastic, Jeff Buckley-esque voice of frontman Sam Adams (not to be confused with our former mayor-turned-DJ), the trio's twisted indie rock kept the crowd's jaws permanently dropped. Though much of the set navigated dark, tense territory—perhaps motivated by the band's Rigsketball loss that afternoon—there were also moments of otherworldly beauty, many of them courtesy of singer and organist Lisa Adams. For one newer cut, which had better be on the band's forthcoming second LP, she plugged in the uke and took center stage, oscillating between limping verses and a waltzing, plaintive chorus. (TP)
Best Spliff: Myke Bogan
Other than Vinnie Dewayne, no other performer (of any genre) made their presence known at this year's festival quite like Myke Bogan. In contrast to fellow Soar Losers members Stewart Villain and Tre Redeau, whose high-energy sets occasionally bogged down with one too many superfluous people onstage, the heavy-lidded MC went onstage Sunday night sans entourage and, save Dwayne's guest appearance, took the crowd into his palm all on his own. Frantically pacing the stage, extolling the virtues of "cheap beer" and "good kush," he inspired unforced hand-waving in the newbies, while the die-hards rapped along to his every word. The dude just exudes natural, nonchalant charisma, and it's sort of a wonder why he hasn't broken through on a larger scale yet. To close, his DJ threw on "Mary Jane," and Bogan lit up maybe the first onstage joint in PPN history. Minden followed to formally close out the festival, but the moment was a fitting cap to a weekend which, as ever, seemed to point the way toward the future of the Portland music scene. (MPS)