Seasons change, and sometimes, so do music festivals.
MusicfestNW kicked off its newer, slimmer era last weekend, going down to Tom McCall Waterfront Park and spending two blistering hot summer days next to the Willamette River. It’s hard for us to comment on the festival without seeming a little biased, but we have to say that, after all the online shouting over the new format, it was, overall, a success. There are certainly improvements to be made and missteps to learn from going into next year. But, as with every other year, what it all really comes down to is the music. And on that front, this year certainly delivered. Here are our personal highlights.
Best Kickoff: Killer Mike
As Killer Mike admitted, he could’ve mailed this one in. Playing a Friday evening kickoff party for 200 VIPs buzzed on free booze in the parking lot of a downtown shoe store doesn’t require a lot of effort—just a few singles, maybe a feature or two, and people will go home happy because, well, who’s going to complain about any event with free booze? Instead, the imposing Atlanta rapper came out and damn near exploded the speakers. Granted, it wasn’t the best sound system to begin with. But the point is, Mike delivered one of the best sets of the entire weekend before the gates at Waterfront Park even opened, and it wasn’t just because of his rhyme skills nor the thundering, apocalyptic-funk beats. Flashing a wide grin throughout, the Dungeon Family affiliate charmed with an alternating mix of good humor and political agitation, leading a chant of “Fuck Ronald Reagan” one moment, then joking about passing out in a Portland strip club the next. He introduced “Ric Flair” by dissing Hulk Hogan and “Thom Pettie” by lamenting his decision to dedicate the song to both his wife and his mistress. (“Neither of them were happy.”) Though he didn’t address Mike Brown or the ongoing strife in Ferguson directly (he’s already said plenty on that particular subject), he encouraged the audience to fight back against abuses of power, whether it happens to them or someone else. He even managed to shoutout a sponsor without sounding like a shill, relating Dr. Martens boots to the anti-racist skinheads that chased neo-Nazis out of his neighborhood. Then he went into the crowd and took photos with fans. The next day, Mike and his Run the Jewels running buddy, El-P, knocked out an equally booming performance at the river, on a much better sound system, but to be honest, it couldn’t compare. MATTHEW P. SINGER.
Best Opener You’d Swear Was a Headliner: Landlady
The festival grounds were rather desolate at a quarter to 1 pm on Saturday, but that didn’t stop Adam Schatz and his Brooklyn art-rock crew from delivering one of the most high-energy sets of the day. These guys knew you’d never heard of them: This was their first festival appearance, and frontman Adam Schatz—who later played a supporting role in Man Man—practically begged the audience not to forget about Landlady. But it’s hard to forget the sight of Schatz staggering around the stage like a dizzy revivalist preacher, perching on monitors and wrapping his mic cord around his neck. The set was full of showy moves, from the equally virtuosic twin drummers to the appearance of the Blue Cranes’ frontline, who added wailing sax solos to the explosive finale. As Schatz wiped the sweat from his face with a giant “Landlady” quilt and motioned for the small crowd to come out from under the trees, get close to each other and sing along, audience members followed his every command with eager excitement. Next time these pasty no-names from Brooklyn come through town, they’ll be playing to a packed house. TREE PALMEDO.
Best Status Symbol: Shy Girls’ Dancers
Since being voted Portland’s Best New Band of 2013, Shy Girls have been having the Best Year Ever: getting online co-signs from ‘90s R&B idols Maxwell and Brandy; being handpicked to support Haim on a sold-out tour; and now preparing to go back out on the road opening for Little Dragon. But there is perhaps no greater sign of success than being able to employ your own backup dancers. As leader Dan Vidmar crooned aching slow-jams into the afternoon heat, two dancers—both rocking Aaliyah shirts—weaved around him, looking almost balletic. It was a perfect complement to the band’s graceful, blue-eyed retro-soul, especially when Noah Bernstein launched into the soprano sax solo that highlights the Girls’ most bedroom-appropriate tune, the sultry “Under Attack.” (MPS)
Best Drummer: Thundercat’s Justin Brown
Brown not only kept up with Thundercat’s absurdly fast, funkified jazz, but often set the blistering pace. The whole show felt like a 45 minute drum solo in which he beautifully punished every part of his kit. Brown dropped his stick just once and still, with one arm, managed to play like a possessed octopus. It was intense, syncopated, complicated and a joy to witness. Singer-bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s chops were impressive as well, and the set felt like a sort of high-end jazz recital via to Stevie Wonder (and, at times, Luther Vandross). It would have been easy to sub in a session drummer to simply keep time, but Brown changed the entirety of the trio for the better. MARK A. STOCK.
Best Tie-Dye: Man Man
Philadelphia experimental rockers Man Man sported black tops with tie dye drawstring pants, the kind of thing you might expect Willie Nelson to wear as he settles in to watch a movie from his couch. And it was fitting, a comfortable metaphor for the band’s extremely colorful sound. Man Man manages to tie in so many genres, from blues to honky tonk to punk, all played horns, marimbas, pots, pans and various noisemakers. Frontman Honus Honus is a modern-day Little Richard, flailing about at this piano bench and conducting his troupe. Had the band been wearing anything else, there would have been a lot of wardrobe malfunctions. MARK STOCK.
Best Marlon Brando Look-Alike: Future Islands’ Sam Herring
Credit to Sam Herring for dancing his ass off on stage. His shirt was reduced to a dripping mass of sweat just a few songs into Future Islands’ crowded late afternoon set on Saturday. Credit to Sam for being awestruck by the city’s beauty and keeping his banter light, even funny. And credit to the band for playing more than just tracks from its much lauded Singles record. That said, I still don’t get the music. It’s like watching Marlon Brando do karaoke after a few drinks. The songs are all pretty much the same kind of slowly building synth-pop you’d expect to hear in a boring indie movie. But again, credit to Sam, because that guy was pounding his chest and shaking his business throughout. (MAS)
Best Polluter: Girl Talk
Festival cleanup crews must shudder whenever Gregg Gillis enters a venue. Along with a laptop full of bandwidth-busting mashups, the producer known as Girl Talk also brings a dump truck’s worth of litter with him to every show: confetti, balloons, rolls of toilet paper. As usual, Gillis’ Saturday-closing set—his fourth MFNW performance since 2007—was a sensory-overloading spectacle. From the second it started, the stage was immediately overrun with dancers, including girls in hot-pants shooting reams of Charmin into the crowd, with Gillis himself getting lost among the undulating bodies. Even the stage itself was made up to look like a member of the audience, with two giant, light-up shoes and a pair of hands flanking either side. Musically, Gillis delivered the onslaught of piled-up samples people have come to expect of a Girl Talk party—though there were indications that returns are beginning to diminish, along with inspiration. At one point, Gillis threw Lorde’s “Royals” atop “Paper Planes,” which is exactly what M.I.A. herself did live at Sasquatch earlier this year. Later, he combined Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” with Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” underscoring a similarity between the two songs that’s already been well discussed. I left early to get to Doug Fir for Future Islands’ nightcap show, and as we arrived a DJ spinning at the burger joint across the street blended Peter Gabriel with 50 Cent. It was either an example of how Girl Talk’s genre agnostic musical vision has seeped into the culture at large, or an indication the maybe that the mashup concept isn’t really that mind-blowing anymore. (MPS)
Best Bang For Your Buck: Hustle & Drone’s $3 record
The Portland beat-based band, Hustle and Drone, who opened a Saturday night after-party at Star Theater, is selling their newest record for less than the price of a Starbucks Frappuccino— and three weeks before its official release. That’s a great deal, not just for the snazzy price, but because they rocked—and I mean rocked—the Star. Their music is pure electronica bliss, and not the repetitive kind that bores after five minutes (sorry, Com Truise, but you got shown up tonight). Hustle and Drone is danceable yet reflective, spacy and eerie yet uplifting. Plus, the lead vocalist looks like Michael Cera's long-lost twin, and if Cera's recent, well-received surprise solo album is any indication, Hustle and Drone won't disappoint, either. KATHERINE MARRONE.
Best Near-Religious Act: Modern Kin
Modern Kin plays with the ferocity of a sweaty sermon in a packed church. Singer-guitarist Drew Grow seems overtaken by some kind of spirit while onstage, the only semblance of humanity coming in between songs, when he introduces the band and chats with the crowd. He must be a soundcheck’s nightmare, destroying equipment with his fiery vocals. Normally I change the channel when the televangelist comes on, but Modern Kin delivers its near-spiritual address with such sweat and determination it can’t be ignored. And it’s made all the better by the trio’s boisterous, blues-informed rock. MARK STOCK
Best of Portland: Wild Ones
One early complaint leveled against this year’s MFNW was the decreased number of local bands, but the Portland talent that did play the waterfront was a collective force to be reckoned with. Shy Girls delivered a mesmerizing early set Saturday, Modern Kin played a ferocious set on Sunday and that same day, EMA brought noise, riot grrrl vibes and some spoken word to the Moda Stage. But Wild Ones, the last Portland band on the bill, was by far my favorite. Their dreamy brand of synth-and-guitar pop may be sugar-sweet, but it never falls flat: The band rose above the typical traps that catch young, one-dimensional indie-poppers with twisty odd-meter tunes and blistering instrumental prowess. Singer Danielle Sullivan delivered each phrase like a delicately dropped bomb, recoiling after every gently sung sentence. When Wild Ones inevitably blow up and play Jimmy Fallon, I’ll be proudly boasting that I sort of knew them when. (TP)
Best Life Coach: Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham of Fucked Up
There’s a moment during every Fucked Up set, usually about five minutes in, when the tide begins to turn. For the uninitiated, the Toronto post-hardcore band can be a tough ticket, especially at a big festival where the audiences continue to get younger and are way more interested in dancing to EDM than listening to a large bald dude with a giant beard scream until his lungs give out. But Fucked Up is not your normal punk band, and after a few minutes you see people realizing the guitars often roar like Oasis instead of Cro-Mags and that Pink Eyes, now shirtless, is screaming in your face and handing out free hugs. Abraham is simply the most engaging frontman this side of Nick Cave—during the band’s hour long in the worst part of the afternoon heat, he roamed pretty much half the festival space, going from the mosh pit to the fence that separated the concert from the Waterfront walkway to talk to unsuspecting joggers, high-fiving stoked fans, and offering up after-song asides that both hilarious and heartfelt. He dubbed Poison Idea frontman Jerry A “the Frank Sinatra of aggressive singers,” told an audience member that his kid has the same shirt, took a hit of a fan’s joint and, most importantly, was the only performer who dared mention all the messed-up shit happening in Ferguson. Abraham might not have the prettiest voice, but he definitely has the most important one. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Best Bass Face: Este Haim
Few can deny the sisterly appeal of the pop-rocking Haim. They played a phenomenal festival set encapsulating their debut album, but what was equally as captivating as the music were the many faces of bassist Este Haim. Mouth agape throughout the entirety of the show, she churned through expressions with more fervor and pizazz than prime Jim Carrey. She showed it all: fear, ecstasy, hungry, lust, betrayal, etc. Hell, there were faces for feelings I don’t think I’ve ever even experienced before. BRANDON WIDDER.
Best Dressed Dad: Stephen Malkmus
The slacker god of ‘90s indie-rock wasn’t on the bill, but he was hanging out backstage, checking out Tune-Yards’ rapturously received set of Technicolor funk, his young daughter in tow. I’m presuming he was mostly there to see his former Matador labelmates, Spoon, but judging from his outfit—pink hat, high-waisted running shorts, grey shin-length socks—he could’ve just been killing time before playing a game of one-on-one with Danny Tanner. (MPS)
Best Distraction: Kind’s Headphone Disco
The genius of the Headphone Disco, hosted by Kind, lies in its simplicity: No one gets to hear two DJs perform sets except for the people with headphones on. It’s like the ultimate DJ face-off: You have the power to switch from one to the next, and a DJ’s request to do the Cleveland shuffle is the only way they’d know whose attention he had. Part of the fun lies in guessing what others are dancing to. Another is the sense of unity that comes from shared novelty. It was like everyone under that tent were in on a secret: We could hear the music, but you couldn’t. It’s silly, perhaps, but surprisingly addicting as well. I didn’t want to stop dancing when 9 pm rolled around—despite the fact that Spoon was playing mere feet away. If that doesn’t attest to the power of headphone disco, I’m not sure what does. (KM)
Best Double Encore: Spoon
Spoon frontman Britt Daniel shares a certain fondness with Portland, having briefly called the city home. Yet despite recording 2010’s Transference in his Stumptown basement, Spoon hasn’t played a gig in the city in more than five years. Maybe that’s why the band felt obligated to provide a double dose of an encore following its well-greased machine of a headline performance—though the second one was apparently the result of Daniel not realizing how much time the band had left, running back out to finish up after half the audience was already outside the gates. Regardless, few bands at MFNW had the opportunity to walk off and back on once, let alone twice. What makes it even better? They followed cuts from their excellent new album, They Want My Soul, with material from the band’s beginnings (“Anything You Want”). (BW)
Best Reason to Stay Out Super Late on a Sunday Night: Superchunk
For a brief second after Spoon’s triumphant festival closing performance, I considered biting the bullet and going home. Then I realized that ditching Superchunk for a few more hours of sleep was a totally dumb, fake-adult cop-out. So yeah, Chapel Hill’s reigning kings of power-punk didn’t start till after midnight, but that didn’t stop the entire audience from pogoing in unison to the incredible opening blast of “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?” Mac McCaughan and co. were on-point throughout the night, mostly staying with songs from the band’s two recent post-hiatus records until wisely closing with a series of unfuckwithable hits, including a rowdy take on “Skip Steps 1 & 3” dedicated to MFNW’s departing Executive Director Trevor Solomon and leading a drunken shout-along through an encore of “Slack Motherfucker.” I loved every second of it, even if it lead to a really slow Monday morning. (MM)
MORE MUSICFESTNW PHOTOS
By Thomas Teal, Natalie Behring, Ronit Fahl and Amaren Colosi