Festival Review: The PDX Pop Now Superlatives

The best dance parties, random covers, giant heads, inappropriate mosh pits and more from this year's installment of the local music celebration.

There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about Nu-Portland, but as long as PDX Pop Now exists, we'll always have a one-up on other cities. Where else is the music scene strong enough to sustain an annual, volunteer-run, all-ages festival, featuring all local bands, for over a decade? Attendance might have dipped in recent years, but as always, the 2015 edition—held July 24-26 under the Hawthorne Bridge, which was crucial for avoiding the weekend's sporadic downpours—proved just how good we've still got it. Here are the things we saw and heard that made that point most empathically.

Horniest Horns: Blue Cranes

Portland's experimental jazz-not-jazz quintet has been kind of quiet lately—due in part to side-projects like Swansea and the recent fatherhood of sax player Reed Wallsmith—but they sounded practiced and badass today. How often have you seen teenagers freaking out to crazy sax skronk? Pretty sure I've only seen it this once. CASEY JARMAN.

Best Sudden Transition Into a Black Flag Cover Band: Mope Grooves

For most of its set, Mope Grooves appeared to be auditioning for a slot on Burger Records (or at least Gnar Tapes), playing a familiar brand of sweetly ragged, lo-fi pop, as their gawky singer seeming to roll his eyes at his own lyrics. Then halfway through, the band said "fuck it" (or maybe it just ran out of songs) and decided to aim for SST instead, covering the entirety of Black Flag's 1978 Nervous Breakdown EP, the ironic self-scoffing transitioning on a dime into intense death-stares. To be honest, I'm not sure which look suited them better. MATTHEW SINGER.

Best Hippie Freakout: Moon By You

I've spent time in Haight-Ashbury, and it's a pretty gross place. Burnouts and bums and black-light Jimi Hendrix posters as far as the eye can see. Moon By You is like a traveling Haight-Ashbury of old, mixing psych-rock with doo-wop and lots of gyrating, exposed navels from their band of back-up dancers. Good, clean, acid-fueled fun, and not one of these kids tried to sell me a puppy or steal my wallet. CJ.

Best Fashion Statement: Giant Papier Mache Heads

Hey, it's better than the man-bun.

Best Transition to Adulthood: The Shivas 

Back when I first saw the Shivas play on Arya Imig's KPSU radio show (Sound Judgement forever) in 2008, the garage-rock band was literally just kids—high-school nerds from across the river in Vancouver who played loose garage-rock that was super catchy, if a bit formulaic. The talent was always there, but you could tell they just needed to experience life 'n' shit. Well look at 'em now: playing to a pretty packed crowd on Friday night, the Shivas were easily one of the highlights of the weekend, banging on their instruments with a joy similar to other bands on K Records but without the irony or tweet that you might associate with the label. The gawky teens done grew up and become one of the best bands in the city. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER. 

Best Nerd Apparel: Dylan Stark's Grandia T-shirt

No doubt most PDX Pop Now attendees were focused on Stark's awesome electronic soundscapes laced with steel drums—or maybe his wicked top knot—but I was most impressed by his T-shirt, emblazoned with the logo for Grandia, a fantastic and semi-obscure RPG revered by die-hard gamers who find Final Fantasy a little too cute. CJ.

Best of St. Johns: Vinnie Dewayne

No one was more excited to play PDX Pop Now than Vinnie Dewayne. The rapper was promoting his penultimate Friday night set all week on social media, and even got a small band together, augmenting his DJ with a bassist and Tony Ozier on drums. Having guested with damn near everyone on last year’s bill, he seemed to sense the importance of this moment. Dressed head-to-toe in St. Johns gear—seriously, he was wearing green socks with the bridge on them—Dewayne brought heaps of energy, and was stifled only by the unforgiving acoustics of the concrete-enclosed East Stage. Even so, with his long-promised album, The St. Johns Scholar, finally out, Dewayne is poised to become an important leader in both the Portland hip-hop scene and the community at large, and the show felt like a coronation. And when he asked the crowd “Ya’ll know where I’m from?” everyone knew the answer. MS. 

Best Keytar Sighting: Chanti Darling

Pop music has always been cyclical. So while the sound of Chanti Darling—all bubbling funk synths and ecstatic, Dance All Night disco pop—isn't that surprising in 2015, seeing someone absolutely slay the keytar certainly is. Nearly everything about Chanti Darling's performance was over the top, from the incredible background dancers to co-singers Chanticleer Tru of Magic Mouth and Natasha Kmeto call-and-response vocals, but it was the sight of Rebecca Cole (the Minders, Wild Flag) playing an instrument often relegated to the '80s music video parody bin that stole the night for me. Believe the hype, folks: We have a new barometer for party bands in this city. MM. 

Cruelest Joke: Ice Cream Man's Ice Cream Van

Now, maybe the Ice Cream Man (a fixture at music festivals in Portland and around the world) spent some time giving away free ice cream at PDX Pop Now, but as a chronic late arrival, I never saw the titular Man nor tasted his delicious wares. I just saw that smiling cartoon logo on the back of his van, mocking me with delicious cones and pops. And I died inside. CJ

Best Anti-Gentrification Sing-Along: White Glove

White Glove wrings a lot of great, clever pop-punk out of a few chords, a stripped-bare drum set and dinky keyboard melodies, much of it about the awesomeness of skateboarding and the annoyances of just about everything else. Specifically, its best songs are about its annoyance with the changing face of Portland. “Division Street” is a classic of our time and place, an uber lo-fi tale gawking at the abhorrent baby strollers now occupying the street corners where weed dealers and meth-heads once stood. But the set-closing “Fred and Carrie” is up there, too. Look, I agree that blaming Portlandia for everything perceived to be “wrong” with Portland today is reductive and unfair, but damn is it catchy. The 6-year-old in skinny jeans singing along seemed to agree. MS.  

Best Deconstructed ELO Cover: Hot Victory

Hot Victory's unnerving concoction of thudding percussion and sci-fi horror synths doesn't fit within any obvious genre except "soundtrack to your impending doom." So, when the double-drumming duo started pounding out a synchronized tribalist rhythm that summoned two expressionless women wearing gowns and brandishing bamboo sticks to stage, a pagan sacrifice seemed more likely to develop than a classic-rock cover. But as the song unfurled, over the course of about 10 minutes, familiar elements emerged from the hypnotic swirl: a keyboard melody here, a lyric there. In chatting with a few onlookers afterward, no one seemed to realize that they'd just witnessed ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" get broken down, stomped on and stretched out like a funhouse mirror, which I'm sure the band will consider a hot-ass victory indeed. MS.

Best Album Psychedelia: Jackson Boone

Boone's Starlit was one of last year's great local surprises, a weightless, moon-gazing psych record with tones of a less deranged (but no less hallucinatory) Syd Barrett. Much of the album's success owed to the celestial strings and Riley Geare's immersive production, though. So there was a real question about how it would translate live. Taking the stage Saturday evening, accompanied by a four-piece band—including drummer and WW contributor Parker Hall and singer Cat Hoch, who drummed with Appendixes earlier in the day—Boone, looking a bit like Mac DeMarco and singing in a faux English accent, proved that his songwriting is as strong as the atmospherics, delivering a set that made good on Starlit's hypnotic promise. Here's hoping September's follow-up, Natural Changes, doubles down on it. MS. 

Best '80s Hardcore Flashback: Long Knife

Any angry teen can tell you that punk's not dead, and there is no better example of the pure strain than local quartet Long Knife. No frills here—just riffs, blasts and attitude. Since the stage was literally on a paved street under a bridge, some of the stage dives taken were on the dainty side. Still, the band just clobbered, with the drummer standing and frothing with wild eyes between short bursts of angry song. Too few punk bands these days wear '80s tradition like a suit of armor. Long Knife gets it. NATHAN CARSON

Most Inappropriate Circle Pit: Holy Grove

Holy Grove's set was probably as close as many in attendance have ever been to a Sabbath record. Doom riffs and heavy grooves were leveled over a crowd of swaying new fans and old worshippers. Vocalist Andrea Vidal lorded over the hordes with perfect poise and soulful swagger. This made it all the more ironic that naïve children took the slow opening track as an opportunity to start a circle pit that lasted throughout most of the set. I don't begrudge anyone having a good time. But it definitely bordered on eye-rollingly cute that kids these days no longer grasp what sort of styles and tempos are appropriate for a good, old-fashioned mosh. NC.

Best Psychic Linkage: Nurses

Nurses frontman Aaron Chapman gave the audience many warnings that tonight was going to be a strange set, categorizing songs as "chillers" and "mega-sleepytime chillers." The recently reactivated, and recently drummerless, duo was in extra-weird form, sharing new songs that sounded carnivalesque and vaguely threatening. One in particular, wherein Chapman's acapella vocals were manipulated by the chords and solos strummed on John Bowers' guitar, was like a two-headed Peter Frampton doing Yoko Ono. Terrifying and beautiful. CJ.

Most Awkward Stage Banter: Ladywolf

Most artists introduce their songs to a crowd by, say, telling them the name of the song they are about to play or by saying things like "this next song is our newest single." But Nik Barnaby, frontman of garage-pop trio Ladywolf, was perhaps a bit more candid, introducing their two minute slices of bubblegum-punk by saying things like, "this next song is about my infatuation for our bass player" or "this next song is about waking up next to a dead person." Barnaby even lauded PDX Pop Now's unintentional effort to fight homelessness, noting how the festival helps to "clear the bums out from under the bridge for a weekend," before nervously adding "just kidding." CASEY HARDMEYER.

Best Harbinger: The Last Artful Dodgr

In 2013, the Last Artful Dodgr dropped 199NVRLAND, a kaleidoscopic hip-hop record that not enough people heard. Consider this her reintroduction. Wrapped in a denim vest, with boots and mis-matched socks, the L.A. transplant—joined by producer Neill Von Tally, seated behind a hysterically tiny table, and, on a few tracks, TxE rapper Epp—didn't treat the gig as any sort of coming-out party, strolling rather casually through a set she seemed to be making up on the spot and not seeing every song through to its actual end. But judging from the reactions of those in the crowd—particularly Martell Webster, who watched her set with the enthusiastic concentration of someone trying to figure out a magic trick—her sing-song flow and unorthodox presence caught a lot of people off guard. Though it felt like a teaser for more cohesive performances down the road (she's got a project on FRSH SLCTS on the horizon), catching a glimpse of the future is always one of the best moments of any PDX Pop Now. In that regard, it may have been the superlative set of the weekend. MS. 

Most Intense Stretch of Music: Vice Device→ Muscle and Marrow→ Marriage and Cancer

Call it the Dour Hour. It started off with the clanging industrial post-punk of Vice Device, continued through the shuddering shriek-metal of Muscle and Marrow and crested with Marriage and Cancer's angrily gloomy rock. No wonder the storm that threatened the festival all weekend decided to unload literally right at the beginning of Vice Device's set. Make no mistake: It was an exhilarating (and fucking loud) run of bleakness. But on a damp Sunday, with exhaustion running high, it didn't do much to lift spirits. Next year, maybe break it up with, like, a Carly Rae Jepsen tribute or something? MS.

Best Cop: The One Posted Up Behind the Stage During Mic Crenshaw's Set

I know "Best Cop" is an oxymoron, especially one who just happened to roll up across the street during a performance by veteran rapper and activist Mic Crenshaw. (What a coincidence!) But at least this dude was feeling it! I can't be 100-percent certain, but I'm pretty sure I spied him nodding his head along to a couple of Crenshaw's heavy, rock-inspired beats. I mean, fuck the police and all, but nice to know they can recognize game on occasion. MS.

Best Jazzbo Rendering of a Kate Bush Song: Coco Columbia

On record, Coco Columbia concocts an off-beat mashup of jazz, R&B, hip-hop and pop that doesn't sound much like anything anyone else in town is doing. But with her three-piece live band, it's the jazz part of that equation that comes to the fore. At times, the performance got a bit wanky, but Columbia's presence cut through much of the noodling. Dressed like a Strawberry Shortcake character, Columbia—who sang and played keys—closed with a rendition of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" that skittered and snapped while maintaining the thrilling propulsion of the original. Definitely keep an eye on her. It'd be hard not to. MS.

Best Dance Moves: Phone Call

Two dudes playing ironic-not-ironic sexy R&B jams usually reminds of Chromeo, but longtime Portlanders can't help but be reminded of the Snuggle-Ups—and Strength, the band Phone Call spun off from—who once ruled the PDX Pop Now stage with an iron fist. I don't remember Mick Jagger/Jarvis Cocker dance moves, though. The duo even garnered a special shout-out from Cool Nutz, who declared them "legit" and "impressive" from stage an hour later. CJ.

Best Closer: Cool Nutz

I spent years writing about local rappers in this paper in an age where no one in the city seemed to give a shit about local rappers, so it was a special treat to see Cool Nutz, the patriarch of Portland hip-hop, land a special spot on the PDX Pop Now schedule. He was funny, graceful, forceful, and genuine in closing things out, and many of the young MCs putting Portland on the map—including Vinnie Dewayne, who took the stage with Nutz—stuck around to see it. CJ.

All photos by Matthew Singer.

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