LIVE: MusicFestNW - September 3-8, Portland, Oregon

In a world where being “Portland” is starting to mean more and more, MusicfestNW, Portland’s long-running, mostly in-door music festival started as a joint venture between Portland’s alternative publication fixture The Willamette Week and SXSW (it is now just operated by the Willamette Week), is becoming more and more of a definitive Portland experience. This year’s line-up, probably the most diverse in memories past, featured a slew of artists splattered across all of Portland’s indoor music venues as well as the three main headlining shows in the “Backyard of Portland” Pioneer Courthouse.

Going to a festival curated by a newspaper devoted to Portland ensures a type of all-encompassing experience spread out over the now five-day festival. Special food trucks occupy the main stage shows and microbreweries bring out their best odd-ball creations to show off all festival long. This year, the festival expanded to include TechfestNW, a daytime series of lectures and talks on technology .

With the spot-on cult success of the television show Portlandia, Portland as a brand is becoming stronger and stronger, forcing MusicfestNW to become that much bigger. As a testament to the show and Portland’s increasing “Portland” aesthetic, one of the most well-attended shows was Portlandia’s main star and SNL-alumni Fred Armisen’s comedy night at one of the larger indoor venues, the Crystal Ballroom. Standing in the crowd for Armisen’s witty yet never quite bust out loud laughing comedy, the question definitely arose whether Portlandia started reflecting Portland or whether people are now starting to change to fit Portlandia. The odd mixture of genuine earnestness and tongue in cheek sarcasm that has always seemed a Northwest trait is maximized to the extreme at every turn of MusicfestNW.

  Portlandia star, Fred Armisen, rocking the f@#@ out as Ian Rubbish (Photo by Joy Asico

Portlandia star, Fred Armisen, rocking the f@#@ out as Ian Rubbish (Photo by Joy Asico

Armisen’s set was largely entertaining; he was backed by a band for over half of the set where he played songs from his SNL Jonny Rotten, British punk, over-the-top Ian Rubbish character skits. Between sets of three or four songs, Armisen would occasionally send the band off to crack jokes about music he would play from his iPad. He brought out Husker Du frontman Bob Mould to join the band and did a solo version of the Husker Du song “Makes No Sense At All”. The highlight of the night was Armisen bringing up Sixpence None The Richer singer Leigh Nash to play through their nineties hit “Kiss Me”. If there was a reason for the performance of the song, it remained elusive, but Armisen’s earnestness and modesty made everything work. It was a comedy night aimed squarely in-between the eyes of the trendy aging music nerds, which remain either Portland’s best characteristic or its worst.

For many, the strongpoint of MusicfestNW isn not the headliners, although this year featured Young the Giant, Animal Collective and Neko Case (who all seem to be making the festival headlining rounds). The headliners didn’t necessarily feel half as special as the no-names and no-liners. Unlike outdoor festivals where newer or smaller bands are cast off to the crack of noon to ramble through short sets for a lackadaisical, often drugged out crowd in the woods, MusicfestNW puts those no-namers as shining stars at any of the amazing smaller venues in Portland. The lineups for each venue are handpicked by the festival’s programmers, which can lead to some mistakes, but sometimes they strike gold with once in a lifetime concert bills like Naomi Punk, Titus Andronicus and Superchunk at the Crystal Ballroom.

Naomi Punk stormed through a set of blissfully loud and chaotic math-esque grunge. As head banging in the front row took place, a teenage girl next to me at the fore who had obviously been camping out at the front to eventually be paid off with a glimpse of Superchunk had a look of pure distaste on her face, as if she was being confronted by a math problem she refused to start. But again, that’s what MusicfestNW is all about, experiencing new music and stumbling onto a band that could be your next favorite.

One of the best stumbles for this reviewer was Bleach: a girl-group-esque garage duo whose records have seemed awfully flat. Frankly, their records bore me to tears with their third-rate Best Coast meets Burger Records band garage rock that seems no more exciting than watching paint dry. However, their set at Dante’s opening for Brooklyn punk meets Neil Young four-piece The Men had me dancing and finding the excitement and fun I wish came across on their records. Their three chord garage rock became more three dimensional in their live show, augmented by genuinely interesting lead guitar work and vocal harmonies. After Bleached wrapped up, The Men came out and brought with them their ear-deafening dad-rock Neil Young punk rock roar that at times seemed so seismic even I had to step back. The softer songs from their excellent latest LP New Moon got infused with a muscle car engine and chugged along at high speeds. For their newest tours, they’ve added a full time slide guitarist, who often didn’t make it through the mix as much as you’d hope. The moments where the sharp sting of the slide raced alongside the twin guitar attack in-sync shimmered with a chaotic beauty, though. 

As MusicfestNW ramped up this year, so did the inevitable list of sponsors. Previously, there had been only one real sponsored show to happen during MusicfestNW, but this year the number grew to shows taking place all week. Red Bull rented out Mississippi Studios to house an odd collection of mismatched artists The Woolen Men, Tree and local Portland favorites The Thermals. Tree was ultimately forgettable, hip-hop that suffered from production no more unique than a teenager trying to rip off College Dropout Kanye West using the tinker toy program Fruity Loops. After what seemed like way too many shootouts to the high purity of Oregon’s marijuana, Tree left so The Thermals could deliver a solid, well-rounded set of old favorites and songs from their latest album Desperate Ground. At this point, the band is a well-oiled machine able to deliver a raucous yet spot-on set.Even though their new album lacks the importance and lightning in a bottle lo-fi punk-pop meets lofty philosophy they captured earlier on in their career, it did keep the momentum going.

 Ty Segall performing @ MFNW (Photo by Joy Asico)

Ty Segall performing @ MFNW (Photo by Joy Asico)

The final round of buzz-worthy shows at MusicFestNW featured garage rock's favorite son:: Ty Segall. Barely a couple weeks removed from the wildly successful release of his latest glam-folk, all acoustic Sleeper, Ty brought his acoustic band back to Oregon, (he played Pickathon, another Oregon festival, almost one month prior). The fairly large club was at capacity before Ty even took the stage, packed elbow to elbow with every single person in the room was close to losing their minds over the Crosby, Stills and Nash-esque acoustic setup on stage. A friend who spent an hour waiting in line outside for a space to open said the line reached around the block and then some. People were head banging in unison to acoustic strums and it became very clear something special was happening. Segall played mostly from the new album and threw in a few oldies at the end that brought the crowd to a fever pitch. Segall seemed a victim to the crowd’s expectations. Even though his new album is more music to nod your foot and stare awake at the ceiling in your living room to, many fans unaware of the night’s acoustic flavor came to rock out, and rock out they did. It speaks volumes to the group Ty was playing with that many who were at first disappointed to find out about the acoustic setup found themselves in just as in awe of his new material. After the set, Segall came off stage, mingled in the crowd, and spoke to fans as not just the rock-god of their fantasies, but also as a friend.


Photos by Joy Asico (joy@chunkyglasses.com / www.asicophoto.com)