Portland’s Music Fest Northwest (or MFNW for short) is worth the price of admission. This year’s festival featured everyone from Mogwai to TV on the Radio to Vampire Weekend, among some 200 other bands, and all for $50, who could pass it up? I had to, unfortunately, because being a broke and unemployed youth means you don’t get to do things like this very often.
However, while looking over the schedule for MFNW, I noticed something: the Wonder Ballroom, one of the more budget friendly venues in the area, was offering three free shows, sponsored by Nike. Not only were they free, but they were actually good: No Age and Battles, then Britt Daniel of Spoon performing solo and opening for Built to Spill, and finally Ratatat and Les Savy Fav. How could I possibly turn down such an offer? The only catch: to get into said shows, one had to attain a pass on the day of each show from Portland’s fabulous Jackpot Records, which meant, as always, come early.
And so, come early I did. After a night spent awake, I arrived at Jackpot Records on the first day early enough that I was one of the first in line. The doors open, and I’m in and out faster than you can blink. This will be a breeze, if every day is like this. I make my way home to rest before the show.
Thursday evening arrived drowsy but nonetheless exciting. I was exhausted, but I knew that, when No Age took the stage, I would be just fine. Unfortunately I had forgotten that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the band is their ability to go from quietly beautiful to jarringly loud, which I realized as I began to drift off in the middle of the set, only to be awakened by finding myself in the middle of a mosh pit. I was now awake.
That is, until Battles began, who have the same sort of effect: I peacefully closed my eyes and enjoyed the fact that they can lull you to sleep with one song, only to throw you into chaos in the next moment. Now that I was truly awake, I could appreciate the fact that, even live, Battles is one of the tightest bands working today, and earn their classification of “math rock;” everything is exactly where it needs to be, and this is proven by the fact that I didn’t see a single set list on the stage, for any member of the band. That’s downright impressive in my book.
I arrive at the Wonder Ballroom, better late than never, on Friday night. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what I was in for as far as a solo Britt Daniel set was concerned, but he proved that he was just as competent solo (and, for an added surprise, with former Sleater Kinney drummer Janet Weiss) as he is with Spoon, and shows that he’s talented enough as a guitarist to not sound as if the songs are lacking something when he performs.
After this comes Built to Spill, the quietly influential Boise, ID indie band, performing their exceptionally brilliant 1997 album Perfect From Now On. This is an album that has meant a lot to me recently, so this was the most exciting performance of this weekend, as well as the set I would be scrutinizing the most. However, I wasn’t let down in the least: the performance was much more than I had expected, and I left with a grin on my face, knowing it would be hard to top such a performance.
Spending so little time sleeping can really catch up with you. I was nearly late to see the second show because I made the mistake of taking a nap in between getting my pass and going to the show, but after that, I made the immense mistake of trusting myself to get up in the morning after such an exhausting two days. I woke up at 9:30am on Saturday, 30 minutes after I would normally be getting to Jackpot. A tragic mistake, but I did get into the show that night, but only due to my own ingenuity, and I’m thankful that I did.
I had heard a lot of people talk about Ratatat before I saw them, but I had no idea what I was getting into by seeing them. Their set was a trip into the bizarre and the brilliant; three men standing solemnly on-stage while a strobe light flashed lazily behind them, and a projector played almost acidic footage of altered kung-fu films, all of this complete with a smog machine. Though I had never heard them before that show, I became a fan watching them work their magic almost effortlessly.
As for art-punk band Les Savy Fav, I find it immensely difficult to talk about their performance without focusing on the antics of frontman Tim Harrington. I have heard Les Savy Fav billed as one of the best live shows around, and I can tell you that this is by no means inaccurate. Harrington’s ability to rile up a crowd is unmatched, doing things like handing over the microphone to a member of the crowd to run to the balcony to dance with the sitting crowd, to crowd-surfing on a ladder (you can’t make this up.) Performances such as this one are the kind to make you beg for the end, while simultaneously hoping you could make them play all night. I couldn’t possibly tell you how enjoyable this band is live, but I can tell you that their performance was the best I saw this weekend.
After I had stumbled out of the venue, and watched Tim Harrington chase down an ice cream truck that had provided ice cream to the people in line during these three shows, I felt exhausted, but I felt proud that I hadn’t let exhaustion or alarm clocks stand in the way of what was one of the most enjoyable concert-going weekends of my life so far. Near the end it all felt like a terrible hangover, but one that was almost worth it because the night before was just so fantastic. In the digital age, the days of waiting in line for tickets to a show are almost completely dead, and I wouldn’t have traded the early mornings and afternoon naps for anything. This said, I’m buying a wristband next year.