MFNW ’11: No Pause (Day Three)

Credit where credit is due: this miraculous photo was taken by Yousef Hatlani.

Day Three started after getting a lot of sleep. It’s a wonder I managed to wake up after the sheer business of the second day of the festival, but I managed just fine. I took my seat in Portland’s Living Room (Pioneer Square, the heart of the city for those not native) with a beer and a sandwich to enjoy the smooth sounds of Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside. Having never heard her before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was taken in with her earnest delivery, and her Prairie-Home-Companion-esque sound, very much reminiscent of fellow Portland native Laura Veirs. To put it simply, her presence was an absolute treat, and a gentle way to start off the day, though by no means indicative of the mayhem looming on the horizon.

I’m going to start off saying this: I think that Marketa Irglova is fantastic. Her chemistry with everybody who stands near her is nothing short of mesmerizing, and though I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of her in-hiatus band The Swell Season, the film that spawned the partnership, Once, is the best musical film since The Commitments (as it should be, as it’s the spiritual partner of Once, featuring Glen Hansard playing essentially the same character, but better). However, there was something missing in this performance, something that I can’t quite put a finger on. It’s possible that her sound was meant more for a small room than the center of Portland, amongst the bustle of commerce and the minutiae of common life outside the temporary walls of the Pioneer Stage’s venue, but it simply wasn’t quite working. This is by no means an attack on Irglova, or the music she makes. Hers is not far removed from the morose, poignant “If You Want Me” from Once, with an undercurrent of sadness and malaise running underneath everything. Hers is a sound not far off of truly masterful, and if she had played in one of the many other venues in the city (the Doug Fir Lounge, for instance, would have allowed the sound to breathe exactly perfectly), the show would have been breathtaking. However, at 6 o’clock on a Friday, it wasn’t ideal.

Iron & Wine is a band that doesn’t need much introduction, at all. I’ve already written a live-review of the band this year (I caught them in the Crystal Ballroom back in May, if you didn’t remember), so the four-month gap (though really more like three) didn’t do much to change the way the band sounded. However, the difference was made in the setting, as is true of most of the shows in Pioneer Square. The Crystal Ballroom, while a wonderful venue, has always damaged the sound of bands like Iron & Wine, and though his performance there was good, the effect of the acoustics of the room was a dampening one. Here, however, the detriment of Marketa Irglova was one of enhancement, where Sam Beam’s voice was allowed to work its way through the city itself, burrowing his warped Americana into the crevasses of the surrounding buildings. Beam himself was in perfect form, acting more jovial than usual, which is saying something, considering his typical charisma. The evening on a whole was one of moments that feel as though they are sticks stuck in the rocks at the bed of a river, where those moments stand out as unforgettable highlights of the long weekend: After a fan shouted “Freebird!” the band launched into a half-earnest rendition which lasted all of the first verse, culminating in Beam laughing, still playing the guitar section of the song (admittedly, fairly perfectly), and calling out, “You asked for it, bitches!” The set, which somehow felt intimate, closed with Beam standing alone in center stage, performing a flooring take of Our Endless Numbered Days highlight “Naked As We Came.” If I may say so, it was extraordinary.

An hour later, I found myself across town at the Wonder Ballroom yet again, and found myself with a case of concert-ADHD. I caught the last two songs by electro-punkers Reptar, who sounded a lot like the miserable shit that the band LMFAO try and pass off as “music,” but done in earnest. Does it make it worse that the band believe in the sound that they are making, rather than just fucking around, like LMFAO? Does anybody really care? The kids in the venue were there for that kind of sound, and truly, Reptar (as is clear by the Rugrats referencing moniker) were not designed for a cynic who really only went to the Wonder to get free Nike swag (full disclosure: for the second year in a row, Nike [who sponsors the shows at the Wonder] has had a charity event, wherein you donate an old jacket, and in return receive a brand spanking new Nike jacket. Mine still had its original $120 price tag on it. Not bad.).

We only stayed for 10 minutes of MSTRKRFT, who I knew nothing about until five minutes before they went on, thankfully. I say thankfully because, had I known that MSTRKRFT was one-half of Death From Above 1979, I would have exerted all possible energy on flipping the fuck out. But, I didn’t, so the hype wave didn’t reach me, and had I been interested in shaking my ass, I would have enjoyed MSTRKRFT’s mastery (no pun intended) of dance beats and light effects, as the band clearly knows how to get the goddamn party started. Hats off to them.

Across the river again, I found myself bored – twice – with seeing the tops of musicians heads. Two of the band I was most excited to catch post Iron & Wine this evening, The Ladybug Transistor and The Olivia Tremor Control, played the Someday Lounge, which I will affectionately call “Portland’s swankest shithole.” I am not fond of seeing the tops of instruments and shoulders of musicians from next to a bar, but if I were, I would have gladly stayed for more of each band’s sets. But, I didn’t, so I left during the end of Ladybug Transistor’s set (The OTC performed at the end of the night, after catching parts of other bands – more on that soon.)

I caught The Ladybug Transistor before trying to get into The Thermals because I was told that they were at capacity, so instead I went to the Star Theater to see the last two songs of much-discussed underground darlings Thee Oh Sees, who were exactly what you’d expect: angular and extremely fun. My only regret is that I didn’t catch more of them.

I went back over to Backspace to discover it ridiculously easy to get into The Thermals, and I’m very glad I did. It’s not often that you get to see a band like The Thermals play such a small room (especially since I saw them for the first time headlining at the Crystal Ballroom at last year’s MFNW), and the show was truly ecstatic. Remember earlier, when I mentioned how the night was all about the moments? This is the other one: After a plague of technical issues, stemming from the death of Hutch Harris’ amp (the day was saved because Ted Leo dropped off his twin amp for his performance the night after – thanks, Ted!), the band played two classics to close the night: “Now We Can See,” and fan favorite, and arguably their best song, “Here’s Your Future.” This wouldn’t be much… except we bore witness to something unheard of today: Hutch Harris screamed the titular lyric into his mic, and proceeded to take is legitimate Fender Telecaster and smash the fuck out of it on stage. Following this, the crowd rushed the stage, and Harris, holding only the neck of his guitar, was thrust atop the writhing crowd, screaming. If pictures exist, I barely want to see them; the “you were there” quality of those few moments will never be done justice by the posterity of the photos taken.

The last remaining band (save for Olivia Tremor Control, who I caught last but discussed already) was the feeling of having missed the boat on something, as The Horrors put on an impeccable performance at Dante’s, perhaps the only venue in the city seedy and terrifying enough to house a sound like theirs. In my life, I have seen bands play music that can be categorized as “shoegaze,” but never have I truly seen exactly what it looks like. Aside from the masters of the art, My Bloody Valentine, The Horrors may as well be the best as what they do, and their sound is equal parts stuck in the 80s, and fantastically modern. I only spent 10 minutes watching them play, but every moment was spent mentally kicking myself for not getting into them before. I’m sorry, Horrors.

 

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