There are opportunities in every festival that you take when you can. I’m not even talking about the previous night’s chance to see The Thermals in a coffee shop after their rise to fame. What I’m talking about is the idea of seeing a band like Explosions in the Sky, five feet from you, in a secluded basement in Portland, with 350 other people. What would you do for a chance like that?
Luckily for Portlanders, this wasn’t a difficult thing to accomplish. Just as Little Dragon, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Sebadoh played in the Doug Fir Lounge for Seattle’s KEXP, so did The Antlers and Explosions in the Sky. It was a primer that was much too early in the day, but it was a delightful harbinger of the day to come. Both bands displayed an uncanny ability to leave their blistering performances away from to a tiny room, without them turning into sonic sludge. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from both bands going in, but I’m glad I got to see, first hand, what it sounds like when a band knows exactly how to work a room.
My friend, who joined me for the Doug Fir shows, also joined me in Pioneer Square for the day’s round of shows. The first act up was Portland’s own Eluvium, the one-man tape loop spectacular, the brainchild of Matthew Cooper. The problem, however, is exactly that of Marketa Irglova the previous night: Eluvium’s sound was meant for an intimate setting, with nothing but ambient light, and a hushed crowd. Being that it was early in the day, and outside, in a very large venue, Cooper’s cunningly crafted compositions (alliteration not intended) essentially got lost to the wind by the time the notes made it to the people in the back of the square. For what it’s worth, he clearly did everything he needed to, and the situation wasn’t his fault, by any means.
Typhoon, however, showed up to give the exact opposite performance. Few bands are as massive as Typhoon: I counted 16 people at one time playing instruments. Where Eluvium failed to capture the room, Typhoon (fresh off of a Letterman performance, clearly deserving the rise to fame they are gaining) had it wrapped around their collective finger. It’s no wonder they’re raising heads; they are exactly the kind of anthemic, heart swelling indie rock that the kids go apeshit for. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just an observation. I got on the bandwagon late in the game, and I regret that (this was my first time seeing or hearing Typhoon), but they’re going to be massive very soon, I know it.
The Antlers came next. Having seen them earlier, I knew to expect great things. A band that knows how to work with the ever-popular “Wall of Sound” (see: Day Two, The Joy Formidable) is a great thing indeed, but one that kn0ws how to use it in an arena as well as a basement is an even greater sight to behold. I’m a recent convert to Peter Silberman’s flawless deliveries, but it didn’t stop their performance from being truly moving. My only regret is that I didn’t get to hear them play “Kettering,” though I’ll live, considering it was an opening-act set hot off the tail of a new record (which they played a nice chunk of). Somehow, I did not cry at all. It was a feat, indeed.
You know that moment, where you’re lost in a gigantic crowd of people, and yet you all feel completely connected? And the moment you stop to consider the grandeur of it all, you can almost feel everyone else connecting with that sentiment, too? This is what was happening when 5000 people watched as Explosions in the Sky did… well, exactly what they do. I had the privilege of getting a good front-row spot, and I watched the band play “Your Hand In Mine” (a song that could be described as “flawless”) while I watched as the moon rise slowly in the sky. Their set was blistering, but they’ve been at this so long, you know to never second guess what they’re going to do next. Partway through the first song, “The Only Moment We Were Alone,” I could have sworn I felt the earth itself shift underneath my feet.
The unfair thing about the rest of the night is that it wouldn’t quite compare, epic as it was. I visited the Roseland Theater, the Star Theater, and Backspace over the course of the rest of the night. Instead of going chronologically, I’ll opt to write about each venue.
Most of the reason I came here was to see what they had going on that night, and I’m glad that I did. The first band that I was was Grails, who’s buzzsaw-sounding epic rock was not far from the buzzsaw-sounding epic rock I had seen earlier that night, with Explosions in the Sky. Theirs is a sound that sound like what you’d get if Sunn o))) were to soundtrack the Road Warrior remake, and I promise, that’s a great thing. My only regret is that I left after 20 minutes to catch Emancipator (more on him later).
Neurosis is a band that needs no introduction, or so I’m told. I stopped being a hardcore kid a long time ago, and though I hold to my roots in some aspects, I am generally a whiny snobby indie hipster most of the time. Because of this, I felt slightly out of place amongst the crusty punkers who had crammed themselves into the now-disgusting-smelling Roseland. That does not, however, change how captivating their performance was. They’ve been going for quite some time now, and the blinding intensity of their set was hypnotic. They are the opposite side of the punk coin: one is the kind played fast and quickly, but the other takes its time, and makes you truly fear what you are hearing. There are no substitutes for this kind of majestic shredding, and I, for one, am glad that I caught it.
Emancipator was one man who sounded exactly like every other man-at-a-sound-board I have heard at every other event like this. I was so angry I left Grails for this, I went to another venue entirely to calm down.
However, the one man I was really excited to see this evening, Dam-Funk (with Master Blazter) more than made up for it. There are times in your life when you are compelled to wonder if the musician you’re watching knows just how much they’re crushing it in that moment, and though I’m sure Dam-Funk was well aware, it’s still fun to think that he has no idea just how intense he is. Shaking your ass, not because you want to, but because you have to, is one of the best ways to begin to wrap up a festival. Everybody on that stage was doing God’s work. Extraordinary.
I didn’t catch much of the Spinanes refugee Rebecca Gates, but I caught enough to get wrapped up in her affected, brooding brand of heart-on-sleeve singer-songwritering. I regret not catching more (they ended after – yes – Fred Armisen sat down at the drums), but I’m glad I got the taste I got.
I chose to close out my night with an old favorite, Ted Leo. I considered not catching him, being that it would be my fourth time in his presence, but I decided that he is the old friend I never knew, and thus I owed it to him to spend a few moments listening in. I saw him earlier this year doing a solo show, and the difference between the first show, and the MFNW show, was gigantic. He had honed his solo craft wonderfully, and had begun to adapt the songs for their solo performances, rather than playing them straight, as the last time I saw him. Closing out the last full day of MFNW with my favorite Ted Leo song, “One Polaroid A Day,” was the best gift I could have asked for.