Dan Deacon // Photo Credit: Katie Mendez
By Hollister Dixon
For the past five years, I’ve covered my beloved Musicfest Northwest on my own. The beauty of the festival is that, by the end of things, you want to talk about it, and you want to write everything you can about it. In the last year, I’ve started a podcast (you may have heard of it) and, as such, it became quickly apparent that covering MFNW was no longer a pastime: it was a job. As such, it meant that, despite my own well-being, I had to go harder than before. Luckily, I had the MFNW team by my side, who’s coverage you will be seeing on the site in the coming days. This, however, is my story.
MusicFest Northwest expanded its usual five-day run to a whopping six, which meant that I had to miss a day of the festivities – no Joey Bada$$, Antwon, Summer Cannibals, or Red Kross for me! Day two, however, was no small task. My evening started at the small get-together that was the MFNW VIP Kickoff Party, a bash attended by, from the looks of it, everyone worth knowing. This should not be viewed as bragging: this kind of crowd is somewhat lost on someone as new to “knowing” people as myself, so I spent my time with the team, and consuming fantastic cocktails and amazing food, courtesy of 24th & Meatball. The event was DJ’d by DJ Safi, who seems to be a master of wallpaper music: in my experience, it isn’t difficult to play music that makes people want to dance, but there is an immense amount of talent required to make music that people can absorb while still socializing and schmoozing. It’s a testament to this ability that, despite how full the venue was, the designated “dance floor” set up in front of her was remarkably empty: I saw maybe five people during the night standing in that area, and only briefly. This may be seen as an insult, but believe me, it is not. Hats off to her for being such a trooper.
Deerhunter // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
After this, we headed over to the Crystal Ballroom for my first show of the year: Lonnie Holley and, at long last, Deerhunter. Lonnie Holley has made his name with art installations of found objects, and it shows in his music: the music presents itself as a strange free-jazz pastiche, that somehow never feels like it has the shadows of Zappa, Beefheart, or Ra cast on it. It’s a testament to the power of the music that Holley was joined on drums for the performance by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, and yet there was never a moment where I felt like Cox’s larger-than-life personality had stolen the performance. Here, he blended into the background. This is, however, not what he did when his own band took the stage. Deerhunter are a band that I have loved for a long time but never gotten the chance to see, and as the date approached, I found myself more and more excited to see the band, especially considering the fact that the Crystal Ballroom is, by far, the largest room they’ve played in Portland. Cox is a powerhouse, and having the opportunity to watch him do what he does is a treat. I was unable to stay for the entirety of this performance (I knew that, if I allowed myself to get sucked in, I’d miss my last train home), but what I caught was a reaffirmation of something that I’ve always know, which is that Bradford Cox is one of the greatest performers of our generation.
!!! // Photo Credit: KEXP
In reality, MFNW is not as tiring as you’d think. Most shows don’t start until mid-evening, leaving you plenty of time to go about your day. This is, unfortunately, a false economy: as I’ve learned, the day performances hosted by KEXP at the Doug Fir Lounge are as necessary as any other show, as they give you the opportunity to 1) untangle your schedule, if a band that you’re dying to see is playing a KEXP session, and 2) see world-renowned bands in a venue roughly 1.5x the size of your mom’s basement. Starting off the day was The Baseball Project, a band which proved to be one of America’s best-kept secrets. For the uninitiated, The Baseball Project sounds like it could be anybody’s band, with a name as generic as the subject matter – on paper, anyway. But they bring two things to the table: they make absolutely fantastic songs about the greats of baseball (this included a song about Ichiro Suzuki, one of the greatest players the Mariners ever saw), and they include people like Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck (who was tragically absent that morning), Steve Wynn, and Mike Mills. Knowing names like that, I can’t find a reason for there to be maybe 100 people in that room, but I was in heaven being among that number. Following this, I got to see a band I’ve put off since I was 16: the incomparable, writhing mass that is !!!. Nic Offer is a frontman’s frontman, jumping around the stage in short shorts (covered in the artwork of Some Girls, for the record), and posing for the cameras at every turn. !!! haven’t made a name out of sheer spectacle, however; not only are they consummate performers, their songs are purely fantastic. I could go on, but I will never not want to gush about this band.
Then came the VIP party at Marmoset. Are you sick of these stories yet? I’m not. Here, I’m greeted by the solid sounds of The Family Crest, though sadly they finished playing not too terribly long after I arrived. Following this, Portland’s resident R&B kingpins Shy Girls took the stage outside, and despite how drunk everyone may have been, there wasn’t a soul in the crowd who wasn’t deeply invested in every sound that Dan Vidmar and co. put out. Earlier this year, Willamette Week named Shy Girls their “Best New Band.” I’m never going to debate this. Then the charming, blue-haired John Vanderslice took the indoor stage, somehow completing my life a tiny bit: as a keen reader might know, Vanderslice is the producer of several golden Mountain Goats records, most specifically The Sunset Tree. I first read his name in relation to that album, and have known him as a producer of beautiful, lush music ever since, but this is, plain and simple, just not fair to Mr. Vanderslice. He’s one hell of a songwriter, and just like Shy Girls, somehow managed to keep a room full of day-drunk music nerds applauding wildly after every single track. Before leaving for the afternoon, I distractedly caught sounds by The Love Language and Eric D. Johnson of The Fruit Bats, though by this time the crowds had gotten too crazy to really enjoy the music. Many apologies to these two bands.
Portland is a weird place sometimes. It’s beautiful, and the strange lens of MFNW makes it hard to not look at things in a different light. And sometimes, it throws you an unexpected curveball. On this day, for the first time in anyone’s memory, it began to rain. And not just rain, but it poured. The weather was such that, if there had been lightning strikes within two miles of Pioneer Square, that day’s headliner would be cancelled. Luckily this did not happen, and in the pouring rain, I watched Youth Lagoon fill the Square with music that somehow resonated more in the inclement weather. Trevor Powers has only a year on me, but his artistic output is breathtaking, and once I got to the show, any doubts I may have had about the size of the stage he and his band were playing on was too large had been swept away with the rain. This performance will go down as one of the most magical of the weekend, and Powers’ humble reservations that could be heard in his polite stage banter only made it better. Unfortunately, the rain drove two of us indoors, meaning that we were unable to catch Young The Giant’s headline show.
Ian Rubbish // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
We fled the rain by heading up the street to wander in on Fred Armisen‘s somewhat confusing show at the Crystal Ballroom. Leading up to the show, nobody was sure what was going to happen: not even Willamette Week’s Matt Singer, who did an interview with Armisen in the persona of Ian Rubbish. Rubbish opened for Armisen (confusing, right?), ripping through a few of his tracks, including “It’s a Lovely Day,” the song Armisen played as a final performance on Saturday Night Live. That performance was joined by a group of indie rock royalty, and though Carrie Brownstein didn’t join this performance, he was joined by someone playing up the street that evening: Bob Mould. “I used to be in a band… actually, I was in a few bands,” Mould said after the band had left the stage. “That band was called Husker Du, and I think I’ll play one of their songs.” He launched into a haunting solo performance of “Makes No Sense at All,” and I nearly called the whole festival quits right then and there, knowing that the hardcore obsessed 15-year-old that still sits dormant in my heart wouldn’t ever believe that the long weekend could ever get better from there.
On top of this, I performed the typical Dixon Shuffle between the Star Theater and the Roseland. At the former, I caught Diana, who managed to somehow channel the aesthetic of Chromatics, and performed it for everyone who wouldn’t be able to see that band play during the fest. Then came Austra, a band that managed to channel the aesthetic of The Knife, and performed it for everyone who wouldn’t get to see that band play because they aren’t playing the Northwest. It should be noted that none of this is meant to be taken as a negative; Diana’s M83-esque tribute to the 80s was a welcome addition to the evening, and the stunning, trance-inducing performance of Austra made me wish that I had caught the band at the Doug Fir earlier that afternoon.
Thursday was a day of covers, and the highlight of On and On‘s wonderful set at Roseland caught me off guard. While burying my phone in my phone, writing a tweet, a stray line drifted across my ears: “Helplessly helping all the rules.” I promply lost my mind, suddenly ready to sing along with “And I Was A Boy From School,” the classic track from Hot Chip’s The Warning. The set ended not long after this, probably because nothing in there would be able to top that moment. And then… The Joy Formidable. It has been two years since I reported on The Joy Formidable, who performed MFNW opening for Brand New. That performance was a solid moment, cementing the band as one to watch. At the Roseland, however, they proved that being watched was the best possible thing to do here: over the course of the weekend, I’d hear a lot of bands shred, but none of them did it quite as effortlessly as Joy Formidable did. There’s no question: Ritzy Bryan can fucking shred. This is a band that has flirted with one-hit-wonder status, but the way they play, you’d never guess it. I forced myself to leave this venue, knowing that – just like the Deerhunter set – I’d be missing a last train if I didn’t. If you learn nothing from this breakdown, at least learn that The Joy Formidable are not a band to ignore.
Day four is when the lines start to blur a little bit. By this point in time, sleep madness has sunk in for a lot of us, and the burdens of not getting any sleep are beginning to be troubling. This does nothing to sully the morning performances, however. Washed Out is a one-man project that begs for a live band, and luckily, Ernest Greene has managed to scrape one together for the touring arm of his chillwave project. What plays beautifully on record is a burst of bright color in the swanky basement of the Doug Fir, and despite the early hour, everyone in the room is more than a little into the groove. After this performance, while waiting to see the next band up, we run into the legendary Cody ChesnuTT, who we chat with for a few minutes, about everything from his history with Portland crowds (“My last tour, Portland was in the top three cities,” he tells us) to a long-forgotten compilation track I fell in love with in my teens (the song is “Boils” from the 4AD-curated Plague Songs compilation, and my adoration was met with a surprised stare, the information that I was “the second person in 8 years” to tell him that song ruled, and some info on why the song sounds like it does). What could top that? Not much, but a fantastic set by Beat Connection threatened to try. The Seattle trio’s songs are great on their own, but they’ve been touring with a small horn section, which makes an old favorite like “Silver Screens” (used all the way back in episode four) stop being great, and start being spectacular.
Dan Deacon // Photo Credit: Colin McLaughlin
After taking a long break from the festivities, we headed over to Pioneer Square, for the second day at Pioneer Square. We missed Haerts, but we were able to catch Dan Deacon, at long last. Like the aforementioned !!!, I’ve been waiting years to see Dan Deacon, but every opportunity has been lost on me. Dan Deacon runs his live shows a little like a cult leader, instructing his crowds to do absolutely ridiculous things (dance competitions, counting down while skipping the number 7 [“Let’s not dwell on why,” he said when giving this particular instruction], direct physical contact with the people around you), but in the end, it’s all tremendously good fun. His performance also included Spiderman of the Rings track “The Crystal Cat” (which made this reviewer lose his goddamn mind) and a complete performance of the “USA” suite. This performance all included me, in the middle of Pioneer Square, leading half of the crowd in interpretive dance. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a rad experience.
Animal Collective // Photo Credit: Cory Butcher
Furthering the weirdness of the afternoon was Animal Collective, and while watching the performance, I realized something: 2013 is the 4th round of Pioneer Square shows, and so far, it’s hard to truly argue with any of the acts. Iron & Wine? The National? Silversun Pickups? Sonically, these acts are for just about anybody. Leading up to this show, I had in mind the largess of some of their tracks: “Fireworks”, “My Girls”, “Brothersport”, all songs with a massive sound well-suited for the environment, but what about any of the seven songs played from last year’s Centipede Hz? And what of the fact that they skipped or altered the most populist-friendly tracks on the album (conspicuously absent were “Today’s Supernatural,” and the brilliant opener “Moonjock”)? It wasn’t until three songs in that I realized what a coup this was: here was a band that has made a career out of neo-tribal insanity, and here they were playing a stage that had Young the Giant on it the day before, and would have The Head & The Heart after. I couldn’t help but feel like, just this once, the weirdos had won, and were taking a victory lap by doing things like stretching out “Brothersport” to around 12-minutes. I may not have gotten a single song from my beloved Strawberry Jam, but this was one hell of a performance just the same.
The rest of Friday was relatively peaceful. Up at the Crystal Ballroom, indie rock royalty Superchunk were putting on a giant show, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with every single song, including new cuts like “FOH” and “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo”. Speaking of frenzy, just down the street, we watched from the side as FIDLAR proved why Backspace is the best venue for punk bands during MFNW, at a show that was at-capacity enough that the Fire Marshall was decidedly miffed. Just half a block away, Surfer Blood were proving that they’ve been taking the same drugs The Joy Formidable have been; I haven’t seen Surfer Blood since MFNW ’10, but in the interim they’ve amped up their game in a way that proved to be awe-inspiring. This is a band that deserves way more praise than they get, and it’s clear that last year’s domestic assault allegations haven’t sullied the output of the band – or John Paul Pitts’ appetite. Closing the evening, we watched approximately three minutes (or 18 songs) by Ty Segall from the outside of the venue. The crowd outside Dante’s was larger than any line there I’ve ever seen, and from the looks of it, it was about equal to the capacity of the venue itself. However, Segall sounded fantastic.
The last day of KEXP at the Doug Fir is a bittersweet one. We arrive to a minimal line, and I notice Patrick Stickles, frontman of Titus Andronicus, walk past us. I approached him, and true to form, was treated to a short, stressed-out rant about the kind of morning he’d been having, before snatching my cigarettes and taking one with an assured “gimme one of those.” Stickles has a reputation for being something of an asshole to some people (note: I thought he ruled, but I’ve heard some things), but the worst thing about this is that he’s basically a genius. Down in the Doug Fir, Titus Andronicus ripped through an all-killer-no-filler set, which was fast enough to have seven minutes to kill at the end (which was filled with – what else? – “A More Perfect Union [We cannot confirm nor deny that Hollister lost his mind to this song more than any other during the festival — Ed.]), but still managed to squeeze a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “I’ve Lost My Mind,” as well as a 45-second track from the band’s upcoming 30-song rock opera. Cooling things down a bit, the goof-rockers in Dodos tore through a breezy section of their back catalog, giving the morning crowd a taste of what their Star Theater headline set might look like. The Thermals delivered one of the tightest sets I’ve seen from them yet, ripping through 10 songs in the allotted 30 minutes, somehow made every grumpy MFNW vet in the room feel like a 17-year-old with all the The Body The Blood The Machine tracks they shook the dust off of. Closing KEXP’s Doug Fir coverage for the year was Sonny & the Sunsets. This year’s Antenna to the Afterworld was an excellent listen, but this close to the finish line, sitting down for their set was not what I needed. Regardless, Sonny Smith and his band delivered.
Your Rival // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
One more day party for the road? Just a block away, Burnside Brewing Co. was hosting a folktastic showcase of bands, and we managed to catch Hook & Anchor and their Decemberists-lite song-stylings, and Alialujah Choir‘s vocal opulence, plus a few minutes of a Shy Girls DJ set. I caught this same thing at the MFNW lineup announcement show, and I’m more than happy to see it again – especially because I feel less bored this rime around. We then caught friend-of-the-show Mo Troper’s band You Rival in the week’s best venue: Floating World Comix. There’s nothing sillier than walking into a comic shop and seeing guitars and a drumkit set up. Troper and co. are fantastic at working with the spaces given to them, and despite the fact that I watched their set from behind a book case, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in any other sweaty club I’d been to this week.
Over at the square, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down proved to be exactly what we needed: middle-of-the-road indie pop in the warm afternoon, perfectly soundtracking a few moments of calm on the last insane day of the long weekend. After a little gelato – and a conversation about a shitty event that occurred at the previous night’s FIDLAR show – I was perfectly ready for The Head & The Heart. I first saw the band opening for Iron & Wine in May of ’11, and when they were announced as a headliner, I found myself somewhat baffled. However, in the early evening air, with a massive crowd, The Head & The Heart proved that they were exactly the kind of headliner MFNW needed. Josiah Johnson charmed the pants off that crowd, and though they’re not a band I’d consider myself a fan of, for a brief period, I felt converted.
Earth // Photo Credit: Colin McLaughlin
Let’s start by saying that we did not see Shuggie Otis or Charles Bradley. Leaving the Roseland to try and catch this show, we discovered a massive line waiting for us, one that we weren’t prepared to deal with. But, at the Roseland, we did manage to see Earth, and from the first note, I felt like I was in heaven. I’ve waited a long time to see Earth, and I felt like I was truly in the presence of greatness. This is drone at its greatest, and watching them play is a true sight to behold. Their drummer appears to be playing in slow motion, with every beat exactly in its place. It was truly captivating. One of the few bands that is capable of following a band like that is Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band that should never, ever be missed. The band went on after 10 minutes of prerecorded drones, and the crowd ate up ever single second of it. I left to catch a couple other bands during this set, but I came back for the last 20 minutes of their set, in which I got a chance to really appreciate a few things about the band, the most impressive being their projectionist, who made the band’s signature visuals a true art form. As the band slowly leaves the stage, I notice that one of the drummers, Aidan Girt, is walking past me. Because I’ve never been able to imagine I’d have the ability to thank a member of GY!BE for their music, I give him a tap and let him know that he was fantastic. After running to the bathroom, he comes back briefly, and I gush a little more. You could definitely tell that he’s not used to people wanting to speak with him, because it’s the very first time I’ve ever seen a musician at a loss for words. It seems apt.
Elsewhere, I caught a few minutes of the wonderfully named Bleeding Rainbow, which beautifully set the stage for Dodos, who managed to bring an even better, tighter set than they had earlier that afternoon. Over at Backspace, Team Dresch performed for another at-capacity room, who were happy as could be. “You’re better than The Breeders!” someone yelled out. “I dunno about that,” Donna Dresch said, bashfully. “The Breeders are really good.” Closing out the last full night of MFNW, we popped over to a somehow forgotten Dante’s, and manage about five minutes of the blistering fury of The Bronx. Matt Caughtran is possibly one of the only hardcore frontmen living who can match the intensity of Fucked Up kingpin Pink Eyes, but he stalks the stage with a swagger that does nothing to betray the band’s alter-ego Mariachi El Bronx. The Bronx are goddamn serious, and you’re going to pay attention.
This is the first day in nearly a week that my body has woken me up organically. I awake at 1:30pm, and it turns out that I’d had a gracious, understanding body: In my lack of sleep, I’d never had the opportunity to truly rest, but now that I had, my body was more than happy to throw four days of aches at me. Did anyone get the plate of the truck that hit me?
Because of the nature of Pioneer Square as a venue, there’s no true point in arriving early. I showed up just a few minutes after the first band took the stage, The Moondoggies and Pickwick. The overwhelming problem with the oddly designated “folk” stage is that, for whatever reason, they never manage to bring together artists with any pizzazz. This year is no different: my plan here was to simply talk about the bands, but I find myself wholly unable, because they proved to be somewhat forgettable.
Neko Case // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
You know what’s not forgettable, though? Neko Case. I’ve been excited for this performance since the MFNW announcement, and now that the moment is finally here, I can’t help but be thrilled. Let’s just get the important thing outta the way first: Neko Case can sing. She’s got pipes like almost nobody in the business, and this, combined with her impeccable songwriting, makes her one of the must underrated performers of the last 10 years. She and her band brought their A-game for that Square. But then there’s the chemistry between Case and her guitarist, Kelly Hogan, was hard to ignore. It’s entirely possible that they could have played an additional five or six songs if they had managed to tone it down, but why would you want that? Example: at one point in a song, Case coughed. After the end, she let everyone know that she was sorry, she had a balloon of cocaine caught in her throat. “I think that’s the wrong end,” Hogan replied. “I just thought I would bring some nice artisenal bespoke cocaine, from our friends in Columbia. You know, for the kids!” It went on like this more than once. They were filthy and rambling, and I can’t imagine a single person leaving that Square without a newfound adoration for the woman. Neko Case is so magnetic that even I didn’t truly care that Archers Of Loaf/Crooked Fingers frontman Eric Bachmann was playing with her.
And that was it! There was another show that evening (Big Gigantic was up at the Crystal Ballroom), but there was too much work to be done at FOTR HQ for that. In any case, there’s no beating that performance for a festival closer. Looking back on the week, there are ways I could have seen more bands than I did, but the one thing you always need to make peace with, before ever snapping your wristband, is that you just can’t see every band. I’m not going to complain, though. See you next year, everyone!
Final Tally: 41-43* Artists Seen. 40-42* Unique Artists Seen
*This tally is a little difficult because of Fred Armisen’s performance. The higher number is dependent on counting Ian Rubbish as a separate artist, and counting Bob Mould’s solo performance as its own entry. For the sake of excellence, I include both separate from Armisen.