MFNW ’14: The Jacob Gellman Report

By Jacob Gellman

It was a year of ends and beginnings for MusicFestNW. The festival was a capstone for Trevor Solomon, MFNW Executive Director since 2006, who moves to Boston in September to take over booking for the Boston Calling festival. Following a climactic double encore from headliner Spoon, VIP-section chants of “Trevor! … Trevor! … Trevor!” were audible over the noise of the exiting crowd.

It was also a trail blazing year, a transition from America’s third largest indoor music festival to a two-day, two-stage, outdoor waterfront festival. A far cry from 2010’s 200 band roster, this year’s lineup featured just 18 daytime performers, with nine nighttime shows scattered across Portland. The change in format disappointed some, but I went into the weekend with an open mind and an open heart. This is a new beast. So, how was the experience of the condensed festival?

Fucking awesome! Here’s why:

  • Easier transit. The old format truly required a car if you hoped to schlep around town with any sort of efficiency. This year, all the music was in one central location (save for the nighttime shows), so herds of festival goers had but a few hundred feet separating them from one performance and the next. Each intermission saw a mass exodus of the crowd from one end of the park to the other, a dusty stampede of sunglasses, paisley bro tanks, and high waisted jean shorts. “Just follow the mob.”
  • No more Sophie’s Choice. MFNWers have always romanticized the act of creating a personal schedule, but I honestly used to hate missing one band to see another, or leaving shows early to try to catch the next one.
  • Your friends are always in the same place as you. This is no exaggeration: about 80% of the times I texted Arya Imig to find out where he was, I looked up from my phone to see him straight ahead of me. In years past he might have been across town, or dead, or drunk and stranded in North Portland.
  • No more lines. Once you’re in you’re in, and all of your needs are met for the day (food, water, toilets, beer). Remember getting turned away from shows because you didn’t show up early enough to wait in line?
  • The mixing and sound quality was consistent. Levels were almost always right for every instrument, and noticeable adjustments were made by the soundboard operators during performances. One example: Wild Ones guitarist Nick Vicario’s vocals were inaudible at the start of their performance, but by the end his mic was on roughly equal levels with lead vocalist Danielle Sullivan. After years of enduring the inconsistency between venues (like the Wonder Ballroom’s sometimes-terrible mixing), it was a relief to hear all of the instruments in every band.
  • I consider the “corporate” aspect of festivals to be a necessary evil, but the food carts and sponsor tents did create a nice village-like atmosphere, with great perks to boot. The Kind Bar distributed free Kind bars and lemon-infused water, with a silent disco in the shade; the American Apparel bazar was hocking $2 bro tanks. Chevrolet offered free sunglasses to anyone that sold out their identity and personal information in a short survey. I gladly complied, entering my full name (“Andrew Wiggins”) and email (“qwcjf@f.com”) in exchange for some sweet eye-shielding shades. Two experiences I avoided: beer for $6 per 12 oz. cup, and the Camel tent, which sported a “Nicotine users welcome!” sign and appeared to be a desert cave made to entrap youngsters in a smoke-filled psychedelic haze of Camel brand products. But did I mention the food carts? Bunk Sandwiches, Grilled Cheese Grill, Bro Dogs, and Stumptown cold brews were my personal food and drink highlights.

But all of that aside, the music is why we go in the first place! This year’s lineup was heavily composed of returning bands: Spoon, Girl Talk, Phantogram, Future Islands, Man Man, Fucked Up, and The Antlers have all been here before. And the move makes sense – in a new format with unforeseeable variables, these were acts that MFNW organizers could trust. Many have also not been to Portland in years. Between songs Spoon singer Britt Daniel lamented that the band had not played in the Rose City since a Crystal Ballroom show at MFNW 2009, skipping Portland during their Transference tour despite the fact that he “was living here at the time.” More than anything, the lineup was timely: all of this year’s bands are touring new (and critically acclaimed) material from 2013 and 2014.

So without further ado, here is a review of some of the key performances from Saturday (as Faces On The Radio writer Jacob Heiteen has already reviewed Sunday’s acts):

Thundercat
Los Angeles-based Stephen Bruner is a veteran of the scene, most noted for his work with Suicidal Tendencies and
Flying Lotus. As Thundercat, he takes the stage at MFNW to promote his 2013 solo album Apocalypse, along with an organist and a drummer as supporting cast. While Bruner is more than capable as a vocalist, the focus is clearly his virtuosic technical ability on the bass.

Thundercat // Photo by Yousef Hatlani

Thundercat is truly a genre-defying act and should not be put into a box, but I will do so anyway. I would classify the sound thusly: the keys and drums follow pretty standard jazz structures, the singing R&B, and the bass percussive funk. As with any jazz fusion act, there is a heavy emphasis on instrumental interludes – Bruner solos high on the neck of his six-string electric bass, and attains tastefully diverse sounds using various pedals. The organ and drums feel unfortunately monochromatic.

The best moments of Thundercat, for me, are the singing, because of the melody. Bruner’s singing has a clean sound, and the lyrics are pure psychedelic brilliance: “Open your ears and your mind / You’d be surprised what you find / We’re only human.” But the melodic strengths are lost in minutes-long jazz breakdowns that don’t go anywhere. Jazz is supposed to display talent, but Thundercat felt lost between two worlds.

Gardens & Villa
I came to the festival knowing nothing about Gardens & Villa except that they were in good company on record label Secretly Canadian, home to Animal Collective, Major Lazer, The War On Drugs, Suuns, Yeasayer, et al. Even recognizing their gargantuan peers, I had zero expectations.

That said, I am thoroughly impressed by their tight and well-rehearsed performance. The music is packed with 80s-inspired synth dance hooks, led by a fantastic tenor vocalist and guitarist in Chris Lynch. Bass player Shane McKillop explores a wide range of roles, generally snaking around dancey embellishments and sometimes driving the melody. His slap bass on the final song is perfectly delivered. Live, Adam Rasmussen’s progressive synths fill out the bulk of the sonic space and distinguish one song from the next more than any other instrument.

The sign of great pop writers, each song truly stands on its own, with recognizable choruses and hooks, especially the flute lines by Lynch. When he first reveals the flute my kneejerk reaction is to roll my eyes and dismiss it as a gimmick, but his melodies fit perfectly into a genre that already uses flute-like noises in synth form. Whatever reverb or delay they apply to that flute, it blends perfectly with their cosmic sound.

And those outfits though. Lynch’s beret and Lennon-esque circular shades are certainly eccentric, but are outshone by Rasmussen’s bizarre trench coat, which he eventually disrobes to reveal a button-up shirt with the sleeves cut off. Lynch displays great crowd banter, frequently hailing “The Mighty Willamette!” and dedicating one song to “the declining salmon population.” Having recorded two albums with Richard Swift in Oregon, this Californian band clearly understands its audience and seems elated to be here. I, for one, was happy to have them.

Man Man
As MFNW costumes go, I would rate Man Man’s black shirts and blue and yellow tie dyed pants as second only to tUnE-yArDs’ neon make-up and wigs. Like Faces On The Radio writer Jacob Heiteen, I can appreciate a great costume! Man Man’s stage presence complements their theatrical and sometimes over-the-top music. Seeing their energetic performance, it is clear to me why singer Honus Honus paired so nicely with Nick Thorburn of Islands for their supergroup project Mister Heavenly.

The stage setup immediately jumped out at me, as drummer Pow Pow was displayed prominently in the front alongside Honus on keys. How I wish I could be a fly on the wall of Pow’s thoughts; his brain must be that of a chess player plotting twenty moves ahead, every DUGGA DUGGA of the drum crisp and perfectly timed. He was by far the most talented drummer at the festival, achieving unfathomably complex beats and fills.

Man Man // Photo by Yousef Hatlani

But while Man Man all have skill, talent, technique, and even stage presence, I just can’t get past the music’s lack of dynamics. Every song goes from loud, to louder, to loudest, to – well, you get the idea. It doesn’t matter if they add a trumpet or a shaker or a marimba here and there to be quirky, because every song felt unfortunately the same.

Future Islands
No Future Islands review is complete without a nod to the band’s viral performance on The Late Show with David Letterman in March, which was widely circulated in the blogosphere and has now garnered over 2 million views on YouTube. The appearance undoubtedly broadened their audience and showed the world what longtime Future Islands fans already knew: they are an absolutely sensational live performance. Given their newfound popularity, their presence at MFNW seemed like great timing, but few might realize that Executive Director Trevor Solomon actually booked the group before the Letterman appearance.

One of the things I love about Future Islands is the simple setup: one synth, one bass, one drum kit, and one singer filling the stage with his energy. Save for his long golden hair flowing in the breeze, bassist William Cashion barely moves from his place, and keyboard player Gerrit Welmers scarcely looks up at the crowd. Their presence is a constant, a true backing band for a true frontman in Samuel Herring – he is the unpredictable variable. His rubber legs bend and sway and shimmy across the stage, an unbelievable display of dancing not seen in any indie band of this generation. His vocals are also unpredictable; while the instrumentals sound flawlessly true to the studio albums, Herring is prone to deep screams, growls, and hums where they might not have been present in the recorded tracks.

One exception to the instrumentalists’ precise sound is in “Balance” from 2011’s On the Water, which actually sounds better in concert. Welmers has cranked the attack on his synth for this song, adding vigor to what was a melancholy track on the album. The live version feels like an all-out dance hit, whereas it never met its potential in the original recording.

For a band that prides itself on connecting to its audience, Future Islands stay true to their mission. Herring introduces the whole band several times, deferring to Cashion as “the funniest” of the band. There’s a humanizing quality when he speaks to the audience in his normal voice before slipping into that devastating growl, or that baritone swoon. He announces the title of every song before playing and describes the meaning, unlocking the secrets of the music for the audience. “We have to find darkness to find the light,” he explains as the band begins “Seasons (Waiting On You).” “If you know someone in a dark place, you can help them,” he pleads before “Light House.”

Perhaps the best moment of the performance is during “Walking Through That Door,” during which Herring withdraws an imaginary pen from his pocket to write in the air, thrashes around stage, and, tormented and expressive, kneels before the audience to clasp hands with the front row. It is an unbelievable and chilling performance from one of the hardest working bands at this year’s festival.

Setlist:

  1. “Back in the Tall Grass”
  2. “Sun in the Morning”
  3. “Walking Through That Door”
  4. “Balance”
  5. “Before the Bridge”
  6. “A Dream of You and Me”
  7. “The Fountain”
  8. “A Song for Our Grandfathers”
  9. “Light House”
  10. “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
  11. “Spirit”

Run the Jewels
I can never forget the timing of Run the Jewels’ eponymous 2013 debut, perfectly sandwiched between records by Kanye West and Jay-Z in a three week span. Killer Mike had a great shot at both of them in that album: “Your idols all are my rivals / I rival all of your idols.” He’s right.

El-P and Killer Mike perform their entire debut album in order, a short 32 minutes of material elongated by hilarious crowd interaction between songs. I love that they open with the first track from the album, also called Run the Jewels, because it’s their introductory song, an opener with style and swagger. Seeing the two spit lines on stage makes it clear just how talented these rappers are, on a level their studio album can’t convey on its own. Every line is perfect.

Run The Jewels // Photo by Yousef Hatlani

Disappointingly, their performance is sparsely attended compared to other acts. I wish more could bear witness to Killer Mike and El-P’s hysterical interaction with the crowd and with each other. “Mike’s mom put him on a diet,” El-P reveals. Their commentary usually relates to the upcoming songs – in advance of “36” Chain,” El-P advises the crowd to save money, go to the thrift store, and by an invisible 36” chain “so people can’t fuck with you.” Killer Mike introduces the DJ as their “Clyde Drexler DJ,” a nod to the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1990s Hall of Famer. “We are really, really, really really stoned,” admits El-P. Whatever they’re smoking, it either enhances their rap ability, or they’re so talented that nothing would hold them back anyway.

Setlist:

  1. “Run the Jewels”
  2. “Banana Clipper”
  3. “36” Chain”
  4. “DDFH”
  5. “Sea Legs”
  6. “Job Well Done”
  7. “No Come Down”
  8. “Get It”
  9. “Twin Hype Back”
  10. “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”

Phantogram
Phantogram receive an enthusiastic reception when they take the stage. “Hello Portland… we’re so content to be back, it’s always so nice,” begins vocalist Sarah Barthel. She’s dressed in tight leather pants, a gold chain, and a black shirt with the words “I’m a fucking nightmare” in tall, skinny white letters. “We like the new format [of MFNW]… you only get a few months of summer here so you always enjoy it,” she explains.

The band definitely has the most “festival-appropriate” sound of any of the day’s acts, but it might just be because the reverb on everything is cranked so high, and I don’t just mean the guitars – the vocals and drums both have that watery, washed out quality. It makes for a full and atmospheric sound, dreamlike. Unfortunately, the reverb is not enough to cover up guitarist Josh Carter’s average vocals.

“Mouthful of Diamonds” earns the biggest cheers from the audience, but it is actually an underwhelming rendition, as if the band is going through the motions. Maybe their greatest hit, Phantogram get it out of the way within the first four songs, which must be intentional. “When I’m Small,” the other single from their debut album Eyelid Movies, feels much more emotional.

But the band is here promoting its newest album, Voices, which peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Alternative chart. Unfortunately, I just can’t get into their newer material, and I’ve listened to it a lot. The live performance does nothing to rectify my indifference toward the new album. Phantogram may always be a band whose sound is promising, but whose songwriting rarely meets its potential.

Girl Talk
“WHAT’S UP POOOORTLAND!!!” Girl Talk is an incredibly popular act for some reason, and a great headliner. People love him. This is my third time witnessing his live performance, and I guess that I “get it.” He played twice at my university and invited students to come dance on stage; similarly, at MFNW, the stage is filled with people vibing to his mashups, though this time I don’t manage to catch where they come from – I’m leaving early to decompress before Com Truise.

But I do stay for a few songs, and I must admit to the awesomeness of his performances. The stage has two giant inflatable sneakers, just… just because. Toilet paper rolls attached to leaf blowers spray the crowd and are reloaded. Girl Talk’s mashups really are genius, though it saddens me to see him merely dance in front of a laptop. I can never help but wonder what he’s doing on there – is he just pressing play? He couldn’t be doing much live, because he spends most of his time dancing. Maybe I don’t “get it,” but he seems to have universal appeal to indie and Top 40 crowds. Whatever it is, people love it.

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