By Hollister Dixon
When the merger of MusicFest Northwest and Project Pabst was announced, I had my concerns and doubts. There’s always a worry that it’ll be a “too many cooks in the kitchen” affair, where everything adds up to be less than the sum of its parts. I’ve been a die-hard fan of MFNW for years, but when compared to the lineups of Project Pabst in the two years that the festival has been at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, the newcomer Project Pabst has completely outpaced the longer-running festival with a focus on acts that make you say, “Wait, they’re playing Project Pabst? That’s so cool.” To put it simply: it says a lot about that festival that Violent Femmes performing their first album front-to-back is an act that had to be relegated to the undercard in the first year. MusicFest Northwest at the Waterfront was a blast both years, but it was hard to ignore that the lineups both years felt a little too predictable at times.
The marriage of two minds that lead to MusicFest Northwest Presents Project Pabst (or just Project Pabst for short; sorry MFNW, but the full thing is just a mouthful), a two day (or five, if you count the night shows) Waterfront Park blowout with the likes of Ice Cube, Ween, Duran Duran, Tame Impala, Drive Like Jehu, and more.
My biggest disappointment this year came in the form of adulthood getting in the way of the full immersion I’ve always loved to engage in. Other than seeing Guided By Voices at the Crystal Ballroom, I completely missed the first day of the festival because of work, leaving Arya Imig to pick up the slack. Here’s what I saw during my few hours at the festival on Sunday:
I arrived just in time to hear Philadelphia’s Hop Along, a band I’ve meant to see for quite awhile but have missed entirely. On paper, Hop Along aren’t anything to write home about, but what makes them truly special is the vocal delivery of frontwoman Frances Quinlan. I am a known sucker for any singer willing to allow their own vocal imperfections to shine, and Quinlan’s permanently raspy yawp is better than just about anyone singing on any stage this particular day. It’s caught somewhere between Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema, with just a splash of Tom Waits. The band is still running strong on the strength of 2015’s Painted Shut, and though I’m extremely excited to hear what the band have in store for their next album (whenever that may be), it was pretty comforting to wander the grounds of Waterfront Part to Quinlan’s strained voice.
At the other end of the Park was the second part of a Philly Double Header with Sheer Mag, who got the short end of the stick by having to play in the ugly 3pm sun, rendering the band sweaty and red by the time their set was over. Their discomfort was our gain, as the unintended look helped flesh out the fantastic punk energy the band put out, all bolstered by the stage presence of frontwoman Tina Halladay. I went into their set completely blind, and I came out wanting more than just the spattering of 7″ they’ve put out over the last few years. I know that they’re a punk band, but give me more, please!
With that, let’s talk about Tina Halladay for a moment. In music, the appearance of the performer is really not supposed to be important. It’s something we dance around whenever possible because, at the end of the day, it only matters if the band sounds good and performs well. As a man writing about music, talking about appearance is even more of an off-limits thing to do, but let’s be real here: Tina Halladay is a bigger bodied woman, and that’s fantastic. It doesn’t matter that Halladay is a big person. But, at the same time, it does: getting to see a fat woman front a punk band on a huge stage at a high-profile music festival is a small thing, but is sends a message to people who look like me, and my girlfriend, and countless friends who don’t look like every other performer at every other music festival that being thin is not actually a prerequisite for playing music. I can pretend it doesn’t matter, but representation does matter, and getting to see people who look like you on a huge stage means walking away from that performance with the knowledge that if you make great music, you don’t need to have the same body type as every other musician.
Across the Park, I finally got a chance to see Parquet Courts. I heard and enjoyed Sunbathing Animal, but I never kept up with their records. They’ve developed a devoted fanbase in the last five years, and though they put on a great performance, I couldn’t help but feel like I missed out by not seeing them on a small stage in a small room. Their stripped back post-punk sound seemed woefully out of place on a huge, sun-drenched stage, but the kids (if you could call 21+ Parquet Courts fans rocking out “kids) seemed to not care about the chance to see the band play on any stage, any day of the week. I haven’t listened to this year’s Human Performance yet, but the tracks played from that record sounded great. I’m going to wait until the next time they stop by to pass judgment on the band as a live act, I think – it’s almost never fair to judge a band based on their performance at a festival.
I ended up skipping Unknown Mortal Orchestra – a tremendous band that deserves the success they’ve gained over the years – to get a good spot for Drive Like Jehu. Project Pabst have a few traditions (see: their yearly 80s pop blowout), but the best one is their yearly airing of a fantastic old punk band. The first year got us Rocket From The Crypt, so almost made too much sense to bring John Reis back for an hour of blistering, expansive post-punk.
I had my doubts about how Drive Like Jehu would sound on a giant stage when the lineup was announced and my excitement settled, and this was exacerbated by the good-but-not-great show I’d just seen from Parquet Courts. But Parquet Courts are no Drive Like Jehu, and as such, that hour they played was a tour de force of masterful guitar work and punk dissonance. This year, Project Pabst had cameras onstage that were being fed onto a JumboTron next to each stage, meaning it was much easier to watch the tremendous guitar faces of Reis and Rick Froberg, which was half the fun of watching the band play. The band took nearly 20 years off after their short five years together, but they have the sound and tightness of a band that have been playing together daily for 30 years – every moment was blissful, blistering lockstep. The band played a show that evening at Bunk Bar, right across the river, and I deeply regret not attending that show as well. If any of the reunited bands at this year’s festival need to put out another record, it’s this one. They’ve still got it.
My night could have ended with the evening’s headliner, Tame Impala, but nothing could possibly compare to wandering across the Park to be blindsided by the impossible power of Ween. From the time the lineup was announced, all the way up to when I made my way into the crowd, I had the same attitude about Ween: “They’re okay, though they’re not really my thing.” That changed roughly three songs in, and steadily grew into feelings of awe and disbelief at just how tight of a live act they are. It shouldn’t shock me, really; they’ve been doing this for over 30 years at this point (minus a four-year break while Gene Ween focused on his own sobriety), I should hope they’re a tight live band at this point.
What was striking to me, however, is how they managed to play an hour of genre-bending, no-two-similar-songs-in-a-row music that inexplicably worked perfectly, and kept the crowd in a state of constant joy throughout the whole hour. I myself had a moment, when the full band came back in after Claude Coleman performed a blistering drum solo during “Don’t Squeal”, where the disbelief at how great the solo had been collided with how everyone else came back in at the exact same moment, where it felt as though my brain had snapped in half and I just started laughing with pure, unbridled joy. I spoke previously about the transformative power of a Guided By Voices show, and I walked away from this Ween show feeling like I’d made an egregious error by not spending more time with this band for the last few years.
I don’t mean to gush so much, so I’ll wrap this up with just one tweet that perfectly encapsulates how I felt after that show:
My #ProjectPabst in a nutshell:
Saturday: Yeah Ween are okay I guess
Monday: (in shower) DON’T GET TOO CLOSE TO MY FANTASYYYYY
— A$AP Holly (@TemporaryLife) August 31, 2016