What some of us might call the Pacific Northwest’s best music festival — and maybe the next and more relaxed SXSW — is Musicfest NW, a multi-day spread across Portland’s best venues. Featuring diverse and exceptional booking, we’ve split our coverage this year between indie staples, unconventional dance acts, and heavy riffers. Over the course of four days, we gush about everyone from Hot Snakes to The Helio Sequence, Mean Jeans to Omar Souleyman, John Maus to Pure Bathing Culture… and many more, including Swans, Beirut, and Chelsea Wolfe, to name a few.

TEXT BY VIVIAN HUA & ERIK BURG; PHOTOGRAPHY BY LYMAY IWASAKI & NATHAN WATTERS


SEE FULL FESTIVAL RECAP & PHOTO GALLERY

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Red Fang

When Red Fang’s beardy, Pabst-swilling selves took the stage at Roseland Theater, the crowd thundered with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping welcome as driving as the band’s opening notes. In a bill consisting of them, Hungry Ghost, and Hot Snakes, Red Fang were easily the crowd favorites of the night. They built off of the unintentionally playful sonics of Hungry Ghost by one-upping similar rhythms and stylistic shifts into much gnarlier and more interesting territory. With every seemingly mediocre or white bread songwriting move came the crust of a more delicious lick; their beastly instrumental slaughtering led to their carving out juicy hunks of musical turkey, next to what had previously been cold and bland deli meat. Red Fang have gained an extensive following locally and beyond in recent years, and the ease with which they toe the line between accessibility and unpredictable manipulation is one main reason. Even those who can’t stand their brand of rock can appreciate that they do what they do with a high caliber of professionalism and an impressive display of confidence. VIVIAN HUA

SEE ALSO: CHARITABLE MUSICIANS: RED FANG BENEFIT PORTLAND ARTS EDUCATION (W/ INTERVIEW)

 


Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 (cont’d)

Hot Snakes

Hot Snakes took the stage a little after eleven. The newly resurrected band are now semi-legends by trade and scene legends by association, through guitarist John Reis and vocalist Rick Froberg’s later involvement in Drive Like Jehu. What could one expect now, eight years after the release of Hot Snakes’ 2004 release, Audit In Progress? Admittedly, I didn’t go see Hot Snakes in their hey day, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that the crowd was at least a degree — or ten — more excited back then. Fans of Hot Snakes have themselves aged as the band has aged, and they no longer seem willing to muster up the energy they used to. Add that to the fact that Hot Snakes frenetic nature is also much more well-suited for intimate clubs than massive venues like Roseland, where a raised stage throws a degree of separation between performer and concertgoer, and you have a setting that is not wholly unsuitable, but remains far from ideal nonetheless. Despite these obstacles, however, Hot Snakes themselves were nothing short of awesome, from start to finish. Pummeling waves of distorted and percussive guitar riffs, scowling vocals, technical tightness, and a high degree of camaraderie reminded everyone of exactly what they wanted from the Hot Snakes they loved and missed. Here, one is reminded of the fanaticism with which Refused’s recent reunion has unleashed up the masses, who’ve claimed that the Swedish band’s return to the scene has made it feel as though they’d never left. One could potentially say the same for Hot Snakes, maybe, but only if one decided to ignore the crowd completely. Though Hot Snakes performed with precision and a welcome degree of aggression, their fans had lost their energy-fueled sparks. Had both audience and performers been on the same page, Hot Snakes’ set at the Roseland would have been an engulfing flame of an experience. As it stood, their set was perfectly enjoyable — but more than anything, it was doing a service for the nostalgic hearts of fans. VIVIAN HUA

 

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

White Fang

What better way to kick off my experience at Portland’s bastard music festival than with a bunch of cast offs and miscreants? Which I of course mean in the nicest way possible, as Gnar Tapes founders and headliners White Fang have grown to embody Portland’s outwardly punk attitude of the past few years. There were songs about friendship and drugs and lead singer Eric Gage doing cartwheels on stage, as the band played to a sparse but enthusiastic crowd on early Thursday night. Even though hardly a week goes by here in Portland without White Fang playing a show, I never tire of seeing this fun-loving foursome take the stage. Maybe it’s a sad attempt to live vicariously through a group’s music or attitude, but White Fang embody the sort of youthful exuberance and carefree nature that I’ve always lusted after, and seeing them live each time, there there’s no denying these guys will never run out of that spark. ERIK BURG

 

Mean Jeans

From one punk rock band to the next, I made my way over to Star Theater for Mean Jeans, another band famous for screaming the title of songs before tearing into each of them. Playing a decent amount of new material from their recently released record, Mean Jeans on Mars, the group has really cleaned up their sound since last time I’d seen them perform. Their music was as sharp, loud and terrific as usual, but their performance and the looks on the members’ faces was something of a serious matter. It appears as though these Portland by way of Virginia folks know that if they truly focus their efforts and stop messing around constantly, that maybe good things will come. So even though the show didn’t get totally out of hand, as some of Mean Jeans’ shows are wont to do, the small theater provided the perfect stage for this burgeoning act. ERIK BURG

 

Omar Souleyman

Omar Souleyman, who performs in both Kurdish and Arabic, sings with classic Arabic mawal-style vocalizations and creates a type of intense electronic dance music not far removed from house or typical dance club staples. This particular evening, Souleyman was backed only by one man on synthesizers — rather than his usual two — and the performance reminded me very much of a time when I was on vacation in Turkey. I had been completely wowed over the course of dinner by a musician who managed to pull every terrible sound from his keyboard to create sweet and completely non-ironic dance music, though it most definitely would have seemed ironic had it been created by Westerners. But herein lies the beauty of acts like Omar Souleyman. You, as concertgoer, start feeling less self-conscious about your able body when you realize the performer on stage is an elderly man wearing a head scarf and sunglasses, and that his synth player is a ridiculous shredder who can probably take out all of your friends in a synth-off. Souleyman does little more than sing when on stage. But when he turns his face towards you and claps like a grandpa both enjoying himself and disapproving slightly, there is a surprisingly compelling quality that is hard to finger — but its result is a crowd of dancing and clapping lunatics. VIVIAN HUA


LYMAY IWASAKI

 

John Maus

After watching Omar Souleyman perform, I returned to Doug Fir Lounge, where I had previously watched an evening of dance music from Portland locals Swahili, Strategy, and Onuinu. But now the vibe had changed. Like Omar Souleyman, John Maus puts on a powerful performance of karaoke mastery — but his is perhaps even more powerful, due to the fact that he vocalizes over what seems to be only an iPod. As Maus sweatily pounded through his songs, he channeled his inner Shakespeare numerous times, extending his tightly closed fist outwards like Yorick holding a skull in Hamlet. To say that Maus loses himself in the moment would be an understatement. On stage, he becomes a flopping bag of blood and bones, running a one-person marathon with occasional moments of headbanging, invisible trampolining, and fist-pumping. When one learns that he graduated from art school and pursued further education to become a professor of Philosophy, his intense interpretation of dance music begins to make some sense. His live show, full of percussive vocal chanting and an endless amount of energy, may be the holy grail of performance art for some. For me, I’m not quite sure what I think yet — and that in itself may answer the question, in the affirmative. VIVIAN HUA


LYMAY IWASAKI

 

King Khan & The Shrines

Even though the air was cool, those packed into Dante’s on Thursday night were a hot and sweaty bunch. Led by the coordinated efforts of King Khan And His Sensational Shrines, the group played one of the most energetic and entertaining sets of the weekend. Commanding the stage in his feathered hat and adorned with shells around his neck, King Khan was a powerful force on stage, not only with his voice but even with the point of his finger or the tapping of his feet. Burning through tracks new and old, the band seemed completely in sync, even if there hasn’t been a proper King Khan record in years. Also the keyboardist picked up his Korg CX-3, set it on my back in the front row and played a song with me as its support. So yeah, it got a little crazy. ERIK BURG

 

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Beirut

Seeing Beirut in 2012 might not be the sexiest, hippest pick, but regardless of other buzz-worthy artists, the student of the world best known as Zach Condon put on a hell of a performance. Staged perfectly between the bustling downtown traffic Friday night, Beirut played the last concert of their North American tour at Musicfest NW, and it is one that will not soon be forgotten by its patrons. The music was timeless, classless and magical — exactly the kinds of emotions I associate with Portland, and exactly what made the show such a fitting conclusion for the tour. Whether it was “Sunday Smile,” “Postcards From Italy,” or “East Harlem” from his newest album The Rip Tide, Condon and company had the entire square singing along and cheering in unison. It was a bit more mild-mannered than anything else I saw, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t exactly what I needed. ERIK BURG


NATHAN WATTERS

 

The Helio Sequence

Portland’s own Helio Sequence took the stage at the Crystal Ballroom at just the right time Friday night. With the word of their new album beginning to spread, and the promise they showed at Sasquatch festival this year, the band appear primed for a huge breakout this Fall. Opening with two of their most crowd-pleasing tracks, “Can’t Say No” and “Lately,” the twosome eventually settled into a pattern of new, blisteringly hypnotic and gazing tracks. There was a confidence and gratefulness which radiated from both members, and by the end of the set, it felt like one of the most honest sets of all the festival. Negotiations will finally hit store shelves this week, and after this masterful, lengthy set, these locals should top the charts all around the city’s record stores. ERIK BURG


NATHAN WATTERS

 

Black Mountain

JagJaguwar’s Black Mountain have gained a fairly legendary reputation since their first releases in 2004. In my mind, Black Mountain utilize in their psychedelic framework as much hard rock straightness as is possible without becoming too generic. Powerful synth-organ lines drive songs or serve as accompaniment to massive guitar lines that crescendo at the band’s most rollicking points, to excellent ends. This particular evening at Doug Fir Lounge, vocalist Amy Webber looked bored during the band’s more minimal tracks, but when her and vocalist and guitarist Stephen Mcbean’s voices harmonized in unison, Webber’s voice added a welcome female dynamic to the band’s more masculine and heavy songs. On their more gentle duets, which were sprinkled intermittently throughout ethe set, McBean and Webber seemed to complement one another romantically, even when the lyrics were singing nothing of the sort. VIVIAN HUA

 

Chelsea Wolfe

After seeing most of Black Mountain’s set, I headed across the Hawthorne Bridge to the West side of Portland, to the recently renovated and reopened Ted’s Berbati. There, Chelsea Wolfe was the second to last headliner on an evening of darker-minded female acts, and it was easy to see that her set would be amongst the most theatric around. Clad in a black and white floor-length tunic dress, the pale-skinned, dark-haired Wolfe would frequently lose herself in her vocals and shield her eyes like a vampire emerging into light. With the doom-folk sounds of “Pale On Pale”, the stage lights changed from white into an eerie turquoise that bathed Wolfe and her three-piece band in an appropriately deathly pallor. Here, they closed out their set by living out their greatest goth and dramatic fantasies, by writhing and devolving, musically into noise and literally into the ground via convulsion. Chelsea Wolfe’s set was a dramatic closer to a blissful summer evening, the high drama the contrast provided satisfying in the best of ways. VIVIAN HUA

SEE ALSO: CHELSEA WOLFE MUSICIAN INTERVIEW: SHEDDING NATURAL LIGHT ON VISIONS OF DOOM

 

Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Pure Bathing Culture

There’s always a certain indescribable relationship between a band and a venue. On Saturday night, one of Portland’s rising groups may have found the perfect partner for their airy, smart sound. And that place is The Old Church. It was my first time seeing a concert there, but Pure Bathing Culture provided possibly the best introduction I could have had, as I sat in the half-filled pews listening to the powerful voice of lead singer Sarah Versprille echoing off the steeples. It was a breathtaking, effortless affair. The space was so quiet between tracks that you could hear the guitarist Daniel Hindman tapping to switch pedals in-between songs. With the band set to release their debut EP globally later this year, it appears that all of the pieces are truly coming together for this band, and seeing them live once again was nothing short of spiritual. ERIK BURG

 

The Tallest Man on Earth

First thing’s first: I find The Tallest Man on Earth’s records incredibly grating and can hardly stand to get through a song or two. But after heavy convincing that his live shows were not to be missed, I trekked to the Crystal Ballroom once again. And to my delight, the Swedish singer/songwriter was indeed impressive on stage. His sound live is a more rich and full experience than on record, putting less emphasis on his vocals and more on his guitar work and presence. There were a few tracks that stood out, like favorite “Love is All” or the weep-worthy “Graceland”. I’m not going to go out of my way to hear his new material, but there’s no doubt that a The Tallest Man concert not only brings out one of the most lively and passionate fanbases, but also that the man can plain old perform. ERIK BURG


NATHAN WATTERS

 

Girl Talk

Girl Talk and mash-ups have never been my thing, but I knew by association that a Girl Talk show is a ridiculous party and a spectacle to witness. This evening at Pioneer Courthouse Square, the spectacle was bolstered by a massive LED light display that flickered through a random mish-mash of images. Before it, Gregg Michael Gillis was working his magic with as much energy as his dozen plus backup dancers, all of whom were bounding about the stage seemingly without ever needing a break. The crowd followed suit, swallowing up the energy from the stage and moving it throughout their own jumping bodies. And despite the fact that I definitely saw dance moves I thought had long been retired, such as the one-hand-on-the-steering-wheel-gangsta-lean, witnessing Girl Talk in person convinced me of his relevancy even when I had previously been unsure or even dismissive. From a technical perspective, I can appreciate the artistry behind mash-ups, which undoubtedly require an encyclopedic musical knowledge, on-the-fly skills, and a huge, huge, huge amount of preparation work. Gillis ran through everything from Elton John to Fifty Cent, Missy Elliott to Beck, and plenty more I did not recognize. His set inevitably led to plenty of pleasing “ah-ha” moments, just as it must have led to many an infuriating “this song is on the tip of my tongue” moments. Due to the nostalgic Top 40’s nature of most Girl Talk’s material, the majority of his crowd definitely had a penchant for hip-hop beats and mainstream pop. But like the collaged nature of the music itself, the audience had offshoots into many realms — the amalgam of which was the most diverse Musicfest NW crowd I saw all weekend.
VIVIAN HUA

 

Swans

To follow up that outdoors fiesta, I decided to switch gears completely and head to Hawthorne Theatre to see the well-reputed Swans, fronted by Michael Gira. A brooding experimental act informed by industrial, noise, drone, and all things heavy, Swans, like Girl Talk, also make music that makes the crowd move. But instead of executing mid-’90s dance moves you no longer knew existed, Swans’ crowd swung t-shirts in the air, hobbled side-to-side, and conducted minor symphonies with open palms. For two laboring hours, Swans pounded through their set with such force that the door of Hawthorne Theatre bore of a sign of warning about the show’s extreme noise level. As any Swans fan will tell you, though, an extreme noise level does not automatically make a band automatically disturbing or brutal; in the case of Swans, heavy moments can also equal transcendent moments, where repetition of a single chord of a single percussive phrase can lead to hypnotic reverie. Swans played one of the longest sets of the festival, but it certainly didn’t feel that way, for their music is one to which one can lose sense of space and time. VIVIAN HUA


LYMAY IWASAKI

 

 

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