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Beer and Branding in PDX 

Could Portland be any hotter right now? From the sheer size of hipster throngs poised outside the Doug Fir -- PDX's bar/venue of the moment -- I'd say no. Not a chance. The scene is just about at critical mass, ripe for an implosion. The corporate sponsors (Scion, Comcast, Captain Morgan, Adidas) were out in full force this year, replacing the smaller, record-label-oriented venues. That's one way you can tell. Rather than using that tremendous pull, though, to lure back all the bands that rode the Portland hype machine, played The OC, and stepped out into mainstream oblivion, the folks at Willamette Week chose instead to push ahead, highlighting the smaller, local bands tilling Portland's soil for a workable aesthetic and fan base. They also brought a few choice national acts that have been flying just under the radar.

It added an air of discovery to the weekend and created a gorgeous contrast to all the sloganeering, free cigarette booths and that official MusicFestNW Scion tC, which could be seen rolling up and down Burnside all weekend, proclaiming itself the official car company of the cool kids. It's also a great way to keep your ultra-hip town on the leading edge of an industry forever focused on the next new thing.

Here now, a bunch of bands you may never have heard of before, but that you might want to check out. You could, of course, wait for the new season of The OC to see which make the cut, but that's not very sportsmanlike.

Dante's, The Ruby Doe, Friday, 9:06 pm | My Inlander compadres and I waltz into Dante's darkened confines in search of one thing: free smokes. The good tobacco pushers at American Spirit have set up shop at various MusicFest NW clubs to dispense free packs. All we have to do is ask. I smile at the woman behind the Plexiglas case and answer a couple of questions before she hands over a pack of my choice -- the organic lights. Ah, nothing like slow death the natural way. Luke asks me if the tar is organic as well. I'm not sure.

I walk out into the club's main section and have a look. It's mostly empty except for those posted along the perimeter seated on bar stools, the faces of their shadowy forms illuminated by the red glow of the bar top as they down beer and sip colored fluids. A band called the Ruby Doe is playing. Loudly. More loudly, I suspect, than they would if there were more people in this place to absorb the sound. There should be some more bodies in here, too, because these guys deserve to be heard. They are engaging and aggressive, banging out barre chords and crashing beats as if their careers depend on it (and maybe they do). But there's still plenty of time to be noticed.

After a few minutes of band gawking and cigarette scoring, our group is back together. The hipsters are finally starting to file in; we file out to revel in our booty -- into the street swarming with orange wristband-wearing music lovers, panhandlers, color and sound. (Mike Corrigan)

Doug Fir, Point Juncture, WA, Friday, 10:15 pm | Mike seems to be a connoisseur of rock 'n' roll club design, so I'll let him wax philosophical about the grand contrivances of this place, the Doug Fir. Our friends and former Inlander staffers, Leah Sottile and Joe Preston, are working the door for Willamette Week, looking very much like journalists and art directors, not bouncers.

We rolled in early because the buzz was that Viva Voce would hit capacity. It eventually did, I think, but there was no need to hurry. Good thing we did, though, as we caught most of Point Juncture, WA's set. That's a horrible name for a band, and they project the predictable amount of in-the-moment hipness (female drummer upfront on stage; vibraphone player), but the sound they create is layered and gorgeous. They play quiet instruments loud, cranking their vibraphone to 11, wielding the mallets like night sticks, creating a mammoth sound from unassuming sources.

The members switch on and off instruments, buzzing about stage. The show, in all, was very satisfying and, I suspect, points to an even better experience to be had alone with their album and some big ass studio headphones, soaking it all in. (Luke Baumgarten)

Doug Fir, Viva Voce & r & Friday, 11:23 pm | The custom 3-D glasses I was handed at the door don't really work. But that's OK, because the light show Portland band Viva Voce is projecting against the stage backwall during its performance is fabulous. Vibrating op-art, splashy bits of geometric animation and pulsating fluids reminiscent of '60s psychedelia bathe the husband-and-wife duo in shifting color as they perform on drums and electric guitar. The Doug Fir -- one of P-town's newest and most popular music clubs -- is packed to near capacity. This basement lounge is infamous for its stylish d & eacute;cor: a fusion of NW rustic and '50s modern -- sort of Twin Peaks meets The Jetsons. It's stunning.

Yet for all of its obvious style and sophistication, the club's bartenders and patrons are remarkably free of pretense, even friendly -- virtues also exhibited by Viva Voce's Kevin (on drums, samples, vocals) and Anita (guitar, vocals) Robinson, both of whom are visibly pleased with the impressive turnout. Kevin interacts with the crowd briefly before inserting a kazoo into his mouth for the next song, "Alive With Pleasure," a swirling tonic of sparkling guitar, synthesizer, fat rhythm and startling dynamic shifts. As the sonic haze clears, Anita's clear blue vocals take the fore, laying down a pretty sing-a-long pop melody and the song's guardedly hopeful mantra, "Give it some time, you'll make it with me, we'll be just fine." It's a lovely and deeply satisfying spectacle.

With every eye locked on the stage, I take a moment to fold the 3-D glasses and slide them into my ass pocket. (Mike Corrigan)

Dante's, Bobby Bare Jr. & r & Saturday, 1 am | Bobby Bare, Jr. is the son of the man once famously dubbed as "the Bruce Springsteen of Country Music." Bare grew up in the shadow of folks like Waylon Jennings and Tom T. Hall but has eschewed outlaw Western in favor of the sweet, self-deprecating rock and "unlucky schmuck" persona he cultivates so effectively.

Tonight he's announced to a manageable but enthusiastic crowd as "this fat bastard," and he is indeed schlubby with a huge head of Angus Young bad hair. But when he smiles a broad, delighted grin, I feel my geek spot soften and his lyrics -- a weirdly workable mix of bitterness, humor and ebullience -- are infectious. When he launches into "Valentine," there's that lovely feeling of being somewhere just as something memorable is about to happen; by the time he finishes the gentle and winning "Let's Rock & amp; Roll," we feel like we've just encountered the perfect Musicfest NW lullaby. I fall asleep on a pile of hotel room sofa cushions with the chorus murmuring buzzily in my overstimulated and exhausted head. (Sheri Boggs)

Dante's, James Hill & r & Saturday, 9:15 pm | Back to Dante's to see how American Spirit's free cigarette canvassing is going. Poorly, from the look of it. They've stopped asking people questions and begun giving them two packs at a time. They must have quotas.

James Hall is playing right now. He looks like Crispin Glover: earnest and from another era. The bassist is gesturing to the drummer, explaining how the drum part goes. Snare, snare, ride, tom, drumroll, he signs, like a manic drum lesson pantomime. The drummer must be new. Hall is singing about wanting someone to get his broken life out of Vegas. We leave quickly, fearing more songs about broken lives and/or Las Vegas. (Luke Baumgarten)

Ash Street, 32 Ways & r & Saturday, 9:21 pm | Whether it's pianos, synths, organs or the roxichord, keyboards are the thing all indie bands need right now. For better and (mostly) worse. Is it the '80s revivalism; the move back to singing/songwriting and away from so much thrashing guitar? Is it the mainstreaming and incorporation of electronica into mainline pop? Is it none of these things? 

That's way too complex to think about right now. I'm staring at the bar's schedule for next month, "Rocktober," thinking how I barely lived through Zeptember on the car ride over, with Robert Plant wailing from The Dalles to Portland, courtesy of some classic rock station.

But that's neither here nor there. We were talking about twinkling keys, right? There's not much to say, really. The band 32 Ways doesn't add any new wrinkles, they're mostly straight-ahead pop with, you know, keyboards. (Luke Baumgarten)

Roseland Theater, IQU & r & Saturday, 9:24 pm | I've just spent the last hour hip-hopping my appearance (J.Lo hoops, gun appliqu & eacute;d tank top), and now my ears are met with the droning plugged-in purr of IQU's bottomless synth and cyborg vocoder. Their vibe is infectious, even bringing out the kid in some of the hardest hip-hopsters. Yeah, I'm a synthophile, too -- but I'm dressed, like, so wrong for this. (Leah Sottile)

Dante's, the Punk Group & r & Saturday, 10:05 pm | Featuring songs like "My Space Is Good for Getting Laid" and "Sleater-Kinney Sucks," the Punk Group set themselves up as zeitgeist-aping contrarians. Their style, though, is more than a little contradictory. The beats are supplied by machine, along with synths and a jerky stage presence that evoke DEVO and the absurd theatricality of new wave's nerd-glam. It's almost like they're mocking new wave's resurgence, but they aren't. The song "Toby Keith" ridicules the war in Iraq and the jingoistic patriotism of mainstream country music. There's social liberalism and homophobia, simultaneously. The punk ethic is inherently contradictory, in this post-Green-Day age, but the Punk Group take that to a new level by simultaneously hating on popular bands and branding themselves, head to toe, in signature Punk Group merchandise.

Maybe contradiction's their hook, but the whole thing is so high-concept you can't tell what's serious and what's farce. Or indeed, if they're serious about anything at all. Maybe the joke's on me for trying to figure them out.

One thing I can say, though: They need way more claptracks. (Luke Baumgarten)

Berbati's Pan, Pura Vida vs. Soulphonic Soundsystem & r & Saturday, 10:50 pm | I meet up with Leah and Joe and we head to Berbati's for a beer and a table. What we get is a manic onslaught of Afro-Cuban beats and calypso weirdness, incorporating all the vast percussive resources given to you by your elementary school music teacher. They use shakers, cowbells, marimbas, woodblocks and countless other noisemakers I recognize from when I was 9, but whose names I can't remember. It's a milieu I don't usually go for, but this was fun.

Halfway through Pura Vida, Leah remembers she has to write something on Jedi Mind Tricks, so we cut it short and head to the Roseland. (Luke Baumgarten)

Roseland Theater, Jedi Mind Trick & r & Saturday, 11:30 pm | For a crew with a name like Jedi Mind Tricks, you think they'd rap more like MF Doom than EasyE and drop beats more like Dan the Automator (or at least the RZA) than Dr. Dre. But they're not spacey or high-concept at all. The set seems flat, in all, and strangely thuggish. Joe, though, tells me their latest album is more political (and much better) than they seem tonight. (Luke Baumgarten)

Dante's, The Nice Boys & r & Saturday, 12:something am | Thank Zeus the marching band that invaded Dante's just before the Nice Boys were to go on has finally yielded their obnoxious thumpity-thump-thump. Man, give a group of hippies and band geeks an inch and they'll take a light year. In allowing it, the Nice Boys, I guess, were too damn nice. Let's rock now, shall we? And they do -- kicking out old-school power-pop riffs and vocal harmonies a la Cheap Trick and the Real Kids while sporting vintage gear and matching shaggy hairdos. It's derivative, sure, but fun -- and the perfect compliment to the piping-hot slice of pepperoni pie I just procured from Dante's convenient order window. Power pop, pizza and Rolling Rock. Does it really get any better? (Mike Corrigan)

Roseland Theater, Prefuse 73 & r & Saturday, 12:30 am | He's a pretty amazing DJ, but he remains a DJ, which begs certain questions. Can Prefuse 73 -- a DJ -- captivate a crowd when he's the center of attention (on stage, in a concert venue like the Roseland), the way he captivates them in a proper club (where a DJ creates the sonic backdrop)? Kinda, and with the help of a live drum kit to break the monotony of watching a dude, on stage, pound at a sampler for an hour.

The drummer, though, isn't just a wacky, homeless-looking Rick Ruben impersonator. He really aids the music, bringing a dynamic element to the pre-programmed beats and sampling. The tom and snare go largely unnoticed below the thump of the speakers, but each hit of the floor drum resonates and each cymbal crash adds whatever human component it is that computers can't (yet?) replicate. (Luke Baumgarten)

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