While most "big" things in the music industry (record labels, radio stations, media consolidation, music television) suck hot gravel and serve only to squash innovation, access and fun, big Northwest music festivals like Portland's three-night MusicfestNW are just the opposite -- a positive sign that not everything in the realm has been corrupted, and that popular music, in its myriad forms, just may hold the keys to its own salvation.
With one $20 plastic wristband, MusicfestNW (held this past weekend) gives live music fans full access to the festival's 20 participating Portland clubs for three nights and to the 200 musical acts from the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Most of the clubs are within easy walking distance of each other. The acts are held to short sets, affirming the Golden Rule of Performance: "It's always better to leave them wanting more than to overstay your welcome." If at one club the band or the crowd or that guy in the corner with the fanny pack insults your sensibilities, simply shuffle out and over to the next one. The warm night air crackles with possibilities. The streets are alive with wide-eyed music fans. And you are welcomed everywhere as you rock, drink and be merry.
Once again, The Inlander and festival organizers at Portland's Willamette Week graciously set me up for this annual descent into Northwest live music and associated bacchanalia. What follows is a fractured sample of what contributing writer Leah Sottile (who was out there, somewhere) and I saw and heard during the festival's Friday and Saturday nights.
What's the benefit, you ask, of reporting on a music festival in another state, in a city 350 miles away from our own?
Haven't I already answered that question?
Friday, 10:37 pm, The Cobalt Lounge (Mike) -- The Cobalt sits on a corner in Chinatown. It's an old brick building with lots of interior space, a stage at the far end and a bustling, full-service bar to greet you as you walk in. Tap PBR seems just the ticket to battle the rather oppressive heat in here. The show -- a Portland punk quartet (Hazmat) with a screechy female lead singer -- is fairly well attended by blue collar-types, a few hipsters and old school punks (probably due to the fact that UK's the Vibrators are playing here at 1 am). The band is competent, I guess, as they rip through brief, no-frills punk tunes. But they are amazingly pedestrian and unconvincing. The singer's delivery is pretty soulless and frequently really annoying. The rest of the band just looks bored. Much more interesting are all the spiky-haired old schoolers (one guy is a dead ringer for Sid Vicious) and the next band, Portland's 800 Octane. Unpretentious and relentless, these four working class droogs are unleashing muscular, melodious and solid punk in the vein of the New Bomb Turks or Rocket From the Crypt. The drummer keeps everything clamped down tight. The twin Les Paul attack is thunderous. And one of the young guitarists just can't keep his feet on the stage. It's a rush.
Friday, 12:25 am, Berbati's Pan (Leah) -- With two Bridgeport IPAs down the hatch, I don't even care that I am practically swimming in other people's sweat. Berbati's Pan, a rock club that I remember ogling from afar in my underage days, is packed with people trying to get a view of Seattle's funkiest soul brothas, Maktub (who played two gigs in Spokane recently). After listening to their latest album for the past two weeks straight, it's hard to believe that the band could impress me any more. They do. Reggie Watts, the band's lead singer, is hilarious and breathtaking all at once. The room is completely dark, but Watts's voice alone is lighting up everyone's mood. Halfway through one song, Watts slowly starts to beat-box, and shows that he could be healthy competition for Rahzel -- arguably the best and most inventive beat-boxer around. Everyone is hooked now, and I can't help but laugh at how Watts' stage-antics make everyone -- even those who shouldn't -- dance.
Friday, 12:56 am, Ash Street Saloon (Mike) -- It's still packed in here, but this time it's for a band I can't walk out on. On the Speakers is the embryonic new project of Ian Sefchick (former frontman of the bay area's Creeper Lagoon). It's an unassuming four-piece with the usual two guitar, bass, drums setup -- and an extraordinary array of effects pedals. Once they launch into the set, it's apparent that all the electronics are there for a reason. As he proved in Creeper, Sefchick is quite adept at wrenching amazing atmospherics from a simple six-string electric (in this case, an odd vintage Guild). Masters of dynamics, the band shred -- especially on the last tune, replete with hushed atonal verses, a ramped-up bridge and a gut-busting chorus. Amid applause and calls for an encore, an obviously overwhelmed and pleased Sefchick smiled through his sweat, shrugged and said, "That's all we know."
Saturday, 9:21 pm, The Nocturnal (Mike) -- The Nocturnal is a relatively new spot on the Eastside. It's an all-ages venue that has an unusual but highly effective way of keeping the kids away from the booze: a 21-and-over basement lounge that serves wine and beer and looks remarkably like an early 1960s rumpus room. With a concrete floor, pale green walls, folding steel tables, padded vinyl chairs and, of course, a bar in the corner, it's a perfectly friendly and creep-free environment to enjoy casual conversation and low-alcohol beverages. Indie rock plays not too loudly over the house system, and the bartender is terribly polite as he hooks up a customer who looks remarkably like ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus with a free refill on a root beer. Upstairs at 10 pm, the band that about 50 of us (yes, including Malkmus) came there to see, Eux Autres (yes, it's French), gets started. It's a sibling duo comprised of drummer/singer Heather Larimer and her brother, singer/guitarist Nicholas. Tunes are noisy, ragged, pretty and vibrant, with minimal arrangements and some delightfully crazy, pitch-perfect shouting from the drummer on a couple of songs. No pretense here, no attitude. Just fun.
Saturday, 11:50 pm, Sixth and Taylor (Mike) Gin and tonics and buffalo wings go amazingly well together.
Saturday, 12:37 am, The Ohm (Leah) -- After watching Stay at Home Bomb finish up its midnight set at the Paris Theatre, listening to a band of punk girls in aprons singing about bedtimes and briefly watching a fight between two frat boys, I head down under the Burnside Bridge to the Ohm to see Visqueen. Onstage, where DJ Paine spun last night, stands this rock trio, fronted by a Patti Smith look-alike bassist (Kim Warnick, formerly of the Fastbacks) and a preppy blonde singer. I catch the last four songs of their loud set -- and I am surprised by the singer's pipes. She's not screaming or squealing the lyrics, but instead belting out them out in a falsetto similar to Nina Persson of the Cardigans, coupled with a Shirley Manson rasp. She's a great singer, and her look is pleasantly generic. She's dressed in jeans and sandals, and looks like the farthest thing from a rock star. When their set is up, I head out to the alley for one more pint before wrapping up my night and MusicfestNW for 2003.