THREE NIGHTS. 17 VENUES. 180 BANDS. That, in a grossly oversimplified nutshell, is the essence of Portland's 2002 Musicfest NW. Last weekend (Sept. 12-14), this newspaper sent yours truly down to experience this annual Northwest music showcase and to take in some of the best live acts in the region. With one $20 plastic wristband, I had full access to all of the participating venues and every show in the three-night festival. Bands from Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Missoula, Boise and, yes, even Spokane, played on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 pm-2 am in front of fans, the merely curious and some music industry point men on the lookout for fresh sounds to exploit. It was an ideal way for everyone to sample Portland's vibrant live music scene and to get an earful from a selection of artists from all over the Northwest.
Each night, I left the confines of my downtown hotel on foot with my trusty notepad and digital camera in an attempt to document what I would see and hear. Each night, my best intentions were rapidly diluted by the sound, the fury and the beer. But heck, having a good time is really what Musicfest NW is all about. And I had plenty of that. So in one respect, at least, my mission was an unqualified success.
Presented here for your amusement are excerpts from my admittedly fragmented, half-assed attempts to record each night's adventures in journal form. They are indulgent and incomplete but present a reasonably concise, coherent (and publishable) picture of my 2002 Musicfest NW experience. Bear with me.
Friday, 8:02 pm, Benson Hotel
I'm halfway through my second gin and tonic, and I've completely given up worrying about how I'm going to cover the festival. About how many acts I'm going to squeeze in this year. About anything. I'm just going to get out, get some good food, good drink, dive into some music and have fun. It's ridiculously easy to do that in downtown Portland. Twelve of the festival's 17 participating clubs are within six blocks of each other; half of those occupy the same two-block area. Getting to any of the clubs is a simple matter of walking. The streets below my 10th-floor room are alive. The restaurants and bars are bustling. Portland has it all: beauty, smarts, a great mass transit system, a progressive attitude and a user-friendliness that makes visiting its downtown core a pleasure rather than a hassle. I need to get out there and soak it up.
10:47 pm, Satyricon
After a ridiculously satisfying (and lengthy) Greek meal at the Alexis restaurant with a friend, I find myself between sets in the oppressively hot back room at Satyricon watching Portland's Electric Eye set up. The punk quartet is sport-o to the max, decked out in sweatbands, jogging shorts and numbered jerseys. They launch into their set, a spastic combination of hardcore fury, unhinged theatrics and humor. The crowd is getting larger, the mercury is shooting up and the band's between-song banter is becoming tedious. I sweat through three or four songs, then split.
11:25 pm, Roseland Grill
This place is sparsely populated, which is too bad because Spokane's Burns Like Hellfire is on at midnight. Right now it's the Casey Neill Band laying down alt-country that leans more towards traditional C & amp;W than rock. Burns Like Hellfire's singer-guitarist, Brian Young, reports that the previous band, the Ditty Twisters (think the B-52s meet Uncle Tupelo) sort of cleared the place out.
"But that's fine," says Young. "We came to Portland to rock, and that's what we're gonna do." And they do -- in spite of a crummy mix from the sound guy. Halfway through their set, the room is noticeably livelier than when they began. BLH lead guitarist Jamie Nebel is clearly having a terrific time coaxing hellacious sounds out of his guitar to the delight of the ever-growing stage-side crowd. Meanwhile, another Spokane band, Flyreal, is playing upstairs on the Roseland's main stage, in a huge room that, unfortunately, is equally underpopulated. I have just enough time at the end of Burns Like Hellfire's last song to run upstairs to check out the last few moments of Flyreal's set. They seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves despite the fact they are experiencing what drummer Bobby Hattenburg would later call a "quiet night." (Almost in the same breath, however, he asserts, "We had a great time. We were just stoked to get out of town and play Portland.")
Saturday, 10:31 pm, Cobalt Lounge
I'm sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon draft from a plastic cup, watching Hutch & amp; Kathy and wishing I had made it for the beginning of their show (dinner was another late one). Their energetic garage-pop is infectious and, heck, any band with a Farfsia organ player is okay by me. Next up is Captain vs. Crew, a four-piece whose music is accurately described in the Musicfest guide as "inflamed rock 'n' roll arranged according to whip-smart pop sensibilities." All I know is that they are exciting as hell, with intriguing arrangements and a girl drummer in a pink ballerina dress that positively shreds. In a flash I realize that I'm missing Spokane band Aaron Richner and The Blues Drivers (playing 11 blocks away at Jimmy Mak's). Well I hope they're having fun -- and blowing a few minds as well.
Midnight, Paris Theatre
A crowd expecting a full band is confused by the sight of one of the Pinehurst Kids, Joe Davis, performing songs from the Portland group's catalog solo on acoustic guitar. The songs are great and Davis' performance is impassioned, but what's the deal? About the third song in, he pauses to make an apology for the absence of the rest of the band, in such a way that leads us to believe that there is trouble afoot within the group's ranks. Are we witnessing the dissolution of the Pinehurst Kids? Sure feels that way.
Sunday, 12:24 am, Berbati's Pan
Just around the corner from the Paris is Berbati's Pan, a really nice, expansive club with good ventilation and two watering stations. Red Sector is halfway through its set. All the black-leather-and-hair-gel posturing initially put me off, but now that the group's razor-sharp, vaguely '80s rock attack has had its way with me, I'm more or less sold. Their songs aren't exactly innovative, but the band is surely ass-kicking live. During the next changeover, I settle into a booth in the corner with yet another PBR to watch the Baseboard Heaters set up. It's getting late, but I've heard good things about these guys. They've been around for about five years and have played in Spokane a couple of times (I think).
I'm not disappointed. Not much flash or pretense here, just solid and honest rock 'n' roll with a barely discernable alt-country influence, smart hooks a-plenty and strong dual vocalists. A fine way to end an evening -- and a perfect way to wrap up Musicfest NW for 2002.
Until next year, stay tuned.
We don't know what it is, but there's something subtly, intrinsically funny about contemporary Christian/pop chanteuse Amy Grant. It might be easy to mock her scrubbed-with-Ivory-soap lyrics or her vanilla-sweet demeanor, but there's also a bring-it-on strength that seems to indicate she can take the teasing. And we're not alone in thinking this. In fact, one of the most entertaining Web sites we've seen in quite some time (www.deuceofclubs.com/tunes/amy/) is "the Amy Grant's Mandible Home Page," devoted to Grant's capable-yet-tuneful jaw. But even here, there's a kind of begrudging respect for someone so damn likeable.
It's probably safe to say that Grant has gone through just as many personality incarnations as Madonna. Although her personas have tended to be mellower, they have followed a slightly similar path from '80s pop icon to 21st-century motherhood and settling in to one's own niche.
Grant, who comes to the Opera House next week with folksinger/Christian artist Fernando Ortega, has gone from super-principled-high-school-kid-with-a-recording-contract (Amy Grant, 1979) to oversized leopard print jackets and hot pink leggings (Unguarded, 1985) to what she jokingly refers to as her "Prozac and razorblades" album, 1997's Behind the Eyes. Although she has never completely left the contemporary Christian music fold behind, her strongest foray into pop music was also one of her biggest commercial successes: Heart in Motion, which garnered four Grammy nominations in 1991 and sold five million copies. Buoyed by the success of such effervescent pop ditties as "Every Heartbeat" and "Baby, Baby," the album was what every artist wants in a crossover attempt -- something that hangs onto the old fans while attracting the attention of new ones.
It could be argued, however, that the album was a little too successful. Suddenly Grant's Melissa Gilbert-esque visage was everywhere from cloying TV specials to Target shopping bags. It was clearly a case of overexposure, and Grant took some much-needed time off, releasing the darker and more introspective Behind the Eyes in 1997. Between then and now, she divorced Gary Chapman, married Vince Gill (with whom she'd been romantically linked in the tabloids) and had a baby (in addition to her two children with Chapman). She also put together Legacy, a collection of such centuries-old hymns as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Fields of Plenty."
In addition to Legacy, which both honors Grant's musical roots and marks 25 years in the business, there are also plans for a pop album due later this year or early next. While some critics might accuse her of trying to "bat for both teams," Grant shrugs it off with her typical resilient sweetness.
It's "not a marketing ploy on my part to come back in and say 'Gee, in case everybody is mad at me, I think I'll do a record that's all hymns.' It's been said in other ways that I'm trying to get back [in] people's good graces by coming in with a good foot forward," she said earlier this year in an interview with Billboard Magazine. "I have to say, that never occurred to me. The timing for the record had everything to do with, after 25 years, honoring my roots."