The decade-old Music Fest Northwest, promising every year to be bigger and better, grew a day since 2009 (QRO recap), to become a five-day citywide extravaganza for 2010. While there are more days to take a shower with your festival wristband, the 2010 lineup lacks the cornucopia of choice-y acts, and the international flavor of its previous year. Everyone wants to see The National (see below). The last minute addition of The Smashing Pumpkins (QRO live review at a festival), added the much need spice to its mediocre stew. Other than few sure bets like Ra Ra Riot (QRO spotlight on), Okkervil River (QRO live review), Akron/Family (QRO photos), etc., this year’s MFNW is big on Northwest. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since this region has produced some of the finest acts in recent music history. But for Portland resident, it’d be nice to catch bands that one doesn’t have the luxury to see every few months.
The final set of concerts at the Pioneer Courthouse Square for Music Fest NW proved to be the highlight of the event. Since the opening show four days prior, the weather progressively improved to provide a picture perfect setting for a triad of indie rock bands (sorry – didn’t make it on time for Talkdemonic – QRO photos). The most anticipated act of the fest, The National, had the burden of closing the fest on a high note. The Walkmen and The Helio Sequence were solid choices to prep the audience for the headliner.
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In full daylight, The Helio Sequence had to rely on the strength of their performance; no special lighting effects were going to help them create moods for their songs. Though I was familiar with some of their work, had no idea the Portland band only consisted of Brandon Summers (vocals, guitar) and Benjamin Weikel (drums). If you are not a fan, you probably did not know that the duo has been actively making records since 1999. Most people became familiar with THS, through their breakthrough 2008 album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead (QRO review), which comprised the bulk of their set. THS knows how to craft catchy Brit-pop influenced indie rock, but all their songs sound pretty much the same. They use similar chords, instruments, and song structures, and shuffle them around to make different tracks. At one point, I thought they were repeating a song. But all in all, THS provided an energetic set.
In between the set of The Helio Sequence and The Walkmen, the crowd at the square was treated to unannounced entertainment. A baby-faced man, dressed in very short-shorts, and a white t-shirt with the logo, “Spike Can Dance”, had the crowd cheering and laughing. At first, I thought he was recreating the music video scenario on “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim, directed by Spike Jonze. My research later revealed a different phenomenon. The curly-haired dancer’s name is Spike (Kinsey), and promotes himself as a professional choreographer. You can learn to dance like Spike by following his videos on his YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/SpikeCanDance). While some people dismissed him as a fool, the somersaulting jester added to the festive atmosphere of the court.
“Spike Can Dance” live at Music Fest NW 2010 in Portland, OR:
The Walkmen @ Pioneer Courthouse Square
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The wind may have knocked down a trash bin during The Walkmen set, but the volume level of speakers during their performance blew my eardrums away. It was a matter of saving my hearing, or getting the best shot I possibly can, as I leaned over the stage with my camera. Singer/Guitarist, Hamilton Leithauser, looked like a Harvard student, in his gold-buttoned black blazer. He sang with his trademark shrill voice, often to the point of protruding the veins in his neck. Matt Barrick on drums was still as impressive as the first time I ever saw the NYC/Philadelphia quintet live. The Walkmen had just released their first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, from the ashes of their two former groups, Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Recoys. They played in a tiny shit-hole dive bar in North Miami called Churchill’s with no A/C, on a hot, humid Florida summer night. They were absolutely amazing in that arduous environment, and I couldn’t wait to buy their album.
I saw The Walkmen for the second time in 2004, in support of their second album, Bows + Arrows, when I moved to Portland. Back before Doug Fir opened up, the buzzy indie rockers usually played at Berbati’s Pan. The Walkmen were great in the more bearable establishment, but still intimate and sweltering. Then I saw them for the third time last year at the Wonder Ballroom, but somehow the fire had burnt out. Perhaps, The Walkmen is best experienced in run-down claustrophobic cubicles, to compliment their vintage-flavored music. Perhaps, their newer material lacked the urgent drumbeats that seem to be the pillar of their songs.
On my fourth time seeing The Walkmen live, the set was half mixed with old favorites like “We’ve Been Had” and “The Rat”, with the more melodramatic tunes like “Juveniles” and “Blue As Your Blood”, from their sixth studio album, Lisbon. Though I’ve noticed it in the past, Leithauser’s ability to chew gum and sing at the same time was never more fascinating. Revealing his modest manner, the blonde-haired singer said they’re finishing up, and getting the hell outta there because he knew people were mainly here for The National.
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Every void in the square filled up with warm bodies, as the stage crew prepared for the final act of the night. When one of your favorite band’s latest album debuts at #3 on top Billboard 100, you no longer have the luxury of photographing them in a small venue, without restrictions, or personally delivering a drink to their frontman. The video crew came out and stationed themselves, as they had on previous night for The Decemberists (QRO Day Four Recap). But unlike the night before, a young man in the crowd shouted repeatedly, “This guy sucks!”, pointing to the unlucky cameraman, positioned in front of the audience. The disgruntled audience member even complained to The National’s singer later, but Matt Berninger did not give him any consolation. As the anticipation built up for The National, the number of photographers also grew. Dozen photographers rushed into the photo pit, about ten minutes before the headliner took stage. By the time the three-song limit in the pit was up, the number of photographers more than doubled, limiting the prime photo angles. There were eight musicians on stage, but not all of them were equally visible for photo ops.
The moody-looking singer must have been in a pretty good mood at the last stop of their current tour, frequently bantering in between songs. Upon his entrance, Berninger commented, “This is unbelievably pleasant,” referring to playing in an outdoor venue in a mildly cool and breezy weather. Berninger had plenty of room to pace around restlessly in between his vocal duties, flanked on either side by the two guitarists, Bryce and Aaron Dessner. Drummer Bryan Devendorf sat back, lost in the cross fire of light beams, while his brother Scott (QRO interview) stood sideways, against a big black cube, as if purposely camouflaging himself. Near him, a trumpet and a trombone player stood at the edge of the stage, while pianist/violinist Padma Newsome stood behind Bryce Dessner.
The prominence of strings to The National’s latest album, High Violet (QRO review), made their already lush post-punk sound even more majestic. So it was appropriate to hear the quintet with violin, trumpet and trombone at a big venue. I’ve only seen the Brooklyn based group once previously, during the Boxer (QRO review) tour, at the very modest Berbati’s Pan. While they were impressive at a venue with crappy sound system, Pioneer Stage did their angst-tinged pensive anthems justice. Upbeat tracks like “Abel” and “Squalor Victoria” found Berninger screaming during the last chorus, which satisfied that part of you – wishing you could just be free to do whatever you wanted, without the consequences. Meanwhile, the more downbeat songs like “England”, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, and “Fake Empire” had you thinking pensively about the past and the future. “Conversation 16” had some audience members singing along. Berninger’s placid baritone voice seamlessly melded into the layered instrumentations. No matter how fast or slow the beat was, The National sounded natural and effortless on every song.
For the four-song encore, The National provided some side entertainment. Couple of the stage crew tossed out glow sticks into the crowd. Berninger commented, “This is our version of the Flaming Lips.” The audience near the stage threw their hands up. “Here, have four dollars worth of shit… How awesome is this!” As he pointed into chasm of cheers with flying neon accents, Berninger exclaimed, “Oh my God! Look at that one!” The blue-eyed Ohioan’s moody face lightened up with a smile. Later he commented, “Hold onto those. One of them is filled with crystal meth – who’s going to be the lucky one…” Before Berninger could finish, one of the Dessner twins pulled him to the side to whisper something to him, while the other Dessner said to the audience, “I hope he gets arrested for that.” Berninger returned to his mic and asked, “I think I’m wanted in Seattle, right? Because I gave that bottle of wine to a four year old – I… I put a nipple on it.” Guess he’s not so ruminative as his lyrics would suggest. As the laughter died down, Berninger introduced “Secret Meeting” as what his collage roommate called it “the best interpretation of the nonsense,” or so he thought. The fan favorite “Mr. November”, from Alligator, found Berninger screaming once again towards the end. The National closed out the set with “Terrible Love” from High Violet.
The National playing “Mr. November” live at Music Fest NW 2010 in Portland, OR:
What felt like a dismal beginning on its first day of Music Fest NW, with overcast weather and experimental showcase of music and projection of Panda Bear, ended with an ebullient 90-minute performance from The National, in a perfect environment. The closing night could only been better if Heineken had finally stopped worrying about profit their margin. At least I left with three more iPhone Incases.
Montage of Day Five of Music Fest NW 2010 in Portland, OR: