When I moved to Portland last winter, I immediately targeted Musicfest Northwest (MFNW) as a great opportunity to witness first-hand how the indigenous people of my new homeland savor live music. The festival has since come and gone, but the memories linger, like the scent of a recently changed litter box.
Thursday, September 6
My MFNW experience began at Roseland Theater where Seattle homeboys the Blue Scholars were throwing down. Hearing emcee Geologic spit forth a reference to former Supersonic Xavier McDaniel, I couldn’t help but smile. The duo’s playful homage to a local basketball legend was just one of many memorable lines during an inspired set that proved once again that hip hop crowds are far more enthusiastic than indie rock crowds – though the legal obligation to throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care might have something to do with that.
Next was a quick trip to the Crystal Ballroom for Spoon, who were joined by a horn section lovingly referred to by frontman Britt Daniel as “the Honeybear Horns.” The added brass came in handy during a rousing rendition of “Yr Cherry Bomb,” while “Rhythm and Soul,” also off the recently released Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga album, got everyone’s ankles moving in their sockets and fueled my theory that the song is in fact about Shaquille O’Neal. Let me explain. In the middle of the song, Daniel clearly utters the line, “Here comes the man, the one you saw in Kazaam .” Personally, I thought Shaq’s performance in that film was criminally overlooked.
After getting my fill of Spoon I hopped a cab to the Doug Fir to take in some keyboard-laden pop from Aqueduct, one of Seattle’s finest feel-good acts. They delivered the goods, the highlight being a delicious cover of R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt.” Inexplicably, despite its deep soulfulness, only six people in the room were dancing. And I wasn’t one of ‘em. You think I’m gonna risk pulling a hammy on the festival’s opening night?
I used the second night of the fest to check out some unknown local bands. Naturally, I first went for the band with the most intriguing name – Narwhal vs. Narwhal, who kicked things off at the Satyricon. NVN, as I now like to call them, were a pleasant surprise. Boasting a young guitar prodigy and some of the best continuous saxophone accompaniment this side of Huey Lewis and the News, they offered up a tasty set of danceable indie fare.
I then scurried over to the Towne Lounge – quite possibly the most difficult venue on the planet to find – for Eskimo & Sons . The club exists in some sort of vortex invisible to the naked eye. It also doesn’t show up on maps. (Not even Google Earth can pinpoint its location.) Eventually I did find it, but only after I discovered an ornate staff on the side of the road, held it up to the night sky, and was directed to the front door by the refracted light of the moon. Once inside, my eyes and ears were treated to the festival’s highlight. The average age of Eskimo & Sons’ members is probably 19, which is remarkable when you consider how assured, and at times breathtaking, their sound can be. The group commanded the attention of the small room with a gentle brand of wispy pop carried by the stunning vocal delivery of Danielle Sullivan and the imaginative lyricism of songwriter/guitarist Dhani Rosa. As her sublime voice fluttered up to the ceiling, Sullivan spent most of the show either marching in place or balancing on one-leg like a well-trained singing flamingo. Friends of the band flooded the stage to sing backup and the whole set had the feel of a communal, late-night basement session. It was beautiful.
Saturday night began with a trip to Slabtown to see Seattle’s Tim Seely. Seely is a master at crafting memorable pop melodies – always pretty, at times rocking, and on occasion a little twangy. His live performance, backed by a full band, ran the full gambit. When Seely took a seat behind the drum kit for a few songs, my ladyfriend Vanessa aptly compared him to Karen Carpenter, then proudly explained why it was a much more intelligent reference than the tired Phil Collins joke I toss out every time someone sings while pounding the skins.
Next, we moved on to Berbati’s Pan for the highly anticipated doubleheader of Jason Lytle (of Grandaddy fame), and indie rock’s latest it-band Okkervil River. While Lytle gently strummed through the Grandaddy back-catalog, the attention of the room turned to an endless supply of Scratch-N-Win cards being handed out by Oregon State Lottery representatives. As I focused my efforts on winning millions, I forgot all about my previous dream of hearing “AM 180” played on an acoustic guitar. In the end, I won $10 and a compilation CD while essentially missing Lytle’s entire set.
The house was packed and the sweat was pouring like milk on cereal as the crowd waited in a fervor for Okkervil River to take the stage. Though they have all the elements I look for in a band – acoustic ringleader, super descriptive lyrics, and one or two dudes with beards – the performance didn’t quite live up to the hype. Frontman Will Sheff gave his all, hammering his wooden axe, yelping, jumping, and spilling his heart out onto the stage, but his efforts flew just past the bullseye that is my musical pleasure center. I wanted to love it, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite connect with me. The same cannot be said for the majority of the audience however, as they cheered madly, clinging to every lyric.
Vanessa and I decided to leave the show prematurely, opting to close out our Musicfest Northwest experience by savoring a Bacon Maple Bar from Voodoo Donuts. The world-famous Bacon Maple, not unlike many of the more recognizable acts I saw at the festival, was enjoyable, but not necessarily the best thing I digested over the course of the weekend. That distinction goes to the bands like Eskimo & Sons, the ones that were complete mysteries until I strayed away from the big venues in favor of a little something unfamiliar.