We gave recaps for a couple of the bonus shows that came courtesy of Project Pabst, and now it’s time to give some thoughts on the main event itself. Overall, it was a pretty fantastic experience, feeding off the successful aspects of MusicFestNW with an even better lineup and nicer weather (the sun was shining just the same, but with none of that unpleasant August heat). If this becomes an annual event, we’ll welcome it with open arms, but it’ll be hard to top this debut.
I’ve lived for over 15 years in Oregon and have spent time in Portland on countless occasions, but this festival marked the first time I had poked around the South Waterfront. It’s an area that the city has thrown a bunch of money at for redevelopment, but for some reason a few towers of condos haven’t spurred people to come down and spend money in that area. And if you look closely at the gravel pit from the photo above, you can see why. That said, parking was convenient enough (for ten dollars) and public transport ran smoothly, so clearly this spot should be able to handle an influx of hipsters as necessary.
Since I had to make the hour drive up each day, I skipped a couple of unfamiliar acts, but made sure to at least catch an old favorite, the Violent Femmes. Though I came in half-way through and probably missed alternative radio staples like “Blister in the Sun” and “Add it Up”, I did get to enjoy “Gone Daddy Gone”, “Country Death Song”, and “Black Girls”. The group showed why they would be a blast at festivals, engaging with the crowd with great jokes and keeping things fun and loose. They may be basically a nostalgia act at this point, but no one should be complaining.
It’s always a blast to see these hometown heavy metal heroes, but Red Fang really brought it at this festival. I’ve seen the band headline numerous shows around town, and for the first time the band had a proper mix, at an outdoor festival of all places. Both guitars and vocals came in clearly and at the right volume, and it made it easier to enjoy crowd favorites like “Wires”, “Prehistoric Dog”, and “Blood Like Cream”. It was the perfect soundtrack for driving around and committing some misdemeanors (and maybe a felony or two), but luckily no one actually took up that challenge.
I enjoyed Phosphorescent’s 2013 album Muchacho quite a bit, so I was eager to see Matthew Houck and his friends perform live. He kicked things off with the best track off that album, “The Quotidian Beasts”, and it did not disappoint–the song builds off Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” chord progression to provide ample space for gorgeous and thrilling solos. The mood was pretty chill for the most part, which was perfect for the afternoon, but the band was able to keep the momentum going even through some of the ballad-filled lulls.
We took a break during Rocket from the Crypt’s set, partly because I can never forgive the band for not being Rocket from the Tombs, and sampled some of the foodcarts and the free “PBRcade”. Being originally from Louisiana, if someone is offering a Muffuletta sandwich you’re goddamn right I’m going to order one, and even if it wasn’t great, it’s better than most options.
Tears for Fears were an unconventional headliner that made a lot of people scratch their heads (as they explained, they were a last-minute replacement for Kate Bush (yes, this was a joke)), but the crowd definitely seem to appreciate it. The instrumentation was pretty spare, allowing a lot of space in the music, and probably could have benefited from some additional backup vocals. They stunned the audience with an aching cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” (even if it failed to include the best part of the song as some would argue), then proceeded to capture the hearts of the hipsters in attendance with an Arcade Fire song. I checked out at this point to get across town for Built to Spill, but as I exited they launched into “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, so I hung out a bit right outside to hear one of the best songs of the 80’s live.
I was glad to catch the end of Speedy Ortiz’s set, since Major Arcana was one of my favorites from last year. They draw from some of the best parts of Pavement and the early grunge era to write crunchy, meandering (in a good way) alt-rock, and while they could improve on their stage presence a bit, it was good to hear some noise.
The Thermals are the true hometown heroes, and they proved it with their blistering 45-minute set that tore up the main stage. Granted, it was still early in the day and the crowd was a little sparse given their considerable effort, but the band played with a furious intensity that only let up when Hutch had to confront a bee on his microphone. It’s always a treasure when the band throws in some tracks from Fuckin’ A in with the classics from The Body, The Blood, The Machine.
Shabazz Palaces were a change-up from the rock-heavy lineup, and while it was nice to have some hip-hop, the duo’s set was a bit monotonous. Sure, it was groovy for a bit, but there wasn’t much shape to their set, and it was hard for the newcomer to really latch on to the music.
GZA thrilled the crowd with not only a performance of Liquid Swords but also by tossing in some Wu-Tang classics, with plenty in the crowd ready on-hand to provide some of the missing parts. Liquid Swords can be a difficult album to get into, but with the help of an excellent backing funk band GZA was really able to get the songs to pop and come alive.
We had seen Modest Mouse a few months earlier as they started touring once again, and while that was a fine show, it was nothing compared to how tight the group was for this performance. Holy shit, this may have been their best show yet, featuring such highlights as “Night on the Sun”, “Broke”, and “Doin’ the Cockroach”. The group at this point has evolved so much over the years, transitioning from a power trio into what seems to be an 8-or-so piece in its current incarnation, with dual percussionists (as has been the norm since Good News) and multi-instrumentalists handling horns and strings. With its revolving-door-like lineup, it can often appear to be some sort of musician welfare program, and I say that with the best of intentions.
On Sunday night, after a brief delay at the start (it was fitting that Modest Mouse was the only band unable to start on time the whole day), the band effortlessly ran through their extensive catalog with nary a hiccup, beginning with “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, which in a nice bit of symmetry was the final song of the encore from the time we saw them back in May. The band easily moved throughout their extensive catalog, capturing both the big hits and the rare gems alike. As mentioned above, the rare early single “Night on the Sun” was especially memorable, with Isaac putting his gruff delivery to good use and firing off some especially wicked solos. Though Isaac was battling a cold, the audience wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for his announcement, but it did lead to one of his many funny anecdotes during the show; at one point he claimed to be bad at the “in-between song banter”, but anyone who’s been to a Modest Mouse show knows that’s far from the case.
The encore ended with an especially stirring rendition of “The World At Large”, augmented by a coda which made excellent use of the full band with horns and strings helping deliver extra power to that gorgeous instrumental ending. The finale of “The Good Times Are Killing Me” provided the perfect conclusion to a festival put on by a beer company, with audience engaging in a gregarious sing-along with the band as the lights flipped back on.
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For the most part, the crowds at the festival were excellent, though I want to make special mention of the audience at this last performance. I’ve been to hundreds of shows over the years, and I’d never encountered a larger group of pure assholes than the ones that were ostensibly there to be “entertained” by Modest Mouse. If you’re heading out to grab beer while the band is performing a rarity like “Night on the Sun”, then maybe you should just ditch the show entirely and go get wasted out in Old Town; believe me, the pisswater available at the show was not worth the trouble. It was infuriating to see people just try to force themselves through groups of people when there were clearer paths available that were also easy to spot. At one point, a bro tried to barrel through, pushing into me but armed with an excuse that “hey man, let me through, I’m carrying wine, so I gotta be careful.” If you’re concerned about the safety of your wine, then maybe you shouldn’t be attempting to bulldoze multiple people as they’re dancing along to “Doin’ the Cockroach”. It was just an unrelenting stream of assholes constantly behaving in this manner, and it nearly ruined an otherwise perfect ending. Considering that the rest of the festival went off without a hitch, perhaps in the future they should consider cutting off alcohol sales before the last act, similar to how they’ll cut sales late in a baseball or football game. Other than that, it was a total success.