MusicFestNW

I Saw Them Live! Memories From a Godspeed You! Black Emperor Show

With the release next week of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (which is now available to stream), this is the perfect opportunity to reflect on one of the most remarkable concerts I have ever experienced.  Seeing Godspeed live was such a mind-blowing event that I spent weeks after the show contemplating the fundamental nature of music.  When a band forces you to engage in philosophical debates with yourself, it means that it was a pretty special performance.

For years, I was only a moderate fan of Godspeed You! Black Emperor; I was intrigued by the unusual name (including the shift in the exclamation point over the years) and the odd facts I had read about the group, from the fact that they were some sort of amorphous collective that conducted “post-rock” songs to the claim that the band trafficked in extreme politics despite the fact that their songs were strictly instrumental.  I picked up a few of their records in college and was often content to leave them playing as ambient drone music during study periods, rarely fully engaging myself with the individual songs.  It was pleasant background music, but I often struggled to maintain any focus on the individual songs during my attempts to listen with greater intent.

The band had fallen off my radar when they went through their lengthy post-Yanqui U.X.O. hiatus, but when they announced they were reuniting to go on tour in 2011, I immediately decided to snatch up a ticket.  I had heard excellent reports about their live show, and the fact they were playing an unusual venue (a Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, I believe) indicated that it would be a memorable experience.  However, my excitement was short-lived, as circumstances changed and I ended up missing the concert–I attended South by Southwest instead, the thought being that the thirty shows that I would end up seeing would make up for the one that I had missed.

Soon after the initial success of the reunion tour, the band released the fantastic comeback album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  Unlike previous albums, I had a much more instantaneous appreciation of ‘Allelujah, and it made me reconsider my assessment of the band.  The band announced a tour in support of the album, and I finally had the chance to atone for my previous absence.  GY!BE swung their way through Portland’s own version of SXSW, performing at the Roseland Theater for two nights during MusicFestNW.  Back in 2013, the “festival” was still a week-long affair of loosely-affiliated shows at venues all across the city, and because of the necessity of tickets for each show and the vast distances between them, it was a significant decision to choose a specific show like this because of the additional opportunity cost.  The stakes were high.

Initially, it seemed that I had made an unwise gamble with my time and money.  The band took its time getting to the stage, arriving one at a time, and once they were there spent several minutes seemingly attempting to get in tune, creating a cacophonous drone that gradually enveloped the theater.  For a good ten minutes I was having serious doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to see a band for whom I had previously only mild feelings, knowing full well that the live experience could very well end up being a compilation of the most boring aspects of the band.  Then, there was a sudden shift, and the music coalesced into something that can only be described as pure beauty.

“Mladic” may be the closest that Godspeed has ever come to writing a “hook”, with a melody that evokes Slavic motifs that bring to mind my own Mediterranean roots.  With this melody stuck in my head, I now had a toehold within the morass from which I could explore wherever the band ventured.   In other words, there was now a purpose in the noise.  Once I had this realization, I began to analyze the sounds circling around venue, and began questioning my assumptions as to what constituted “rock” and what defined “music” itself.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor has often been described as a “post-rock” band, a term with little meaning to most people, but it was at that moment that it seemed that the band had embodied the meaning of the signifier; it seemed as if the band was commenting on the nature of the form, a hallmark of “postmodernist” movements.  Godspeed eschews the verse-chorus formulation, but simulates their effect by playing with dynamics, utilizing huge crescendos that build over several minutes and sudden diminuendos.  The band also explores dissonant tones and plays around with pure cacophony, with several members playing extremely disparate parts that seemingly have no relation, but will gradually blend into recognizable melodies.  The result is music that creates the effect of a rock show, without including many of the more recognizable elements that one would expect from “rock”.

By the end of the show, as the band exited in a similar manner as they had entered, screen flickering all the while, I had a completely different opinion of the band.  Now I can’t wait to see them again.

MusicFestNW 2014

Portland celebrated MusicFestNW this past weekend, and it looked a little different than it had in past years.  Instead of a colder, wetter version of SXSW (with a city more equipped to handle the traffic), we got a Northwest version of the current incarnation of Lollapalooza and other similar festivals.  We didn’t have to buy tickets to multiple venues and plan across a whole week, but instead had a two-day festival in a specific part of the gorgeous Waterfront Park, soaking in that last bit of summer before the inevitable gloomy fall.

We decided to skip the first day since there were no acts that seemed worthy of shelling out the extra money for another day of tickets (with all apologies to Run the Jewels, for whom it would probably be worth to pay a full-day’s admission to see on their own).  I’m going to avoid the opportunity to talk smack about bands for whom I don’t particularly care, because we here at Rust Is Just Right try to set ourselves apart by not indulging in condescending snark and instead promote what we enjoy.  But in private, let’s just say there were a lot of good burns that were shared.

Portland's Waterfront Park, on a non-MusicFest day.

Portland’s Waterfront Park, on a non-MusicFest day.

Our plan on Sunday was to catch the lineup starting from The Antlers until the end, but thanks to several accidents on I-5 our ETA was delayed by about an hour.  Luckily, we still caught the last few songs of The Antlers’ set, a circumstance which mimicked my previous limited encounter with their live show when they only performed a short showcase at SXSW.   One would think that their delicate and fragile songs would not be ideal for a live show, especially in a large festival setting, but once again I came away extremely impressed with their performance.  We were caught wandering around the backside of the cordoned-off grounds for “I Don’t Want Love” (mistaking beliving that there would be entrances on the bridge side), but we were still able to hear the devastating power of the song even filtered through the backstage equipment.

The Antlers: "Music Band Northeast, glad to play Music Fest Northwest."

The Antlers: “Music Band Northeast, glad to play Music Fest Northwest.”

Once we finally settled in to the proper area, we heard a couple of songs from their latest album Familiars.  I haven’t yet internalized the nuances of those songs, but I can assure you that they come off very well in a live setting.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was their last song, “Putting The Dog To Sleep”.  It’s a great closer on Burst Apart, but given the specific nature of the song, it wouldn’t appear to be the most natural way to end a set.  The song was as cathartic as expected, but the band added an additional musical twist: first they began the natural breakdown of the song, taking pains to stretch out the chord progression while keeping the resolution slightly out of reach, but then building the song back up with an extended instrumental section that dazzled the crowd.

You know this was from early in the set because Damian Abraham's shirt is still on.

You know this was from early in the set because Damian Abraham’s shirt is still on.

We then made our way to the other end of the park, where Fucked Up was set to perform next–a transition that ranks among the most jarring ever scheduled at a music festival.  Here is a great opportunity for praising the new setup of the festival, as this allowed minimal time wasted between different acts as they had the necessary amount of time to setup without holding the crowd hostage, and the distance between the two sets was both short enough for the walk to not be burdensome while long enough so that there was not any bleedthrough between the two stages.  Someone deserves some extra kudos for that solid planning.

We’ve shown our love before with our glowing review of Glass Boys, but even we were taken aback at just how awesome Fucked Up’s set was at MusicFest.  I’m willing to claim that their hour-long set alone was worth the price of admission for the full day’s lineup.   There’s really nothing quite like seeing the giant hulking mass of positive energy that is Damian Abraham working his way through the crowd, giving hugs to folks passing by, climbing on top of the fence to sing out to the people on the river, and high-fiving a baby as the band ferociously kept up and played in lockstep.  Seriously, Pink Eyes high-fived a baby–that immediately became an all-time top-five concert moment for me personally.

Pink Eyes, now sans shirt.

Pink Eyes, now sans shirt.

I believe most of the set was from Glass Boys and David Comes To Life, though I will admit that sometimes it can be difficult to tell certain songs apart.  At least none of my personal favorites from The Chemistry of Common Life came up, though the rarity “I Hate Summer” made a welcome appearance, with a thoughtful introduction from Abraham on how one shouldn’t listen to personal attacks from others who are merely trying to shame people for no good reason.  He also at other times mentioned the healthful benefits of weed and the terrible events occurring in Ferguson, MO, with each speech receiving thunderous applause.  The band was tight, as I mentioned, but also could have benefited from an extra volume boost to help compete with Abraham’s sharp bellow, and also to help distinguish between the various components of their three-guitar attack.  Unfortunately, it seemed that the raucous set eventually drove the crowd away, as it seemed after their initial welcome that many people grew tired of listening to an hour of hardcore, and eventually made their way back to the other end of the park.  Then again, perhaps it was the heat finally getting to a few people, and the need to stock up on food.  I hope it was the latter, because Fucked Up deserved a new wave of fans after that performance.

A glimpse of the color of tUnE-yArDs

A glimpse of the color of tUnE-yArDs

We had previously seen tUnE-yArDs when they opened up for The National only a few months ago, and in between it seems the set morphed from less a capella and looped percussion to more synths and live percussion.  That’s not to say that the music was any more conventional–there is still a dominant left-of-center sensibility.  For those who are unfamiiliar, the music of tUnE-yArDs is filled with complicated rhythms and tribal influences with world music type lyrics.  In other words, at many points through the set I thought I was living through a real-life Portlandia sketch.  Despite this vague feeling of uneasiness, I still really enjoyed the tUnE-yArDs set, as did the hundreds of other people that packed the listening area.

I ate a lamb gyros.

I ate a lamb gyros.

We ate dinner during HAIM.  Mine was delicious.

I save my worst photography for last.

I save my worst photography for last.

Spoon closed out the festival with a fantastic headlining performance, with a setlist that went deep into their catalog.  You may have noticed that we here at this site love the band quite a bit, and let’s just say that we loved every minute of their show.  Britt Daniel, former Portland resident (who gave a shoutout to SE during “Black Like Me”), remarked that it had been a long time since their last show in the city, back when they performed at the Crystal Ballroom in 2009; as an attendee of that concert, I could only shout out “too long!”

Just to show that the festivities extended into the night.

Just to show that the festivities extended into the night.

In their live show, Spoon manages to perfectly balance between precision and spontaneity, as the band can maintain both a perfect verisimilitude of their albums and allow for individual players to freak out and revel in the moment.  The band mixed in a healthy amount of their stellar new album They Want My Soul, and even some of the more experimental tracks like “Outlier” and “Inside Out” sounded perfectly at home within the set.  The crowd roared when they heard old favorites like “Small Stakes” and “I Turn My Camera On”, but saved their most appreciative response for the hits from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga like “Don’t You Evah” and “The Underdog”.  Personally, I was glad to finally hear some of Transference live, including an extremely passionate performance of “Got Nuffin'”, and to witness at least one Girls Can Tell song, the sublime “Anything You Want”.  The only odd part was that besides Britt there seemed to be several band members that wanted to get out of the show in a hurry–the band ended up doing two encores, which seemed to be partly the result of some poor time budgeting.  It may have been the result of getting used to one-hour slots on various festivals and not properly adjusting to a headlining 90-minute slot, but from a distance I could see the look on some of the faces of the band members that they were hoping to cut things shot.  Despite this, Spoon more than justified taking the top spot on the bill; I’m just hoping for a proper show at some point from these guys in the near future.