Project Pabst

Ruminations on a Weezer Show

In our coverage of Project Pabst last week, we included a brief review of Weezer’s set in our recap of the festival.  However, I wanted to take some time to discuss the ambivalence that I felt as the time for their headlining set approached.  Why did seeing a band that I once loved so much fill me with such dread?

Weezer has had a long and successful career, to the surprise of many–they’ve now released nine albums over the course of twenty years, which is rather astounding considering many believed the band would have folded after the commercial failure of their second album.  There is a whole new generation of fans that have pledged their undying support for the band and have helped maintain the band’s place as a festival headliner; many of these fans had not even even born yet during the time that the devoted message board community in the late-90’s were keeping the spirit of the band alive.  These younger fans probably have no idea why many of the band’s initial followers long ago ditched Weezer.

Much as it pains me to say, I am one of those who sits on the “wrong” side of the generational divide, metaphorically screaming at the young kids to get off my lawn.  In my eyes, Weezer released two perfect albums, followed it with a passable comeback attempt, followed by an underrated and overlooked record, and then several steaming piles of shit.  The Blue Album not only has all those hits that have filled radio playlists for years, but also several other gems of masterful pop-rock that make it a top-to-bottom classic, and Pinkerton was the beautiful mess that turned off the casual fan but whose ragged emotional core thrilled and captured the hearts of the devout ones.  The Green Album and Maladroit each have their merits, but overall they fail to reach the standard of what the band had previously established.

Usually, I am the kind of fan that not only forgives a band for its missteps, but stands up for records that have been treated unfavorably by those who have moved on to the next Hot New Band.  Hell, I am still buying Alice in Chains records after the death of Layne Staley.  It is rare for me to turn my back on a band, but Make Believe caused me to do just that.  I have made it a point to keep the album and transfer the files across several hard drives, only to never listen to it, so I can remember how much I detest the album.*  On its own merits, it is an extremely mediocre set of songs, but more than that it represented that the original Weezer that I had grown up with and loved was gone, never to return.  I remember giving their next effort a chance, and after listening to a stream of The Red Album I decided that I was done with the band forever.  There was no going back, a fact confirmed every time the band would release a new single that would force me to dive for the radio dial.

It was during the Make Believe era, however, that I finally got to see the band in person, and I still have giddy memories of the show.  It was about the best I could have hoped for, with the band hitting the expected highlights of The Blue Album, throwing in some Pinkerton favorites (a recent development, since the band had long had an uneasy relationship with the record), and keeping the new stuff to a minimum.  The band was lively and having fun, with even Rivers loosening up a bit–everybody had a shot at lead vocals for a song, and the guys all had fun switching instruments.

There was no way that Weezer in 2015 could have improved upon that experience, and I did not want to sully my recollections of that show.  Yet I still stuck through to the end, as the band played a strikingly similar set–I got my Blue Album-era stuff, as well as a couple of Pinkerton tracks (including a fantastic version of “The Good Life”), and once again had to endure the same amount of new shit, though in slightly different form.  I may be categorized as part of the “Millenial” generation based purely on my age, but I should not be lumped into the same group of people that cheer as hard for “Back to the Shack” as “My Name Is Jonas”.**

While my initial dread turned out to be misplaced, I still wonder why it is I hold Weezer in such high regard compared to many of their peers, refusing to allow them to change as they see fit.  Much of their new material has much of the same superficial quality of their earlier work, but to me there is something missing.  I want the band that sang about “little ol’ three-chord me” while constructing the musically complex “Falling For You”, or the group that composed the gorgeous instrumental climax to “Only In Dreams”.

I guess I am just selfish that way.

*That sounds like something that should be explained to a therapist

**There were also several fans that cheered along to the absolutely horrid “Beverly Hills”, and I am frightened by the fact that these people are probably allowed to operate motor vehicles

Project Pabst 2015 Day 2 Recap

The first day of Project Pabst had a better lineup, but the second day offered just enough that made spending a second day in the heat a worthwhile proposition.  At least it never got as hot as it did the previous day, though there was little to no escape from the sun, aside from the odd bit of shade and the PBRcade.  Still, water refills were once again free, even if that did not make up for the fact the organizers made no adjustments overnight.

Alvvays delivered the most season-specific music

Alvvays delivered the most season-appropriate music

If there is one thing you can count on when you travel in Oregon, it is that random traffic jams will occur without any reason.  A massive slowdown on I-5 added another hour to our travel time, forcing us to miss the majority of Alvvays’s set, an unfortunate result considering we were really excited to see how one of our favorite new artists from 2014 performed live.  However, we can authoritatively state that, from what little we heard, Alvvays’s bouncy, shimmery pop-rock was a perfect soundtrack to a sunny outdoor festival.  Though attendance was lagging at this point in the day, at least there were a devoted few that sang along to closer “Archie, Marry Me”.

Aimee Man and Ted Leo had easily the best stage banter of the festival

Aimee Man and Ted Leo had easily the best stage banter of the festival

Though I have been a fan of Ted Leo for years, I had yet to give his collaboration with Aimee Mann a shot.  However, The Both won me over with their ripping set, with Aimee and Ted displaying a tight chemistry that was only matched by El-P and Killer Mike.  The music was an intriguing mix of the two styles, though I tended to prefer the moments when Ted would kick it up a notch with flashy-but-efficient guitar solos.  The stage banter between the two was a definite highlight, including a memorable bit where Aimee poked fun at Ted’s love of all things Tolkien, with Ted responding by totally owning it and singing an impromptu version of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers”.  Also, for the record, Ted can change a broken guitar string faster than any performer that I have ever seen.

This was the act the crowd appreciated the most

This was the act the crowd appreciated the most

Passion Pit generated the best crowd response of the day, but my reaction to the group has always been the embodiment of the shrug emoji.

Buzzcocks still going steady

Buzzcocks still going steady

Since I spent several years listening to Singles Going Steady, a truly essential compilation for anyone who has ever dabbled in punk rock, the Buzzcocks were the “living legends” reunion I was looking forward to seeing the most at Project Pabst.  Judging by the packed backstage area, I was certainly not alone in this sentiment, as one could easily see other performers like Ted Leo singing along to the words of some of their classic hits like “Why Can’t I Touch It”, “What Do I Get?”,  and “Noise Annoys”.  The group tore through their discography at breakneck speed, with guitarist Steve Diggle constantly asking the sound mixer to crank up the volume.  Just hearing “Ever Fallen In Love” and “Orgasm Addict” live made Day 2 worthwhile in and of itself.

Weezer finished off Project Pabst with some flair.

Weezer finished off Project Pabst with some flair.

There are few bands with whom I have more of a love/hate relationship than Weezer, and considering my age it should be easy to spot exactly where that dividing line occurs in the band’s catalog.  I think the surest example of how people my age should not be lumped into the catch-all “millenial” generation is that we would never cheer as loudly for “Back to the Shack” as we would for “My Name Is Jonas” or “The Good Life”.  I ended up sticking around longer than I anticipated since the group did a good job of mixing in some of their genuinely great songs with their later hits that played well to certain segments of the crowd, and I can certainly admired the well-oiled machine that Weezer the performance act has become.

Project Pabst was a solid success this go-around, but hopefully they will learn from a few of their mistakes from this edition as they set up plans for next year.  Hopefully they can create a lineup as exciting and varied as the first two editions.

Random Notes

Number of free water refills: 2

Number of beards longer than mine: 1

Number of comments on my shirt (Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind cover): 2, including a “Best Shit EVER!”

Project Pabst 2015 Day 1 Recap

Last year’s Project Pabst was an unqualified success, so it made sense for the organizers to make the festival an annual event instead of a one-off celebration.  Even though it could be argued that this year’s lineup was a step below last year’s edition, Project Pabst offered easily the best selection from a burgeoning Portland festival scene.  And so once again, Rust Is Just Right made the trek up north to enjoy a weekend’s worth of music in a gravel pit.

Into the clown's mouth...

Into the clown’s mouth…

As great as many of the performances were throughout the weekend, the defining characteristic of Project Pabst was how goddamn hot the entire event was.  I feel ashamed to be complaining about the heat since I spent my childhood playing pickup basketball during the unbearable Louisiana summer months, but living in Oregon has unfortunately made me soft.  Temperatures hit triple digits on the first day, and the primary concern was locating shade wherever it was available, with making sure the sunscreen was still effective a close second.  Actually, the heat was not the problem–it was the sun beating down mercilessly upon all of our heads that contributed to the crowd’s relative misery more than anything.  This was in stark contrast to last year’s edition, which took place at the end of September, and it seems as if the organizers made no effort to alter the accommodations to prepare for the drastic change in weather.

Against Me! declares that "Gender Is Over"

Against Me! declares that “Gender Is Over”

The first set that we caught came from punk rockers Against Me! who delivered a fiery set that was better than their early-afternoon slot would indicate.  Variety is not Against Me!’s strong suit, and as a result their music tends to run a bit on the formulaic side especially when you focus on the drums and bass parts.  However, the band’s energy easily won me over, which is more than I could say for the heat-stricken crowd–I was surprised to see the relatively listless reaction to the band’s breakthrough hit “Thrash Unreal”.

Why have one drummer when you can have two?

Why have one drummer when you can have two?

Thee Oh Sees kept the punk spirit rolling with their set, delivering their garage-rock at a breakneck speed and with an extra helping of pure cacophony.  The band would have won a trophy for “Most Treble” if any such award was given, which is somewhat ironic considering the number of intriguing bass lines that were sprinkled throughout their set.  For the most part, the group rarely exploited the fact that they had two drummers, choosing to have the two play duplicate parts instead of contrasting or complementary parts.  Their set quickly began to wear thin, with each short burst of fury practically indistinguishable from each other; a full hour was too much, a fact that the band acknowledged when they expressed surprise that they still had twenty-five minutes left in their set.   At this point, Thee Oh Sees became the soundtrack to a food break, where I opted once again for the mediocre Muffaletta sandwich.

TV on the Radio attempt to beat the heat

TV on the Radio attempt to beat the heat

TV on the Radio put on one of the best shows of last year, so they were one of the bands I was looking forward to seeing the most this weekend.  Like many of the other acts, however, they were not prepared for the relentless heat, as seen by the fact that most of the band was dressed entirely in black.  The band performed with the same intensity and passion as they did last winter, though on occasion the sound mix was not as up to the quality of that previous show; this was most obvious during “Could You”, when the song was dangerously close to falling apart for most of its running time.  The thrilling finale of “Staring at the Sun” served as a microcosm of the set, as initial enthusiasm soon fizzled and the crowd began anticipating a move to the second stage.   The set did nothing to diminish TVOTR in my eyes, but due to the conditions outside of their control it is unlikely they earned many new fans with this performance.

Run the Jewels owned the weekend.

Run the Jewels owned the weekend.

The unquestioned highlight of the whole weekend for me was the chance to finally see Run the Jewels live.  Killer Mike and El-P totally lived up to expectations, as they proved to be one of the most dynamic acts touring today.  In contrast with a lot of hip-hop sets, the duo was able to keep spirits high as they seemingly fed off each other’s energy, with Trackstar the DJ doing a fantastic job manning the 1 and 2.  The crowd ate it all up, with a majority ready to throw up the fist-and-gun hand gestures at a moment’s notice.  Two audience members who had a blast during the set were Del the Funky Homosapien and A-Plus, a fact that I realized when I saw them perform later that night.

Blondie bringing out the big guns...a keytar

Blondie bringing out the big guns…a keytar

Blondie was the headlining nostalgia act this year, taking over the spot held previously by Tears for Fears.  I was surprised at the lack of buzz that greeted these legends, especially in comparison to last year’s feverish anticipation for Tears for Fears, but it is not as if I was compensating for the lack of enthusiasm myself.  It was a strange and ragged set that managed to not only to display the variety of hits the band has had over the years but to include a random cover of “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” (mirroring last year’s TFF set).  Of all things, I felt that a random keytar solo during “Call Me” was the best summary of the performance.

This would have been a nice finale to the evening...

This would have been a nice finale to the evening…

Saturday night was all set to have a thrilling conclusion with Ghostface Killah joining up with BADBADNOTGOOD to perform from their collaboration Sour Soul, except for the fact that Ghostface never showed up.  Stuff like this happens, but the way that the organizers of the show handled the situation was inexcusable.  There may not have been a hotter spot in Portland than the Crystal Ballroom that night, and the fact that the crowd was left in the dark for an hour before BADBADNOTGOOD had to reveal the bad news themselves was inexcusable; at least give the audience a chance to decide to bail or not, and inform them why they are suffering in the heat for so long.  BADBADNOTGOOD tried to make amends and delivered a technically-proficient and spirited jazz-fusion set, but it was impossible to overcome the letdown that the news of Ghostface’s absence had caused.

Random Notes

Number of free water refills: 4

Number of beards longer than mine: 3, including Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio

Number of comments on my shirt (Neutral Milk Hotel Gramophone/Aeroplane): 0

Project Pabst 2014 Recap

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.

The mascot for Project Pabst and Scotland's national animal.

The mascot for Project Pabst and Scotland’s national animal.

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.

Violent Femmes up on the stage.

Violent Femmes up on the stage.

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.

While the sun was pleasant for the audience, Red Fang would best be enjoyed in a grey thunderstorm.

While the sun was pleasant for the audience, Red Fang would best be enjoyed in a grey thunderstorm.

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.

Phosphorescent with some breezy jams

Phosphorescent with some breezy jams

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.

I assure you, those ants are Tears for Fears

I assure you, those ants are Tears for Fears

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.

Speedy Ortiz keepin' the dream of the 90's alive

Speedy Ortiz keepin’ the dream of the 90’s alive

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 up on the main stage, and deservedly so.

The Thermals up on the main stage, and deservedly so.

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 rockin' the laptops and drums.

Shabazz Palaces rockin’ the laptops and drums.

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 taught Portland the finer points of astrophysics

GZA taught Portland the finer points of astrophysics

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.

Modest Mouse putting an exclamation point on a great weekend.

Modest Mouse putting an exclamation point on a great weekend.

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.

* * *

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.

Built to Spill, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

In some ways, Built to Spill is an odd choice to be a part of a festival put on by a beer company.  A Built to Spill show is not intended for the casual music fan who’s out on the town looking for a fun night out with the music as mere background to other items on the agenda. The band’s focus is not on spectacle, but on recreating dense, complex works of Guitar As Art for a devoted and appreciative audience in as professional a manner as possible.  Even fans can find themselves lost as the group delves deep into an extensive catalog of originals and various covers.  In other words, there would be no shilling for corporate sponsors, or mentions of alcoholic beverages; Doug Martsch would punctuate a song with a simple “Thanks”.

Though technically a part of the Project Pabst festivities, it is best to think of Saturday night’s show as a stand-alone gig–the chance to see one of the great indie rock bands for over two decades in a locale that while not home, is close to it, for the low price of only $25.  As weekend entertainment options go, it was probably the best bang you could get for your buck, and that’s before taking into account the quality of the actual performance.  With a setlist that danced all around their extensive career and a lineup in which the new parts are now seemingly fully assimilated, the band ended up performing their finest show that I’ve seen in years.

Doug Martsch and co. remembering to carry the zero

Doug Martsch and co. remembering to carry the zero

It’s not a bad idea to start things off with one of the greatest album openers of all-time, and the band obliged with a furious rendition of You In Reverse‘s epic “Goin’ Against Your Mind” in all its solo-filled glory.  The band then dipped into the early years with two cuts from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, “In the Morning” and “Stab”.  A riveting performance of “Liar” followed, complete with the trademark Doug Martsch head-swivel, as well as a rousing version of “Sidewalk” which got the crowd bouncing.

The middle of the set featured my first encounter with “They Got Away”, a reggae-inspired song that the band had released a few years back on a single that I didn’t even know existed; I had been anticipating new material as the group had been working on a follow-up to There Is No Enemy for some time, but instead I had to settle for a song that ended up being just “new-to-me”.  Speaking of that album, a personal highlight was the gorgeous ballad “Life’s a Dream”, whose climax really sizzled live.  I’m still hoping to catch a live performance of the devastating “Things Fall Apart”, though.

Built to Spill jamming with the opener's cover of "Psycho Killer"

Built to Spill jamming with the opener’s cover of “Psycho Killer”

The last time I caught Built to Spill it was at an intimate show at the Doug Fir where the group was incorporating a new drummer and bass player.  The guitarists were all predictably great, but the rhythm section was hesitant and looked rather bored; part of this could be attributed to a setlist that consisted of seemingly easier songs so as to gradually incorporate the new members.  However, there was no such caution with the material at Saturday’s show, and the two new guys sounded as if they had been a part of the group for years.

The show ended with slow-building classics “I Would Hurt A Fly” and “Time Trap”, and though we were warned the latter would be the last song of the evening, we were thrilled when it unexpectedly merged into old favorite “Car”.  It had been nearly a decade since I saw that song live, and goddamn did it feel good to hear it again.  That said, hopefully it won’t be another decade before I see it again.

Menomena, Live at the Wonder Ballroom

Most of the attention around Project Pabst was focused on the shows happening down on the South Waterfront of Portland on Saturday and Sunday, but the festivities actually began with a few select shows around town on Friday night.  Even though it would mean I would be making the trip up I-5 on three straight days, I jumped at the chance to see one of my local favorites play the Wonder Ballroom.  I’ve been a fan of the “experimental” indie rock of Menomena for years, ever since I caught them opening up for Modest Mouse about a decade ago (and in a nice bit of symmetry, Modest Mouse would be headlining the final night of Project Pabst), and have been consistently impressed with their albums and their live show, and Friday was no exception.

Fans who have followed the band over their career are well aware that the original trio has now become a duo, at least in the recording studio.  For the live show, Justin Harris and Danny Seim don’t do as much instrument-switching as they did in the past, with Danny finding a comfortable place behind the drumkit and Justin switching between bass and bari sax, with the occasional guitar thrown in, but sharing vocal duties.  To fill things out, they’re aided by various touring musicians, and for this tour they had help from a pair of them to cover additional keyboard and guitar lines, and with their help all bases were covered and the songs sounded fantastic.

Justin and Danny are setting up for the show.

Justin and Danny are setting up for the show.

The set was a mix of favorites from Friend and Foe on, though “Strongest Man In the World” from their debut I Am The Fun Blame Monster kicked off the show (aside: that title is an anagram for “The First Menomena Album”, a fitting coincidence since the last band we saw was Interpol who just released their own anagramed album, El Pintor).  The guys were loose, enjoying the hometown atmosphere and having fun with the title sponsor–Justin was hoping that anytime he said “Pabst Blue Ribbon” he could get a “cool hundy”, though he would settle for $33.33 for saying any part of the name, while Danny changed up the lyric in “Five Little Rooms” on the fly to “at half-Pabst again”.  Speaking of Danny, over the past decade he has become one of the greatest drummers in indie rock, and it’s always a marvel to watch him capture all the tricky rhythms that comes from a result of their unique songwriting process while also maintaining perfect time.  He alone is worth the price of admission.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hoping to hear a glimpse of a follow-up to the fantastic Moms, but there were no new songs on the agenda last night.  Instead, the audience had to be pleased to watch highlights like “Muscle’n Flo” and “TAOS” nailed with pinpoint precision.  The crowd was captivated as Justin alternated between different instruments and weaving in loops with his feet all the while.  Personally, I always enjoy it when a band utilizes a bari sax, and with Menomena, it’s an integral part of their sound and not a mere gimmick (though I have to say, those bros behind me who kept yelling “TUUUBA” every time they saw the bari sax, you’re exactly as clever as you think you are).

Justin and Danny exploding in light

Justin and Danny exploding in light

The night ended with a fantastic encore, with the epic rocker “The Pelican” thrilling the crowd, followed unexpectedly by the subdued track “Rotten Hell”.  However, the guys tweaked the song a bit from its recording version, with the changes providing the finale with enough of a kick to properly send the crowd off into the night with the right amount of energy to keep raging for the rest of the weekend.  It was as perfect a kickoff for a festival that Portland could ask for.

Feats of Strength: The Thermals

The Thermals are returning home to Portland this weekend for the inaugural Project Pabst festival, and as always we’re psyched for the opportunity to see one of our hometown favorites* in action once again.  With that in mind, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to briefly discuss one of our favorite albums from the last decade, The Body, the Blood, the Machine.  A furious blast of righteous fury aimed directly at an oppressive political establishment, The Body, the Blood, the Machine stands as one of the few concept albums whose execution matches its ambition.  Its narrative revolves around a couple fleeing the clutches of a fascist, theocratic government, and though it could easily devolve into a mere screed that ultimately bores the listener, the album never fails to consistently engage the listener, both with its incisive lyrics and its ever-propulsive music.

“A Pillar of Salt” illustrates the ability of the band perfectly.  Lyrically, it’s the most straightforward depiction of the actual storyline, detailing exactly how the young couple is escaping the clutches of the authoritarian regime, capturing the tyrannical nature of the regime and also the perilous nature of the family’s quest for freedom.  Musically, it’s the perfect example of what “pop-punk” should aspire to be–catchy melodies but backed by razor-sharp playing that doesn’t lack for any edge.  One of my favorite accomplishments as a music director back when I worked in radio was playing this song and receiving direct feedback from our listeners about how much they loved the song.  It was rare for us to get phone calls from listeners, but for “A Pillar of Salt” we got several calls from listeners who wanted to know who the band was that played this song and requesting that we play it more often.  It was nice having my instincts confirmed as I shepherded the song from the specialty show into a new music showcase and eventually into regular rotation, that a band that didn’t get a big push nationally was actually really good and that listeners actually wanted to hear them.  Hopefully those listeners took the initiative and bought the album as well, because “A Pillar of Salt” was definitely not the only highlight of the album.

“Returning to the Fold” appears right after “Pillar” on the album, and though it veers in a different direction by slowing the tempo a bit, it eventually reveals itself to be another high point and would become a fan-favorite, who enjoy stomping along with its big chorus and singing at the top of their longs brilliant lines like “I can’t believe I got so far with a head so empty.”  Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the songs, I want you to listen to the intros and first verses of each songs carefully, paying attention to the guitar.  You should be able to notice that…the two songs have the exact same chord progression.  Even with the different tempos, it should be obvious now, especially after I’ve pointed it out.

Now, considering the connective thread that runs throughout the album, this clearly isn’t an example of a band repeating the same tired old ideas, but is instead obviously intentional, especially since the two songs appear back-to-back.  And then it becomes clearer that there are deeper connections between the two songs, such as the fact that the first revolves around escaping, while the second talks about “returning to the fold”.  In fact, the fact that the slower song is the one detailing the return mirrors the reaction of what would occur in real life–there would be a frantic attempt at escape, but when caught, the family would trudge back home, in no way eager to come back.  It’s subtle musical and thematic connections such as this which help set The Body, the Blood, the Machine from other concept albums, and help it succeed where so many others failed before.

*Ed. Note: We don’t want to slight any of the other great Portland bands that we love, including Red Fang, who are set to perform at Project Pabst as well.  Just as parents aren’t asked to choose favorites among their children, we don’t want to do the same with our local bands.  We love a lot of them.