As the evening sun dipped below Portland’s skyline on Sunday, August 17 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards raised a drumstick in the air and took a moment to gaze out over the Willamette River.
I followed her lead and paused to remind myself where the hell I was.
Less than 24 hours removed from a raucous, confetti-soaked dance party hosted by Girl Talk under the shadow of a bridge I drive over every day, I stood on a dusty patch of grass just a short bike ride from my house and enjoyed a lineup dotted with many of the same acts that had lured me 250 miles north to the Gorge for Sasquatch a few months earlier.
Before fest closers Spoon even had the chance to take the stage and affirm their position (in my mind at least) as one of the best live acts in rock, MusicfestNW's decision to abandon their tried-and-true multi-venue format in favor of an entirely different kind of festival on the waterfront suddenly made a lot of sense.
Shifting to a two-day, single-venue urban festival with a lean lineup of nationally prominent acts, organizers somehow managed to fill a gap in an increasingly crowded music festival calendar. Drawing a crowd of mostly 20-somethings, MFNW brought a younger crowd to the waterfront than we’re used to seeing at events like the Waterfront Blues Festival, and featured a more mature and relaxed atmosphere than party-heavy, youthful festivals like Sasquatch and What The Festival.
Like the ambitious development projects that are presently flooding SE Division Street with new apartment complexes and businesses, MFNW has adapted to Portland’s recent boom of youthful transplants and created a festival that aligns with the city’s changing demographics. The simplified format (featuring a lineup of buzzworthy bands familiar top to bottom by anyone who even occasionally reads Pitchfork) seemed to be an answered prayer for the city’s growing population of recent college graduates who still want to party and listen to relevant pop music—but also looking to make it back to work on Monday morning without burning through vacation days.
Of course, similar to the traffic nightmares caused by heavy construction on Division Street, MFNW’s transition hasn’t been without its own bumps in the road.
In the months leading up to the festival, public opinion was vocally opposed to the format change (according to the comment sections of articles and Facebook posts anyway). This was also reflected by ticket sales that appeared to be well below the festival’s capacity, and possibly had something to do with longtime executive director Trevor Solomon’s decision to step down and pursue other opportunities in Boston following this year’s event.
That brings us to the water fiasco. Even if you didn’t make it down to the waterfront for MFNW, you probably heard about it. Upon arrival at the entrance gates, attendees learned that they weren’t allowed to bring water bottles (even reusable ones) into the festival and were forced to buy $2 disposable bottles after making their way through the gates. There were no refill stations, the kind that have become standard at most outdoor festivals.
A hot August weekend that saw highs reach the upper 80s, coupled with a festival culture that often includes drinking and drug use, turned a lack of water into an obvious health concern—and a PR nightmare for festival organizers. The situation hit a boiling point when this photo (of the Grilled Cheese Grill’s clever attempt to bypass a rule against food vendors selling beverages) went viral, racking up over 200,000 views thanks to a popular Reddit thread. On Sunday, festival coordinators amended their original rule and allowed each attendee to bring in two factory-sealed water bottles. Bottled water prices were also lowered to $1 each, yet this was a case of too little, too late for many guests.
Another disappointment was a lack of beer options as Heineken (the festival’s sole beer sponsor) was the only choice—which seemed odd considering Portland’s celebrated microbrew culture. Word is 2014 is the final year of Heineken’s long-running contract with MFNW, so that problem should be solved in time for next year’s festival. In the meantime, many people walked across SW Naito Parkway to fulfill their microbrew needs at one of several nearby bars.
While these hiccups left a sour taste in the mouths of many spectators, some of this was to be expected. Although technically in its 14th year, MusicfestNW 2014 has felt a lot more like a first-year festival ever since its drastic format change was announced. As anyone who’s been to the inaugural year of a major festival knows, there are always kinks to be worked out, and MFNW’s were relatively minor.
The event succeeded in its attempts at becoming more of a nationally relevant destination festival, showcasing high-profile acts from across the country alongside local talent on Portland’s beautiful waterfront. While the beer options were definitely disappointing, there were plenty of local food carts on site (with reasonable prices), an art gallery featuring local works and a live mural that unfolded throughout the weekend, and a poster market with four local artists including Gary Houston and Mike King.
The festival’s streamlined layout featured two main stages that held alternating performances, creating an easy-to-navigate experience in which it was possible to catch every moment of every performance while avoiding momentum-stopping soundchecks. This painless new layout was in stark contrast to previous years of MFNW where spectators were often confronted by long lines outside venues located miles away from each other.
The old format included a big downside that fans weren’t guaranteed to see the bands they had paid to see (without splurging for a VIP wristband), which wasn’t an issue in 2014. This year’s powerful outdoor stages also boasted impressive professional sound that never distracted from the performances themselves (which can’t be always be said for other major festivals). For many attendees, including myself, these improvements outweighed the festival’s first-year bumps.
DAY 1: SATURDAY, AUGUST 16
The opening set of a music festival can be an awkward experience. Crowds are usually small as spectators often show up late—saving themselves for higher-profile acts later in the evening—and those who do show up early are often more interested in acquainting themselves with the festival grounds than watching whomever happens to be on stage.
That leaves a band who’s used to playing packed gigs at small venues in the tricky position of playing to a tiny crowd on a large stage. Fortunately for those who showed up early to day one of MFNW, Brooklyn’s Landlady handled the role of festival opener better than any act I’ve ever seen (which is especially impressive considering that it was the band’s first-ever festival set).
Beautifully self-aware and energetic frontman Adam Schatz openly acknowledged his band’s role as festival openers. Between songs, Schatz gave festival etiquette advice (including how to apply sunscreen “without it dripping down your sweaty face and making you look like an idiot in front of a bunch of strangers you desperately want to impress”). Then he successfully convinced the sparse crowd (and those sitting far away in the shade) to huddle up next to the stage and join along in a singalong to the band’s biggest hit to date, “Above My Ground.”
“We’re going to take advantage of the fact that we’re the first band on the first stage during the first festival of this new format,” explained Schatz before the singalong. “I know what you’re thinking... ‘But Landlady, we’ve never heard of you before. You’re a nobody. Why would I sing with you?’ Well, you will because it’ll feel good.”
He was right. They won us over. We all sang along and, well, it felt good. Really good.
Embarking on the first of many migrations between MFNW’s dual stages, those of us who had just finished singing along with Landlady walked over to catch Portland’s own Shy Girls on the American Apparel stage. Making their first appearance in Portland since New Year’s Eve after eight months on the road (including an appearance at Lollapalooza earlier this month), the alt-R&B group mesmerized with a polished set of hypnotic songs from their 2013 EP, Timeshare.
Heading into the set, I was curious how their sounds (which find themselves more at home in a dimly lit bedroom than a sunny park on the river) would translate to a festival stage—and was impressed with how well they pulled it off. Dan Vidmar’s conservative stage presence was complemented by a duo of interpretive backup dancers wearing homemade Aaliyah jerseys, giving the set a nice theatrical component. After their performance, a humble Vidmar and his bandmates could be seen walking through the festival grounds, chatting with fans and enjoying the rest of the lineup.
Midway through Gardens & Villa's mid-afternoon set, a man in his mid-20s standing to my left said, “I’m not gonna lie, I thought this dude was a lady when I checked them out on SoundCloud yesterday.” Then he paused for a moment before adding, “It’s still beautiful, though.”
A humorous nod to frontman Chris Lynch’s high-registered vocal delivery, the comment also pointed to something that many of the bands at this year’s festival had in common: The majority of these acts were prominent enough to hold name recognition from internet exposure and many had a familiar song or two to their names, but most of the personalities behind the music were relatively unknown to those in attendance. This was a lot of spectators’ first time seeing the faces behind the SoundCloud uploads.
Gardens & Villa’s mid-afternoon time slot worked out very well as the Santa Barbara five-piece made their way through an upbeat, breezy setlist highlighted by Lynch’s playful flute playing during their 2014 single “Domino.” Appreciative of the chance to play a venue so complementary to his band’s summery style, Lynch later mentioned, “I never thought we would be playing this close to the mighty Willamette. It’s a real pleasure.”
Walking around Waterfront Park on Saturday afternoon, Baltimore’s Future Islands were easily the most popular answer to the “who are you most excited to see this weekend?” question that invariably pops up in any casual conversation at a music festival. In the 30 minutes leading up to the synth-rock trio’s 5:25pm time slot, fans started trickling out of Man Man’s (terrific) set over at the Moda stage to beat the post-show rush and secure decent spots at the opposing stage.
Like over two million others, I had seen the YouTube video of frontman Samuel T. Herring’s show-stopping dance moves on the Late Show With David Letterman in March and was excited to see the intriguing performer in person. Willamette Week even put together an animated guide to instruct festival-goers how to dance like Herring (featuring his three signature dance moves: “The-Squat-And-Wobble,” “The Gyroscope” and, of course, “The-I-Touch-Myself”).
The band’s hour-long set didn’t disappoint, turning out to be a festival highlight for me. Opening with “Back in the Tall Grass” from the 2014 album Singles, Herring didn’t waste any time getting into his now-famous dance moves—busting out a crowd-pleasing, booty-shaking routine to the slow-burning track. Dripping in sweat that soaked his bright blue shirt, Herring proved to be one of the most passionate performers of the weekend, routinely beating his chest and staring intensely out at the crowd.
Alternating between humorous quips and serious moments of insight between songs, his entire performance was a successful balancing act between playful revelry and unfiltered intensity. On a weekend that included several references to Robin Williams’ recent passing, he eventually mused: “We have to find the darkness to find the light, you know what I mean?”
RUN THE JEWELS
As the festival’s sole hip-hop act, Run The Jewels could have felt like unwanted outsiders crashing someone else’s party. Instead, their raw, hard-hitting brand of hip-hop was warmly received by a growing Saturday evening crowd. Killer Mike (pictured above) seemed to notice, pausing to say, “This is really fun, actually. Sometimes this shit just feels like cashing a check but this is different.” He continued to reveal that the East Coast duo had been enjoying Oregon (specifically the weed) and were planning on keeping the party going after their set at one of Portland’s strip clubs.
Over producer El-P’s bass-heavy production, the two emcees leapt around the stage throughout their set, showing off Killer Mike’s surprising agility, and ratcheted up the crowd’s energy level in preparation for the night’s dance-heavy performances from Phantogram and Girl Talk.
As evening turned to night, Sarah Barthel stood at the front of the American Apparel stage dressed in black and gold, letting the wind whip her dark, shiny hair across her face. She looked the part of a rock star and the crowd noticed. Running through a collection of electronic pop hits including “Don’t Move,” “When I’m Small” and “Diamonds,” Barthel and Josh Carter (collectively known as Phantogram) drew one of the most positive receptions of the day. In what turned out to be a rare exception for an otherwise reserved festival crowd, the majority of those in attendance clapped and danced along to the duo’s electronic-heavy take on danceable pop-rock.
While similar in style to newer electro-pop bands like CHVRCHES, it’s impossible to accuse Phantogram of simply cashing in on a trendy style: They’ve been doing this since their fantastic debut, Eyelid Movies, came out in 2009 and are now reaping the benefits of being one of those rare bands whose natural style lines up with current trends. The result was one of the most fun shows I’ve been to all year.
As giant inflatable hands and feet flanked a glowing stage, Girl Talk's Gregg Michael Gillis bounced around behind his DJ equipment and played a signature spastic set of contemporary pop hits cut with older classics—mashing together samples from the likes of Grimes, Chance The Rapper, Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj, Lil Jon, Schoolboy Q, Travis Scott and countless others.
Rolls of toilet paper shot out like streamers over the crowd who were more than ready to emulate the 20-plus people dancing onstage as the digital sampling pioneer did exactly what festival headliners are supposed to do: throw a party that has a little something for everyone in attendance. Whipping through songs at a rate very appropriate for an ADD-riddled generation (which includes myself), a shirtless Gillis incorporated multiple genres from several eras, culminating with an oddly perfect selection of “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies as large clouds of confetti rained over the crowd.
In other words, it was the perfect way to cap off day one of MFNW 2014.
DAY 2: SUNDAY, AUGUST 17
Nursing a lingering hangover from the night before, I walked down Salmon Street midway through Modern Kin's set on Sunday afternoon and noticed an interesting quirk of this year’s festival. Sound from the powerful stages could be clearly heard deep into downtown Portland. A couple blocks west of the waterfront, I passed a parking attendant who was openly enjoying Modern Kin’s performance. At the end of a song, he even joined the distant audience with a round of applause accompanied by a giant grin on his face. Then, as I closed in on SW Naito Parkway, I was surprised to see a fairly unobstructed view of Modern Kin thanks to MFNW’s low fences—a fact that wasn’t lost on several groups around me who had stopped to take in the scene.
Once inside the venue, I caught the second half of Modern Kin’s performance. Although their 2013 self-titled album has been in steady rotation for me recently, this was my first time catching the hometown group in person. What I saw was an engaging (and surprisingly theatrical) performance that balanced plenty of melodic “oohs” with loud guitars and gritty feedback. Anyone who showed up on Sunday for Spoon likely found a new local favorite if they weren’t already familiar.
Modern Kin also appeared to be engaged in the weekend’s happenings, pausing between songs to quip, “You guys must be burning up out there. Maybe someone can bring around the free water,” before chuckling, “Sorry. That joke was from yesterday.”
Rocking a wild shock of platinum hair with an entrancing stage presence, Erika M. Anderson (EMA) looked the part of a star on the Moda stage on Sunday afternoon. Backed by three bandmates, she nimbly worked through a setlist that highlighted her diverse stylistic range—subtly whisper-singing over chilled-out backing instrumentals before belting out strong lead vocals over rumbling bass a moment later.
Near the end of the impressive set, Anderson paused to say, “We’re going to do something we’ve never done before because sometimes it’s fun to do something that could go wrong. It makes us feel alive.”
Then she rattled off a couple minutes of politically charged, rhythmic poetry over brooding electronic chords from her band. Full of lines like, “Everything is fucked; the worst part is we lost faith in ourselves,” the piece had a punk rock intensity that was powerful and emotional, even if you didn’t happen to agree with the sentiments behind the words themselves.
Capping off a string of three consecutive Portland bands to play MFNW stages on Sunday afternoon, Wild Ones took the American Apparel stage at 3:25pm. Impossible-not-to-like lead vocalist Danielle Sullivan fluttered around the stage in a denim jumper, adding vocals that I can’t help but describe as “sweet” to the band’s bright, summery sounds. Wild One’s penchant for bouncy keys and sparkling guitar riffs lent itself very well to the warm summer setting along the Willamette. Sullivan’s charismatic stage presence and genuinely joyful demeanor turned out to be just what I needed to snap out of a hangover-induced malaise.
After Wild Ones left the stage, my friends and I decided to take a break from music for a moment and grab sandwiches over at the Bunk food cart. This caused us to miss Toronto punk rockers Fucked Up. Word is frontman Damian Abraham turned in one of the weekend’s most engaging performances: taking off his shirt, joining the crowd in a mosh pit, accepting a fan’s offer to share a joint, and addressing the growing tensions in Ferguson, Miss. Judging from those reports and the phenomenal photo included above (by Autumn Andel), I think I may have missed one hell of a show. They’ve been added to my can’t-miss list of touring bands.
On a weekend in which the majority of performers wore black (despite very warm weather), Tune-Yards brought a splash of color to the Moda stage on Sunday evening. The brainchild of New England ex-puppeteer Merrill Garbus, Tune-Yards showed off a sense of zany, childlike fun that’s difficult not to get wrapped up in. At one point, Garbus loosened her jaw and shook her head back and forth, letting out a bizarre noise that floated out of her flailing lips. It’s a move I’ve seen toddlers pull off to limited reactions. When Garbus did it, thousands of people cheered. I was one of them.
Wearing a collage of bright colors and eye-catching patterns with a lighthearted demeanor (giggling through more than one song) and a collection of eclectic sounds that included a live-looped ukulele, portions of the set could have been confused with a Portlandia sketch to the casual viewer. That is, if there wasn’t so much talent and contagious energy oozing through it all. Going into the weekend, I promised myself that I wouldn’t rank sets against each other, but I can’t help it: Tune-Yards put on my favorite show at MFNW 2014.
After being blown away by sister trio HAIM in May at Sasquatch, I couldn’t wait to see them grace another festival stage in the penultimate performance of MFNW. Taking advantage of a chemistry that only sisters can share, the Los Angeles natives are naturally likable performers. Engaging in more crowd participation tactics than any other act, they easily drew the loudest responses from the Portland crowd all weekend.
The pop-rock style that’s earned HAIM as much buzz as any newcomer in the last few years leans even heavier on the rock side of the equation when they take the stage. Each member is more than willing to grab a drumstick and wail away at one of several floor toms that line the stage at their shows. After the synth-heavy leanings of the rest of the lineup, the group’s extended guitar riffs and drum solos were a welcomed change of pace. Festival-ready anthemic hits “The Wire,” “Don’t Save Me” and “My Song 5” were crowd favorites.
Making their first appearance in Portland since 2009 at the Crystal Ballroom, Spoon closed out MusicfestNW 2014. Running through an impressively well-put-together setlist, they gracefully wedged hits from a phenomenal eight-album catalog—like “The Way We Get By,” “I Turn My Camera On” and “You Gotta Feel It”—in with new material from their 2014 album, They Want My Soul (released a week prior to MFNW).
As their first four albums soundtracked the high school years of the majority of those in attendance, the show held several moments of nostalgia (their 2005 album Gimme Fiction was the first CD in the deck of my very first car as a 16-year-old), but the five-piece never relied on their back catalog to carry the show. In fact, their latest single “Do You” may have actually received the most positive reaction of the whole set.
At the conclusion of a 90-minute set that included a double encore, lead singer Britt Daniel took a moment to address the aforementioned departing festival director Trevor Solomon before leaving the stage for the final time.
“I want to thank Trevor Solomon. I love that guy.”
The comment was received with a warm round of applause.
I couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate way for this festival to come to a close.