The annual MusicFestNW in downtown Portland has transformed over the years from a multi-venue festival reminiscent of South by Southwest into a weekend affair in the park with 20 bands. The setting at Tom McCall Waterfront Park makes the festival easy to attend and enjoy, but this year there were many drawbacks. The corporate presence at the festival was overwhelming; from Scion trying to get you to play their drum kit in order to “win” a pair of cheap sunglasses with their logo on them, “please advertise for us,” to the Lyft representatives running around handing out free $20 Lyft rides, which probably came in handy for many festival-goers. Regardless of how anyone felt about this corporate presence, the fact is that we were attending a festival in downtown Portland, Oregon, which is one of the biggest promoters of local businesses in the country and one of the best cities in the word for micro brewed beer. So why then did we only have the option between Heineken and Michelob Ultra? In a city with so many good breweries and wineries in close proximity, it was baffling that the festival would not take the opportunity to promote local businesses while giving the crowds what they really want: quality beverages. That being said, the music, for the mot part, was solid, especially as the weekend progressed. Here are some of the highlights:
Locals to the region, hailing from Seattle but often times living in Portland, the band was the obvious headliner for the festival and the last to play. Their set saw Isaac Brock making jokes about the art of bridge building and other incoherent ramblings. They played strong and with high energy as they worked through their extensive repertoire, putting early stuff and newer material side by side. Of course, the older material made their fans happy and playing classics such as “Dramamine” was like taking a step back in time.
The Indie folk band from Santa Fe ended the second night in fashion. Their own brand of horn driven indie folk rock is like no other sound out there. They played beautifully with powerful horn solos and sweet harmonies, and Zach Condon’s voice was mesmerizing.
Tallest Man on Earth
Swedish native Kristian Matsson gave the most touching performance of the weekend. His fingerpicking and vocalizing are like nothing else. His set just before Modest Mouse’s on the last day was a great primer for the closing act and showed a focus on the variety of acts at the festival.
Frontwoman Aly Spaltro formed Lady Lamb in 2007 and they’ve been pumping out solid material ever since. Their live performance on Sunday was the perfect Segway between Strand of Oaks and Helio Sequence. The set showed Spaltro’s dedication to live performance with ripping guitar solos and a beautiful stage presence, and her singing was strong and passionate.
Strand of Oaks
With a folk rock sound that is obviously influenced by bluegrass, the Strand of Oaks set stood alone with roots heavy tunes that collided with a garage rock disposition. The band’s rock gods appearance with heavy metal hair cuts and torn jeans was interesting considering their sound did not reflect their outfits, in a good way.
Belle and Sebastian
Their much-anticipated set was fun and dance worthy but their execution of the music left much to be desired. Though, ending the set with over 30 people on stage dancing along with the band was pretty cool to see if only slightly gimmicky.
Hugely influenced by music from the 80’s, Twin Shadow’s set was full of synth pop vibrations with a touch of glam and a bit of awkward fashion (were those shorts made out of a trash bag? And what’s with the BMX pants bro?)
MusicfestNW has a long way to go in order to be seen as an extension of Portland culture. In a city where people flock to the hippest place in town for locally sourced food and handcrafted beer, a music festival on this level surely needs to be seen as part of the city’s culture if it wants to survive. The only way they will accomplish this is by making the festival Portland-centric by bringing in only local sponsors, which they did do with their food cart selection, but it ended there. The organizers could benefit from studying the ways of other local festivals that focus on sustainability and local sourcing in order to make their event feel right at home, that and maybe go back to the multi-venue format of years past since it would bring more bands in and spread the money around town much more evenly, after all go big or go home.