In Portland, Oregon, a city that does a better job than most at shunning any kind of corporate schlock unless it’s Subaru or Lululemon, it almost feels wrong that a music festival sponsored by big beer could be such a draw. But if that beer happens to be Pabst Blue Ribbon, exceptions are made. Portlanders have long had a soft spot for PBR despite having an abundance of beer that actually tastes good, and the city is often given credit for the brand’s resurgence among hipsters. So, for the most part, the denizens of this town welcomed the news earlier this year that PBR was throwing a music festival called Project Pabst and it would have a pretty decent lineup.
Walking into the festival grounds on Saturday afternoon, it was impossible to escape the marketing reach, which included everything from a giant selfie-inviting PBR unicorn to a stand where bands could record a tune in the back of a U-haul and get it pressed onto a PBR vinyl right then and there. Maybe that was cool or maybe it was sickening, but $3 PBR tall boys at a festival are enough to make even the most cynical put their anti-corporate ethics on the backburner for a weekend.
While Sunday would boast a roster of heavy rocking bands including should’ve-been-main-headliner Ween, Saturday was musically more diverse. For the most part, that meant meh with a side of blah. The day started out fairly strong with sets from all-girl punk trio the Coathangers and local diva Liv Warfield, who injected the fest with a healthy dose of funkified soul and R&B as she used her commanding vocal power to pay tribute to the late Prince. Then there was Andrew W.K., who brought his party anthems to a crowd who were just getting pumped up for the day. Donning his signature white getup, Andrew W.K. reveled in nearly every rock and roll cliché, banging his piano and blasting through songs about partying, and at times bringing to mind a long-haired Bruce Springsteen if he had grown up at a kegger.
The day would hit a slump with the hipster electronica of local favorites STRFKR, who did their best Flaming Lips impression complete with dancing astronauts and confetti. Unfortunately, those gimmicks did little to enhance their 8-bit synth pop. They would be topped in lousiness by the trap rapper A$AP Ferg, whose quick punch lyrics about bitches sucking dicks were too dumbed down and trite to even be offensive. By the time flavor-of-the-month Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats wrapped up their set of ho hey faux-soul, plenty in attendance were ready for a real performance. Leave it to venerable rap legend and actor Ice Cube to provide just that. Cube’s performance was exactly what you would expect from such a big star, starting with his outlandish video intro featuring a larger than life version of himself taking over L.A.
Throughout his run of hits, Cube praised the city of Portland as part of the worldwide West Side in between hits like “Check Yo’ Self”, “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It”, “Gangsta Nation”, “We Be Clubbin’”, and “Bop Gun”. Ever the hustler, Cube had a montage of his own films playing behind him for much of the set. The highlight of all this came during the N.W.A. portion of the set when Cube hosted a partial reunion with MC Ren, DJ Yella, and his own son O’Shea Jackson Jr. for a run of the infamous rap group’s catalogue, including “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck Tha Police” (accompanied by an especially stirring montage of police brutality), both of which were met with massive applause and sing-a-longs from the audience.
For many in attendance on Saturday, 80’s cheeseballs Duran Duran were the main attraction, but even the nostalgia of hearing “Hungry Like the Wolf” wasn’t enough to top Ice Cube’s set. Nonetheless, the band’s flamboyant stage show and run of hits was enough to satiate the legions of fans who seem to have forgotten that decent music actually was made after 1988.
Sunday was about the rock and its lineup also seemed to attract less tank-top wearing bros, instead being dominated by die-hard Ween fans clamoring to catch the cult band’s first appearance on the West Coast since reuniting earlier this year.
Luckily, there was plenty of guitar-soaked goodness to take in before Ween. Helping to pull the crowd out of their collective, PBR-induced hangover was Nashville’s Diarrhea Planet, who laid down a quadruple guitar assault of soaring, blistering rock and roll. Following it up was Hopalong from Philadelphia. The group’s sound was jagged and at times heavy, but what really stood out was the voice of lead singer Francis Quinlan, who altered seamlessly between soft and serrated, bringing to mind a female version of Centro-matic’s Will Johnson.
One of the main highlights of the day was Sheer Mag. Even with the sun aimed directly at them, the group charged confidently through a set of songs mostly off their recent 7” III. Frontwoman Tina Halladay belted out lyrics with punchy punk ferocity while her band mates shredded away with Thin Lizzy swagger, making for a freewheeling and jubilant rock and roll cocktail. Parquet Courts also delivered one of the better sets of the day, laying out a heavy, danceable groove with their garage punk meets Talking Heads aesthetic as they treated the audience to songs off of their recently released LP Human Performance. Veteran post-hardcore band Drive Like Jehu continued their reunion streak with a set of gritty, abrasive tunes off their seminal 1994 album Yank Crime, and though the members appeared more fit for dad rock, their set brought some of the heaviest, most intense music of the weekend.
With the sun starting to slowly set, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air as Ween fans waited for the band to appear. Even the lifting of the band’s logo brought massive cheers, and when Gener and Deaner finally took the stage they were greeted with praise from die-hards who had missed them since they “called it quits” in 2012. The set began with a slow-burning swell brought to life by a ripping guitar solo in “Don’t Sweat It” and a sludgy “Buckingham Green”. The energy would pick up with a run of old fan favorites like “Spinal Meningitis”, a soaring “Transdermal Meditation”, and the jolly dirty fun of “Touch My Tooter”. The set got weirder and it became clear that, at this point in time, riding the crest of their reunion, Ween are doing exactly what they want to do. Towards the end of the set the band veered into jam territory with drummer Claude Coleman Jr. and keyboardist Glenn McClelland each taking expansive, rousing solos. By the time the band closed out with a sprawling “Fluffy”, Dean Ween ended with a triumphant, peaking guitar solo that signaled to all that Ween is officially back.
Afterwards Tame Impala showered the crowd with confetti as they concluded the festival with a set of Pink Floyd-meets-disco tunes, but at that point it hardly mattered because Ween had already left the building (or field). Judging by the cheerfully blitzed attendees, it seemed by Sunday night that Pabst had succeeded in winning over Portland once again with skillful marketing and a semi-decent music festival.
Photos by Brandon Simnacher.