MusicFestNW remains Portland, Ore.’s answer to South by Southwest, minus the booze and barbecue. Even more so than its Austin counterpart, you have to pick your spots at MFNW.
The bands – roughly 160 in total – only perform once, the dozen or so venues are spread out around town, and even priority wristbands don’t necessarily guarantee entry. Here are some key takeaways from my four-day sprint.
BEST IN SHOW: Cody Chesnutt at Doug Fir
After a 10-year hiatus, the Atlanta, Ga., native followed his lo-fi debut The Headphone Masterpiece with last year’s Landing on a Hundred, a Motown awakening universally hailed by the NPR crowd. As with contemporaries Charles Bradley and Raphael Saadiq, the album only hints at Chesnutt’s live prowess. Onstage, he’s a commander in soul, directing the crowd as much as his airtight band. Every number, from the endearing new ballad “Love is More Than a Wedding Day” to the blaxploitation funk of “I’ve Been Life,” turned into a call-and-response rave-up. He didn’t stop for 75 minutes, and neither did the crowd.
BEST NEW MATERIAL: Deerhunter at Crystal Ballroom
Deerhunter’s latest, Monomania, is misleading at first. Recorded on a couple of eight-tracks, it’s rough around every conceivable edge, feral and damaged. Yet behind the distortion lies some of the band’s most enduring hooks and riffs. Live, side two trifecta “Sleepwalking,” “Back to the Middle,” and the title track sounded ridiculously huge, while set standard “Nothing Ever Happened” proved itself a frontrunner for indie rock’s guitar epics of the past decade.
BEST EFFECTS: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Roseland Theater
It’s been said that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life seemed like a four-hour trailer to a 24-hour movie. The thought crossed my mind more than once during Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s performance, the first of a two-night stand. That’s partly due to the dire suspense of last year’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, but more so the impact of the four film projectors the band employed. Manually manipulated, the effect was haunting and surreal.
BEST SURPRISE: Donnie Holley at Crystal Ballroom
Improvising in that gray area between brilliant and baffling, Holley offered a nearly indecipherable sermon (I heard “America” a couple of times and he counted to nine twice) of free-form expressionism, backed by a trio that included Deerhunter’s Brandon Cox on drums. With his head ticks and deep, impassioned gurgling, this was an act of possession, that of a man searching – digging – for a truth just beyond his reach.
BEST QUOTE: “We’re bringing indoor rock to outside Portland. We’re bumming you out on a Sunday night.” Neko Case on her birthday at Pioneer Square Courthouse
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: My Thursday night, when I power-napped through the Men’s midnight set – wearing one of tour tees.