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MusicfestNW Wrap-Up: Sacrificing Authenticity

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Strand of Oaks - Photo Credit: Kyle Patrick Cregan

If you were looking for a corporate shell of a music festival this weekend, you didn't have to look any further than Tom McCall Waterfront Park and MusicfestNW.

A quick tour of the area made it apparent that this was not an event intended to celebrate a diverse set of musical and cultural interests so much as it was an opportunity to sell stuff and privatize the waterfront area for a few days. The sheer amount of money that went into MFNW, while at the same time displacing homeless youth and veterans who make the waterfront their home, is enough to make the bile rise to the back of one's throat. The festival has fallen a long way from 2009, when it was named one of Time Magazine's 50 Most Authentic American Experiences.

Surveying the waterfront scene, a casual onlooker might observe that plenty of mega-corporations had their presence felt at MFNW. HTC provided a "virtual reality tour" (actually, an opportunity to promote their new VR headset and latest phones) while Marlboro hosted an "Adult Smokers" tent. There were no designated smoking areas, however, and the concept of a "smoke-free Oregon" went right out the window. 

Heineken was the major beer vendor, offering a dismal variety of fizzy alcohol, including, and limited to, Heineken, Tecate, Strongbow and Heineken light. Even though there are approximately 91 craft breweries in the Portland Metro area, not a single one of them was represented or available at MFNW. 

The local disregard didn't end there. With the exception of some food carts and art vendors, Portland's unique representation at MFNW was dismaying, at best. The 20+ band lineup hald only a handful of local acts, which isn't really surprising considering the difficulty this city has in supporting local music. 

Portland musicians are vexed by the public's inability to pay a five dollar cover charge for a local show, when the residents of this city seem to have no problem paying $45-$140 dollars to watch Danny Brown's opening DJ dance lazily and occasionally press a few buttons.

Let's talk about the talent at MFNW. In no way is this an indictment of the incredibly talented artists who, understandably, signed on to play MusicfestNW. One cannot fault a farmer for selling produce to someone who doesn't know how to cook. On the other hand, one can fault the consumer for buying perfect, farm-grown veggies and letting them rot in the fridge before throwing them away. 

Photo Credit: Ivy Handleman

And that's what this audience was doing. Even for bands like local Alternative Rock giants The Helio Sequence, the crowd couldn't be bothered to move their bodies before the sun went down. Contrarily, the palpably white audience had no problem taking obvious cues from Danny Brown to chant "Smokin' and drinkin'" or "Sniffin' cocaine."

In fact, as soon as the button-pushing DJ who preceded Brown began pumping nothing but low-end out the massive system, the MFNW attendees seemed to realize that it was time for them to start noodle-dancing. In classic fashion, the audience created a mild uproar every time the "DJ" came out from behind his tables to make a half-hearted attempt at crowd interaction, dancing lethargically and pointing to his tongue-in-cheek t-shirt. Likewise, Whenever Brown stuck his tongue out and held up the "rock on" hand gesture, noodle-dancing audience members everywhere stepped up their gyrations and "made some noise." 

All in all, Brown is a talented MC and songwriter, but his performance was evidentiary of contemporary, mainstream hip-hop nationwide. He had a DJ who wasn't a DJ, he performed over his own vocal tracks, and nearly everything about it was a played-out imitation of things we've all seen before. And the crowd ate it up just as voraciously as they probably consume Voodoo Donuts, in all their gimmicky bourgeois-ness. 

Fortunately, not all MFNW performances are created equal. One attendee was overheard saying that Miguel's performance at the Roseland Theater on Friday night was possibly the best performance he had ever seen, referring to the artist as being way out of MFNW's league. Local musician Kyle Patrick Cregan had this to say:

"I'm still kicking the dust off of my shoes from bouncing like a ping-pong ball back and forth from one stage to the other at MusicFestNW... My girlfriend and I  were quite surprised that it was one of the earlier acts that really stole our complete, undivided attention. Strand of Oaks proved how deceiving looks really can be.... Big, booming drums and fuzzed-out bass over reverb-soaked guitars and the singer's whisper-like style. Heavy (and beautiful) melodies reigned throughout their set. It's as if they were originally conceived as a stripped down indie-rock act and said blatantly said 'No, turn it to 11.' Random observations: Scion sunglasses, lots of weed, Isaac Brock's intense stare and sub-par beer selections. Now if I could just find out who slashed my bike tire and cut the gears on my bike..."

Perhaps this is the most revealing statement about MFNW. Any event with such great music should be memorable for just that: great music. Instead, the event is marked by corporate sponsorship, predictable cliches, and a borderline malicious random act of crime which just so happened to victimize none other than one of our own local musicians. Instead of the festival spreading to more venues across the city, thereby supporting local businesses, it has invaded the waterfront and fallen victim to the same virus that infects so many music festivals across the country: popularism and greed.

There was no shortage of musical talent at MFNW this year, that much is certain. What it had in talent, though, it lacked in local influence. What the festival offered in terms of national appeal, it sacrificed in integrity. This was not a music festival, it was a strip-mall with bands. You may have been there this weekend, and you may be saying to yourself, "Hey, wait, I saw a lot of good music at MFNW this year..."

But guess what? There's great music all over this city, nearly every night. It often costs very little, or even nothing, to attend these shows. For every MusicfestNW that you attend, you could be seeing literally hundreds of talented artists on the local and national level. You could be supporting local businesses, drinking local beer, and not staring at a handful of cops using your tax dollars to sip cold beverages at a music festival. Your choice, Portland... let's see you step your game up. 


Related Slideshow: MusicfestNW: Top Ten Acts of 2015

Music fans who exclusively listen to commercial synth-pop and quasi-intellectual indie singer-songwriters will have no problem filling their schedules throughout the weekend. MFNW has done a thorough job of making sure that the “majority” population of Portland will have plenty to see on the waterfront from August 21-23. For those of you seeking something a little more specific, or for those of you who want to get the most bang for their buck by purchasing the single-day, 60 dollar pass, here’s a comprehensive survival guide for your eardrums, in no particular order. 

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Few bands on the MFNW bill offer a sound as rich as Beirut. Drawing much of their influence from Balkan folk as well as the broader “indie” realm, the band is led by founding member Zach Condon and takes elements from all around the globe to create their unique audio motif. Cascading between methodic soulfulness and danceable baroque rhythms, they bring a lively sort of soul to MFNW that is endearingly sweet and emotionally enriching, the band is set to release their newest project, No No No in September and they will be performing at 8:30 PM on the Morrison Stage on August 22nd.

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Milo Greene

Milo Greene describes their sound as Cinematic-Pop. When the band was formed, the goal was to create music that they could, “potentially see being placed in movies and TV.” While some might interpret this as a soulless, capitalistic venture devoid of the essence that makes music worth creating, the band has managed to create their own brand of “cinth-pop” making them stand out in the genre. Their songs have a mildly filmic quality, relying mostly on catchy vocals and upbeat rhythms to get stuck in your head. We’ll see if their cinematic focus translates to an engaging live performance... they are set to play at 6:30 PM on the Morrison Stage on August 21st. 

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Foster The People

With “Pumped Up Kicks,” the band’s 2011 breakout hit, Foster The People became poster boys for commercial, electro-pop music. The leader of the trio, Mark Foster, was once quoted as saying, in regards to the early days of his career in Los Angeles, “I wasn't shy about taking my guitar out at a party. I wanted to be the center of attention." And that’s exactly what the band’s music sounds like. Foster spent a few years as a commercial jingle-writer, a fact that is evident from the band’s infectiously catchy sound. What they lack in depth, they more make up for with enthusiastic zeal and conventional good looks. So if you’re into pretty young men and seeing bands that are well known and popular, well, this’ll fill that particular void in your life... catch them at 8:30 PM on the Morrison Stage on August 21st.

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Twin Shadow

George Lewis Jr., AKA Twin Shadow, is an artist who has been known for revisiting 80’s new wave music while infusing it with sophisticated R&B sensibilities and an intimate array of ambient synthesizers and punching drum sections. However, with his 2015 release, Eclipse, much of that has been stripped away to provide a simpler, more accessible record.  With his first major-label project, Twin Shadow has created a style that lives less in the ethers, and more on the ground level. Eclipse is rawer, funkier, and more-booty shaking than his previous work, giving audiences a chance to get out of their heads and into their feet. See Twin Shadow at 6:30 PM on the Morrison Stage on August 22nd.

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Danny Brown

In a city which has become notorious for neglecting and even vilifying all things rap-related, it can be something of a surprise to see an artist like Danny Brown at an event that otherwise caters to the predominately white & affluent population of the metropolitan area. If it is a surprise, though, it is a pleasant one. Brown is unapologetically individual, with a voice and delivery that might mistakenly be labeled as goofy. He is at his best when engaging in sincere storytelling, such as with the intimately personal “25 Bucks” (Featuring Purity Ring) or the 2012 release, “Grown Up.” On other tracks, Brown delivers high-energy audaciousness with addictive hooks and fierce verbal delivery. Brown will be on the Morrison Stage at 6:30 PM on August 23rd.

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Battles will shake your bowels. Every song they create has a life of its own, driven by a shared heartbeat of high-energy enthusiasm and sonic bravery. They seem to have more fun playing their music than doing anything else, and that is exactly what festivalgoers want to see. What pubescent laptop-jockeys pretend to do at EDM festivals across the country, Battles does with zero inhibition and 100 percent authenticity. They mix heavy electronics and brutal, pulsating organic rhythms into an alchemical auditory concoction that can be mesmerizing and uplifting. When they are playing, get close to the stage, and stay there. Get hypnotized and let your bowels shake at the Hawthorne Stage at 5:30 PM on August 22nd.

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Lady Lamb

There’s no other way to say it; Aly Spaltro is an immutable badass. Supported by an impeccable band with whom she seems to share a unique level of connectedness, the singer-songwriter who goes by the moniker of Lady Lamb displays and enigmatic aesthetic, rich with diverse emotional substance and sprinkled around a landscape of passionately personal and occasionally esoteric lyrical content. She has a voice that can crawl inside of you and force your innards to resonate at superhuman frequencies, and her stage presence is capable of inducing audiences into a state of frenzied, messianic hubris. She will make you believe that there is no creature on earth more powerful than a human woman with an instrument in her hands. She’ll be doing this to you at 4:30 PM on the Morrison Stage on August 23rd.

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Modest Mouse

If you are completely unaware of who Modest Mouse is, you’re probably too young or too old to be reading this. The Alternative/Indie ensemble has been around since 1993 and has since established a standard for all other contemporary Alternative outfits to hold themselves to. They have managed to become one of the most recognizable names in popular music, headlining the biggest festivals in the country and releasing their sixth album, Strangers To Ourselves, earlier this year. Amazingly, they have achieved this success without estranging fans of their early work. Modest Mouse delivers a distinct sound, one that is guided by a driving, forceful intention and laced with bright tones and decisive bass lines. Theirs is music that can make you stomp your feet, move your hips, or simply nod your head. But you will move. They’ll be closing out the fest at 8:30 PM on the Morrison Stage on August 23rd.

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Aesop Rock

This is more of a precursor to the fest than it is part of it, as the show precedes the MFNW kickoff party occurring the next day, but Aesop Rock is too good of an act to not include in this list. The New York Native epitomizes hip-hop intellectualism and a music sensibility that transcends genre-conformity. Known for his work on one of hip-hop’s most distinctive record labels, Definitive Jux, as well as collaborations with Kimya Dawson and his own deliriously complex lyricism, Aesop now resides in Portland and will be performing with Rob Sonic, DJ Abilities, and Illmaculate at Star Theater on Wednesday, August 19th.

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Part neo-soul, part pop-funk, with traces of high-concept new wave artistry, Miguel is an artist who gives you sensuality wrapped up in a digestible mix of personal confession and contemporary introspection. His latest album, Wildheart, teases at being sexy, while honestly observing modern sexuality and its complications in a world that has become less binary, less normative, and freakier. Along with this observation of sexuality as a function of modern relations, Miguel analyzes the subtler, nuanced aspects of how we interact with one another in the age of technology and social networking. His truthfulness and soulful songwriting will be on display at the Roseland Theater on Friday, August 21st for a sold out show... but who knows, maybe someone you know has two tickets and a crush on you.


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