Musicfest NW: Three Days of Music, Sweat, and a Little Bit of Smoke


Modest Mouse photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

Modest Mouse photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

Portland’s biggest music festival made its way to the downtown waterfront for its second year. This wasn’t Musicfest NW’s second year in existence, as you may know, the fest went through a makeover that changed the set up to a single location at Tom McCall Park. There were two stages, one slightly larger than the other simultaneously playing bands for three glorious, late summer days. There was fun to be had, beers to be drunk, and an unexpected abundance of carbon monoxide, straight from the Cascadian wild fires.

This new format has little in common with the Musicfest NW of the yesteryear’s though and I have trouble even considering it the same event now. Instead of spreading the music at various venues across Portland, it’s now concentrated into an all-ages event that even your new-born could dance at. This new way, like anything else, had its pros and cons.

The good: The bands. The top heavy lineup was highlighted by two serious headliners, Modest Mouse and Beirut, and a handful of others (Foster the People, Belle & Sebastien) with consistent radio presence. There were several more artists that plug up the indie circuit and blogosphere like Danny Brown, Battles, and The Tallest Man on Earth and a number of regional bands graced the stages as well.

The bad: Corporate overload. What’s the issue with a few companies handing out free swag being such a terrible thing? That part isn’t necessarily (thanks for the $120 credit, Lyft), but it was extremely tiresome by the third day. On a more serious notion, there wasn’t a single microbrew on tap. Heineken ran the beverage stands like an unruly dictator, only allowing itself, Tecate and Strongbow to flow through the taps. And at a music festival in the Pacific Northwest, that’s blasphemy. I didn’t look this up, but I’m pretty sure this was grounds for capital punishment in the early 1900s.


Misterwives photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

Friday: The first day was also the shortest. The whole shebang got started late Friday afternoon with a bright sky slowly making its way down. The synth pop group, Misterwives put on an energetic set to put the weekend into full swing. Lead singer Mandy Lee danced and jumped around the stage and captured the audience with her sharp voice. They ended with a smashing rendition of “Uptown Funk” and proved to be one of the liveliest bands of the weekend. Foster the People headlined Friday night and played all the familiar hits, most noticeably “Helena Beat” and “Pumped Up Kicks” from their first album. Their studio friendly sound transcends perfectly into their live set. Add in a glowing light show that shined all the way into the Willamette River and you’ve got the perfect way spend Friday night downtown.

Foster The People photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

Saturday: The entire city of Portland awoke up to apocalyptic, smoke filled morning due to the westbound winds pushing the effects of the forest fires our way. Breathable air or not, there was a full schedule of music lineup up for the day. Title Fight brought heavy energy with their pop punk outfit and transported everyone back to the early 2000s when bands like this captured the hearts of every American high schooler. The much anticipated Battles took stage next and their live looped noise rock continued to drive the crowd from where Title Fight left off.

Battles photo courtesy of Aaron Sharpsteen

Another band reigning in music nostalgia for a large portion of attendees was Belle and Sebastien, a group almost forgotten until they came roaring back with ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’this past January. They stayed away from their slow material and kept the high energy flowing proving to have not lost their credible musicianship along the way. If you know anything about the music of Beirut (the band, not the city in Lebanon) though, you know that a fast pace is not part of their game. That does not take away from their music, which is fully unique and features an impressive arrangement of horns, keys, and strings that tapped off the smoky day perfectly.

Beirut photo courtesy of Aaron Sharpsteen

Sunday: Luckily, the winds from Saturday evening pushed the smoke away from inner Portland. The influx of carbon monoxide from the day before had a lot of attendees rolling out of bed late, waiting until later in the day to make it back for the final dose of music. By 5PM though, it was apparent that Modest Mouse was going to pull a giant crowd when they close out the weekend, despite Isaac Brock catching flack over some choice words (human turds) about Portland in a recent interview.

Modest Mouse photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

They weren’t the only local group bringing people through the gates, The Helio Sequence brought their slightly bluesy/slightly electronic tunes just before evening when temperatures were at their highest point. Hip hop artist, Danny Brown followed right after. While his DJ won the award for “most stoned” Danny took the gold medal for “most hype.” He pranced across stage and stuck out his tongue between almost every verse, not to mention his high-pitched, face paced rapping style that you hardly see these days.

Danny Brown photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

Next up was The Tallest Man on Earth fresh from a recent album and new backing band. They played plenty of his early material that was originally played solo like “1904” and “King of Spain” and smoothly added in background to songs that were just him and his guitar. The full lineup added a lot of depth but took away from that natural born talent that originally drew me to The Tallest Man on Earth. He has an unmatched connection to his voice and guitar which guides his songwriting. There is barely a handful of musicians I’d rather see solo, but Kristian Matsson is one of them.

Tallest Man on Earth photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

The biggest flaw of playing bands back-to-back on opposite stages is scarce amount of time it leaves walk to the other side of the park and get a decent spot. This was especially true for Modest Mouse, who drew, by far, the largest crowd of the weekend. They began playing right at nightfall and didn’t wait long to bust into material from their latest, ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ as “Sugar Boats” and “Lampshades of Fire” were played. Their set list had a wide range of old and new including the semi-old “Dashboards” and the vintage-old “Cowboy Dan.” Their encore included “Fire It Up” and “The Good Times are Killing Me.” I feel like I’m admitting to being a turd by saying this, but Modest Mouse was the perfect choice to close out the weekend.


Photo courtesy of Colin Hudson

Although though the number of bands shrank dramatically since the old days, they were able to put together a sound lineup with a good amount of diversity while remaining fluid. For some reason though, I left with an urging sensation to cruise around in a neon green Scion and smoke Marlboro Blacks. Weird.

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