Portland, Oregon’s main music festival came and went once again this year, a hectic but unique celebration of both local musicians and national acts in a city that is rich with musical history. Held around the city at venues ranging from small bars to huge halls, indoor to outdoor, there was an act, genre, or hang out to please every fan. But it’s also a double-edged sword, as two bands you love might be playing an hour apart, something not usually a problem, but the venues might be on completely different sides of the city, making the journey to each showcase nearly impossible. I got to see the Hood Internet at my favorite club because The Horrors sold out, but it also meant that I missed my chance to see The Horrors, whom I love. It’s that frantic, SXSW-like nature that can lead to new discoveries and new acquaintances, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. Between the myriad of concerts and all the non-official shows and house parties all weekend, MusicFest NW is a uniquely Portland festival.
Thursday September 8th
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Hawthorne Theater
It’s certainly been a quick rise to popularity for Portland’s own Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The psych-pop outfit has that certain undeniable quality to them, a pitch-perfect blend of head-bobbing hooks and raw, unabated talent. Thursday night at the Hawthorne Theater, UMO charmed an audience that may not have been there for them, but came to fall in love with this rising band almost immediately. There was certainly nothing fancy about their setup, and no flamboyant or elaborate stage antics, UMO just played near-studio-quality versions of hits like “Ffunny Ffrends” and “Thought Ballune.” Lead singer and guitarist Ruban Nielson turned from belting out a choral hooks to jumping around stage during a guitar solo at the drop of a hat, gluing the eyes of every audience member to UMO’s creative inspiration. I always enjoy seeing band play in their own city, but UMO didn’t play that up, and for a group that’s been compared to an early Led Zeppelin (in style and genre, not talent), UMO appeared unnerved at each turn. I’ve always believed that in order to make that leap from local and underground to nationally successful, a band must be able to captive any audience, and for a room full of people that were mostly there to see an electronic singer/songwriter follow, UMO absolutely stole the show.
Butthole Surfers – Roseland Theater
If there’s ever something that 2011 will be remembered for, it might be the revival of decades-old rock groups, the same groups that so many of todays up-and-comers were raised on. Across the street from each other, on the same night and time, Archers of Loaf and the Butthole Surfers took to their respective stages, bringing out both the nostalgic and the curious. But unlike the former, the Butthole Surfers aren’t slinging a reissue, relying solely on their rather sporadic back catalogue to draw in fans. Lead singer and effects specialist Gibby Haynes was as poignant as ever, though, asking the crowd if they wanted to hear a racist joke, telling them to “just listen to a Rick Perry speech.” Political angst aside, Butthole Surfers still know how to absolutely dominate a stage and captivate an audience. Whether it’s Haynes singing through a megaphone into the mic, guitarist Paul Leary stomping around stage during one of many guitar solos, or the strange and sometimes vomit-inducing videos looped on the three huge screens behind the stage, there was always something captivating on stage on Thursday night at the Roseland Theater.
EMA – Holocene
It’s been a busy and exciting year for California by way of South Dakota singer/songwriter Erika Anderson, aka EMA. After leaving her longtime band Gowns, EMA began her solo career in earnest, releasing Past Life Martyred Saints. A rather long tour followed, and now Anderson is back on the road again, enchanting stages across the country. Her Thursday night set at the Holocene left little to be desired for fans, as the intimate setting, beautiful acoustics, and respectful crowd made for a satisfying end to the night. Anderson’s powerful vocals filled the entire space that night, especially on tracks like “Marked,” as she sang “I wish every time he touched me left a mark.” Part suicidal grunge, park minimal pop, EMA not only has the talent, but the emotion of a truly special singer/songwriter, and the Holocene’s warm lighting and somber patrons made for an engaging performance late Thursday night.