Macklemore, Big Freedia Star at MusicFest Northwest 2011

Someday I want to attend South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. It’s a bar-hopping live music extravaganza of epic proportions featuring fresh-faced local bands and grizzled national acts.

Portland’s MusicFest Northwest is what I imagine South by Southwest is like, albeit smaller and in the Pacific Northwest. (Duh!)

I witnessed everyone from veteran post-rock outfit Explosions In The Sky and dynamic Seattle hip-hop act Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to local buzz bands And And And and Ages and Ages during the three days I attended MusicFest Northwest 2011.

It was a solid festival. I would hesitate to call it great because the headlining options — Iron and Wine, Explosions in the Sky, Band of Horses –could have been better. But overall I enjoyed myself.

THURSDAY, SEPT. 8

Handsome Furs at Branx

I loved the sexual energy between husband and wife duo Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry during their set at the hotter than Baghdad Branx Thursday night. ¬†They looked like they wanted to rip off each other’s clothes. Their scuzzy synth rock made the kids in the front dance till they couldn’t sweat anymore. Me, I wish they would have played some of the older stuff, but their new stuff did not lack for catchiness. Bonus points: None other than Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock played guitar on the encore. He looked like he would fling his guitar into the crowd at any point. As I walked out the venue into the mild Portland night a black kid with a mohawk screamed “Isaac Brock’s a rapist” to no one in particular. I guess some people were not impressed.

PS: I passed on Charles Bradley (Aladdin Theater) and Little Dragon (Hawthorne Theater) to see Handsome Furs. I had originally stopped at Aladdin Theater to see Bradley but the sit-down vibe there led me to bolt. Meanwhile, I passed on Little Dragon because I did not know many of their songs. My roommate, Ben “Machine Lundeen,” described Little Dragon as one of the best shows he had seen. Am I second-guessing myself? Yeah, a little. I expected an energetic show from Handsome Furs, and they delivered. It was far from revelatory though.

EMA at Holocene

I made a late decision to pop in at Holocene for a few songs from California alt-rock act EMA, who I had previously seen at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. Erika M. Anderson’s music has the requisite snark to be an invigorating listen, but I wasn’t feeling it Thursday night. EMA’s guitars sounded rough inside the Holocene. I’m not sure if that was the band or the venue. Either way, it was time for sleep.

FRIDAY, SEPT. 9

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at Roseland Theater

Believe the hype. This felt like a coronation of sorts. Check out my show review here.

Ages and Ages at Doug Fir

I had been meaning to catch an Ages and Ages show ever since Willamette Week named them Portland’s No. 2 best new band in 2011. I got my first taste of their music on Friday night when they opened for GIVERS. The seven-piece’s harmonies were as intricate and enjoyable as advertised. At any given time, three men and two women synced their voices to create a sense of joy reflective of city life and the nearby woods.

GIVERS at Doug Fir

GIVERS are quickly becoming one of my favorite live acts. They bring an infectious energy to the stage that few bands can match and they aren’t afraid to try new things. Plus, they’re from Louisiana. Click here for my recap of their Friday night/early Saturday morning show.

SATURDAY, SEPT. 10

The Antlers at Pioneer Courthouse Square

I regrettably missed the opening set by Portland upstarts Typhoon. So, this set by Brooklyn rock quartet The Antlers served as my opener to Explosions In The Sky’s headlining show. While I enjoy The Antlers’ shimmering, atmospheric rock on record, their live show failed to do much for me. I nodded my head, sure, but it was more of a polite nod. I sat on the courthouse steps. From my vantagepoint, I could not see anyone showing signs of life near the stage. Why would they? This set was a snoozefest.

Explosions In The Sky at Pioneer Courthouse Square

Explosions In The Sky is a band whose post-rock orchestral sound I enjoy immensely, but their live show leaves me wanting. They left me wanting when I saw them a few years ago at an indoor venue in New Orleans. They left me wanting once more Saturday under a bright yellow full moon in downtown Portland. The problem is not their sound; they sound wondrous live, virtually replicating their studio recordings. The problem for me is I find them stale visually. Sure, they bang their heads and Munaf Rayani plays his guitar in a hunched, Quasi Modo-eque manner. I feel like listening to the band’s recordings while sitting in my backyard on a starry night would almost be as thrilling an experience as seeing the band perform live. That might sound like a slam. Maybe it is. I enjoyed Explosions In The Sky. I had goosebumps when they played “Your Hand In Mine.” Was their set one of the highlights of the festival for me? No. It was good not great.

And And And at Doug Fir

I mentioned Ages and Ages being named Portland’s No. 2 new band in 2011. And And And was the band that beat them for the top spot. Saturday night I found out why. The band’s music sounds like an alternate take on Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West. Perhaps, it is a little less unhinged. There is a lo-fi Pavement influence on their songs, as well. Lead singer Nathan Baumgartner’s voice is an acquired taste. At first, I thought he sounded like Bobcat Goldthwait when he spoke. I warmed up to his voice. His words had grit in an everyday no-bullshit sort of way. I could see some people tuning out his words to spite his yelpy voice. Other things you should know about And And And: the drummer had an honest-to-God mohawk and the band’s van is called And And And Van Van Van. And And And: Doing their part to keep Portland weird and sonically attractive.

Big Freedia at Dante’s

Big Freedia’s early Sunday morning set at Dante’s marked the fifth time in the past 11 months I’ve caught the Queen Diva’s act. It’s a credit to the NOLA Sissy Bounce queenpin that I am still captivated. This set featured nothing radically different from the other Big Freedia sets. There were the touring ass-shakers, an audience dance-off that included two mammoth white girls in kabuki makeup and barely there underwear, and a whole lot of azz everywhere, if you catch my drift. I danced and jumped and shouted and when it was all through had a soaked shirt to show for my efforts. I would say I’m going to miss seeing Big Freedia perform; after all Sunday’s set marked the diva’s final tour stop. But, I’ll be seeing Freedia again Oct. 26 at Branx. Maybe the Queen Diva should change her lyrics to “I got that gin in my system, I’m never gonna stop touring.” Not that I mind. Portland could use a little more ass everywhere.

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