MusicfestNW Recap 1: Deerhunter

Here is the first of four recaps I plan on writing about my MusicfestNW experience in Portland. I attended from Sept. 4-7.

Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox’s reputation as a provocateur precedes him these days to the point that a large portion of his band’s appeal, at least as a live act, is derived from the uncertainty of what he will do next. So when Cox says or does nothing of note, or fails to engage the crowd altogether, a large portion of the Atlanta band’s mystique on-stage disappears.

It became evident early during Deerhunter’s MusicfestNW performance at the Crystal Ballroom that my expectations of what this particular show could offer would be confounded, but not in a good way. Rarely have I seen a band or a crowd appear to give less of a shit at the same place at the same time than on this Wednesday night in early September.

Perhaps the crowd had no other viable option on the festival’s second day (it did – Chvrches). I wonder what Deerhunter’s excuse was.

Deerhunter’s records showcase raw yet pretty, angst-driven and occasionally paranoid yet intensely focused takes on garage and psychedelic rock. Albums like Microcastle and Halycon Digest border on magnificent. The band’s live show which I’ve now seen twice is a distant experience wrapped in a shoegaze presentation. I’d liken the canyon between their studio and live output to that of beloved indie rockers Spoon.

Other than seizure-inducing strobe lights that recalled a torture tactic used in Guantanamo Bay Deerhunter’s hour-long show at Crystal Ballroom provided precious few moments worth savoring. Even the Lockett Pundt-led number “Desire Lines” struggled to grab hold. Cox appeared to start his vocals late on the propulsive “Nothing Ever Happened”. Two women to my left gyrated, all knees and elbows, to the song’s extended instrumental section. They were in the minority.

The most memorable thing about the performance was just how unmemorable it all was. I resigned myself to stick it out until the end, not in hopes of something redeeming happening, but rather for the same reasons I’d stick out an unenjoyable movie at the theater. Namely, I paid to be there.

Except: I didn’t finish the set.

Deerhunter’s final number, full of droning guitars and howling lights, dragged on for infinity like a galaxy-sized torment to my eardrums. And then when I thought it couldn’t go on longer, it did. My patience exhausted, I criss-crossed the thinning ballroom crowd.

Cox and Co. turned out provocative, after all. They provoked me to call it an early night.

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