Music festivals, for better or for worse largely come down to a few key factors: the music (obviously), the “vibe” and the navigability and ease of the festival’s layout and its economic goals. Musicfest NW absolutely had the first part down, having curated a wonderful lineup and late nights and scheduled the sets with a very deft touch, so that the momentum and excitement only grew as the crowd walked back and forth between the two stages. Having the stages and schedule set up in such a way that attendees could literally catch every minute of each set if they wanted to was very cool as well. These were the positives, and they are big ones.
However, there were some very glaring missteps with this new incarnation of the festival. Perhaps it was simply the growing pains of what is basically an all-new festival, having moved from a rock club format to the waterfront river park, or perhaps, as quite a few people have been mentioning, it was simple greed that caused some of the unfortunate issues. More on those later, for now let’s talk about all the fantastic music the weekend provided.
Local act Shy Girls began the festivities on a gloriously hot and sunny Saturday afternoon perfectly with their silky smooth, 90’s indebted neo-R&B and a set that featured both interpretive dancers and a fantastic reimagining on Monica’s 1995 hit “Sittin Up In My Room”. From there, the virtuosic stylings of Thundercat served as a perfect precursor to the Californian sunshine dose of funk that is Gardens & Villas. Believe me when I tell you that you will never see a man in a beret, playing a flute bring the house down like frontman Chris Lynch did during the astral funk of “Dominos”.
From there the rest of Saturday really couldn’t have played out better and again was expertly curated so that each act really complimented the other and provided a wonderful overall vibe (musically). Future Islands’ highly anticipated set was typically fantastic, but a mere appetizer for what was to come at their late night show. Hip Hop super duo Run The Jewels somehow raised the momentum level even higher, and any questions I had about whether or not Portland could get it sufficiently crunk were answered by the second song. Killer Mike’s poignant and intelligent lyrics felt all the more relevant in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting (both he, Fucked Up and Future Islands dedicated songs to the slain teenager) and he was rare form all afternoon. The infectious energy carried over Phantogram’s set, which saw a great deal of booty shaking break out amid the dust and sunshine, very good stuff. Girl Talk was… well it was a Girl Talk show, you either loved it or kinda rolled your eyes, but definitely made sense as a way to bring the “dance” half of the festival to a close.
Day two’s featured a far more rock-oriented lineup with sets from EMA, Modern Kin and Wild Ones getting the day off to a rowdy, noisy start. By the time the delicate beauty of The Antlers’ set rolled around it was a welcome break, and the Brooklyn band held the festival crowd’s rapt attention for a majestic set. This was my first time seeing them with two horns/keyboards and the addition is a fantastic one that only adds to The Antlers’ rich sound.
From there things took a seriously abrupt turn as the glorious anarchy of Fucked Up’s set was next, and my lord did they ever play a great set. Singer Damian Abraham is an amazing performer and spent about half of the band’s set in the audience, alternately hugging people and dancing in the crazy, dust tornado of a mosh pit that went on in the middle of the crowd for most of the band’s set.
Merril Grabus’ tUnE-yArDs project was next and didn’t disappoint, and the sisters Haim continued their path towards world domination with a rowdy set to a massive crowd that featured a Led Zeppelin cover and plenty of rock star antics from the sisters. Once again the schedule seemed perfectly curated, as the massive crowd that left Haim was then almost immediately treated to a fantastic festival-closing set from Spoon. At this point in their storied career, Britt Daniel and company are a perfect headliner, and they churned out yet another fantastic, soul-filled set and the new material from their recently released They Want My Soul sounded great.
By now MFNW has received quite a bit of criticism on various social media outlets for a few of their beyond baffling choices, and deservedly so. For a festival with Northwest in its name, that takes place in downtown Portland, directly along the banks of the Willamette River to restrict all outside waters, charge $2 a pop inside the festival and then not have a single water refilling station is utterly absurd. When it’s 85 degrees and you’re in the sun watching high-energy music for eight hours in dusty conditions not unlike what the Joad family had to traverse, it becomes hard not to look at this as a calculated move aimed at making more money at the detriment of the fan experience, and in some cases, even their health (while not at all widespread, there have been reports of people passing out from heat-related issues).
For their part, MFNW is blaming the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, with General Manager Jane Smith telling the Oregonian, “For this year’s MusicfestNW, the OLCC extended a walk-around permit allowing beer and wine throughout the grounds. Because of the (sic) this we could not allow personal water bottles into the festival. All beverages being poured were poured into specific cups approved by the OLCC with water sold in its original container.” Note there is no mention of the lack of water refilling stations, or why the festival didn’t allow food vendors to sell water (!!??).
This response seems a bit odd and evasive, and the OLCC responded (somewhat flippantly) with, “We don’t have those rules. This isn’t the first time someone has used… the OLCC as an excuse.” To their credit, MFNW did announce at 2pm on Sunday saying they would allow people to bring in two personal waters and lowered the price in the festival for $1, but most attendees I talked to had no idea of the policy change by the time they reached the gates.
Also, for a festival to only serve Heineken even though it takes place in Portland, a city with approx. 76 breweries in the metro area (the most of any city in the world) which employ roughly 6,500 people locally and bring in an estimated $2.83 billion a year to the city, is more than a little ridiculous. Portland is intense about both keeping things local and it’s beer, so there were several grumbles about this as well. More than once over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Frank Booth’s eloquently expressed thoughts on Heineken in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet.
As hard as these seemingly obvious mistakes are to understand, this was a basically brand new endeavor, and folks shouldn’t be too fast to write off MFNW as a whole. With a few simple changes MFNW could get their philosophy a little more in line with the city it calls home and the region that is it’s namesake. Hopefully they do, and hopefully all anyone will be talking about next year is the fantastic weekend of music they just witnessed.
Words by Donovan Farley. Photos by Caitlin Webb.