Downtown Portland became pop-cultural axis mundi for a couple of days last week. MTV's House of Style model search set up in the city's upscale shopping mall, a few blocks from the Hilton, where music-biz types were attending the fourth annual North by Northwest music conference. The deluge of out-of-towners were on the hunt, trying to snag for their companies the sounds or the faces of the future.
North by Northwest
Conference & Music Festival
Portland, Oregon, August 20-22
While Portlanders may have felt overrun by the pop-culture industry, there was a refreshingly homegrown feeling about this year's North by Northwest (NXNW). Past years have seen big-wig execs pontificating in panels and certain must-see bands causing overflow club crowds, but now the conference is both more low-key and more manageable.
Because NXNW focuses on fledgling bands, attending the daytime panels often induces a feeling of déjà vu. A panel of A&R reps, asked to address the topic "Why Certain Records Succeed," informed us that radio sells records and that radio is a singles market. Various song snippets were played as proof, and then the table full of white men all bobbed their heads in a pseudo-discreet way that was meant to show appreciation. The same scene occurred last year, and no doubt will recur next year, regular as the Northwest rain.
The truth is nobody really knows what makes a hit record, but they're willing to run around to see eight or nine bands each night to try to find out. Hence the NXNW music festival, which kicked off on Thursday night with a solo show by Dawn Upshaw, who usually fronts the Panties, a punk-tinged three-piece. In this incarnation of the band, Upshaw used a Casio backdrop for her ethereal guitar strumming and childlike vocals.
The personal and strangely fragile sound of Pedro the Lion rang out to the crowd in a converted clothing store called Pokerface. Singer-guitarist David Barzan has a mesmerizing, earnest stage presence, and the crowd was enthusiastic. Down the street, the ever-happy Faster Tiger played its trademark female-female-male vocal games—sometimes call-and-response, at other times harmonies. With its emo-core guitar interplay, four-piece Matchless squeezed onto a tiny stage at the Cobalt Lounge. The band's playing surged and ebbed (and occasionally went on too long), but the two guitarists and the bass player were fascinating to watch as they swayed in unison like ferns in a rainstorm.
Later, Pokerface became A&R Central while the Western State Hurricanes proved how well they've been using their time since their live debut at the Breakroom in early May. In full hat-headed glory, singer-guitarist John Roderick impressed with his intense, melodic but rough-edged songs. He thought better of smashing his guitar (too expensive!) and was endearingly awkward as his glasses slipped down his nose. Guitarist Stephanie Wicker's voice added an extra note of grace to the proceedings.
Meanwhile at Satyricon, one of Portland's new buzz bands, Pinehurst Kids, opened for longtime Seattle rockers Truly. As their Chicago label-reps beamed from the audience, the Kids completely stepped up to the plate, spraying power pop with both melody and dirt. (For anyone who wants to get their own view, the Kids will play Seattle this Friday, August 28, at the Sit & Spin.)
Although the room sounded great, Truly started off a little shaky. The group is weirdly beautiful, sometimes difficult to follow, but worth the effort—a genuinely original band stretching into elusive worlds and painting dark pictures of grace. Yet if you don't devote your full attention to it, it's easy to walk away with indifference. Sadly, many did; by the time Truly finished, the audience had thinned. The band reportedly was unhappy with its show, in part because group members thought it might be their last.
On Friday night, the singer-songwriters at the Mission Theater gave the impression that they had come to exorcise their demons in front of a hundred or so close friends. Richard Buckner, who is touring around to promote his latest record, Since, watched the opening acts in between cigarette breaks. The downcast mood began with San Francisco singer Cole Marquis, whose liquid guitar sounds were accompanied by a keyboard player's mournful fillips. Bill Santen (a.k.a. Birddog), a Colorado resident who grew up in Kentucky and lived for a while in Portland, was next. His movie-star looks are difficult to reconcile with the broken-down life stories in his songs (proof, maybe, of the powers of the imagination).
After the unassuming melancholy of Marquis and Santen, Buckner's set torched the place. With the house lights lowered and the volume turned up to 11, the singer seemed to be reliving each song as he forced the lyrics out in his growling baritone. Eyelids squeezed shut, he was physically in front of the audience, yet somehow not there. The blunt power of his playing—he breaks guitar strings faster than a punk rocker—and the rawness in his voice had the audience leaning forward in their seats to catch every exhalation.
Cult-hero guitarist John Fahey, on the other hand, had the faithful legions at his feet turning their backs in dismay. Nearly bald and wearing a voluminous white shirt and running shoes, the experimentalist confused most listeners with a meandering improvisational set. Among the audience, debate ensued over whether or not Fahey and his sunglass-clad trio-mates were sound-checking or performing.
As the night turned into early morning, attendees downed more cocktails to fuel their dancing to Seattle's latest supergroup, Medicate. Showing off muscular guitars to go with group members' muscular arms, the band lived up to singer Josh White's intro: "Now we're going to play some heavy metal for you." The cocktails became moot around 3:30am, when Dragonfly, replete with shiny-costumed and mesmerizing singer Om and a phenomenally slithery dancer, added an erotic sci-fi twist to the proceedings.
Apprehension from the Portland Police Department about the free NXNW outdoor shows held in Pioneer Square forced organizers to hire several police officers as security for the Original P show on Friday night. The police must have donned plain clothes for the Golden Delicious set the next night. This old-timey country band, with its fiddle and washboard players, is a Portland institution by now, and the families in the audience were there to prove it.
Saturday night's accessory of choice was the cowboy hat. Two guitarists in the California collaboration called Earthlings wore battered versions for their hypnotic, multimedia set at EJ's (a punk club that was once a strip bar, and has all the Twin Peaks ambiance that description implies). Even the skeleton that kept reappearing in the Earthlings' film projection was wearing a cowboy hat, and the music itself was equal parts desert-dusted rock and spacey futurism, a kind of Roswell soundtrack as performed by alien cowpokes.
In terms of audience anticipation, the Saturday bill at hallowed La Luna was the weekend's biggest. San Francisco bands Track Star and Creeper Lagoon, and Portland's Sunset Valley are well-known and loved, and Seattle lo-fi dance band Volume All-Star was making its live debut.
Track Star is another Built to Spillinspired band, but at least it's one that Doug Martsch could be proud of. They do the dreamy-hard-dreamy thing, and they do it well. The adorable though thin-voiced Volume All-Star singer/keyboardist continued the cowboy-hat motif with a glittering red number. Her bandmates eschewed the C&W look for plastic visors with flashing lights, and the trio's haberdashery indicated its loopy sound, part pop, part trip-hop, all lo-fi. After a couple of rough patches, the trio finished with a flourish—and a yodel. Nothing rouses your senses like that high, keening sound, and the crowd woke up to wait for Creeper Lagoon.
Smiling and sweet, the four-piece had that "first love" flush: They're the darlings of the West Coast, having survived the indie backlash on their way to a major-label release (on DreamWorks). They recently played Endfest, and that show was smooth as glass; maybe it was the context, but they sounded like just another polished, radio-friendly alt-rock clone. But anyone who heard Creeper Lagoon's NXNW show could see and hear what all the fuss is about. The polish and energy were still there, but the music had more texture; the band was fun and happy, but not smarmy or prepackaged. Today the West Coast, tomorrow the world.
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Vanessa Veselka.