Despite the early time slot, Ra Ra Riot brought in a sizable and energetic crowd to the Wonder Ballroom for the second night of MFNW. The band's orchestral-pop sound came alive on stage, with Wes Miles playing the engaging frontman and the string section adding some extra drama. The band played a selection from their new album, The Orchard, but made sure to play all the fan-favorites from their debut. While not at the top of my list to begin with, Ra Ra Riot's live show won me over and I'm eager to see them again.
Solely based on the live shows I've seen, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside is quickly becoming one of my favorite Portland bands. There are few recordings out at the moment that do this girl any justice, but go see a live show and you will be hooked. Sallie Ford played a fabulous set at Berbati's Pan on Thursday and charmed the crowd with her cat-eye glasses and 60s-girl quirkiness. Yes, she usually looks like she jumped to the new millennium straight from the 60s, but this band is no shtick. Ford has a distinctive voice, soul to spare, sassy lyrics, and a talented backing band.
While I only caught the last half of her set, Sarah Jackson-Holman seemed to put on a good showing for a small crowd at the Ash St. Saloon on Friday night. Holman's originals are bright and spunky piano-pop, mixing a little Norah Jones with a little Regina Spektor. I'm sad to say that I missed her cover of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (my friends said it was wonderful), but her rendition of Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism" was hauntingly beautiful.
The Cave Singers followed up a mellow set by S. Carey with some knee-slapping folk music and a whole lot of energy at the Doug Fir. Leader Pete Quirk got the crowd going with stage presence, personality, and some mean harmonica-playing. I wasn't too familiar with The Cave Singers before this set, but I am officially a fan now. These guys played great folk music and know how to put on a show.
I will admit that I have already seen Kristian Matsson play twice in recent months, and I may have also attended the KEXP radio taping at the Doug Fir earlier in the day, but neither fact diminished the excitement that I had for seeing his show at the midnight hour on Friday. As usual, Matsson did not disappoint. The Doug Fir was the perfect intimate venue for the simple, powerful songs that Matsson sings alone with his guitar. His distinctive voice and earnest songwriting hushed most of the crowd (with the exception of a few, it was late after all) into peaceful admiration for most of the set. Though all his favorites were hits with the crowd ("The Wild Hunt," "King of Spain," and "The Gardener"), the best moments of the show came when Matsson played songs from his just-released EP Sometimes The Blues is Just a Passing Bird. The songs seem more tender and more personal, which seemed evident when Matsson humbly played the quiet and romantic "Thrown Right at Me."
The National played at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Sunday night and was the biggest name I saw at the festival. While the New Yorkers didn't quite outshine The Tallest Man On Earth's quiet beauty, they put on a spectacular show for a huge crowd, and even cracked a few jokes. The indie heavyweights played old standbys ("Fake Empire," "Secret Meeting," "Mistaken for Strangers") as well as the standouts from their most recent album, High Violet. "Afraid of Everyone" was just as haunting in person, and "Bloodbuzz Ohio" was as much a standout live as it is on the album. "England" is a The National dream song, as the simple piano chords and brooding balladry turn into musical chaos and beauty at the same time. The band joked about moving to Portland, poked fun at their own comically small distribution of glow sticks, and generally seemed to be having as much fun as the crowd. Who could ask for a better way to end the festival?