Portland – The second day of MusicFest Northwest turned out to be just as satisfying as the first, and not just because I had a delicious grilled cheese and pesto sandwich for lunch. Maybe I was just happy that Fucked Up singer Damian Abraham posed with me for a sweaty, shirtless selfie during his band’s set. It was the little things that made the biggest difference: artists appreciating their surroundings, engaging the audience, and soaking in the sunshine (while sweating profusely) with everyone else. Of course it was the phenomenal music that made everything hit home, so let’s discuss the five new live acts that impressed me the most.
Erika M. Anderson moved from Oakland to Portland in 2011 so she wouldn’t be recognized as a celebrity in the streets. After Sunday’s show she may as well be planning a permanent trip to the moon. Everyone who attended the EMA show was treated to a slow-burning firebomb of hyper-conscious storytelling. Anderson is no stranger to the Internet, and often takes up aggressive arms against the aloof millennial generation on songs like “Neuromancer” and “Satellites”. It’s hard to put a label on EMA, which is just how she likes it: sometimes punky and occasionally folky, often mashing up bits of Reznor and Banks with 90′s era Hole. But where the music occasionally basks too long in its own glory, the political statements carry enough weight to leave you contemplating on your bike ride home. The future may be terrifying, but Erika Anderson isn’t afraid to channel it in her music. Just don’t ask her to pose for an Instagram selfie.
The name Wild Ones is a bit of a misnomer; I didn’t see anyone smash a guitar, spit in the audience, or even allow two feet to leave the ground at once. Still, this is enjoyable electro-pop that you can nod your head to while enjoying a cool beer. Danielle Sullivan has a cutesy sort of voice to match the band’s progressive rhythms and mild-mannered synths (think a turnt-down CHVRCHES with guitars). I like my synth-pop to be a little more risky, but songs like “Curse Over Me” and “Rivals” put a stupid smile on my face so easily I couldn’t help but love them. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but rarely does a festival band make you feel this good just for being alive. These Portland natives brought an effortless local vibe without sounding cheesy or overly entitled, and that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Apparently there are fans that drive hundreds of miles to see The Antlers perform at one of various small venues across the nation. The appeal is not so instantly apparent; Peter Silberman sings about heartbreak and loss over sparse, cutting guitar jabs while various introspective keys and carefree rhythms lay the groundwork. The real kicker is Darby Cicci’s trumpet playing, which gives the songs a bright, golden optimism that draws a stark contrast with the brooding going on otherwise. Crowd favorites like “I Don’t Want Love” showed off Silberman’s impressive vocal range, and “Hotel” gave some due props to the all-but-lost art of the guitar solo. These are mindful slow jams meant to appease the mind and comfort those with pained memories of loves found and lost again (e.g. everyone at this festival). It’s no wonder these guys have made it to the big stage; by now, we’re all looking for a reliable catharsis wherever we can get it.
Already one of the sought-after festival acts of the year, tUnE-yArDs were one of the most hotly anticipated acts of the weekend. If the day had been missing anything previously, it was a healthy dose of fun; that changed immediately when Merrill Garbus and Co. took the stage garbed in colorful outfits and neon tribal paint. Their set was immediately accessible despite their general weirdness; each drummer (I counted three) rattled away to create a collage of happy-go-lucky rhythms, more like a game of “follow me” than an art project. Songs like “Water Fountain” and “Bizness” felt like blazing a trail into some exotic new world, but Garbus could be singing those silly lyrics to her own children as easily as she does to you or I. It’s that storybook quality that makes tUnE-yArDs so captivating, like popping in the N64 classic Yoshi’s Story to romp through a cartoon pop-up book for a couple hours. When it comes down to it, people are drawn to tUnE-yArDs because they are unabashedly themselves in every facet of their performance. It just doesn’t hurt that they’re infectiously fun; proving that being a kid doesn’t lose its appeal even twenty-plus years later.
Ahhh, here we are. Like many of the audience members in attendance, I am a self-proclaimed Haim fanatic. The sisters three from L.A. Never seem to disappoint, whether they’re laying down timeless jams like “The Wire” with Ariel Pink or recreating the same kind of joyous pop confection live onstage. Everything about Haim screams rock and roll: whether it’s Danielle’s vicious shredding on that cherry red Gibson SG, or Este Haim’s now-famous “bass face”, there is something magnetic about these girls that’s equal parts nostalgic and ready-made for today’s audience. By now they are obviously well-versed in festival tricks; Este’s hilarious banter kept the crowd hooked and ready to sing and dance along to jams like “My Song 5”, and that hot-blooded drum circle finale collectively took all our breaths away. If gushing were appropriate for any of the bands at MusicFest Northwest, Haim deserves it far and way. It was a fierce performance of the highest caliber, and will truly live on as “unforgettable” in my mind.