This town wasn’t big enough for two music festivals.
Let’s just admit that right up front. When MusicfestNW slimmed down from its week-long, multi-venue format to two days and one outdoor location, it opened the concert landscape up for a big, new competitor, which ended up being Project Pabst. But it turned out to be too much of a pretty good thing. Portland isn’t exactly starved for events during the summer, after all. So coming together, pooling resources and maybe canceling out a few of each other’s respective flaws made sense. And the city responded: MFNWpPP—that’s MusicfestNW presents Project Pabst—completely sold out before the gates at Waterfront Park opened.
We always admit it’s hard for us to seem unbiased, but the debut of the conjoined festival went off considerably better than the first installments of either Project Pabst or the new-look MFNW. Only at a few peak moments did the size of the crowd feel overwhelming. Beer was cheap and (mostly) accessible. And the fact that there wasn’t a forest-fire raging nearby and blanketing the city with ash certainly helped. But really, it was the lineup that did it. Combining Pabst’s focus toward legacy acts with MFNW’s emphasis on new music, it somehow ended up being the biggest festival the city has possibly ever seen while at the same time offering plenty of opportunities for discovery.
Here’s the best of what we saw.
Best Channeling of a Classic-Rock God: Kyle Craft
Portland-based Sub Pop signee Kyle Craft has a serious Stevie Ray Vaughn vibe going on—I’m pretty sure his hat was outfitted with matchsticks, feathers and foreign currency of some kind. It’s the kind of getup that says, “I’m a rock star and always will be.” His band mostly kept up, matching his intense vocal presence with parlor-room guitar riffs and shifting time signatures. But when Craft stepped into the singer-songwriter role with tracks like “Lady Of The Ark,” he’s on another plane entirely. MARK A. STOCK.
Best Drum Kit Destruction: The Coathangers
Coathangers drummer Stephanie Luke annihilated her kit during a roughly hour-long, high-tempo beatdown that, amazingly, didn’t yield any broken sticks or drum heads. The Atlanta trio’s surf-punk sound was the perfect flesh for this punishing percussive skeleton but the average fan couldn’t keep up without resorting to strange, convulsive shaking. I’ve heard of drummers who play so hard it’s practically a form of fitness but this is one of the few times I’ve actually witnessed it. The level of badassery on display here was off the charts. (MAS)
Best Substitute: Liv Warfield
Stepping in at the last minute to replace rapper Lizzo, who scored a gig hosting the MTV Video Music Awards pre-show, Warfield delivered a set suggesting she should’ve been in that spot all along. Abetted by an ace rock’n’soul backing band and rocking a long black wig that extended to the small of her back, the Portland-bred R&B singer gave off some serious Tina Turner vibes. Other than a quick aside—“I’ve got a purple heart, in case you didn’t know”—Warfield didn’t mention her Prince connections, but she did close with an eruptive cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the same song that won her a spot in the New Power Generation a decade ago. If there was a roof covering Waterfront Park, her pipes would’ve blown it straight into the Willamette. MATTHEW P. SINGER.
Best Cult of Personality: Andrew W.K.
You’ve got to hand it to Andrew W.K.: When the dude kicked, punched and headbanged his way into public consciousness a decade and a half ago, I don’t know if anyone could’ve predicted we’d still be talking about him in 2016. Somehow, the guy has managed to establish a permanent place in the zeitgeist, and he’s done so without ever really moving on from his first album, I Get Wet—his bloody visage from the cover still adorns his drummer’s bass drum and the shirts he tosses into the crowd. Shoot, he hasn’t even changed his damn outfit, wearing the same white shirt, white jeans combo wherever he goes. Of course, the rub is that people care less about Andrew W.K. the musician than they do Andrew W.K. the goofball polymath. So seeing him in concert actually feels like more of a novelty than, say, his upcoming speaking tour on “the Power of Partying.” Here, he kicked, punched and headbanged exactly like he did in the “Party Hard” video (which the dudes he pulled onstage dutifully mimicked, motion for motion), impressively mashed a keyboard and dropped philosophical bon mots such as, “Just because life is hard doesn’t mean it can’t be a party,” and the crowd ate up all of it. Or rather, drank it: It’s no coincidence that the beer lines were at their longest beginning soon after his set. Party on, Andrew—though you probably don’t need to hear that from me. (MPS)
Best Rude Awakening: A$AP Ferg
And then, around 4:10 in the afternoon, the phrase “She sucked my dick!” echoed through downtown Portland. True, the taunting chorus of Harlem rapper A$AP Ferg’s “Dump Dump” is almost like a parody of hip-hop brashness. But MFNW is often such an overly polite festival that sometimes it’s refreshing to hear someone come through with no damn manners at all. And with Ferg—who wore an Ice Cube shirt in tribute to the night’s co-headliner—there was much more where that come from. “Feel free to crowd surf, feel free to mosh pit!” he told the crowd. “I saw a naked woman outside the gate. Feel free to get naked!” No one obliged him, but it was nice to know we had the option. (MPS)
Best Props: STRFKR
Since they are frequently in hiding, it’s easy to forget that STRFKR has been a bonafide hit-machine over the last decade. Hearing “German Love” live was about the most comforting thing at Project Pabst—better still, Portland’s favorite space-pop band raided the wardrobe and prop department for its set, a move that would fill Wayne Coyne with pride, if not envy. We witnessed dancing astronauts, confetti cannons, inflatable flamingos for crowd-surfing and a Blazers hat I’m pretty sure I donated to Goodwill circa 1995. (MAS)
Best Dad: Ice Cube
Ice Cube has heard your Are We There Yet? jokes, and he’s none too pleased. “A lot of people got mad that I was doing too many movies,” he bellowed to the tightly-packed crowd at MusicfestNW presents Project Pabst. “A lot of people got mad that I was doing those dumbass Coors commercials—I should’ve been doing Pabst commercials!” Well, can you blame us? In 20 years, “the [epithet redacted] you love to hate” went from Amerikkka’s Most Wanted to America’s dad, from selling malt liquor on the promise of its aphrodisiacal properties to allowing a bottle of beer to blast him in the face with a load of frost. Cash those chickity-checks, but don’t be surprised when people assume you’ve gone too Hollywood to go back to rapping about sawed-offs and sexual conquests. At Waterfront Park, though, Cube showed no concern for reclaiming his gangsta bonafides. Instead, he proved that, at this stage in the game, he no longer needs them. Coming out to the menacing squeals of “Natural Born Killaz,” he delivered each line like a chin-check, running through a greatest-hits set—including an N.W.A. mini-set with cameos from MC Ren and DJ Yella—that touched on all aspects of his multifaceted career, from brash voice of protest (“Fuck the Police,” accompanied by images of Michael Brown) to dance-club profiteer (“We Be Clubbing’”), and apologizing for none of it. He even doubled down on his parental image, bringing out his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and referring to him as “a chip off the old cube.” Yes, at age 47, Ice Cube is as embarrassing as your own father. And if you ask him, he’d surely tell you he doesn’t give a fuck. (MPS)
Best Security Guard: The One Waving His Hands Through Ice Cube’s Set
Actually, this was the most enthusiastic security staff I may have ever encountered at a festival, who throughout the weekend acted like they were just volunteering for the free tickets. But the main dude monitoring the front of the stage during Ice Cube deserves a special shout-out. He got especially turned up at “Fuck the Police,” which makes me wonder what he would’ve done had a riot broken out right at that moment. (MPS)
Best Unfrozen Synth-Pop Gods: Duran Duran
Although the beer lines got absurdly long earlier in the day, I didn’t really feel the enormity of the crowd until the transition between Ice Cube and Duran Duran. Seemingly all 10,000 people attempted to traverse from one side of Waterfront Park to the other at the same time, creating a brutal bottleneck around the middle section of the field. By the time I made it out there, I was a bit zoned out, thus I don’t have much to say about Duran Duran other than that their massive stage production looked inspired by the virtual reality scenes from The Lawnmower Man. So how about we let the hardcore Durannies handle this one, then?
Karyn Smith: Regarding the setlist and the band—they were on point. Simon’s voice was strong, clear, rested; John Taylor’s funky bass always astounds me, but I really really paid attention to it yesterday—spot on. Erin and Anna, the backup singers, are essential to the new songs and brought it! Same with sax player Simon Willescroft—he just fits right it, like lead guitarist Dom Brown, who also needs a big shout out. The band has really got their setlist down to a great mix of old and new; “Pressure Off,” from Paper Gods, is just an absolute blast to hear and dance to. The “Space Oddity” Bowie tribute had me in tears. “Save a Prayer” was magical.
Scott Dally: Their performance at Project Pabst was great, probably in my top three DD shows based on performance. Nick Rhodes was not there due to personal reasons, so that made a difference style-wise. They were well rested from a mini-vacation as they kicked off the second leg of their North American tour. So they were ready to kill it, and they did. What made the experience itself great was the fact that I was surrounded by friends who would normally not see a Duran Duran show. The fact that they were all around me singing and dancing to all the songs was something special and makes for a concert I will never forget.
P.S. On a side note, festival fans in Portland are generally pretty cool. Seems a lot more assholes in the crowd this time around. Kind of ashamed at many Portland Duran Duran fans. Be nice, man—we are all there to have fun.
Amanda Taplin: After 16 shows, you’d think I’d seen what Duran Duran had to give. There is nothing more that I love than being wrong. As a super Duranie I was particularly concerned about the lack of founding member Nick Rhodes. Known as “the Controller,” he is integral to the functioning of the band and it is clear by their performance that they knew that. This has to have been one of the most high energy performances I’ve ever seen. SIMON HIGH KICKS, BITCHES! That man is almost 60, and is killing the stage with his signature awkward dancing, snarky banter, and pure love of front-manning. Sex sells and I’ve got cash.
John’s bass was funky and loud and on point as always—something he never got enough credit for in the ‘80s, but there is no denying it now. His interaction with the crowd was full of hot-smug-goofball. The perfect John, in my opinion. Roger is never wrong. Ever. And when meeting him after the show, he was silly and sweet and grateful for our collective hatred of the “selfie,” as we had the doorman take our photo. F my hair for having too much fun at the show!
I was in the very front for the first few songs, but the negative vibe from the audience forced me out. As much as I tried to steer the conversation towards mutual love of music, or Duran specifically, or enjoyment of the festival in general, people were catty and on their fucking phones editing pictures and posting on sites while Simon Le Bon was 10 feet from them! He was right there live in person and they missed it because of screen time.
My night got exponentially better when I joined my hubs—who is now regretting that it took him 30 years to see the band; he’s a grumpy old man who was seriously impressed—and the group of good friends I had who had gathered together just off to the side. We danced and sang and laughed and they were so happy to see Scott and I see the band, but even more importantly, these “not really, just sorta, I only know the hit songs” fans were stunned by the awesomeness of the show.
Simon sounded great; the energy was extra high as the band knew they had to make up for the absence of Nick; they were fresh off a tour vacation. I’m now suffering from Post-Duran Duran Depression.
Best Bucket Drummer: The One Across the Street from Waterfront Park Playing Along to “Rio”
I don’t know what his name was, but he was definitely shining, and showing everyone heading out to their Ubers at the close of Duran Duran’s set all he…uh, can.
Best Little Band on a Big Stage: Hop Along
Philadelphia’s Hop Along isn’t a quiet band by any means, but it is one that thrives on up-front emotional intimacy—which is why it was almost comically incongruous to see them cloistered together on the giant MFNWpPP main stage, accompanied by nothing more than their instruments and amps. That’s not to say they ended up seeming out of place, though: Drawing from its 2015 breakthrough Painted Shut, the band’s inward-bending punk was loud enough to project far back enough to register with the small but appreciative early afternoon crowd. And singer-guitarist Frances Quinlan’s distinctive voice—which switches from a sweet whisper to an exhausted rasp so suddenly it can make you think there’s something wrong with your speakers listening at home—has at least a strand of Axl Rose in its DNA. Truth be told, the band is good enough that these are kind of stages it should get used to performing on. Because as Quinlan herself acknowledged, once you get to this point, you can’t go back to playing homes again. “One time we played a basement with a ferret running around. It was tight,” she said, reminiscing about an early house show in Portland, before adding, almost under her breath, “We can’t do that anymore.” (MPS)
Best Move to the Majors: Sheer Mag
As rendered on its first three EPs, Sheer Mag’s brand of scrappy, punked up-classic rock seems designed to blow minds in tiny basements. I had doubts about how far the band’s power could travel, but Sheer Mag’s Sunday afternoon set demolished any misgivings. The muted, muddy quality of the band’s recordings was replaced by a bright and glittering hugeness, and singer Tina Halladay’s voice managed to match the sun’s scorch. This wasn’t shtick or gimmickry or winking appropriation. This was the real thing—big and bold and bent on reaching the back row. CHRIS STAMM.
Best Cheap Heat: Parquet Courts
Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts are one of the best rock’n’roll bands in America right now, but its jangly, deadpan post-punk isn’t exactly the kind of thing that plays well to a midday festival crowd. So singer-guitarist Austin Brown took another tact to get a rise out of the audience, drawn straight from the pro-wrestling heel playbook: insult the local sports club. “I had all this stuff planned about how your basketball team sucks,” he said, responding to bandmate Andrew Savage’s assertion that they were shelving their usual stage banter in order to cram more songs into their limited set time.“I mean, you guys could’ve had Kevin Durant, and instead you took Greg Oden,” Brown continued one song later. “You must think about that every day.” Harsh, bro. Although presumed fans of the Nets—a team that not only sucks, but sucks in the most boring way possible—shouldn’t throw many stones. In any event, the tactic seemed to work: After some scattered “Blazers” chants, the crowd swayed and bopped to the stretch run of “Human Performance,” “Outside” and “Light Up Gold,” probably to shake out the frustration of realizing Portland is going to be paying Evan Turner $70 million to shoot midrange jumpers for the next four years. (MPS)
Best Remembrance Of Things To Come: Drive Like Jehu
Drive Like Jehu’s 1994 swan song Yank Crime was the sound of post-hardcore’s future. In the twenty-two years since its release, the album’s magic has been mined by pretty much every knucklehead with a guitar and an idea about how to complicate punk rock. But Drive Like Jehu’s Sunday evening set was not a period piece. The tangling and wrangling guitar lines conjured by John Reis and Rick Froberg just don’t jibe with complacent retrospection, and Froberg’s exasperated howl still sounds like some pissed kid’s pledge of allegiance to a distant calamity. Those of us singing along to “Luau” weren’t trying to capture faded glory. We were still dreaming about the kind of music that might be made after Drive Like Jehu stops being amazing. (CS)
Best Classic-Rock Band: Ween
When I was in high school, around the Chocolate and Cheese era, a lot of my druggie friends were into Ween. As I can’t even smoke pot without curling into the fetal position and waiting for it to be over, I never really got it, outside of the few songs that didn’t seem to be deliberately trying to get me to break the CD in half in annoyance. In the many years since I stopped paying them any mind, though, something funny happened: Ween went from a band that delighted in goosing—or, rather, dosing—rock classicism to becoming a classic-rock band itself. Playing Portland for the first time since reconvening after a four-year mental health break for singer Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman, fans packed in early, leaving me way in the back, and from that vantage point, whatever mischievousness that defined the band in those earlier years has been replaced by an obsession with endless guitar solos and other feats of instrumental virtuosity. Even totally bugged-out shit like “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” turned into chugging, fist-pumping anthems. It never occurred to me that this is what anyone would want from Ween, but clearly they do. Strangely enough, I think I might dig them more now if they had remained ‘shroom-eating insurrectionists fucking around with a drum machine. As it turns out, I still don’t get Ween, only for totally different reasons from when I was 16. (MPS)
Best Transition To Pop: Tame Impala
When Aussie psych-rockers went mainstream with Currents, I wanted to root against them. But their sound is just too smooth not to respect, and the band culled an energetic set from records past. It may not be quite as fuzzy sonically anymore as its trippy background media suggests, but it’s incredibly pleasing and still out-there enough to satisfy stoner fans. It could have just been Kevin Parker turning dials on stage, but he’s held onto the full-band approach for the better, even if it means his mates have to trade in some of the lava-lamp rock for crowd-pleasing pop. (MAS)
See more photos from MFNW presents Project Pabst here.