It started with a MySpace message.
Sent from local music booker Chantelle Hylton (Blackbird Presents) to the publisher of insanely respected music/arts journal Yeti magazine, Mike McGonigal. Subject: "Let's." Body: "make a festival together." This is dated March 31, 2006, 12:45 am.
I have the original message in front of me; it's short, to the point, but not the kind of thing that usually yields results. Like schemes hatched over drunk-dials, this is the sort of dreamer's plan that seems doomed—well intended, but just another idea destined to be forgotten or set aside when bigger obligations plow their way through.
Only this time it worked.
The fest was planned quickly, bands were booked, dates were set (September 1-2), a venue reserved (Disjecta, 230 E Burnside), and Halleluwah: A Festival of Enthused Arts gelled into a healthy, glowing fetus.
Says Hylton, "I approached Mike about doing a festival together because of his hugeness in supporting and creating what could be considered more 'outsider' art—something that Portland has quietly and unflinchingly fueled and supported for decades. Portland's getting such huge international recognition these days for creative output, and this festival celebrates a lot of the people who are at the forefront of a more pure and pre-commodified scene."
According to McGonigal, who debuts the new issue of Yeti at the fest, "Chantelle and I had worked together a bit when she was at Berbati's, and once we found out this is something that we both wanted to do, it just fell into place. Not long after she emailed, we found out we had this date to work around with Vashti [Bunyan], during her first-ever brief US tour, so it all kind of coalesced around Ms. Bunyan's performance."
A direct descendent of Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan, Vashti Bunyan was discovered in the mid '60s by Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who got the London-born singer signed to Decca Records, the label that would go on to release her debut single, "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind" (1965, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.) With her tremulous voice and wispy arrangements, Bunyan's music was beautiful and quietly psychedelic—a perfect sound for its time. Problem was, nobody cared. Bunyan didn't become the next Donovan or Dylan, she didn't sell a million records, and after releasing her debut LP, Just Another Diamond Day (1970), she retired to an Irish farm. Come 2000, suddenly she's discovered again. Devendra Banhart sings her praises in interviews. Both he and the Animal Collective bring her in for collaborations. Then, almost overnight, Bunyan's back. Just Another Diamond Day is re-issued to loving reviews, and last year, her first new record in three and a half decades, Lookaftering, is released.
As the headliner and aesthetic inspiration for Halleluwah, Bunyan's music sets the stage and tone; still, while Halleluwah is decidedly a psychedelic music fest, there's a wide span of variety. From White Rainbow's ambient puddles to Alela Diane's brassy, huge-voiced folk, to jazz (Evolutionary Jass Band), electronic (Ethan Rose), punk (Erase Errata), and drones (Ghosting), the lineup spans mightily across genres.
There were, of course, acts that didn't make it on the bill. "Califone, Okkervil River, a half dozen gospel acts, some free jazz people, you know—you make a dream list and then work from there" says McGonigal. "It's not worth doing unless you try to get the best and most varied group of people together, you know? Realistically, it all has to do with who's on tour."
Originally, the event was supposed to go down at the Hollywood Theatre and come complete with a Gary Panter light show. According to McGonigal, "When I was initially thinking of the festival—and we were originally going to have it at the lovely old Hollywood Theatre—I wanted so terribly badly to get Gary Panter (who did the set design for Pee Wee's Playhouse) to fly out here from Brooklyn and re-create one of the light shows he's been putting on with Josh White (a hippie-era light show pioneer who used to do stuff at the Fillmore East). But it was clear that we'd need a bag of money to fall out of the sky before that would happen. Maybe we can somehow get that or something similar to happen next year? It would help in the whole immersive arts/trippy vibe thing. I'm straight edge, so in order for a light-show type deal to actually work its wonders on me it has to be done really well."
While the Hollywood Theatre didn't work out, the fest now has a home in Disjecta's newly converted warehouse space.
So what else, besides a great lineup, should we expect? For one, there will be a commemorative vinyl compilation LP featuring bands like Deerhoof, Nudity, and Romancing's official on-record debut. All tracks are exclusive, besides Bunyan's contribution, "Hidden."
"The vinyl was assembled and manufactured in less than a month; it wasn't an afterthought, but like much of the festival it came together last minute," says McGonigal. "I'm super surprised at how well it turned out, actually—not just the quality of the previously unreleased tracks we got from people, but the way it sounds. The guy in Brooklyn who mastered it (Tim Xavier at Manmade Mastering) asked for a copy of the finished album, 'cause he liked it so much. I took that to be a really good sign."
The compilation is limited to 1,000 copies, many of which will go to the performers, but according to Hylton, "We'll also release a live CD (maybe even DVD) soon after the fest; it'll be a limited run, so people who attend the fest will be able to reserve a copy in advance."
What you shouldn't expect is Halleluwah to look, feel, or sound like any other festival—though McGonigal says you've got to give credit where credit is due.
"I'd feel like a total lame-ass if I didn't thank the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle; it's because they have such a diverse and huge festival that we were able to get our major out-of-town artists that weekend, with the notable exception of Sir Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls. It's of course a very different event and I don't want us to sound like weird vampires of their fest, but at the same time it would be strange to not mention them at all, you know?"
This Friday and Saturday's fest not yet put to bed, Hylton and McGonigal say they're already looking toward next year.
"Surely we're hoping that Halleluwah will be synonymous with 'great vibes and an awesome time' and not, say, 'Altamont Two.' So perhaps those good vibes will spread out across the universe and next year we'll be on the phone saying 'Sorry, Sonic Youth, but we just booked My Bloody Valentine and Neutral Milk Hotel, so there's no room for you to get on the bill.'
Halleluwah takes place Sept 1-2 at Disjecta, 230 E Burnside, $16 per day, $18 day of show, $28 two-day pass