WRITING ABOUT PDX POP NOW! gets a little tougher every year, and it becomes difficult not to regurgitate the festival's own mission statement. On the other hand, that might just be testament to PDX Pop Now!'s consistency and unwavering value to the all-ages community here in Portland. For kids who like music, it's a three-day oasis in a calendar year that's otherwise low on quality all-ages shows. And it's cool for everyone else, too, assuming you aren't a fucking scrooge. But considering it's free, scrooges can appreciate it, too.
Not a lot has changed in the 11 years since PPN!'s inception, and that's a really good thing. It's still nonprofit, and everybody is able (and encouraged) to become a participant in the booking process. And amazingly, admission's still totally free. The popular criticisms that have been leveled against the festival over the years—that marginalized styles aren't being represented (this has improved), that the fest's philosophy is too provincial and narrow in scope (this isn't the point), that there's been a moderate drop-off in the number of underage performers in the last five years (to this I am absolutely sympathetic)—are fair to varying degrees, but they're outweighed by the benefits that an annual music festival like this provides in the first place.
This year, PPN! will once again be held at AudioCinema, probably the comfiest space the festival's ever had in its slightly nomadic history. This year's lineup is also one of the best and most diverse it has ever been. What follows is the Official All-Ages Action! Field Guide to PDX Pop Now! 2015.
Balto (West Stage, 6:40 pm)—Self-identified "psychedelic Americana" project Balto, the moniker for songwriter Daniel Sheron, operates within a well-worn paradigm, but innovation isn't really important when the songs are this good. And the title track on Balto's new 7-inch, Call It by Its Name, is great: a fragile, intense slab of country rock-lite that could well be one of the best local records dropped this year. My patience for local 'coustic-slinging, bearded bards is notoriously low, but Sheron is proof that there's still some vitality left in the genre. (I could also be biased—Balto's the first movie that made me cry, and I swear it wasn't because of Phil Collins.)
Blue Cranes (West Stage, 8 pm)—Local jazz legends Blue Cranes are still one of the most interesting bands in Portland. Their moody 2013 LP, Swim, runs at the pace of a rock record and boasts a borderline poppy tunefulness, without compromising its classicist purity (which I guess is why it's "post-jazz" and not fusion).
Mope Groves (East Stage, 8:40 pm)—Originally the side project of Stevie Pohlman, one half of the Youthbitch (RIP) songwriting nucleus, Mope Groves are one of the most promising bands in the Gnar scene. Their debut tape, Weird Girls, is brimming with personality, bringing to mind a bizarre if delicious puree of '77 punk, Merseybeat, Guided by Voices worship, and C86 frostiness.
The Shivas (East Stage, 10 pm)—My first brush with the Shivas was in 2009, when they played to, like, five people at the Green House, one of the most fabled house venues in Portland's (semi-)recent musical history. It was a weird experience that felt oddly prescient; Portland's house-show scene was in decline, but we didn't know it yet—a turnout that pathetic was the sort of warning that's equivalent to all the honeybees inexplicably dying off. The Shivas would go on to become one of the hardest-working bands in Portland (or, technically, Vancouver), and their industriousness paid off when they got picked up by K Records and were propelled to the garage-rock vanguard with last year's excellent You Know What to Do. Some of us knew it all along.
Arbo (West Stage, 1:30 pm)—Made up of some of School of Rock's varsity players, Arbo is a young band with a pop maturity beyond its years. The group have just a few hastily recorded demos up on their SoundCloud, but they're all worthwhile—in particular "Sandals," which sounds like the Sundays filtered through a distinctly Pacific Northwestern lens.
The Stops (East Stage, 2:10 pm)—Nameless Faces, the debut LP from the Stops, is a strong candidate for one of the year's best punk records. It flirts with power pop just enough to hook wimps like you and me ("Moom," "Another Day"), but get too close and it'll kick you in the stomach (the unremitting velocity of opener "Black & White" and "What You Don't Know"). See you in the pit—I'll be the guy with the earplugs and bloody nose.
The Autonomics (West Stage, 2:50 pm)—Keep Tulsa Ugly, last year's EP from the Autonomics, was a catchy, ramshackle micro tour de force that brought to mind the more "rocking" bands in the Elephant 6 canon (early Beulah, Elf Power). I'll go one step further: Highlight "Super Fuzz" was one of the catchiest songs released by a local band last year. Pressure's on, guys.
Golden Hour (West Stage, 4:10 pm)—Don't Be Cute, the debut LP from trio Golden Hour, is a near-flawless distillation of everything that makes this sect of pop-punk so great: the celebration of minimalism, the vocals that alternate between gentle crooning and impassioned shouting, lyrics that suggest a slightly sheepish bookishness (not everyone can pull off rhyming "words" with "voyeur"). It's a great Portland record that—unlike a lot of local music being made right now—sounds like a Portland record.
Hot Victory (East Stage, 6:10 pm)—Dense, disquieting electronic/prog combo whose self-titled album sounds like an incredibly nerdy alternate reality in which King Crimson scored Escape from New York.
Appendixes (East Stage, 7:30 pm)—Dream-pop band that make the most out of both parts of the "dream-pop" equation. Latest single "Persian Rugs," off their upcoming EP Fantasy (which unfortunately doesn't come out until after the festival), is electro-pop at its most universal, boasting a danceable quality while also being musical enough to appeal to the pop litterateurs among us who don't know shit about dancing.
Long Knife (East Stage, 10:10 pm)—Peerless, breakneck hardcore whose members—admirably—sound like they're trying to play as fast they possibly can. They come close to achieving Mach speed on their latest, Meditations on Self Destruction.
Dad Rock (East Stage, 2:10 pm)—Dad Rock is another band whose constituents include students and alumni from the Portland School of Rock. They're playing PDX Pop Now! for their second year in a row, a pretty incredible feat in and of itself. They totally deserve it, though—they're one of the best young bands our city has to offer, and their lone EP, #1 Dad, is a terrific document of an unseasoned, and consequently vital, punk band bursting at the seams with starry-eyed zeal.
Ladywolf (West Stage, 2:50 pm)—Ladywolf is the moniker for singer/guitarist Nik Barnaby, and his group's latest, the Babes EP, is a crash course in primordial, knuckle-dragging garage rock and hedonism. It makes me feel old and I am totally okay with that.
Blossom (East Stage, 11:30 pm)—The first and only time I saw Blossom was in April on the hip-hop edition of the KPSU Kruise. It was a weird night for a variety of reasons—let's just say I didn't retain a lot—but I did catch Blossom's set, and filed it away as a "saw them when"-type experience. While the recordings available on her SoundCloud leave a bit to be desired, Blossom is an earnest and extremely talented performer, something that invariably comes as a shock to me, as someone who spends the majority of his time listening to music made by people who are neither earnest nor talented.