• Richelle Thorpe
  • Deerhunter
A festival as sprawling as the six-day tryst betwixt music fan and musician at MusicfestNW is like a second Christmas season every year. Or third or fourth, depending on how many festivals you’re able to attend, and how stoically you venerate the health of your liver, feet, and ears. MFNW 2013 was just as steadfastly frustrating as in years past, at least in terms of the weighing of this band versus that band at this time at that venue. It’s a logistical tease, but that’s all part of the fun. You find your happy spots and you tend to stick with them.

Dante’s seemed to have curated (or had help curating) one of the most consistently intriguing lineups of music night in and night out. It was for this reason, that most of the bands I caught were on bills at the inferno-themed pseudo-dive.

I found myself first patronizing the Roseland on Wednesday, September 4, to catch sample-centered phenom XXYYXX, who was opening for seminal electro lords Churches. XXYYXX’s fluttery beats swirled and cricketed soundscapes that both invigorated and often infuriated simultaneously, as if his inner flow’s chi couldn’t keep up with this nimble, ever-knob-twisting fingers. Still, even while he called the crowd out for looking bored during the first few songs, XXYYXX fueled a heavy-lidded electro-hop dirge that left a hot crowd just a bit warmer for the wear.

Later Wednesday, Deerhunter took the stage at an equally humid Crystal Ballroom to a sold-out crowd, hopscotching deftly from their more reined-in collection, Halcyon Digest, and their new, more aggressively garage LP Monomania. Vocalist/guitarist Bradford Cox whipped the audience into bouts of shrieking abandon with extended, fuzzy jam treks, while fellow songwriter Lockett Pundt added a smoother edge to the raucous set.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) headlined the Aladdin Theater Thursday, September 5, in what was likely the only set at the gorgeous venue worth veering that far away from the pulse of the downtown clubs. Oldham’s ability to command and to hush an audience with nothing more than his wounded, emotive vocals was a beautifully serene sight to behold, as a seated audience watched enthralled, hanging on the troubadour’s every lyric while he fidgeted with his feet, sometimes standing on one leg like a flamingo. Oldham’s solo set went on a reported two hours.

In another solo set, former Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould played a well-intentioned, but otherwise awfully empty-sounding vocal/guitar set at Doug Fir, a venue where he’s almost a bi-annual performer as is. Make no mistake of Mould’s talent—the proto-punk guitarist sounds great. But there’s something cloying about the idea of a loud electric guitar with just vocals being somehow fun to watch live. It wasn’t.

Enter Dante’s, where suburban LA babes Bleached were just finishing their set of bubble-gum pop-punk. Theirs was a peculiar middle-slot set opening for Brooklyn’s the Men.

The Men began their blistering set with a slower, Grateful Dead-inspired number, replete with contemporary accoutrements such as feedback squalls, but with enough nimble finger-picked psych-solos to make Jerry Garcia wink (the band’s lap steel player, coincidentally, donned a sleeveless white Dead tee). The band’s metamorphosis from groove-lovin’ longhairs to headbanging, shredding hardcore punk pugilists was an intense shift, and precipitated probably the best set I witnessed during this year’s MFNW.

Whether cherry-picking tunes from their sophomore album Leave Home—its buzzsaw sneer evident in every screech of barre-chorded guitar—or splitting the difference between their mostly accessible 2013 meditation on roots, country, and pop (albeit with the same grit and experimentation of their punkier albums), New Moon, the Men were ablaze with confidence, swagger, and rock ‘n’ roll panache... with the songs to back it up.

Back at Dante’s Friday, September 6, La Luz—a four-piece surf-fuzz group from Seattle—swayed and shredded through a highly enjoyable set of lukewarm garage-rock. Anchored by clear, sweet harmonies, La Luz featured spot-on musicianship to go along with the ineffectual romp they inspired on stage. An attempt at a Soul Train dance line down the middle of the venue resulted in only a few nervous rug-cutters.

Following La Luz was the always-fantastic Old Light, which was coupled by a clearly bulging audience growing evermore bloated in size thanks to the evening’s headliner, Ty Segall.

A quick stroll across the Burnside Bridge landed a fulfilling destination in Branx, where the cavernous venue smoldered with body heat, a mass of human magma pulsing in a valley toward the stage where the indomitable Unknown Mortal Orchestra ramped the temperature ever higher. This being the first time I was able to catch the band live in the city, and with the repetition with which I’ve spun their second record, II, since its early 2013 release date, this was a special show indeed.

Guitarist/vocalist Ruban Nielson lived up to the bittersweet coos of his recorded material, sweetly manhandling his guitar, wringing out evocative melodies and strangling squeaks and bellows of roaring fuzz. The band’s aggressive live set stood in contrast with brusque art-pop tunes as on “Swim Like a Shark.”

The midnight show at Bunk Bar down the road was just as enlightening. Regardless of how many times you may have seen Frank Fairfield trunk in his old-soul aura—fiddle in one hand, banjo in the other—musing arms akimbo while people try figuring him out (don’t try), it’s like the first time. So singularly fascinating a character is he, and so unifying and talented a musician, that he effortlessly draws camps of fans from all walks of life to the same room. Drop-a-pin quiet moments during one of Fairfield’s borrowed tunes on fiddle were followed by the most insanely reverential applause, hoots, hollers, that Fairfield himself felt obliged to comment when it had calmed down, “I don’t know who you people think I am, but thank you.”

The Parson Red Heads

Saturday, September 7 began with a headlining set by Portland’s the Parson Red Heads at Rontoms for the Burnside Distribution free day party. The Red Heads, whose third LP Orb Weaver comes out next month, were blinded by sunlight the entirety of their set, but took it in stride, parlaying viscous cuts of Americana from their slew of EPs, as well as previews of their new material. An a capella rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” stunned a likely fairly drunken audience to cap the set.

At some point during this sojourn, my goddamn wristband managed to split itself as if I’d taken scissors to it, and with so many more shows to attend during the night! With help from local songstress Robin Bacior (who herself played an inspired set at the Jupiter Hotel as part of a showcase sponsored by nonprofit Music Saves Lives earlier in the day), my wristband was mended suitably enough.

Back at Dante’s, hammerhead metal doodz Gaytheist pummeled a sparse crowd with their typically abrasive, somehow endearing set of raw power. Following this up were locals Bison Bison, themselves previously foreign to me, but whose blues-addled heavy psych instantly commanded my attention.

Arriving at Backspace later, to bear witness to the Pynnacles (Sean Croghan of Crackerbash’s new new-wave-esque pop group), it was brought to my attention I wouldn’t be allowed inside due to the disappearance of my trusted wristband, which had served me so well over the previous four days. Hail Dante’s—and specifically the extremely large, bearded, and bespectacled bouncer who sort of looks like Fletcher from Pennywise—who upon the retracing of my steps back to the venue’s front door, produced my broken blue bracelet, winking once to my cries of thanks.

Which means I missed the Pynnacles. BUT, the recently reformed, re-gigging ‘90s riot grrl punk of Team Dresch were in queue at Backspace, and they did not disappoint. Guitarist/vocalist Kaia Wilson’s forays into more streamlined acoustic pop is great, but the urgency of the Wilson-Dresch tandem is hard to best.

With the sudden realization that it would likely be the last set I had the energy for during the weekend, so began the saunter to White Owl Social Club, where Eugene stoner-metal crew Yob cranked up every serviceable ounce of their ferocity and howled it, incredibly loudly, through guitar, bass, drums, and mic alike, to a well-ventilated but voracious crowd.

Did I miss a ton of amazing sets?! Of course I fucking did! You could stop at pointing out I missed both sets by Typhoon at the Old Church, Thursday the 5th and Friday the 6th, as well as the Superchunk set at the Crystal, also on Friday. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t even consider going to the Wonder Ballroom. Like, at all. But you know what? I’m not a superhero.