For the four years that I’ve lived in Portland, I’ve attended Musicfest NW. It’s always been a long weekend of thought-out adventure and time management that culminates in too little sleep, ear ringing, and general euphoria of seeing dozens of bands across town in venues as small as Bunk Bar to big blow outs in Pioneer Square.
This year, things were different.
As a disclaimer, I’d like to say that I don’t normally feel inclined to criticize work like putting on a music festival because first, I don’t know how to do that and I’m sure it’s really hard, and second, because festival planners are never going to be able to please everyone. But while aspects of MFNW were undeniable in their flawlessness, the festival as an experience was a let down, and I feel inclined to talk about it here. I should also say that I only attended the fest on Sunday.
My Sunday started with the hot buzz of Drew Grow’s electric guitar clipping through the air and over the heads of camped-out Haim fans and the few handfuls of people that made it out for Modern Kin’s early afternoon set. At 1:30 in the afternoon, the gated off portion of the Waterfront was empty, dust still settled from the night before. And what was I in for? A hot day without much shade at the mercy of $1 non-refillable water, $6 Heineken, and every bro and his girlfriend puffing on Blu e-cigs.
By the time Wild Ones took the stage, the crowd finally began to fill out. Maybe everyone was still hungover from the night before, but the energy seemed low. People sat in the shade, with more people to the side of the stage than actually standing in front of it for acts like EMA. It wasn’t until Tune-Yards came on that I really felt the festival come alive–and that was not the doing of anyone but Merrill Garbus herself. I left the grounds of the fest only once to seek A/C and a beer other than Heineken, and stuck it out all through Spoon despite the crowd of absolute ass holes surrounding me (and the security guard who couldn’t care less about my safety).
I’ve heard many arguments for and against this year’s MFNW. I’ve talked to many people about it. The energy level of the crowd, and the fact that the fest ended up allowing people to bring in two water bottles says a lot about what was up. It was an overheated, perhaps overhyped, day spent dehydrating in the sun (I mean isn’t it dangerous not to offer people free water when it is THAT HOT outside?), paying too much for beer, and enjoying a bunch of really great, big bands.
Here’s the thing, I enjoyed the festival. I mean, I was mad about the lack of intimate space, the pushing and shoving, the dust, the overpriced gross beer–the experience of the festival, the look and feel, was horrible–but the bands were good. With that said, MFNW has put itself in a tight spot–one that makes the festival’s success as an experience completely dependent on the bands it brings in.
Here are five things I really appreciated about 2014’s version of MFNW:
- All-ages action: Providing space for all-ages music lovers in Portland is extremely important, and MFNW did a good job of ensuring that all shows during the festival itself (so not at the extra parties) were accessible to everyone. This was clearly appreciated based on the number of Nylon-magazine-clutching Haim fans in the crowd.
- Capacity? Shmapacity: One extremely frustrating thing about past versions of MFNW (if you’re not a crazed competition loving freak like I am) was the tendency for venues to fill up, meaning that many wristband holders were left out on the street. It was a cash cow for MFNW: Buy a ticket to that show specifically and you can get in. But wristband holders (even media)… out of luck. This year, the only trouble you’d run into was not getting a good enough spot at either of the fest’s two stages. In both formats, you have to leave one set a bit early in order to get a good spot at another.
- Transportation: Piggy-backing on number 2, it was easy to navigate the space. I didn’t miss having to stress about bus schedules or DDs.
- The cost: If you break it down, the $100 weekend pass equals out to $5.55 a band. You can’t beat that. Well, you can, if you think about ALL OF THE BANDS that used to play MFNW. But still, pretty amazing we got to see Spoon and Haim, two big-billing bands, for less than $6.
- The music: Every show I saw on Sunday was phenomenal. Modern Kin was loud and bright. EMA was harsh and honest, at one point interjecting, “People all over the world die everyday. I don’t care about 9-11 if they only difference is American identity.” Wild Ones brought a sparkling, magnetic energy to the stage just as the festival crowd began to fill out. Fucked Up was abrasive and as gritty as the dust we all moshed in. Tune-Yards delivered a stunning performance that had the crowd moving more than I’d seen all day (with Fucked Up’s moshpit as an exception). Haim was electrifying. Spoon was Spoon, perfect, humble, and fun.
It will be interesting to see how the feedback from this year’s festival plays out or not next year. My biggest critique? Don’t bill this corporate cash grab as “Portland’s Music Festival.” That’s like saying that Portlandia is “Portland’s TV Show.” Yes, the festival has always had corporate sponsors, but the old format allowed those things to take on a smaller role. It used to be all about Portland–every quadrant, more local bands, the best venues, big bands in intimate settings–or at least, you could pretend that it was.
The magic of MFNW might be gone, but the fest will (hopefully) continue to bring great acts to town for a small price. If you can find it in your heart to forgive the corporate overtones and cough all the dust from your lungs, you might even admit that you enjoyed this year’s format a little bit. Personally? I’m excited to see how this change effects festivals like PDX Pop Now! and how Project Pabst plays out (which more seamlessly seems to be combining waterfront/outdoor fest with multi-venue shows for an extra few bucks).
And I’m just really thrilled that I got to see a bunch of big bands I’d never seen before, and that they were all really fucking good.