Photos by Stuart Wainstock
PDX Pop Now! 2011 fell on perhaps the only perfect weekend weather-wise of this stubborn Portland summer and it was immediately apparent sunshine was not the only charmed aspect of this eight year-old, all-ages, three-day music fest featuring a wide array of some of the most diverse local acts Portland has to offer. With their two stages, one outdoors and one inside the warehouse space Refuge PDX alternating three acts in a row, I was constantly amazed at how the shifting venues kept the entire event running on time and the scene fresh and popping as the crowds flowed back and forth throughout the day. It’s also the first time I’ve been at such a hip event where music fans from toddlers and their parents up through rockers in their sixties, as well as throngs of tweens and teens effortlessly mingled throughout every musical genre the festival had to offer. Not to mention all the great food carts and an endless supply of all the Vitamin Water a person could drink.
And so in the midst of an incredibly busy, red-hot weekend, I caught as many acts as I could each day. There were some bands I was hoping to see and was unable to. There were also bands I had never heard of but had the pleasure of discovering and am now officially an avid fan.
On Friday I was front and center for the first act of the event Jared Mees & The Grown Children. I’d been curious to find out how this eclectic, indie-rock outfit would translate their ambitious, rabble-rousing recordings to the stage. I soon found out: multi-tasking. With lead guitarist Javiar Madrigal seamlessly switching off between his soaring trumpet and Townshend-style split leaps with his guitar and Megan Spears’ alternating keyboard duty with rocking a tom-tom, cowbell, and tambourine all the while harmonizing gorgeously on vocals, The Grown Children not only re-create the infectious jamboree they’ve captured on record, they in fact take their euphoric sound to a whole ‘notha level when playing live. With a raucous stage energy and their hugely anthemic tunes, they kicked off the hot and sunny festival with an incredibly vivacious set, setting a party tone that seemed to pervade the rest of the weekend.
STLS was one of those major surprises and most certainly the kind of music I may have never stumbled across had it not been for PDX Pop Now’s! commitment to musical diversity. Comprised of two drummer’s, Lisa Schonberg and another woman known as “sts,” these percussionists stand face to face behind their various drum kits and weave rhythmic textures and pulsating songs created from both harmonious and dueling drum lines. Lying somewhere between the excitement of the musical Stomp, the sexy finesse of Sheila E. and the raw, mystifying talent of a John Bonham solo; these tough, gutsy drummers held festival-goers captive in a baited breath trance as they pounded out a treacherous line between well-mastered and thrillingly improved beats. They currently have a 7-inch out now on Kill Rock Stars.
Lovers are an all-female trio that truly blew me away on Friday night. In the filled-to-capacity indoor stage at Refuge PDX, the pure ecstatic energy and uplifting, glittering synths of Carolyn Berk, Kerby Ferris and Emily Kingan literally had the steamy crowd bouncing so blissfully along to their ethereal, ever-shifting electronic pulse, that images of what a spiritual, peyote sweat lodge experience might actually feel like kept coming to mind. It was a truly mesmerizing set; hauntingly gorgeous and heart-swellingly beautiful all at once.
Lost Lander played a bewitching set to the two hundred or so brave souls who didn’t mind baking in the blazing Saturday sun. Matt Sheehy’s expansive, iridescent orchestral-pop made the somewhat oppressive heat bearable if not an entirely sexy and appropriate background to his lush, stirring soundscapes.
Karen was a trio of youngsters that played indoors at Refuge PDX Saturday afternoon. My first thought was “yay, shade!” only to quickly discover that an indoor warehouse filled with sweaty peeps in the middle of the sizzling afternoon equals a stagnant, boiling locker room. But to their credit, despite the pressure-cooker conditions these kids with their spacey, reverb-filled, sci-fi aesthetics kept the crowd happily rockin’ and rollin’ with their clever punk-pop tunes. Plus, I really like their band name. How can you not?
After Karen came Loch Lomond and though I had been pretty excited to see this Portland band I’d heard so much about in the last few months, I have to say, despite gallons of free Vitamin Water, I truly had my concerns about a possible case of the vapors. But I hung in there, along with an ever-growing, humidity-drenched crowd fanning themselves frantically with their programs, while the sheer beauty of L.L.’s hushed, strummy chamber-folk soon made the stifling heat practically melt away. With Ritchie Young’s soothing voice blending beautifully with Jade Eckler and Brooke Parrott’s angelic yet dramatically piercing ranges, the whole orchestration of their songs and their set felt downright … divine. That’s right – I’m a recent pledge to the musical ministry of Loch Lomond. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only convert they recruited that afternoon.
Next up: the Wild Ones. With oodles of breezy, beachy sunshine-pop, these effervescent synth rockers are impossible not to sway along to, what with their swoony, heartfelt musical offerings. Lead singer Danielle Sullivan is a truly a lovely vocalist, a magnetic front-woman and a serious cutie-patootie to boot. You get the feeling watching the Wild Ones that these happy popsters would be having just as much fun on stage with or without an audience. It just felt lucky for us music fans that we got to bounce along to their infectious energy for a festive forty minutes.
Last up on Saturday, for me anyway, was Monarques, a sixties-styled ensemble whose piano-driven soul-pop sent me happily into the balmy night air. Weaned on a heavy diet of The Beatles, The Kinks and Motown, these harmony-laden retro-rockers, led by frontman Josh Spacek’s pleasant croon and nostalgia-filled tunes were the perfect note for this Brit-pop fanatic to end a long, hot day of music on.
I started my Sunday in the hazy heat with about fifty others crowded around the Vitamin Water barrels trying hard not to slip into an acid-flashback with the trippy bell-tones, synth-fuzz, and space odyssey feedback coming at us from Cloaks, a guitar and synthesizer two-piece led by Spencer Doran. Alternating between spaced-out ambient droning and quirky industrial grating, Cloaks emotionally rife electronica gripped the crowd with their dreamy experimental soundscapes.
Hausa was the one band I watched where I felt a bit confounded. Led by Ben Funkhouser and his seriously deep bass vocal, it was hard for me to reconcile his unique delivery with the pleasant power-pop tunes he was singing in front of. I noticed in the program his voice was compared to the likes of Ian Curtis, and while that’s true, it’s one thing to hear a voice that cavernous in a gritty, noise-punk setting and quite another to hear it in front of a sunny pop song. I don’t know though…I kinda liked it. The jury’s still out but as I’ve pondered it over the last two days…my guess is it’s already growing on me.
I ended my PDX Pop Now! experience with Port St. Willow yet another amazing discovery that without the festival’s diverse array of genre’s I may have never come across. A man, a guitar, and his voice: Nick Principe is a fairly unassuming guy until he gets up on stage, plugs into a reverby-haze on his electric guitar and let’s loose with his heart-stopping, cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof falsetto. With an achingly beautiful tremolo on par with Jonsi Birgisson, Jeff Buckley and Martyn Jacques, Principe had the crowd and I spellbound from the first note. It was a moving performance of such raw power and vulnerability that I myself felt a bit shaky when it ended. So I of course headed straight for an icy, cool Vitamin Water to steady my shredded nerves.
All in all, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the entire weekend, what an awesome city Portland is to have an event like PDX Pop Now! and how lucky the youth of Portland are to be growing up here, surrounded by such a dedicated musical community that cares about those under twenty-one years of age having access to such a great music festival. Not to mention an old rocker like myself getting to partake. I still can’t get over it. Free?! Run smoothly and professionally at all times by an all-volunteer staff?! A three-day bill loaded with some of the best music this town has to offer?! Fargo, North Dakota in the 1980’s this is not. And for that, I’m truly grateful.
-Post by Miss Dolly Mod