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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MFNW (Music Fest North West) Portland, OR - Day 1

Girl Talk / Brother Reade / Guidance Counselor
Roseland Theater
Thursday, September 17th 2009

“Who robbed Martha Plimpton’s wardrobe?”
A voice shouts from somewhere on the stairwell leading up from the bottom floor of the Roseland Theater into the balcony bar. There is no drinking allowed downstairs, which in part explains why it’s so packed: the crowd tonight looks wet around the ears, at best. In fact, I comment to my wife as we sashay up to the bar that the last time I saw so many underage girls in tank tops, it was my junior year of high school at a basketball tournament. She laughs.
I was seventeen.

They’re here for the night’s headliner (and arguably the festival’s main draw), Girl Talk, but they first have to wait through Guidance Counselor, a manic, hard-driving four-piece force with a Joy Division-cum-Oingo Boingo shoegazing appeal. I’ve never heard of the band and have to ask someone next to me about them. In the end, Guidance Counselor, while far more sophisticated emotionally than the precocious crowd, end up feeling a little careless. The lead singer strips down to his underwear (dark silken boxers, it appears), dives into the crowd for the finale, and then quickly packs up his gear with the rest of his band, shivering and pale under the stage lights.

Between sets, I look around at the crowd and wonder how any teenage boy gets laid these days. These guys are skinny, odd amalgamations of too much and too little. There are some Dungeon Masters in the midst, I theorize, but masters of little else. Five hundred years ago, I ponder, these would have been considered warriors. They would have been sent out onto the plains to defend the village. Looking at some of these guys, I wonder whether or not they could defend the cat box.

Brother Reade is atrocious. We spend the set wondering what cartoons the visual installation rips off, whether or not we’ll understand even one of the bellicose rapper’s lyrics, and lastly, what will be the best position to stand in for Girl Talk. We decide to split up: I’ll wander down and take pictures, my wife dancing toward the back. When the stage is set and Girl Talk mans his “two laptops and a microphone” setup, the clean and sober crowd is spun into madness. Looking back at the throng feels almost presidential: people stretch, pump their fists, and chant. Girl Talk as the referential mix begins.

Girl Talk seems to know the criticism that watching his work is a little boring. He takes the stage with a crowd of fans, a video of his own performance going on in the background, and a cadre of toilet paper-streaming stagehands. It’s a little much (okay, it’s obnoxious), but excess is certainly his milieu What’s clear from the beginning is that anyone in the audience feeling for the clean beats and transitions from Feed The Animals will have to wait for the iPod or car stereo. Beats are constantly dropped, muffed, and missed, at one point leading the Mac-Master to stop altogether, get situated while imploring the crowd to hang in there and give him more, shouting for Portland to stand as one behind him. When the show gets flat (and it does, in spite of the endless frolic), he relies on the pathos of a Michael Jackson cut, one bar of the late King’s voice, to bring the crowd back to its frantic peak. But it feels like too, too much. Michael appears three or four times in seventy-five minutes, the last time, almost telegraphed.

Eventually, I emerge from the firing line—er, photographer’s pit—and find my wife, a tireless dancer and sometime hip-hop enthusiast. She’s sweaty and tired, but wants to leave (probably to avert the crowd), much to my surprise. When we compare notes, it doesn’t feel right to her either. On our walk onto the street, we all but wonder if Girl Talk isn’t your standard college DJ who caught lightning.

Dirty Three
Berbati’s Pan
Thursday, September 17th 2009

Just five blocks away is The Dirty Three at Berbati’s Pan (in the same block as the infamous Voodoo Doughnuts, for those interested in a NyQuil crueller).

It’s a five-block walk from Girl Talk, maybe seven minutes, and yet it feels like we’re a hundred miles away. The mood in the brick building is somber and thoughtful, the crowd more Merlot than high school math class. There is a wait outside, even for wristbanded attendees (most of the festival headliners are packing the crowds in).

Walking in fifteen minutes late on their set is interrupting something therapeutic. The three-piece plays with its back turned to the crowd, that introspective mood conveyed from on high. Between songs, violinist Warren Ellis flaunts the pensive, bookish mood. He seems tall—his head reaches near the rafters, feeling like Rasputin in his long, wavy hair and thick beard. He’s given to elaborate tale spinning, describing songs as descriptions of 48-hour comedowns from methamphetamines, or worse, cursed, hateful interactions with angry Chinese neighbors. Then he goes out and makes love to his instrument.

It’s clear that Ellis is intense while still capable of being playful, willing to tempt absurd interpretations of his band’s complexly structured, emotive songs. The crowd is unaffected, raising bottles of beer to their mouths with all of the excitement of stoned marionettes. What the centerpiece musician manages to pull off with the violin is, itself, performance art.

However dour, it’s a performance. When we walk out, we encounter some leftover crowd from Girl Talk. One of the girls was familiar as one from onstage. She’s exhausted, so sweaty that her bare arms are steaming in the cool September night. They want more but rue being shut out. Behind the Roseland, they speculate which car Girl Talk drove in or if he’s already gone. She may have been crying.

My wife and I smile at one another, ruing and relishing the flower of youth.

- Erick Mertz


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