MFNW Thursday: The Thermals win MFNW. Again.

MusicfestNW 2010 began, for me, with cocktails and pickled things at Secret Society. Sorry, Phantogram, who I wanted to see; it’s just that I had a feeling sustenance would be needed over the next few hours.

Phantogram were opening for Ra Ra Riot at one of the Nike Wonder Ballroom shows, which you know are Nike shows because the TVs on the sides of the stage just show big swooshes until the band starts. (This is an improvement over … last year? The year before? when a giant wooden structure thing took up a chunk of the floorspace and had something to do with … something brand-y.) The Wonder wasn’t as packed as I’d expected — expectations based on the line for RRR’s SXSW show — but it gradually filled in, dudes in plaid button-ups sharing floor space with dingy kids who were trying their hardest to look like they hadn’t washed their hoodies in several years.

It was a funny crowd and a funny show. Ra Ra Riot’s albums are sweet, swoony things, fully deserving the “chamber pop” tag, thick with cello and violin and dominated by singer Wes Miles’ earnest choirboy voice. The lyrics tend to the sweet, honest and self-deprecating (“My life is dull and my body aches,” Miles repeats on the first song on the band’s new record, The Orchard), but there’s pep in the airy arrangements and insistence in the drums.

So why did the show seem so one-note? It wasn’t just Miles’ tendency to the occasional really literal gesture, or the imbalanced sound that lost a lot of the strings unless you were standing right up front. Something just seemed off. I haven’t seen a lot of bands in the last few years with singers that mostly just sing — it takes some serious charisma to stand in front of crowd nearly empty-handed, singing your heart out, and Miles seemed happy but unprepared. No one was carrying the show; there wasn’t a sense of band energy, either, except from violinist Rebecca Zeller, who seemed more engaged. It wasn’t a bad show. It was just uninspired — though a few tracks, like “Too Dramatic” and “Ghost Under Rocks,” had a little more snap.

We caught just a little bit of Past Lives at the Crystal, but while the song we heard the end of was energetic and angry and interesting, the next three — the last three of the set — were oddly forgettable. It’s not a word I expect to apply to former Blood Brothers members, but there you have it.

And then: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists! Leo has been doing his steady thing for so long now that — confession time — I like him (musically and on Twitter) without really knowing his stuff. I just know that I like it. (And I love “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”) It’s punk rock but it’s not: If you watch Leo, pacing the stage with his wristbands and his spiky short hair, he looks like a punk rock boy. But what he plays is this giddy, endless stream of smart, solid rock songs, jangly and jaunty and a little bit frenetic. The show was the opposite of Ra Ra Riot: Propulsive, sweaty, over too fast.

But since it was over in order for The Thermals to take the stage, you won’t hear any complaints from this corner. The tone of the Thermals show was set when their perpetually smiling drummer, Westin Glass, came out to soundcheck, and left the stage only after high-fiving as many people in the front rows as he could reach. The word of the night, despite the intensity of the band’s new album, Personal Life, was, to my mind, gleeful. Every time I’ve seen the Thermals, there’s a wash of delight coming from somewhere, or maybe everywhere — from the band members, the kids dancing up front, the smiling people in the bar who seem on the verge of tossing their drinks in the air and busting out some strange dance moves.

This show was no exception. The songs were all just right. The older songs, especially from the political and pointed The Body, The Blood, The Machine, sat perfectly next to Life’s, well, more personal content (for more on that, take a peek at Willamette Week’s interview with singer-guitarist Hutch Harris about what it all means, or the Mercury‘s super piece, in which Personal Life is rightly called the “finest breakup album since Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight“).

“A Pillar of Salt” was a highlight; the bitterness of “Not Like Any Other Feeling” was cathartic and gorgeous and intense; but it was the double perfection of the encore that sealed the night: Weezer’s “My Name is Jonas” — you could hear everyone in the crowd singing along as the last ssss of “Jonas” faded — and “No Culture Icons,” which, impossibly, gets better every time they play it.

I left the Thermals with a shit-eating grin on my face (as the stragglers walked out, Glass was once again on the edge of the stage, signing things and talking to fans) and went to meet Todd at the Roseland, where Major Lazer was rattling the doors like they may never have been rattled before. Nobody was getting in, though — not the drunk guy with a scratch above his ear, or the drunk girls advising each other to “stick out your boobs” in an attempt to charm the door guy, or the two dudes on bikes asking why there were so many V-necks on the men lingering around the door.

Didn’t matter. The Thermals win MFNW. Again. (Look for Todd’s photos from the crazy Major Lazer show soon, though.)

Tonight: Okkervil River? Hosannas (formerly Church)? Shaky Hands? Jared Mees and the Grown Children? One thing I know for sure: At midnight I’ll be drinking whiskey and watching Richmond Fontaine. See you there!

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