MFNW Saturday: Double-Dipping in the Pool of Portland Awesomesauce

Yes, MFNW continued! And continued to be great! And then I got sick and had Chow to finish and … and … and …

And suddenly it’s September Twenty-freaking-third and I’d have to do some serious brain-wracking to figure out how we got this far into the month, but ANYWAY, let’s just relive the magic of MFNW just a little bit longer, and then I’ll shut up about it until next year.

(Saturday’s Late Start Due to Food was courtesy of the incredible breakfast at Screen Door, which, for the record, lived up to the hype. I love it when that happens.)

So, thanks to the magic that can happen when you complain about stuff on Twitter, I got my MFNW on a little early on Saturday — starting at noonish at the OPB Music day party at Mississippi Studios. I gotta be honest: This thing kind of made me feel like a rock star. You walk in and there’s an espresso cart. Voodoo Doughnut detritus is everywhere. At the bar on the venue side, a guy in a House Spirits shirt is making an endless stream of aquavit bloody Marys and delicious Salt & Peppers. He sets them on the bar. You walk up and take them. Magic. The fact that you’re doing this while waiting for some of the most charming of Portland bands to play makes everything just fucking golden.

I missed most of And And And‘s set, but what I saw — madcap, multi-member, dancing-in-the-crowd, excitable child of indie and drinking rock tunes — was enough that I made a note to go see them later at Backspace. I saw a little more Typhoon, packed in as tightly as the audience at the bar’s outdoor patio, and then claimed a great spot in the balcony for Tu Fawning, who just get better and better and better. My showgoing company explained them to someone by saying, “Sometimes they sound like Portishead — but they actually sound like Portishead, unlike all the other bands that people say sound like Portishead.”

But they only sometimes sound like Portishead. The band’s four members all constantly switch instruments; Corrina Repp and Joe Haege (who I never tire of pointing out is also in the excellent 31 Knots, assuming they still exist) swap lead vocals as elaborate percussion, an extraordinarily long trumpet, delicate keys and more layer into their atmospheric songs, which sometimes are for a little bit of dancing and more often are for swaying hypnotically in time.

We wandered in and out of the Mississippi main room and the back patio of the attached Bar Bar, watching Portland rock royalty stand around and running into former Eugenean Peter Dean, once of the Fast Computers, who now has a handful of projects and had a summer gig doing sound effects for the totally entertaining Trek in the Park.

Then it was time for The Thermals. Again. Still awesome. Wunderkind drummer Westin Glass had a giant green crystal around his neck; was it for mystical purposes, or is he secretly the Green Lantern? Singer/guitarist Hutch Harris was none too pleased with the monitor sound at the show’s start — “Could you make it not sound like shit up here?” he hollered after the first song — but by the end, even he had broken into a smile. The room had been loosely full up until the Thermals set, but everyone in the place seemed to pack in for the party’s grand finale. A couple of people in the front rows even started dancing. A little. The set was too short, mostly new songs plus “Pillar of Salt” and “No Culture Icons” — and from where I was standing upstairs I could see they cut two songs as the show went on — but it was transporting nonetheless. Kathy Foster bobs on her toes and smiles her enigmatic smile; Harris brings a focused ferocity; and Glass just smiles and smiles and smiles, tipping back on his drumstool at the end of a song as if he can hit the snare even harder with his feet off the ground.

We stepped into the sunlight confused. Daytime? Right. Daytime. Collect yourself and move along. Coffee, now, please. (Keep reading…)

Saturday night’s lineup was all over the place. I caught a few Laura Veirs songs, standing in the middle of Pioneer Courthouse Square, wishing I were seeing her in a small, intimate space, like when she played at John Henry’s, but liking the shifting backup band (Karl Blau! Chris Funk! And more!).

And And And packed the kids into the front half of Backspace, a spiffy all-ages venue right on the MAX line and just off Burnside. Members danced into the audience, the songs got shoutier and more exuberant and the crowd cheered madly when the singer introduced a new song called “I Want More Alcohol.” Also, I think there was confetti.

I caught a little bit of Tu Fawning’s second set of the day, over at Crystal Ballroom where they were opening for Menomena; they’d all dressed up and were looking remarkably hot, even if Haege kind of ruined the effect when he bent over the drums and revealed a monster hole in the armpit of his dress shirt. I saw Amy Klein — otherwise known as Amy Andronicus, and the author of quite a few wicked smart, well-worth-reading blog posts about rock and gender — of Titus Andronicus at that show and, later, spotted Hutch Harris squinting in the blinding glow of Smashing Pumpkin’s absurd stage lights. Always nice to see the bands out catching other bands.

Even when one of those bands is Smashing Pumpkins.

To open the door to the sold-out Wonder Ballroom, where the Pumpkins were already playing when we arrived, was to walk into a swampy miasma of damp, stanky man-funk. To our left, an oversized sound and lights board took up a serious chunk of the floor, but it was kind of irrelevant — the crowd was mashed up against the stage, watching Billy Corgan do his thing.

And can we talk about that thing? That thing is essentially cock rock. Maybe it was the arena-style lights giving me that impression — blinding, absurd, strobing things glinting off the gong behind the drummer — but the show had this strutting, overwrought ridiculousness that just grew more intense every time Corgan started on a guitar solo. Of which there were more than I remembered. They played “Today” second, and it didn’t even sound like itself. Poignancy? Gone. Delicacy among the distortion? Mangled.

It was kind of … ugly, the whole thing. Abrasive, bombastic and cynical, and none of that in the good way. And totally discombobulating, coming after the involved, unironic And And And, the crisp layers of Tu Fawning and the cheery, intelligent bite of the Thermals. We lasted through “Drown” — which made me smile in the way that anything from Singles can make a certain kind of Northwesterner of a certain age smile — and then stumbled free.

We stumbled all the way back to backspace, where Titus Andronicus were closing out the night and sounding just as shouty and incensed and ferociously entertaining as they did at a house show earlier this year, and on a freezing-cold SXSW stage the month before that. The intensity never flags, even when you’re surrounded by six-foot-tall dudes who can’t even be bothered to head-bob.

That was the end of Saturday — I wanted to see Crooked Fingers, but Mississippi Studios was just too far — but Sunday had one last show in store: The National in Pioneer Courthouse Square. I sat on cold concrete and stared at Matt Berninger’s spiffy suit for two hours, willing him to take the jacket off so I could admire the vest. And also I loved the show. This is a band with their banter down, whether it’s about why they can’t move to Portland, or how their version of the Flaming Lips’ confetti is “Four dollars worth of shit!” — a few dozen glowsticks, haphazardly distributed.

The set was heavy on the High Violet tracks; the encore was exactly what it needed to be: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” “Mr. November” and “Secret Meeting,” if memory serves. They played “England,” which was what I most needed to hear, and the sky grew dark gradually and then all of a sudden, swooping over the square so that the lights on the buildings gave everything a more magical glow. “What’s that building?” Berninger asked at one point. “It looks like a cake.”

It did. The National had a vibe like a band that’s been on tour almost too long: effortlessly in sync, but maybe a little worn. In the urban canyons, the guitars echoed just so — just a certain way — and I finally understood why people compare the band to U2 sometimes. Just a little. It rings out like it’s bigger than it is, and that makes some people dismissively call The National “dad rock” which other people, like me, find a place in that sound to sink in, curl up and remember. Is dad rock nostalgia rock? Is nostalgia always wrong? If it is, I don’t want to be right.