Elevate Difference

Musicfest Northwest (9/3-9/6/2008)

Portland, Oregon

Now in its eighth year, Musicfest Northwest was held over three days in Portland, Oregon. Born from the ashes of the North by Northwest festival, MFNW is hosted by Portland’s less trendy, free weekly newspaper, the Willamette Week, and has grown rapidly since its inception, largely due to corporate sponsorship. MFNW showcases local, national, and even international acts, with the Scottish Mogwai headlining on the first night.

Held on the weekend after Labor Day, which usually signals the end of summer, MFNW was not going to compete with Seattle’s ever-popular Bumbershoot festival, held the previous weekend. Comparisons need to be made between the two festivals as their differences mark both pros and cons, as well as the reason two huge music festivals can successfully be held just a week apart in the Northwest’s two major cities.

Bumbershoot is both a music and arts festival that is held in one location and features markets, spoken word artists, dance, film and comedians. MFNW, on the other hand, focuses on just music, with three days of simultaneous gigs held at various locations. A little agoraphobic, I was at first relieved to hear that MFNW was not going to be just some big clusterfuck of people squeezed into one space, wandering around not really knowing where to go, and getting crushed by crowds at the performances they wanted to see. The other alternative, however – having two performances you want to see at two different locations around town – was a little disconcerting for someone who doesn’t drive and doesn’t like going out alone at night.

You see, Portland is not starved for gigs. Trying to get a buddy to go along with me to big shows, even for free, was hard since they were getting over a previous big weekend. Some said they'd already seen too many bands, others that they had to wash their hair. While Portland is pretty easy to bike around, I basically just picked one venue each night and stayed there. This didn’t feel that festive to me; it was just like going to any other gig. A lot of the shows were also held in bars, and while it was a nice difference to other music festivals surrounded by a lot of annoying drunk or high teenagers in the blistering sun, I also remembered that I was once one of them and would have been bummed to be excluded from some of the shows.

Buying a wristband meant you didn't have to get tickets for individual gigs, and at $50 the price was right. However, this did not guarantee you entry into a gig once it reached capacity and that meant you had to show up early, which would be hard if you wanted to travel around town cherry picking the particular acts you wanted to see. I recognize the merits of not having everyone crammed in one place and having a lot of gigs over one weekend so you can plan time off work and invite your buddies to town and really plot out the performances you want to see, but in the smoky bars, I did find myself longing for the days of outdoor summer festivals, wandering around in the midst of thousands of people, and lounging on the grass eating fried food.

I liked the fact there was many local, lesser known acts which showcased the diversity and high calibre of the Portland music scene. The lineup and diversity of the bands was great, with too many to mention here. What I would have like to have seen was more panels and documentaries, of which there were only two of each.

If you are serious about music, black out your calendar, bring a couple of friends, get a bike and map of Portland, and experience a wide variety of great music in the city next fall.

Written by: Jyoti Roy, October 23rd 2008