In a couple key ways, if you’ve been to one music festival, you’ve basically been to most of them. I don’t say that in a disparaging way, more just to point out that at these things you’re going to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of bands that you want to see. Better to take a breather, step back and pick the stuff that you really, really know you’ll enjoy.
Portland’s Music Fest Northwest is an interesting festival in that regard. Spread out at venues across the entire city, it is 100% guaranteed that you won’t see every single thing you want to see. It’s just not possible, sort of like the olden times before having access to every album ever immediately was a thing.
On Wednesday night, Passion Pit played to a packed, all-ages room. At this point, they’re pros, and they play like they’re on a reunion tour with fifty hits under their belt. Every song condenses huge emotional moments into bite size snippets, their songs follow a specific structure: big drum hit, clap-along synth, and then a massive chorus that, if you can’t sing along, you might as well hum because it’s catchy enough. Passion Pit are playing with a classic song formulas, and that’s part of their appeal. Sometimes people want what already exists because it’s catharsis through familiarity—driving the same points home in the same way until you either get it or decide it’s not for you. Ultimately, Passion Pit are a dark band hiding behind huge songs. If they ever decide to go fully bleak, will people still love it? Will it be more honest? It’s hard to tell. Maybe their honesty comes from the fact that they’re able to hide the dark meat of their lyrics behind Michael Angelakos’ falsetto, which can be (potentially purposefully) hard to decipher and wordy. Even “Sleepyhead,” their breakout hit, had more members in the audience humming than actually singing the words. Maybe they prefer it that way.
Across town, Nike had a massive venue, complete with complicated, often pretty, light shows that looked like they were lifted and magnified from the Fuel Bands that were being promoted in conjunction with their shows. If you haven’t seen these things yet—basically it’s a watch that also counts your steps and your calories and puts all your daily movement toward a singular goal that you set up. A lot of people inside the venue were wearing them, and considering Nike’s lineup skewed heavily electronic, there was a lot of movement, and a lot of lights from all sides. Jacques Greene kicked things off, which is actually a pretty risky move, considering he structured his set almost like he was preparing to DJ all night, starting slow and ambient before building into more straightforward dance tracks. But it wasn’t a constant build, Greene has a great handle on the peaks and valleys of a DJ set, going from moody one minute to ecstatic the next, as if it were one big composition instead of a selection of patchworked songs. In contrast, Nosaj Thing opened a door into his goopy, disorienting world and then shoved everyone through. Against a heavy red backdrop, he worked in silhouette, his music crawling and oozing. As the set progressed, it got downright immersive, like he brought his own specific brand of smog-choked Los Angeles funeral music to Portland and was going to keep playing it until everyone got into it. As weird and disorienting as it was, it didn’t take very long. Of the three artists who played there, Flying Lotus is the most unabashedly weird on record. He makes layered, busy songs, that take countless listens to cohere. It’s not easy music, but it’s fun to listen to. His set, on the other hand, was much more traditional, like he was pulling us all out of the amazing smog that Nosaj Thing created and into an actual club. All together, it turned out to be a brilliant bit of lineup synchronicity, and I’m glad the two artists already work together because seeing them one after another felt like the best possible way to hear their music.