Five nights. Twenty venues. 170ish bands.
All competing for the attention of thousands of music fans.
That’s MusicfestNW, and it’s that size and scope — from folk, metal and hip-hop to “sissy bounce” and “chillwave” — that has drawn me to the Portland music festival for four years in a row. As a guy with an insatiable thirst for live music and new bands, MFNW is my end-of-summer field trip to the ultimate playground.
This year’s MFNW was Sept. 8-12, and there was extra motivation for me to attend; for the first time in recent memory, two Bend-based acts — piano-pop chanteuse Sara Jackson-Holman and hip-hop poet Mosley Wotta — were booked to play this big event in the big city. Their appearances at the festival marked another solid step in what has been a high-profile, reach-expanding year for Central Oregon’s music scene, but that’s a topic for another day.
Of all the artists at MFNW, perhaps none were as mismatched with their lineup and venue as Jackson-Holman. She plays pretty, classically influenced pop music, a la Feist or Norah Jones, and Ash St. Saloon, where she played at 8 p.m. on Friday night, is a grimy punk/metal club in the heart of Portland’s hipster/hobo district. The headliner that night? The Dry County Crooks, a blue-collar, breakneck twang-punk band.
I wondered how Jackson-Holman would fare in such an environment, but she proved up to the challenge. The early start time helped; the post-dinner crowd of 75 or so was the most attentive I observed all weekend, and they stayed that way as she waded tentatively into songs from her debut album, “When You Dream.”
Performing live is still a relatively new endeavor for the 21-year-old Jackson-Holman, and on stage, her nerves sometimes show.
But by the time she arrived at the cascading melody of “Into the Blue” and the bouncy “Cellophane” — backed by an effortlessly skilled three-piece band — she found a good groove that carried through the rest of her night, including a formidable cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism.”
Live, the songs were noticeably more sparse than their lush, slickly produced counterparts on “When You Dream,” with the exception of the album’s woozy, slow-burning title track, during which Jackson-Holman used unexpected percussion and a gadget that looped her voice to create the set’s true “wow” moment. A quick glance around the room revealed several faces as spellbound as mine; I saw one person pecking away on their cell phone, and later I saw someone’s tweet expressing surprise at how much they enjoyed Jackson-Holman’s performance. I’ll bet she snuck up on some folks that night.
Now, if you’ve ever seen Mosley Wotta (aka Jason Graham) perform, you know he’s not sneaking up on anybody. He’s going to grab you by the lapels and shake you till you come to life. Graham is made for a showcase like MFNW, where strong songs and a dynamic stage presence can catch the attention of people who showed up early so as not to miss the headliner.
Graham — dressed in a too-tight, turquoise leisure suit and bright pink tie — and his backing band played the 8 p.m. slot on Saturday night at the popular Pearl District jazz club Jimmy Mak’s, followed by some of the Northwest’s best hip-hop, including super-buzz duo Shabazz Palaces from Seattle.
Again, if you’ve seen MoWo, you probably know most of the songs he/they did: “Birthday Suit” and “Smoke” and “Smile Hater Smile,” all the faves. There were some familiar faces in the crowd of 60ish — Graham’s former DJ Mike “Mud” Graham and former Person People bassist Jordan Muller among them — but there were also lots of people I didn’t recognize, and by the time MoWo finished his opener, “Licking Reason,” most of them were smiling and bobbing their head to the beat.
From there, Graham kept reeling them in. “Boom For Real” is an undeniably great song, no matter your age; halfway through it, I turned and saw two white women in their 60s or 70s, dressed for a night at the opera, shaking their fists and chanting “boom ... boom, boom!” to the chorus. Behind them, a 20-something black dude was doing the same thing. (The older women actually howled during “Smoke,” too. It was hilarious.)
Therein lies the appeal of Mosley Wotta; it’s positive, intelligent and FUN hip-hop that anybody with a heartbeat and brainwave should find irresistible. Certainly, that was the case with the Jimmy Mak’s crowd. When Graham offered free T-shirts and CDs from the stage, two or three dozen people jumped out of their seats and raced forth to claim some goodies. And when the main set ended, they cheered for an encore, like folks who’d just discovered an artist who was new to them and worth paying attention to.