Photography by Autumn Andel
There are very few negatives to Portland, Oregon — if any at all. The people are amicable, the food’s unique, the nightlife is vibrant, the music’s phenomenal, and, yes, the weather’s superb. Its East Coast counterpart, Brooklyn, on the other hand, is quickly prefaced with guttural sounds like “ugh,” “eh,” “oy,” and “blech.” Similar cities like Chicago, Austin, Minneapolis, and next door neighbor Seattle are all tagged with nasty warnings, too.
The only consistent thing about Chicago is corruption, Austin’s surrounded by Texas, Minneapolis is too damn cold, and Seattle’s too damn wet. But, Portland? “Well, isn’t that where they film that show?” Yeah, not exactly a dissuasion. Instead, you mostly get short stories about great vacations, restaurant tips, or music recommendations. What’s telling is that so many of these pitches have turned travelers into residents and residents into guides.
So, what does this have to do with Project Pabst?
Well, for one, Pabst Blue Ribbon was brewed in Milwaukee. It says so right on the can. That then leads to the question: Why is their festival all the way in Portland? According to Pabst’s regional marketing rep, Matthew Slessler: “Portland is so music-oriented and has such a great history, and you could always find Pabst at venues likes EJ’s and Satyricon — all great music venues around town, to this day. That’s really how it came about.”
Yet what makes Pabst worth championing is the same thing that keeps Portland free from complaints: populism. By its strict definition: “Populism is a political doctrine that appeals to the interests and conceptions of the general people, especially contrasting those interests with the interests of the elite.” In layman’s terms, it’s something for everybody. Isn’t that what PBR has always stood for? An easy, go-to beverage without any pretension, even despite its adoption by “hipster culture.”
That sounds strikingly similar to the vibes of Portland. A place that has long been considered a refuge by artists and artisans, which explains the vibrant culture and thriving neighborhoods and just about everything else worth loving there. It’s a weird place, for sure, but only in the sense that it has no intention of being anything than it already is: a community with an open mind. That explains the little things like penis-shaped donuts or vegan strip clubs.
This past weekend, I tried desperately to soak up as much as possible, visiting record shops (Crossroads), bookstores (Powell’s), food trucks (PB&J’s Grilled), fine dining (Olympic Provisions), easy dining (Pine State Biscuits), sandwiches (Lardo), pizza (Sizzlepie), donuts (Voodoo, Blue Star), late-night barcades (Ground Kontrol), and strip clubs (Mary’s Club). I even squeezed in two venues, thanks to the festival’s push to explore the city with their many aftershows. It was exhausting but satisfying.
As for the festival itself, Project Pabst proved worthy of a second year. Despite some hiccups — sound trouble, X Ambassadors, and the fact that Robert Pollard disbanded Guided by Voices — the inaugural event was fun, easy, and mature. Nobody under 21 could come in, there was a PBRcade with free games, and the food was all local. Slessler wasn’t kidding when he called it “a love letter to Portland.” If anything, it’s an excuse to visit one of America’s greatest cities, as if anyone needed another reminder.
C’mon, what are you waiting for?
12. “I Don’t Get It, Dude”
Rocket from the Crypt
“This is one of the best projects I’ve ever been a part of. Are you enjoying the project? Y’all have diarrhea?” That’s Rocket from the Crypt’s Speedo, aka John Reis, who offered up plenty of sarcasm and charm Saturday night. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this band does absolutely jack shit for me. In fact, I think they’re incredibly gaudy, what with the matching outfits and all, and that they fall into the same category as Social Distortion: old-school punk that had one timeless single and thousands of songs that sound exactly like it. But, I’m obviously alone because the cult act attracted hundreds of fans, who all looked ready to drink the Rocket-flavored kool-aid and storm the gates. After all, the #ProjectPabst hashtag was overloaded with gushing tweets and photos celebrating their set. Whatever, dudes and dudettes. I’ll go over here now and let you party over there.
11. Prettiest Voice with a Dirty Mouth
PBR’s real big in the metal community, so it’s cool they booked local stoner metal act Red Fang for Saturday. It wasn’t exactly packed for a hometown show, but they were essentially the only metal act on the lineup for the whole weekend. Still, anyone with an ear for melody could fall in love with Bryan Giles’ vocals. It’s rare that any metal band grabs a strong vocalist — usually the attention’s on guitar and the rhythm section and some guy whose vocal chords can handle a bruising — but Giles works off a guttural warmth that’s not dissimilar from Dave Grohl. Consult their big hit “Prehistoric Dog” for a strong comparison. Onstage, the song’s a catchy beast that avoids the pop metal tag by bringing extra gum to the jaws. What does that mean? I don’t know. It’s late and I judged a lot of their set by staring at a nearby rocker in blood-red cargo capris. He loved it. I did, too.
10. Weekend’s Super Choice Happy Hour
“I guess complaining about the sun is a weird thing to do in Portland, but it’s really jabbin’ me,” Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck said, his hand shadowing his shades. “Hope it’s not jabbin’ you too much.” After opening their set with “The Quotidian Beasts”, arguably the best song off 2013’s Muchacho (sorry, “Song for Zula” fans), I was a little uncertain as to what exactly could come next that would perk my ears up. Then they played “Los Angeles”, the closing track to 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy, and all became right in the city of Portland again. Long story short: No jabbin’ could stop this writer from smiling and enjoying a PBR tallboy alongside a Bunk cuban sandwich. Thanks, guys.
9. Most Enjoyable Dream of the ’90s
Good news: Speedy Ortiz has no plans to leave the ’90s. So, if you dig songs like “Plough” or “Gary”, both of which they played at full volume on Sunday afternoon, then you’re in luck. “We’re gonna do another new one because, um, Portland’s so new to us,” Sadie Dupuis observed. They brandished at least three and none felt outside the box for the Massachusetts outfit, which is absolutely fine. Last year’s Major Arcana and this year’s Real Hair EP are loud slices of ’90s alternative made shiny and bright for today’s young-ins. It’s L7 with an iPhone, so to speak. And it’s really overwhelming onstage. So much so that Dupuis gets buried in the distortion. There were moments of respite, specifically when Dupuis explained how they almost didn’t make it out of Chicago to Oregon. “We’re totally here,” Mike Falcone observed. “Maybe it’s just a projection,” Dupuis suggested. “Like that Tupac thing,” Falcone agreed. “Or Princess Leia,” Dupuis offered. How can you not love this band?
8. Sharpest One-Man Show That Wasn’t a One-Man Show
“Duh” fact: White people love Wu-Tang Clan. I don’t know why that is and I’m a white Jew. Perhaps it’s all the pop cultural references? Or the group’s undying appreciation of everything kung fu and horror? Who knows. But given that Project Pabst drew a predominately white crowd, the heroic Wu founder GZA easily roped in the largest crowd of the weekend at the smaller Blue Ribbon stage. It probably helped that he was performing all of Liquid Swords, one of three off-shoot Wu LPs that’s universally lavished with praise, but given everyone’s reactions to “C.R.E.A.M.”, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, and “Hard to Kill”, it’s more likely that white people just really, really, really love Wu-Tang Clan. (After all, where were all these hip-hop fanatics during Shabazz’s fantastic set earlier? Spoiler: More on that soon.) Although it was quite hypnotic watching dozens of Portlanders toss up their Ws in the air and treat the ground like The Shelter, nothing could top GZA’s existential “freestyle” that recalled the ending of Men in Black and the best of Arthur C. Clarke. To be fair, nothing could distract anyone from GZA period, not even his tight band that worked up a suh-weet cover of The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache”. Get this guy an Off-Broadway production. Fast.
7. K. Flay’s Biggest Fan Is Festival’s Most Reliable
As far as I’m concerned, Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie, and Brian Viglione can continue performing all of 1983’s Violent Femmes for the rest of their lives. It’s a quintessential indie record — possibly the best — that everyone makes their own, but rather than feeling insular on stage, the album’s 10 tracks come off as rather communal. For Project Pabst, the festival couldn’t have signed a more fitting act; for one, they were also brewed in Milwaukee, a commonality Ritchie was quick to address. “First time I remember drinking Pabst was 49 years ago, when I was five years old.” He discussed how his father drank it for years and finally stopped and passed away, adding: “Moral of the story: Drink Pabst or die.” That became the defacto mantra of the weekend, and just about everyone’s tweet at some point. However, their best sound bite came when Gano discussed his favorite set of the day so far. “K.Flay. I liked K.Flay,” he admitted. “She said there was a sad energy going on here, but I think that changed.” It always will when you’re around Gordon. It always will.
6. Tastiest Club Sandwich
Seattle’s own Shabazz Palaces offered up Sunday’s first dose of hip-hop for their Portland neighbors. Supporting this year’s Lese Majesty, the long-awaited follow-up to their 2011 diamond debut, Black Up, rapper Ishmael Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire had plenty of material to squeeze into their hour-long set. They took their time, though, evolving their set by grooving meditatively (“Forerunner Foray”, “Motion Sickness”) and then later aggressively (“Free Press and Curl”, “Bronny on a Breakaway (Bop Hard)”), layering the bass as if they were in an Emerald City club. What’s effective is that it’s just the two of them up there behind their tables. Butler screws with the knobs as he spits, while Maraire plays scientist with panels and organic percussion. Initially I thought it’d be great to see them with a live band, but the impact of hearing all that noise and knowing it’s just them at work is quite impacting. It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling, it’s … pretty unreal.
5. Portland’s True Hometown Heroes
“Hi, we’re The Thermals. We’re from here.” And that’s all it took. Over 45 minutes, Hutch Harris, Kathy Foster, and Westin Glass broke down (most of) their catalog into (mostly) equal parts: five tracks off More Parts Per Million, three off Fuckin A, four off The Body, the Blood, the Machine, and four off last year’s Desperate Ground. In a way, their raucous hometown set was a crash course of their music, a Thermals 101, all for a crowd that hardly needed it. Regardless, that stratification proved successful as fans flung themselves into the air with every word and chord.
Naturally, “Here’s Your Future”, “I Might Need You to Kill”, “It’s Trivia”, and the three-prong attack of “A Pillar of Salt”, “No Culture Icons”, and closer “Overgrown, Overblown!” sent fans over the edge, specifically one strong girl/superfan who riled up the troops around her to maintain a push-party pit. “It’s not everyday you get to see your favorite band,” she told me after, gulping in air. Amidst the chaos, Harris avoided a bee attack and made the weekend’s best joke about the festival’s decorative unicorn: “Thanks to the Denver Airport for letting us borrow their horse.” OMG, that is funny.
4. Most Pabst-Worthy Late Night Show
Constantines at Dante’s
“What are we called?” A sweaty Bry Webb pondered while tuning his guitar. “Not really important.” That someone even asked that question, especially 45 minutes into their performance, was quite incredible. Then again, as Webb explained earlier on, the last time the Constantines played Portland, they entertained, maybe, 20 people. Now, reunited and fresh as ever, the Ontario quintet were performing to a pond of die-hards, who sang along to guttural classics like “Soon Enough”, “Shine a Light”, and “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song”.
Maybe it was the $3 PBR Tallboys providing all the right pheromones, but there were some crazy-good vibes throughout their intimate gig at the pizza-flavored Dante’s. It helped that Webb, who could double for Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke, treated the night like a hometown show, dedicating songs to local artists like Marisa Anderson (“On to You”) and The Thermals (“Young Lions”). As he put it, “I never would have guessed our first US show in six years would be in Portland.”
Actually, he was quite vocal, sharing stories between each song, at one point insisting everyone watch a documentary on Canadian musician Rae Spoon (see: My Prairie Spoon) and later joking about breaking into some 12-bar blues (“We got really into the blues these past four years,” he struggled to say with a straight face). His best crowd work surfaced when he introduced “Time Can Be Overcome”: “I’m gonna whip up a ballad, that cool? This is like when AC/DC plays ‘The Jack’.” He digressed, explaining how the heaviest of hitters need a break sometimes, admitting: “I like AC/DC, but that is not a good song.”
When “Arizona” sent the band packing, the crowd chanted for “10 more songs” repeatedly. The band obliged, returning for “Insectivora”, to which one fan shouted back shortly after, “Nine more to go.” Webb smiled, and perhaps even considered the request, but instead used Kensington Heights closer “Do What You Can Do” to roll the proverbial credits. “You and I, we’re gonna break even,” he sang, a lyric that hardly captured the night’s festivities. They did what they did with what they got and did it goddamn well. Nothing more, nothing less.
3. Most Pabst-Worthy and Pizza-Worthy Late Night Show
Built to Spill at The Crystal Ballroom
Doug Martsch is indie rock ‘n’ roll’s Neil Young. It’s a thought that didn’t cross my mind until Saturday night, while I was drinking my seventh PBR of the day and attempting to save life with a three-dollar slice of pizza. (What is it about pizza in this town? Venues either smell like it or sell it. Weird.) Now, I’ve seen Built to Spill about a dozen times — their midday set at 2009’s Outside Lands was phenomenal; their 2005 Metro Chicago show was the bane of my existence — but their hour-and-a-half, 17-song set at Portland’s historic and ornate Crystal Ballroom triggered something else.
Similar to Canada’s finest export, Martsch doesn’t ever get phased about anything, and he destroys the six-string in the process. “Hey, thanks.” “Alright, thanks.” “Yeah, thanks.” Outside of his tongue-twisting lyrics, this is all he really says to his legion of die-hards, but that’s likely because he’s so focused. For example: During their cover of The Halo Benders’ “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain”, Martsch’s string snapped, no doubt from the way he drills his fingers into the fret, and almost robotically, he just stepped aside and started re-stringing as guitarist Brett Nelson became the hero everyone needed.
But what’s really uncanny is how Martsch’s songwriting style matches Young’s, too. He creates sprawling waves of guitar fuss, allowing each song to drive and meander before embedding hooks or melodies, and onstage, these compositions feel so organic (as if he’s writing ’em then and there), much like Young’s work does. I think this all hit me during their performance of “Liar”, from 2006’s You in Reverse, which wanders a bit before Martsch finds that hook for “She don’t mind, she don’t care,” and the sugar rush starts settling.
What separates the two is that Young knows how to release a new LP each year, while we’re still waiting for a follow up to 2009’s There Is No Enemy. Totally fine with that, though.
2. A Close Second
Last week, Philip Cosores spent close to a thousand words insisting that Modest Mouse has become “a live band worthy of traveling to see” and ultimately concluding that “Isaac Brock has never been less full of shit.” He’s right, and their Sunday night headlining performance at Project Pabst reaffirms everything Cosores wrote. But, here’s the thing: Brock remains a rather curious fella, and he continues to be a confusing frontman. Actually, if I’m calling Doug Martsch indie rock’s Neil Young, then I’m gonna go ahead and dub Brock the genre’s Tim Heidecker, and not just because he looks like the On Cinema at the Cinema host, either.
“Who loves small talk?” he asked after sizzling performances of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and “A Different City”. “Me? Not so much. I’m not good at it.” He paused. “I’m gonna breathe for a second.” After “Ocean Breathes Salty”, he explained that he had “the worst cold right now,” mulled over various home remedies he tried earlier, admitted that he’s “the worst doctor,” and joked about how he’s “been practicing complaining all day.” Realizing the chatter was bullshit, he called it out, adding: “Anyways, back to work.” Granted, that’s more than he usually says behind the mic, but that glimpse of self-awareness just screamed of Heidecker.
And that’s a good thing. Brock doesn’t need to be affable. He doesn’t need to be anything really. His music speaks for itself, a series of disparate stories from a scatterbrained genius, whose moody sensibilities work to the song’s long-term effects, and Sunday’s 20-song setlist spoke to those human qualities just as previous setlists have over the years. The difference now is that he’s joined by his tightest band yet — though, any band with two drummers and a horn section should be — and maybe, just maybe, that’s all starting to rub off on the guy. Regardless, the show was a total five bagger.
1. The Weekend’s Main Event
Tears for Fears
Allow me to vent: For years — years! — I’ve had this not-so-secret wish that Tears for Fears would be a festival staple amongst the Big Four. Or, at the very least, Lollapalooza would book them for their ’80s veteran slot. When Love & Rockets surfaced in Grant Park back in 2008, my hopes were pretty high for 2009, but alas, C3 Presents … booked Depeche Mode instead. (Not that I complained about that at all.) Still, during every hype season, there’s a little part of me that hopes to read “Tears for Fears” on the second line of a major festival. So, you could imagine how excited I was to see Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith’s landmark outfit top the bill for the inaugural Project Pabst.
Spoiler: They didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Shout”, “Head Over Heels”, “Mad World”, “Pale Shelter”, “Sowing the Seeds of Love”, “Closest Thing to Heaven”, and “Break It Down Again” were all brought to life, inducing plenty of tears and screams of “OMFG, I’m so happy right now.” In fact, that might have been the best part of their hour-and-45-minute set: Everyone was in a constant state of bliss, as if they were being saved or something. Perhaps that’s what happens when your favorite act goes away for a long time, or, and this is far more likely, it could just be that Tears for Fears are a far more important band than anyone has actually given them credit for in the past.
In the festival’s official guide, Pabst’s regional marketing rep, Matthew Slessler, who also doubled as one of Project Pabst’s organizers, explained the hype surrounding this rare get: “I’ve probably gotten more reaction from the bands playing the festival — asking, ‘Hey, can we get in to see Tears for Fears?’ — than any other band playing the festival. The backroom ticket requests have been amazing.” That explains why the festival’s crowd appeared to double in size moments before they hit the stage. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone who bought a ticket stayed to watch them…
…and if nobody walked away. In addition to the iconic hits, Orzabal and Smith surprised the crowd to an exceptional, on-point cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”, complete with falsetto, which they followed with last year’s terrific cover of Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start”. “We like to do odd covers of upcoming bands,” Smith explained, and I couldn’t tell if he was being tongue-in-cheek. (“Creep” is over 20 years old.) And although the lengthy set time allowed for the lounge-y jam “Bad Man’s Song”, their eight-minute jazzy suite off 1989’s The Seeds of Love that still feels out of place amongst their finest work, they proved worthy through pure showmanship.
Look, this might be superficial, but whatever: Orzabal and Smith don’t look great, they look fabulous. They’re fit and they’re athletic and that really comes across in the show. Orzabal’s falsetto and Smith’s booming croon haven’t changed in the slightest, and not once (save for a bathroom break on Smith’s behalf) did they appear fatigued. That shouldn’t speak to the overall quality of music, but for an act as theatrical and grandiose as Tears for Fears, it does. And to their credit, they join a league of veterans that include Springsteen, McCartney, and Sting who refuse to let age hinder their work, life, and demeanor.
But let’s talk about their celebrated work. They might not have the expansive catalogue of, say, Talking Heads or The Police, but that doesn’t matter. Their ultimate power trio of songs — “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Shout”, and “Head Over Heels” — are so influential, motivating today’s juggernauts like M83 or Lorde. (Her cover of “Everybody…” played on the PA as they hit the stage. Very cool.) What’s more, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” might be the greatest song of its decade, if not the entire genre. From its execution — that marriage of synths and guitars brings tears to my eyes every time — to its poetry of power and corruption, the track has become a timeless lesson that stabs the heart of every generation.
Earlier, Orzabal joked that they were a last-minute replacement for Kate Bush. While she’s a must-see legend, and certainly at another level, Tears for Fears struck similar chords, activating the areas of the mind and soul typically reserved for veterans, only they hardly ever tap in. That wasn’t the case on Saturday night. Various emotions ran laps around the Zidell Yards rocky venue, turning superfans into muted corpses and casuals into superfans.
So, if Project Pabst goes down for anything, other than being a low-key corporate event, let’s hope it’s for selling Tears for Fears on the festival circuit. In a time when headliners are predictable and iconic talent sparse, they’re not only a relief, but a savior. #toldyaso
Photographer: Autumn Andel