MFNW @ Crystal Ballroom 9/6/08

MFNW – MusicFest NorthWest.  Four days of our beloved NW bands playing some of our most beloved local venues.  A paltry $50 gets you a wristband that gets you into all of the shows.  Considering you can only be one place at one time and a ticket to most shows is $15, it only pays off when you want to catch something all four nights or skip from venue to venue on a single night.   When I got to the Crystal, I was greeted to a line that stretched up the block and around the corner.  As I hiked my butt up the hill toward the end of the line, I heard one of the staff at the back of the line announcing that ticketholders could skip the line and head right in.  Lucky me!  Next year I’ll probably spring for the wristband but tonight I was here to see The Helio Sequence and quickly forked over my ticket and headed for the Mezzanine bar.

I got a late start getting to the show due to some work responsibilities so I missed Mimicking Birds.  Considering they were the first band out of five, I suspect there really wasn’t a whole lot to be missed there but I’ll leave open the possibility that I could be wrong on that assertion.  Their myspace tracks are nice enough but almost anyone can sound good in the studio these days and you just never know how a  lineup is going to tempt your musical pallette.

Blitzen Trapper was up next and, well, I wasn’t all that impressed, but anyone who knows me well enough will tell you that I’m not easily impressed.  They seemed rather rough around the edges and nowhere near being ready for prime time but it was enjoyable nonetheless.  Definitely hit their various pages and check out their tracks though as their studio work is quite nice.  Overall, I’d class their music as “already been done by someone else maybe two or three decades ago” but they do quite a nice job with it.

Next came Fleet Foxes from Seattle.  Rich harmonies are their game and they do quite well at it.  Apparently, talking themselves up is also part of their game.  I was down in Lola’s after their set having a smoke and people watching when one of the heavily bearded members of the band (most of whom are heavily bearded) commented to me something along the lines of “did you hear those harmonies?  They really blew me away.”  I returned with “nice set” and he kept going on as if he didn’t realize that I realized he was in the band.  I suppose you have to blow your own horn since no one else is going to blow it for you but this was a bit overblown.  If they’re playing somewhere near you, it’s well worth the walk to go check ’em out.  I would say that ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is the song that really sums them up; if you like it you’ll probably like the rest of their stuff and it’s hard not to like it.

Next up, Menomena.  Kind of a standard trio setup (which is really refreshing among bands that try to get as many people on stage as possible) but with a lot of flexibility and a refreshingly unique take on what makes good music.  Drums, guitar, bass, keyboards and, most notably, baritone saxophone from the front man along with a host of other instruments that makes their music anything but standard.  I’ve always been a fan of the bari sax as it has a very unique sound that mixes well with a lot of other stuff.  Check out a few of their tracks for yourself and see if they’re your glass of IPA.  I was quite pleased with their set and will definitely be seeing them again and will probably purchase some of their stuff.

I’m going to digress a bit at this point to make a point.  When I go to see a show, music is just one of the things I’m there to see.  A song lasts about 3-4 minutes usually and there’s some space between songs that has to be dealt with.  Some of the best bands out there not only play their set list well but are really comfortable on stage and the space between songs is just as important to them as the songs themselves.  Nothing is more uncomfortable to me than a band that isn’t comfortable being on stage, sort of standing in place, maybe shuffling their feet a little and nervously chattering amongst themselves before the next song gets underway.  After all, if I just wanted to hear some music I could have stayed home and turned the stereo.  Menomena came in as one of the best bands out of the five in terms of overall entertainment value.

And finally, round about midnight, The Helio Sequence took the stage.  Two guys, one mad scientist on the skins and a lead man with a Telecaster (to which I’m quite partial), a lot of pre-sequenced backing tracks and a great deal of reverb, they mix it up quite nicely.  I’d seen them back in December as they launched on tour for their latest album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead.  Back then I bought the album from Brandon Summers himself at a table at the back of the floor before their set and got a free sticker for my snowboard; I’m still playing the heck out of their album over half a year later.  The show in December was electric with Brandon really belting it out in a way that increased the energy level in the room.  This time around the mix wasn’t as good and the vocals were lost somewhere behind the rest of the music so the effect wasn’t quite the same but they still did a rousing set.  I really like their take on The Beatle’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.  To close up the show, they ‘unsequenced’ the sequence and brought a bunch of folks on stage to play it up live.  If I recall properly (and I probably don’t) I think they played ‘Can’t Say No’ and the rendition was easily as good as the album track if not better.  I think before they really break out big time, they’re going to have to lose some of the sequenced stuff on stage and add another member on synth.  With a major portion of their music composed of sequenced tracks, they lack the magic of spontaneity that a live band should have on stage.

The venue itself: the Crystal Ballroom.  There’s a lot of info on McMenamin’s site and elsewhere online about the Crystal.  It’s quite a unique place and a Portland landmark.  It’s definitely worth going to a show there just to check the place out.  It’s non-smoking but on most nights you can make your way down to Lola’s for a smoke free of charge (Friday nights VJ KittyRox is spinning the  ’80’s Video Dance Attack for those folks who just can’t let go of their high school glory days and cover is $5).  Lots of curious little hidy holes and hallways throughout the establishment make it a great place to explore.  I’ve got two complaints with the place and unfortunately they’re big ones.

First, the sound system.  The mixing board is ancient technology.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are tubes in it somewhere (for you folks old enough to remember what tubes are).  I guess some folks are better with it than others because some bands (and their soundman) make it sound great while others just can’t seem to get it right.  For a venue of this class, you’d think they’d spend a few bucks and do it right but I guess they’re making money with it just fine as it is.  Maybe they’re just partial to the “vintage charm” it lends to the place but I consider it a major detriment.  I suspect that the dynamics of the room change rather drastically between sound check when the room is empty and ‘go time’ when the room is fully stocked with humans.

Second, the lighting system.  A year or two ago, the lighting system was just a bunch of old cans hung from the ceiling and pointed at the stage.  It was perfectly adequate but nothing special.  Instead of upgrading the sound equipment, someone decided that fancy new lights that swivel around, change colors and make patterns in the fog from the fog machine was a better investment.  I’ve got no problem with that as it makes for something interesting to look at when the band isn’t worth looking at and a great affect when they’re illuminating the band.  The problem I have is that they’re mounted in the farthest recesses of the ceiling above the stage and pointed back out at the crowd.  If I wanted to have really bright lights shined in my eyes, I’d go get myself pulled over by the local sheriff.  It’s great when they’re pointed down at the band but when they sweep the crowd, it’s downright painful.