MusicfestNW recently wrapped up its 11th year of bombarding Portland, Oregon, with oodles of indie bands. Spread out over five days and a bevy of bars, it is the third largest indoor festival in the United States. MFNW is styled after South by Southwest, which was an original sponsor. There's no getting around the fact that MusicfestNW still plays second fiddle to the larger and more venerable Southby. That said, MFNW has blossomed into a fantastic festival in its own right, attracting high-profile national acts and showcasing Portland's diverse and talented indie music scene. And the price is amazing. Having grown accustomed to shelling out at least $250 for a weekend music fest, MFNW's $70-115 fee is a mere pittance.
The organizers recently enhanced the festival in a few key ways. First, they bumped it up from October to early September, which, in a city nicknamed "Puddletown," is clearly smart planning. Also, in 2010, MFNW moved its headliners from The Crystal Ballroom to Pioneer Courthouse Square. The brick plaza in the heart of downtown Portland is fenced off for the fest, and a good-size stage erected. This is a beautiful setting, imbuing these shows with a special atmosphere that sets them apart from the rest. Another positive change is the timing of these gigs. 2011's headliners––Iron & Wine, Explosions in the Sky, and Band of Horses––all began early enough that attendees could catch these bands (plus their two or three opening acts) and still have another five hours of shows to see. This helps relieve some of the angst of having to choose amongst so many compelling bands.
Iron & Wine: "Tree by the River" MFNW 2011
As with any good festival, though, MusicfestNW is replete with great lineups, and tough decisions have to be made. Despite its modest demotion in status, the Crystal Ballroom remains the top venue for the nighttime shows. On Wednesday, before MFNW kicked into high gear for the weekend, the Crystal was the place to be, as a packed house sweated in the Indian summer heat and grooved hard to the dark, smoldering throb of The Kills. On Thursday night, the venue offered a pair of intriguing '90s revivals in Sebadoh and Archers of Loaf. But it's often the less publicized artists, performing in smaller clubs and bars, who pack the biggest punch. I rolled the dice and headed across the Burnside Bridge to Branx, where two male-female duos rocked the sweltering house. Portland's own Talkdemonic, who pair effects-treated viola with live and programmed beats, altered our minds. Handosme Furs followed with a riveting set of dark-yet-catchy electro-rock, highlighted by the kinetic performance of gorgeous singer-keyboardist Alexei Perry. My gamble paid off, although a friend and fellow music addict rated the Crystal show as "awesome."
Handsome Furs: "When I Get Back" MFNW 2011
The point is, MusicfestNW yields such a rich crop of indie acts that it's nearly impossible to make a wrong choice. When I last reviewed this festival, in 2008, the experience was plenty enjoyable, but MFNW had not yet hit its stride. I remember, on just a few too many occasions, standing in long lines for shows I didn't get to see or biding my time with so-so acts as I waited for someone better to take the stage. In 2011, my biggest complaint was not having a clone who could experience one great lineup while I watched another. While SXSW remains the premier bar-hopping music festival in America, MFNW provides a glorious conclusion to the summer concert season. Once merely a nice treat for Portlanders, MusicfestNW is playing with the big boys now. Music lovers everywhere, mark your calendars for September 2012.