The skies were gray and the air was cool on Friday night when I finally got to the PDX Pop Now festival, late enough to have missed the first band. One could not be blamed for taking this to be a bad sign. The rain stayed away all night, however, and the event organizers of PDX Pop Now put on a spectacular opening day.
The second band of the evening was 1939 Ensemble, a duo of vibraphones and drums, with some sampled sounds thrown in. They put on an incredibly tight and interesting live performance. Impressively, the musicians in the band (Jose Medeles [of The Breeders] and Dave Coniglio) switched instruments mid way through the set, displaying excellent skill on each. Fans of The Mercury Program, who have accepted that they will probably never get to see that particular Floridian group play its version of vibraphone tinged post-rock, now have an outlet for their needs in 1939 Ensemble.
Old Wars was next, another duo, this time bass and drums, and they rocked it hard as well. Bassist/vocalist Jen Moon brought her a-game, treating her distorted bass more like a rhythm guitar and churning out fun, catchy,post punk-rock that was reminiscent of a minimalist Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Also completely awesome was the hammer and sickle donning Kathy Mendonca‘s bass drum. Portland didn’t used to be called “Little Beirut” for no reason.
Show goers should give Arohan another shot at a different venue if they weren’t impressed with their set at PDX Pop Now. For some reason, the combination of a concrete stage area, hardwood floors, open garage doors, and some questionable mixing sabotaged Arohan’s sound by washing it out a little bit. What could be made out through the wash was an interesting take on post new-wave, complete with a singer that has probably received more Morissey comparisons than he is comfortable with.
Litanic Mask was up next, the darker, more brooding older sister of Arohan. Stunning female vocals coupled with keys and samples filled out the space. The audience seemed hypnotized by the performance, which mainly consisted of slower, ballad-like compositions meant to encourage emotion and thought. Somehow Litanic Mask achieved what few other bands could: they were the perfect transition band between a post-new wave act and a balls out metal band, a feat which is respectable in and of itself.
Lord Dying was the last band to play inside on Friday and they absolutely shredded. Dual guitar attacks, monstrous riffs, and a churning bass pounded the audience into submission. There was even a respectable pit by the time the music ended. One grievance, however, they brought probably one of the best t-shirt designs of the festival but did not bring sizes suitable for the more portly set of their fans, which no doubt comprise at least a plurality. Perhaps making sure that only fit, attractive people can fit into their t-shirts is part of their marketing strategy.
The festival headed back outside to close out the evening. Portland rap group TxE started out the last set of the evening by bringing the party and eventually lending one of their personal mottos to entire festival: Party till the late night! They had the whole crowd chanting that mantra by the time they left, probably because during the middle of their set they got into the crowd to mix it up while continuing their performance. Vocalist Anthony Anderson was basically mauled by a female member of the audience, but handled the situation with grace and professionalism.
Following up a show-stopper like TxE is genuinely hard to do, but The Shivas not only did it, they managed to raise the energy level even more with a mix of blues-tinged surf punk-rock. It was as if they channeled a poppier version of Television. These kids have definitely done their homework, and it showed as they worked the crowd and played their songs with exuberance. Bonus points go to The Shivas for bringing some free stuff to the merch table as well.
It isn’t fair to AU to suggest that they were the reason the energy level of the audience dropped a bit during their set. After all, they were playing late, on a Friday night, in front of a mildly intoxicated all ages crowd that had just seen a high-energy rap group shouting “Party till the late night” followed by rockers barely in their 20’s belting out fast paced pop-rock songs. Their incredible, intelligent, and intricate compositions seemed just a little out of place. While they are one of Portland’s bigger bands, they would have fit in better earlier in the day, perhaps following 1939 Ensemble. Either way, Dana Valatka, Luke Wyland, and Holland Andrews were all in top form, so hopefully some crowd-members got their minds expanded.
Radiation City definitely seem to be taking the fact that they have been named Portland’s best new band to heart. They played a fitting end of the night set, capturing just the right amount of energy while also letting the crowd down softly, a lot of their songs are the easiest of listening, somehow modernizing what should be nostalgic soul/do-wop sensibilities. Radiation City, with their impossibly eclectic pop, was the perfect night-cap on an evening filled with bands ranging from a drum-vibraphone duo to a metal band. The show ran late, going well past midnight and into the morning. Show-goers weren’t getting any breaks, however, the next day of the festival was slated to start about 11 hours after Radiation City ended.