I’ve always been a fan of WWeek‘s Music Fest Northwest . The fact that it’s a smaller regional fest in an era of megafests really creates a nice opportunity to get small venue experiences with up and coming bands.
This year MFNW features two of my absolute favorite small venue bands:
Monotonix (listen to our interview with Monotonix), an Israeli punk slash rock band is a show not to be missed. Monotonix’s shows are a tornado of energy where almost anything can happen. Monotonix sets up on the floor of the venue (in this case it’ll be at the Roseland) and then they explode. If you’re going to see one Music Fest NW show this year, make it Monotonix, it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget. [Monotonix plays at The Roseland Theater on Friday Septemer 18th at 10pm followed by Bad Brains at 11pm it’s one of the best double bills of the fest]
Another ‘band’ that is extremely fun is Girl Talk. While not technically a ‘band’, Girl Talk will completely blow your expectations of what one guy can do with a laptop. Bringing together samples from almost every genre and era of music. It’s amazing what gets mixed together, think songs like Elton John’s Tiny Dancer can’t collide with Kanye “Jackass” West’s Gold Digger, it can and will and the result is some of the most dancable tunes you’ll ever hear. It is absolutely impossible to see Girl Talk and not dance and his shows are some of the most fun I’ve seen . [Girl Talk plays at The Roseland Theater (8 NW 6th Ave) on Thursday September 17th at 11pm with Brother Reade and Guidance Counselor who go on starting at 9pm]
Since many of the individual concerts are sold out, the best way to get in is to buy a Music Fest NW wrist band ($60) which gives you access to all the shows of the fest from Wednesday night through Sunday.
Over the past thirteen years, Rent has transformed from a smash hit Broadway musical into something much bigger. The show, which is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, tells the story of a group of New York youth struggling with the challenges and grim realities of becoming adults. Rent takes place at the apex of the AIDS crisis when twenty-somethings not only had to worry about what they wanted to be when they grew up, but the constant fear of catching the deadly virus and dying.
Johnathan Larson, who died tragically before the show’s original debut, captures the electricity of this time and combines it with a score that features a number of ensemble pieces that are nothing short of outstanding. When I saw the original production of Rent on Broadway, the performers closely mirrored their characters: they were young and struggling to make a name for themselves. The original show snapped with a spark of energy that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on stage.
Flash forward thirteen years to a touring production of Rent staring two of the original performers, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. No longer struggling performers, Rapp and Pascal have become inexorably tied to their roles in Rent. After the show a huge crowd met the two at the stage door with a wave of camera flashes and screams. The two have become something akin to rock stars.
So how do two performers revisit the roles that made them famous thirteen years later? Surprising well. From the opening scene between Mark and Roger you get the sense of excitement and enjoyment. But Rapp and Pascal aren’t trying to recreate their original performances; they both seem to embrace the reality that they come at the piece from a different space. The result of this is intriguing. Anthony Rapp plays Mark with a much sharper edge, a more grounded and mature performance that places Mark at a greater distance from the people around him. Pascal’s change is more subtle and seems to come out in his scenes with Lexi Lawson, who plays Mimi. The duet Light My Candle gets a new life with Roger’s rebukes of Mimi’s advances taking on a different tone. The number between Pascal and Lawson is an absolute highlight of the show and an example of how a show, even thirteen years into its run, can find new life and space.
A more difficult task perhaps is asked of the newer performers, expected to inhabit iconic roles established by some of theater’s most respected performers. Some of the touring cast does this well, and some do not. Lexi Lawson, who left this season of American Idol to take part in the touring production, does a fantastic job of breathing fresh life into her character of Mimi. Lawson is best in the duets, but the solo Out Tonight seems a bit too big for her. The raw talent is there and Lawson’s chemistry with Adam Pascal is simply fantastic. Another real highlight of the touring company is Haneefah Wood who plays Joanne. Her duet Tango: Maureen is one of my favorite moments of the touring production. It may be blasphemy to say this, and I’m sure I’ll hear from “Rent-heads”, but I actually preferred Haneefah Wood’s interpretation of Joanne to the original production. Wood captures the dichotomy of being a strong and accomplished woman who still lets Maureen wrap her around her finger. I also really enjoyed Nicolette Hart as Maureen. Almost more than any of the other non-original Broadway cast members Hart makes the role her own. She throws out the original performance template of Maureen and finds her own path to the incredibly attractive but ultimately batty character.
I didn’t have the same level of affection for some of the other members of the touring company. Jacques C. Smith’s performance of Benny is by far the weakest as Smith seems lost in the role. This is most apparant in the transition between Christmas Bells and Over The Moon, which is a complete mess, partly attributed to Smith’s performance. I was also disappointed with Michael McElroy’s performance of Tom Collins. During the first act I felt that McElroy’s performance was a little listless and that his vocal range felt limited. He completely shattered these perceptions with I’ll Cover You: Reprise where McElroy pulls out a performance that is fantastic. This made me even more frustrated about his first act work, knowing that he has the goods but wasn’t bringing them until the second act. I felt the same way about Justin Johnson, whose first act performance of Angel was lacking something and whose second act work was again phenomenal.
The rest of the company who fills in the spaces of the show were really strong. The ensemble numbers were best when everyone was standing still, like with Life Support or Seasons of Love, however when the ensemble tried to sing and move the result ended up being a lot more muddled and chaotic as it was with Christmas Bells and La Vie Boheme (which was one of the only corner stone songs of the show that didn’t seem to hit its mark).
But, I feel silly complaining about some of the minor details of this show. It’s like complaining about the frame on the Mona Lisa. Rent is a masterpiece that resonates as well today as when I first saw it on Broadway. It’s a show whose universal relevance places it firmly as a ‘classic’ that is sure to be played for generations to come. The show exists in a lot of forms, from the less than stellar Christopher Columbus film version to a Reunion Broadway performance on Blu-Ray and DVD. Nothing can compare to seeing Rent live. It’s an absolute gift to have Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp reprise their original roles and the supporting touring company is well above the quality of most touring companies. I’d even go as far to say that Rent “The Broadway Tour” is the best touring company I’ve seen perform in Portland.
If you’ve never seen Rent, you owe it to yourself to see this show live. I doubt we’ll see Rapp and Pascal in these roles again, so there probably won’t be a better version of this show out there than this. If you love Rent, I’m happy to report that this production does the show justice, and odds are you already have tickets.
In an evening with four bands my expectations for the first band were pretty low, but Low v. Diamond delivered and impressed me with a strong set that felt more like a headlining set than an early opener. With good chemistry, a full textured rock sound and a talented lead singer Low v. Diamond showed showed real potential. Their sound is rocky ballad that can be filed comfortably between The Killers and Snow Patrol.
Low v. Diamond was followed up by the very stripped down Alice Smith. Accompanied onstage with only a single electric guitarist Alice Smith showed quite solidly that she has the presence to fill the stage. Her set captivated the audience who seemed to hang on every note. Smith’s vocals often have the affectation and texturing that’s reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, but she’s really at best when she lets go of the vocal styling and is just herself. Alice Smith shines when she seems to loose herself in the emotion of her songs and I’d love to see here again when she’s backed by a full band.
Alice Smith was followed by Mates of State, a keyboard and drum duet which moved swiftly through an upbeat and poppy set. I really wanted to like Mates of State, they are an extremely affable band with very listenable harmonies, but I felt like I had to really work to like them. Many of their songs are so packed that there’s very little room to really connect with them. Some of the songs take left turns which clearly left the audience behind. Mates of State did their job as an opening band, but the need some fine tuning to really grow.
After Mates of State there was an extremely long break as the stage was stripped almost completely bare. The crowd was clearly impatient waiting so long for Santogold, but all frustrations were quickly erased as she took the stage. Although it was a relatively short set Santogold was on the top of her game for every moment of it. Without a single drop in energy Sontogold’s set was celebration from the first note to the last.
Backed only by a DJ and two backup singers Santogold filled the stage with a contageous energy which flowed into the crowd. I saw more people dancing at the Santogold that almost any other show I’ve seen at the Crystal. The set which lasted just over an hour featured most of the songs off Santogold’s debut album. In many of the recent concerts I’ve attended you can tell which song gets the most radio play because it’s usually the point when the crowd comes alive. At the Santogold show the crowd responded to each song like it was a ‘hit’ song.
Santogold performed one cover, The Clash’s Guns of Brixton, transforming it into a rich and contemporary song. Even though the show’s music came from a turntable the show never felt pre-programmed or stiff. At one point Santogold messed up the lyrics to a song, laughing she ran out into the crowd pulling fans up on to stage for another go. The result felt like a dance party.
Santogold is the real deal, she’s an immensely talented performer who is even better live than in her recordings. The concert at the Crystal Ballroom was her first performance in Portland, but it certainly won’t be her last. Santogold is clearly a star on the rise and she’s got the potencial to be an extremely hot ticket the next time she’s in town.
I can’t say I’ve ever really been much of a fan of Vampire Weekend. When I hear their music I can’t help but hear how they’ve clearly lifted their musical influences (they’re a simple mix of 80’s ska band and Paul Simon). I had a spot in my MusicFest NW schedule so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Could they deliver something live that expanded beyond the affable tunes on their debut album.
As I stood there tapping my toe to the music, realizing that the ‘we sound just like the album’ show wasn’t going to win me over an argument broke out between concert goers.
Could you PLEASE not sing along to the music!
While it wasn’t quite an altercation, the ‘discussion’ soon heated up into a full blown argument. The behemoth of a guy standing in front of me (and blocking much of my view as he constantly leaned over to give running commentary to his date) puffed his chest and looked like he’d charge at the scrawny guy who was belting out the words to one of his favorite songs. Could there actually be a fight over the right to sign at a rock concert?
This wasn’t the first time I had experienced something like this. When Arcade Fire came to town I was sitting up in the balcony. The couple next to me jumped up and started to dance to “Rebellion (Lies)”, soon after the couple behind them hollered over the music for them to ‘sit down’.
This whole phenomenon is astounding to me. I grew up in an era of music that measured a good show by how much you jumped around, sang and danced. A truly great concert was once which swept you up and made you a part of it, made you forget that you had shelled out some dough to watch someone stand on stage for a few hours and bang on instruments.
Music has changed, it’s become much more personal. Rather than getting together and ‘putting the record on’, people now listed to more of their music through little white iPod earbuds. It’s a pristine, unencumbered and solo musical experience which doesn’t translate when that music is transformed and shared by a large room full of people.
The iPod generation has had its impact with artists as well. Vampire Weekend played an extremely clean show, rarely deviating from their recorded songs. In many ways their reproduction of their pristine sound helps make them a hit with the crowd. It’s a neat and tidy relationship.
Soon after this incident I went down to Satyricon and saw the Israeli Punk Band Monotonix. It was the complete antithesis. As the entire room jumped and danced with the music, collided and collectively sweat I was reminded why I used to love to see music live. You go to a concert for the same reason you see a comedic movie with an audience, to share that experience. Something happens when people come together to share the music they love and I hope that the iPod generation can get educated about that.