It seems like every time that I turn my strikingly handsome face, there’s another music festival and, with the ever increasing popularity of these events, the people behind Pabst Blue Ribbon got the idea to go ahead and throw their trucker hat into the ring, as well, last year. PBR held it’s inaugural Project Pabst festival at the end of September, shortly after the summer festival hype — not to mention, momentum — had pretty much died down, and it was clear that there was something different that set this thing apart from the beginning. Along with the decision of the Milwaukee brand to choose Portland, Oregon as the location for their event, there were a number of other decisions made in regards to the setup that seemed to come much more from general feeling about what made sense to them, rather than drawn from any precedent in framework from similar endeavors that came before them. Sure, Project Pabst can easily be labeled as one of the latest money making ventures capitalizing off of the increasingly popular music festival format, in a climate where artists rely more and more on performing live to compensate for the fact that everybody is stealing their work without them being compensated, but most of the time, the layout for these festivals is pretty much just recycled over and over again. Project Pabst, on the other hand, looks like it was put together by someone who had very little history or reference point for how a festival is “supposed to go,” and the results from that have been — at least for me — somewhat refreshing.
Last year’s event must have proven successful enough for the festival to give it another go, which is what they did when Project Pabst 2015 was held the weekend of July 18th & 19th. A popular time for such events, both the Pemberton in BC and Chicago‘s Pitchfork music festivals also took place over the weekend. The fact that they also shared a handful of acts with Pemberton (Weezer, Run The Jewels, Bad Bad Not Good, Passion Pit) also makes sense regarding the choice to reschedule it in the summer. Aside from the select crossover artists that are hitting the festival circuit pretty hard, however, the Project Pabst lineup seems somewhat arbitrary, compared to the standard, recycled lineups elsewhere. Last year, Tears For Fears closed out the mainstage for Saturday, with Modest Mouse handling that spot the following day. This year followed a similar format of having the first day headliner being more of a reunited throwback name from the late-70s/early-80s with an act from the 90s that has continued to plug it out taking on that responsibility for Sunday. Beyond that, local artists are mixed in among anything from heavier outfits to surprisingly high quality hip hop acts. The festival features 2 stages, one being a somewhat larger “mainstage,” which the acts alternate between on the schedule, so that there is no reason for attendees to miss any part of the performances, unless they are simply relocating early to get a particularly prime spot up front for the next act.
While the weekend passes are incredibly affordable — only $75 for both days, and even cheaper, if you capitalize on the early bird tickets — the late night shows, which are scattered at various venues of various size around the city, require additional charges in various price ranges. That being said, it’s these late night shows which I feel really add another dimension to the festival and bring in some of the most impressive acts, for my money. The main schedule benefits from offering the variety that it does, while the late night shows are more dense, focused bills. Along with the different vibe provided with these performances, I appreciate the opportunity to visit more of the city, as someone traveling from out of state, especially since Music Fest NW — also, now held on the Portland waterfront — has abandoned that multi-venue model over the last couple of years, and the short-lived City Arts Fest in Seattle, which relied strictly on scattered venues, never really managed to work out their bugs and pull it together in a very functional, unified manner during their brief run. The night shows don’t only stretch out the days, but the festival as a whole, with the concerts technically kicking off the Friday night before the main grounds open — this year a Brian Posehn comedy show at The Doug Fir Lounge was also added for Thursday. My personal life wouldn’t permit me to head down Friday, but that’s when the scheduling conflicts would have begun. Among the night options that night were The Sonics and Pierced Arrows at Star Theater (only $10), Shannon & The Clams with Chastity Belt at Doug Fir ($12), and even a show by proto-industrial pioneers, Chrome, at Bunk Bar ($15). Saturday night presented another potentially difficult decision to be made, with Roky Erickson and Earth each scheduled to perform at separate venues (Star Theater and Revolution Hall, respectively). But, for me it really wasn’t much of a question that I’d be hitting up The Crystal Ballroom that night to watch Wu-Tang Clan’s most consistent member (Ghostface Killah) perform backed by a Canadian free jazz trio (Bad Bad Not good) with Ice Cube‘s cousin (Del Tha Funkee Homosapien) as the opener. This year, my Project Pabst experience was going to center around hip hop.
Just like last year, the entrance to the festival grounds was a giant scrim with the image of a PBR can printed onto it so that, when you pass through, it appears as if you’re walking in and out through the opening. The location chosen for Project Pabst, known as the Zidell yards, is really nothing more than a gravel-filled lot flanked by two massive bridges overhead. It’s the kind of place that feels like, once the festival was over and the stages were torn down, the following day would find it being used as a swap meet. If it weren’t for the waterfront location, it could have passed for an abandoned drive-in movie theater. In other words, I’m into it.
Entering the grounds, there is a massive unicorn statue dead center — the LED horn lights up and changes color once dusk hits. To the right was a row of local food vendors, which demonstrates a certain level of understanding, regarding the community in which they’d infiltrated. This year, there was also the addition of the “PBR-B-Q,” which was selling such items as pulled pork sandwiches, over by the “PBRCade.” The PBRCade — a key attraction last year, as well — is on the far side of the lot from the entrance, over by the water. An indoor structure filled with arcade games and a bar inside, it’s a great way to escape the July heat, which was menacing. Right outside of the doors toward the water was a covered area with tables that conveniently included a live broadcast of the football game last year, since it fell on a Sunday in late September. Off to the side, was a small grassy area with people playing cornhole, and there was also the addition of Pabst “VANdalism” set up, where festival goers could spraypaint the Pabst van; along with “Pabst Wax,” which allowed attendees to hop into a “mini recording studio” to cut their own vinyl record.
Stubhub also teamed up with the festival to sponsor what they referred to as the #NoMoFOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) tent, this year, which hosted a handful of extra/side performances and DJ sets throughout the weekend. I considered trying to get to the grounds early enough to hit up the tent for free pizza and beer at noon, and then catch Wampire in there, at 1pm, but I knew that probably wasn’t going to happen.
The first official act started at 1pm, but we didn’t show up until around 4, when Against Me! was already under way on the mainstage. I have respect for the Gainsville, Florida punk outfit and, specifically, for lead singer/guitarist, Laura Jane Grace, and what she addresses through the subject matter in her work, but, when it was all said and done, their style of music still isn’t my bag. For those who are unaware, Against Me! was formed as a solo project back in 1997 by Grace, who was born Thomas James Gabel and performed as such until 2012, when she came out publicly as a transgender woman. Their last album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, came out last year and addresses the difficult subject matter. Grace is currently undergoing medical transition, while living her life as a woman, and to do so in such a public forum sends an incredibly powerful message for those enduring similar struggles in their lives. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t feeling their melodic brand of anthemic punk, or at least, as someone with no history with their work, a large festival stage, as opposed to a more intimate club setting, wasn’t going to win me over that day. It was blistering out and Thee Oh Sees would be up soon enough, so we made our way over to the press tent near the second stage to grab something out of their cooler — attempting to avoid dehydration, I alternated back and forth between PBR tallboys and bottles of water all day.
I’ve generally liked whatever I’ve heard from Thee Oh Sees, but with a frontman as prolific as John Dwyer, it’s hard to jump into the mix late in the game and keep track of everything that he’s involved with. The project has been credited as originally forming in 1997 as a side/solo/home recording project for the songwriter, while he was in the duo Pink and Brown with drummer, Jeffrey Rosenberg (aka “Brown”) whom he relocated to the Bay Area with from Rhode Island. By 2001, Dwyer went on to form/front both Coachwhips and Zeigenbock Kopf and later went on to become involved in several other projects, including the Portland group, The Hospitals, and The Netmen (feat. Brian Gibson of Lightning Bolt). Thee Oh Sees, which has undergone various name changes (Orinoka Crash Suite, OCS, The Ohsees, etc.), formed into an official “band” to become Dwyer‘s main project in 2005, and coalesced into a standard 4-piece playing psych-garage-punk around 2008, operating as such until they opted to take a break in 2013, after the release of the Floating Coffin album and accompanying Moon Sick EP, which Dwyer released on his own Castleface records.
Although the band was supposed to be, effectively, on some sort of extended hiatus, Dwyer released the album Drop in 2014, which didn’t feature any of the other 3 members on it; a move made even more surprising by the fact that the previous album has been credited as being the most inclusive effort, as far as group collaboration. For the most part, the album was a collaboration with Chris Woodhouse, who had been engineering and guest appearing on their releases for years. To tour the effort, the frontman recruited bassist Timothy Hellman (previously of, now-dissolved, Sic Alps) and White Fence drummer, Nick Murry. This all surrounded Dwyer‘s relocation to Los Angeles, a migration that included fellow collaborators and members of the prolific San Francisco garage rock scene such as Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin, over the last couple of years — Tim Pressley of White Fence made the move more than a decade ago. On top of releasing two separate electronic/noise efforts under his solo project, Damaged Bug, each of the last 2 years, a brand new album by Thee Oh Sees titled, Mutilator Defeated At Last, just arrived in May. The album featured both Hellman and Murry, as well as former core-member, Brigid Dawson, who now lives in Santa Cruz, on backing vocals.
Thee Oh Sees are a notoriously high energy live act and are a welcomed addition to any lineup, but I haven’t seen them since they lost Dawson and their rhythm section of Petey Dammit (bass) and Mike Shoun (drums). Their present lineup is a 4-piece that still includes Hellman and is rounded out with dual drummers, Ryan Moutinho, and Dan Rincon. With John Dwyer, you know what you’re going to get, a frantic, adrenaline fueled guitarist chopping away at his axe, stomping with one foot, thrashing, and whipping his head about. At some point he is definitely going to deep throat the mic and scream into it. He might even spit up into the air and catch it back in his mouth. Typically, he’ll lift a beer bottle with his teeth and slam the entire contents down without the use of his hands — since there was only PBR on hand, he raised a tallboy over head and poured it into his facehole instead. The music was solid and the driving rhythms were still there, but I missed the keys and vocals that Dawson provided and, over all, the stage felt somewhat unbalanced. Hellman is a solid bassist, but he’s fairly stoic in his live performance. The tattooed Petey, whose general appearance resembled that of a skinhead (shaved head, suspenders, boots, etc.) not only brought a unique element by playing his basslines through an effected guitar, but also with his general presence and demeanor — I have some video footage that I captured where an overzealous security guard is yanking on a crowd surfer’s leg, when Petey runs the guard off, mid-song, by simply walking toward him, while strumming his guitar, and slowly shaking his head “no.” Throughout the day, I would overhear the same exact statements made about the new double drummer setup: “I don’t understand the point of the two drummers though. I swear they were both just playing the exact same thing.” The follow up was always, “Yeah… I don’t know. I think that one of them was playing double-time, or something.” I still believe that Thee Oh Sees are a great band to book, especially one to start out the day, but the old lineup seemed more dynamic, both in sound and general presence. But, this group has consistently evolved, since the beginning, and, whether it just takes a little time to assimilate to their new project, or the lineup shifts, altogether, I believe that the live arrangement, or at least the energy of the members, is destined to become more well rounded as a unit. If not… well, they still sound pretty good.
Next on the schedule was TV On The Radio over at the mainstage. Although they formed in 2001, my first introduction to the group was through the video for their song, “Wolf Like Me” off of their universally lauded 2nd studio album, Return To Cookie Mountain, released in 2006. I liked it. I liked the song. I liked the black and white video; a throwback stop-motion animation situation revolving around the subject matter of werewolves. I’ve retained a generally positive perception of the group over the years, simply based on that one song/video and the endorsements that I’ve heard from others that I respect, but I’ve never really bothered to delve much further into their catalog. In fact, the only other song that I could name by them is “Golden Age,” a track that the band Phish has taken up covering with such regularity that much of their “phanbase” has been incredibly vocal about never wanting to hear it again. “Golden Age” would be the 3rd song that TVOTR broke into at Project Pabst.
To cut right to the chase, I just can’t get into these guys. I’m not sure exactly what it is that’s preventing me from enjoying them, which is to say that I’m not exactly sure what it is that’s making so many others enjoy them so much. And their acclaim is coming from all across the board and includes collaborators from Trent Reznor to Antibalas founder, Martin Perna. Return To Cookie Mountain even featured cameos from both David Bowie and Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead. I caught guitarist/vocalist, Kyp Malone, back in 2009, when he opened for The Pixies with his solo project, Rain Machine, and I remember liking it. Then, in 2011, I finally saw the full band at the Capitol Hill Block Party, but wandered off to catch Baths on a side stage, after they failed to grab my attention. Project Pabst would be another opportunity for them to win me over, but it didn’t happen.
It’s interesting to me that TVOTR was born out of the same Brooklyn scene as noise acts like Black Dice and Animal Collective, as well as Manhattan-based, Gang Gang Dance, all of which they were closely associated with. While the last two became increasingly more “song” oriented over time, Animal Collective is the only one to ever rival the widespread appeal of TVOTR and achieved that by remaining sonically very different. Meanwhile, TV On The Radio remains the only one of those acts that has never really managed to appeal to me. That may change some day, and I even read somewhere that the second half of their set really picked up, but, even with their expansive live roster, they did little to keep me entertained and we wound up leaving to re-up on drinks and post up in the covered area by the PBRcade, until the set time for the next act approached.
Run The Jewels was the main draw to this festival for me and the primary reason that I got off of my ass and drove all the way down to Portland, in the first place. I love these guys and, it’s unfortunate, but I don’t see them coming back to Seattle any time soon. The only appearance in Washington state that they have made within the last year was at the Sasquatch Music Festival, located in the eastern portion of the state, over 3 hours away. While I recognize that RTJ is currently on an extensive tour, in what feels like they’re hellbent on performing at every single festival in existence, like a hip hop version of The Flaming Lips, — this show was sandwiched between dates at Pemberton and Pitchfork — and that there are contracts which prevent artists from performing in the general vicinity if it falls too close to their festival date, they intentionally avoided my home city when they promoted their latest effort, RTJ2, last year. My theory that they’re avoiding Seattle stems from the incredibly low turnout that they drew the last time that they came through (show review here), before consistently selling out the rest of the country. The one thing that I can say about that shamefully under attended show is that, while it may have wounded their desire to risk coming back through, they definitely didn’t hold back on their performance that night. They never do. RTJ gives everything that they have once they hit that stage, and their Project Pabst appearance is only further evidence of that fact.
Run The Jewels is a beautiful anomaly. In the 1990s, Brooklyn rapper/producer, EL-P played a vital role in the success of Rawkus records, the independent label that helped launch the careers of such artists as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharoah Monch. As a founding member of Company Flow, he released the groundbreaking and highly influential Funcrusher Plus album, before launching and running the label, Definitive Jux throughout the following decade, releasing classic albums by groups like Canibal Ox, RJD2, and Aesop Rock. Atlanta‘s Killer Mike has forged his own path since reaching the public consciousness on Outkast’s 2000 album, Stankonia, consistency proving his skills on release after release and garnering critical praise, but with far too little widespread recognition. When the two artists finally came together — first on Mike‘s tremendously successful EL-produced solo album, R.A.P. Music in 2012, and later on the debut Run The Jewels EP the following year — it was like a chemical reaction. As a unit, they seemed to create a sound that was even more potent and explosive, something that melded together their respective styles to amplify the greatests elements of each. As they move forward they do so like a snowball, gathering momentum and, by the time that they hit the stage each night, the release from that build up is tangible, as they steamroll over the crowd.
MIke and El entered the stage with their arms raised in victory as their DJ, Trackstar, played their entrance music: “We Are The Champions” by Queen. Their sets kick in hard and fast with them trading verses, and an unmistakable enthusiasm radiating toward the audience. I’ve mentioned it in the past, but there’s one particular statement that EL-P made during the interview that I conducted with him in 2012, prior to the official formation of Run The Jewels, that always comes to mind when I think about his new group. In discussing the passing of MCA, he said the following about The Beastie Boys and the impact that the group made on him, “I always had such admiration for the way they just did whatever the fuck they wanted, and they never did anything else, and they always did it for each other. You could tell that they really were just in it to do shit with each other. They didn’t give a shit about fame.” Run The Jewels embodies those sentiments to the fullest for me and that energy is infectious. The live show is a strangely cohesive hybrid of in-your face aggression and lighthearted joyousness — I believe that the kids refer to it as being “turnt up” — with the energy accelerating as it ricochets around the stage like a cyclone. Aside from shooting their verses back and forth with spot on delivery and huge grins plastered across their faces, there was a moment when El signaled Mike to tear into a quick Dougie-esque dance breakdown and they even give DJ Trackstar a moment to shine with his scratching. Perhaps the standout moment of their set came when they performed the sexually explicit track, “Love Again,” relying on the crowd to scream out the repeated line of “dick in your mouth all day!” Overcome with a mischievous smirk and exuding both self-pride and appreciation for this accomplishment, EL thanked the crowd, making the claim that his mission is to actually visit countries all over the world, just to have their people scream “dick in her mouth all day” in unison.
And the level of appreciation that RTJ demonstrates for the support of their fanbase, and the way that they seem to be savoring their opportunities cannot be surpassed or overstated. Who would have ever expected that these two would finally achieve mainstream success 15 and 20 years into their respective careers? Who could have ever speculated that a project that began as the most casual and devoid of expectation in either of their already brilliant catalogs would find them becoming the most prolific of their careers, gaining mainstream visibility, and finishing last year with their sophomore effort winding up as the #1 album of the year on the list of multiple high profile media outlets? But, perhaps, even more surprising than the timing is the fact that a project with such powerful content could garner such widespread support, not to mention become a commercial success through a pair of releases that were initially distributed as free downloads. Just their mere existence is important, demonstrating that two styles that are considered as disparate as New York hip hop and Southern Rap could come together in such a fashion, and from two artists who embody their origins as much as anyone. Beyond that, the interracial powerhouse has been incredibly vocal in the conversation surrounding politics, racial issues, and police brutality, both through their lyrical content, as well as through Killer Mike‘s appearances on nationally televised venues like CNN and Real Time With Bill Maher, and in lectures that he’s given on the subjects at Universities like NYU and MIT. It’s my belief that Run The Jewels is not only one of the most important projects in hip hop right now, but in all of music. It doesn’t hurt that their live shows are untouchable, either.