Live Review: Project Pabst 2016 Day 1: Duran Duran, Ice Cube, STRFKR, Andrew W.K., Kyle Craft, and more

Live Reviews
all photos by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

The MusicfestNW / Project Pabst teamup makes plenty of sense on paper - one had a great location on the Portland Waterfront last year, and one had a truly unique, interesting lineup - and at the end of day one of the newly-combined fests, it turns out it works in practice too. Despite being sold out, the fest's crowds were never unnavigable or too rowdy, even when fueled by $3 PBR tallboys (which, this writer should note, is the right price for a cheap beer at a festival - every fest that pushes $9 Coors Lights is now on notice.) Video screens and decent sightlines in general made the stages accessible to all of those who weren't up front, and the side attractions (an arcade, a giant unicorn statue) all felt on-brand with the weekend. But what really made the fest stand out was it's lineup, an almost perfectly-balanced set of bands that span hip-hop, punk, and rock from both the modern and classic eras. And either by design or circumstance, many of the acts on the bill - so crucially - aren't the same ones at every other festival (in a quite homogenous year) this summer. Both days of this year's installment sold out, so clearly Portland has responded well to the pairing of cheap beer and good music, which, to be fair, is mostly what festivals are about. The full rundown of the first day's acts starts below. (Blurbs by Jacob Webb and Scott Kulicke.)

Kyle Craft: Fresh off his Concert at the Mural the previous night, Kyle Craft opened the festival with the energy of someone who had gotten more sleep than he actually had the night before. Simply put, Craft is a fascinating, charismatic performer - not too showy or particularly extravagant but his sharp sartorial sense and pitch-perfect glam wail of a voice make for a potent soundtrack for downing the first of many PBRs on a Saturday afternoon. Dolls of Highland, the Louisiana-via-Portland songwriter's debut, has proven to be one of the year's slow-burn pleasures, a great summer record whose tunes will still have legs once the time the fall rolls around, and on one of his handful of summer festival appearances, the singer and his band made a case for having a longer stay on the festival circuit in 2017, if not only because of Craft's top-notch hat choices. (JW)

The Coathangers: While the Atlanta punk outfit have quietly become a very reliable institution over the years, it seems rare to see The Coathangers outside of their natural habitat (read: a dirty, sweaty rock club at 11 p.m.). Playing in the middle of an 81-degree day is nothing for those used to Southern humidity though, so the trio seemingly casually ripped through just under an hour of spiky and rough punk with a grin and wave after wave of distorted power chords. Tearing through most of this year's stellar Nosebleed Weekend as if they hadn't been up late the night before at the Suicide Squeeze 20th Anniversary show at Neumos, the Coathangers had more energy than half the bands on the day's bill – and 100% more squeaky toy, used in set-closer "Squeeki Tiki", which is about as punk rock as it got on Saturday. (If Drive Like Jehu, Sunday's big punk draw, use squeaky toys during "Here Come the Rome Plows", this post will be amended appropriately.) (JW)

Liv Warfield: “Portland’s Most Soulful Singer” earned her title, along with the unofficial one I dubbed her with: “The Baddest.” She scowled harder than Ice Cube, while shaking a tambourine. Her entrance was slow, decisive, and mean. Her horn section was incredibly crisp – particular shout outs are due to her trumpet player. Her setlist was short, only four or five songs, but they were all drawn out and squeezed for every last drop of soul, with long breaks given to call-and-response with the crowd and classic rock guitar soloing. But as tightly rehearsed and arranged as the band was, they were still outshined by the magnetism of the frontwoman. In the vein of classic funk performers, her face contorted in what looked like furious agony towards her own music, an unbelievably snarling stink-face when the soul got too bad (bad in the funk way, not the literal way). She channeled what I imagine James Brown would’ve been had he been a rock musician, and she milked the early-afternoon crowd – a crowd that was too small and too sober – into a frenzy despite being so early in the lineup. (SK)

Andrew W.K.: It's not a secret that the sage of all things party has been more of a internet figure than a musical one in the past decade, but on the eve of his 50 state-speaking tour, Andrew W.K. made an increasingly rare full-band appearance at Project Pabst, and to absolutely no one's surprise, it was, well, a party, and a pretty good one at that. Opening with "It's Time To Party" - naturally - the long-haired writer, motivational speaker, radio host, club owner, and musician only stopped slamming on the piano (side note: Andrew W.K. is low-key a very talented pianist) to do two things: 1) play a guitar solo of the melody of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and 2) motivate the crowd about the virtues of partying. If it had come out in the modern era of festivals, I Get Wet probably would've been a huge hit at midday festival slots in 2008 - it's loud, fast, and the perfect soundtrack for throwing t-shirts into the crowd (which they did) – so in that role at Project Pabst, fueled by $3 PBR tallboys, Andrew W.K. threw a near-perfect day-drinking party. (JW)

A$AP Ferg: Ferg broke the rules, and it paid off spectacularly. His DJ came on a full ten minutes before the show was supposed to start, and so the crowd was packed, dancing, and energized before the artist even came on. It was a string of quotable rap songs from the last 5 years – 2 Chainz aplenty – masterfully blended into one Greatest Ratchet Hits compilation. When Ferg finally came out, donned in a respectfully referential navy blue Ice Cube shirt and Adidas tracksuit pants, it was to sampled shotgun shots, sizzling trap hi-hats, chest-tightening 808 bass, thick smoke, and raucous applause. A very old white man put down his taco plate and audibly said through a mouth of al pastor “this is my shit.” Ferg’s style of rap is replete with quotable choruses, which obviously make for a great live show if not the most profound lyrics, and after a particularly rousing rendition of his track “Dump Dump,” he broke into a heavy, somber freestyle about the recent passing of A$AP Mob beat-maker and impresario A$AP Yams, which included genuinely heartbreaking lines about his failed attempts at rehab and Ferg’s awareness of the downward spiral that led to his death-by-overdose this last year. It felt a little twisted, partying as this performer rapped about the death of his best friend, but that’s what happens to trap beats, so the show continued as Ferg transitioned into his earliest hit, “Shabba,” and closed out to a bevy of gunshot samples, which was received with almost-worrying levels of enthusiasm. (SK)

STRFKR: STRFKR provided an interesting contrast to Ferg, a very different kind of party that was simultaneously more planned and less forced. They have their festival shows down to a science now: a swarm of ten or so additional astronauts to bounce around like space-faring versions of the Grateful Dead bears, rainbow confetti, and tropical floats ranging from palm trees to giant flamingos that the astronauts crowd surfed around on. It went from a good concert to a great show, the music occasionally slipping into the background as people danced up on each other in a shower of paper and beach balls, the propulsive disco bass octaves and thumping four-to-the-floor conjuring up a borderline club environment as Oregonians watched from the bridge above. There were some sublime moments: a blonde woman managed to hop aboard a flamingo after the astronaut was pulled down into the sea of weed smoke and photo ops, only to come plummeting down to earth with a body-rattling thud right in front of me as the band played their staple cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Maybe it was because the Portland boys were coming home, but singer/frontman/songwriter/mastermind Josh Hodges seemed livelier than the last few times I’ve seen them play. They even treated us to some new, unreleased tracks off of their upcoming album that they’ve been teasing in shows all year (and via Twitter, albeit along with a promise of a Sanders presidency). (SK)

Ice Cube: Much as it would later in the night for Duran Duran, the over-30 crowd showed up en masse for Ice Cube. There were a lot of young people chirping nervously that Ice Cube wouldn’t actually be that good, that he was old, that he should stick to movies. And then there were more seasoned concert-goers, who just smiled and waited... He killed it. He absolutely killed it. He hasn’t lost any of his showman’s chops in his years since turning to the silver screen, and while an observer might’ve noted the irony of the predominantly white crowd screaming “fuck the police” as event staff kept us all safe and happy at the Pabst Blue Ribbon event, Ice Cube was magnetic enough that from the crowd it all felt genuine. Pre-show rumors had already spread that he had soundchecked with a few extra performers, and everyone’s assumptions were confirmed when MC Ren and DJ Yella came out, presenting as full of a N.W.A. reunion as you can reasonably ask when the last two points of the star are either no longer with us or Dr. Dre. They were then joined by Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr., who has quickly dispelled the idea that his fame is only due to his incredibly resemblance to his father - the two traded lines in true old school hip-hop fashion, and the mirror-image father and son duo never missed a beat. (SK)

Duran Duran: Has there been a key band of the '80s whose critical stature has reversed as much as Duran Duran? To paraphrase the editor of this blog, Duran Duran were very much popular from their imperial phase of 1983-5, but they were absolutely, certainly not cool. Time, however, has eschewed their reputation as mere pretty boys and replaced it with one of a group of pretty boys with art school sensibilities, pop hooks for days, and the kind of swagger that wills bands to arena-sized grandiosity. (Although, on the other hand, while a lot of things have changed since 1983, let it be known that women of all ages will still lose their damn minds for John Taylor.) Judging from their stage presence and (sing blue) silvery confidence during their headlining slot, Duran Duran are still convinced they're the biggest band in the world and they're all the better for it. It could be possible that the only moment Simon Le Bon didn't have a commanding, powerful voice in the history of time was at Live Aid, because he (and the band's two backing vocalists) were sterling all night, emphatically leading the group through a murderer's row of '80s staples. "Hungry Like the Wolf"? Killer (pun intended.) "Notorious"? Endlessly funky. "A View to a Kill"? Still the best non-Dame Shirley Bassey Bond theme. The three new songs that received airing? Pretty good, and definitely not embarrassing. At the risk of going out on a limb, Duran Duran's headlining slot was one of the savviest bookings of all festival season 2016 - they have plenty of legacy to bring in the longtime fans (of which there were many, drinking just as much PBR as their younger counterparts) and clearly enough relevancy to appeal to the younger generations in the crowd. At a festival where the best moments so far have come hard and fast (Ice Cube's N.W.A. sorta-reunion, Andrew W.K.'s entire set), Duran Duran's Saturday-closing set, packed with production value and a seemingly endless string of crowd-inciting anthems, was maybe the slickest and most frenetic of them all. (JW)

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