It was grey and coming down hard. Seattle’s giving season. Giving me and every other terrestrial creature with previously dry socks the finger. I waited on Seattle’s illustrious Broadway and Madison like a sagging pennant for a rideshare who would most likely be a Craigslist savvy slaver, but I could give a shit, because there were but 200 miles separating me from Rock n’ Roll Shangrila. For one day, Portland kicked out all the hippies to make room for Garage Fest, a forty band, four venue, booze fueled, feedback soaked fucktastrope with the sole intention of blowing your mind (and possibly seeing you naked).
Sponsored by unlikely partners of Vice magazine (Pervy, exploitative coke dealers) and Scion (Cubist-Absurdist division of Toyota) it was free to the public HOWEVER you had to RSVP (like a nerd before hand) to get a magical entry bracelet. This proved to be a popular subscription model/vetting process for how cool you had to be, but surprisingly little was seen or heard from these sponsors, making the event feel like the first legit “it’s about the music man” in a long while. This was in no way hurt by the INCREDIBLE LINEUP featuring the modern heroes of the scene and a few resurrected legends. King Khan & The BBQ Show? Yeah. The Dirtbombs? Uh-huh. The Black Lips. That’s right, it’s going down! Them and thirty other odd bands you probably haven’t heard of but soon will (lots of these guys are just now putting out albums that are getting some serious industry attention). But modern makers of the sound be damned, the truly big noise was about the classics who came back – Roky Erickson of the pioneering psychedelic group The 13th Floor Elevators and the one time reunion of The Deadly Snakes, one of the most dynamic modern bands to ever wear the numbingly incomplete term of “garage.” So, like a wedding at a waterpark, it was worth the RSVP.
I got there around four p.m. after five hours of not getting to Portland fast enough with our driver, a warm old mom and Skunk, a ratty fellow Garage Fest pilgrim. I immediately met up with Alisa, a promoter friend for some of the bands and my guide to the secret life of the festival. We promptly set course for high stepping good times with The Almighty Defenders, a sloppy gospel-inspired supergroup comprised of felons from King Khan & BBQ Show and The Black Lips. Being one of the first shows of the day, the band set the course for the evening off with a frenzied reading from “The Good Book,” hallelujahs, hands in the air, and a revival show style that got the feet stomping and the voices raised. Praise be to any show that can start this sloppy and have such a good time with it.
After the strong opening to a packed house of fellow converts, the early crowd evaporated to sample some of the other delights of Portland such as handmade soap boutiques and dishes made of tofu fed kelp. Such a shame, early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. And there was much cheese to be missed by these fair-weather fest goers. Like Brimstone Howl, an Omaha based bluesy, big beat three-piece that got the small crowd moving feral like they were dancing-out tarantula poison. With three chords driving towards some dark evil place and cat-in-heat yowls, these guys were diabolical rockers that got your heels slapping. But despite all those scary sounds, they became the darlings of all twenty four people in the venue by ending their set with a mid-crowd, mid-song piggyback, confessing afterward “I think my guitar is now broken.” It was worth it though, and the crowd seemed to agree.
Next up were The Japanese Motors of Costa Mesa, California, a rambunctious pogo pop quartet washed in a reverb-dripping surf sound. They had eleven groovy songs to convince skeptics, and they had me at one and a half. Equal parts young love, red wine, and riptide, they were easy to fall in love with reminding me of the visceral appeal of the Strokes’ sound with the beguiling lyrical honesty of Jonathan Richman.
The Box Elders of Omaha were one of the biggest surprises of the day – raw, catchy, sing along choruses were to be expected, but this trio seems short a member, I mean who plays the organ? OH WAIT, the drummer, as he stands behind the drum kit and simultaneously bangs out a surprisingly complex beat! Good god man, this guy’s hands were moving faster than a one-armed hooker during shore leave. Add a double guitar, sticky sweet choruses and a song about Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick and you can understand why I still have this diamond cutting erection. The audience had begun to return from boutiquing and with what I approximate as about two drinks in them, things began to get more rambunctious. Young, old, trashy and straight alike, all felt compelled to dance.
It was getting around food time but we decided to catch Nashville band Cheap Time, mostly so my friend could pine for the bassist whilst I tease her. But after about three songs Alisa wasn’t the only one getting that special kind of nervous – fronted by Jeffrey Novak, the lineup shifted frequently (including some members of Be Your Own Pet) but remained a dense power-pop trio with some strong glam/psychedelic influence. They picked up right where The Ramones left off and filled in the rest with satisfying stadium riffs and manic, punchy choruses. With a new album set to drop, I’d keep an eye on these cats.
Yes Alisa, I agree that the bassist was bangable but I needed respite if only to make the big decision of the night: headliner. The powers that saw fit to host such a wonder as Garage Fest were like the gods of old, not without their sense of irony towards the hubris of man. So it was no surprise that living legend Roky Erickson was playing against reunited-for-one-night-only The Deadly Snakes playing against the coke-fueled-fun of King Khan and the BBQ Show playing against local heroes Pierced Arrows. Not unlike getting a two-scoop waffle cone, no matter what you picked, you would always wonder what the other flavors could have been like.
In the end we went with Pierced Arrows, the new project by husband/wife combo Fred and Toody Cole of legendary Portland punk-folk group Dead Moon and drummer Kelly Halliburton. Not familiar? You and pretty much everyone else. Like David Hasslehoff, these over-looked natives are huge in Germany but practically unheard of in the US, which left them with a dismal turnout of some twenty-five die-hards making for a much more intimate than expected show. Now all the other bands I had seen that night floated somewhere between bouncy and sloppy, their howls were those of dogs baying in excitement at the full moon. Pierced Arrows was more like the shrieks of a coyote with its foot caught in the trap, half way through gnawing off the ankle. These were seasoned old punks and they sound it, all the same fire but with the reflective quality of an old blade, worn shiny to a fierce cutting edge. The songs were heavy with memory, every lost love, drained bottle and mile worn was here and it was scratched at lo-fi until it bled. Other bands had the levity of irreverence going for them; it does make for a better dance. But when you are closing out a night like this, you are gonna want something that sticks to the ribs. Whether it stays there to gnaw, like the sounds of Pierced Arrows, that’s a matter of preference.
All told, Garage Fest was a spectacular event that has grown too rare – a show that seems only for the sake of musical celebration. Whether this was planned from its largely unheard of sponsors or bad marketing, it remained unique in a time when every show seems bent on raising money/awareness for everything and anything, save the actual music you are there to see. My only critique really being there were too many quality acts to see that conflicted with one another’s timing. The close proximity of the venues, all about four blocks along the fittingly named “Couch Street” (pronounced like the lady parts) did make double dipping possible though long entry lines discouraged it. Regardless, after the final song died away from the monitors and I went out into downtown Portland, I saw nary a one who had not feasted to completion on that savory noise.