Live Report: North By Northwest

Various venues, Portland, Ore., August 20-23, 1998

Portland's North by Northwest music festival -- the smaller, more parochial younger cousin of Austin's famed South by Southwest -- celebrated its fourth year in existence at a time when an array of regional acts (Everclear, the Dandy Warhols, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Elliott Smith and the Spinanes, to name a few) are fast gaining Portland a reputation as a viable music community. With 350 bands at 30 venues, Portland overshadowed Seattle for the three nights of the festival.

On day one, the Mission Theater's down-at-the-heels gothic cinema played host to an evening of acoustic diversity, with Portland acts Kaitlyn Ni Donavan, Cheralee Dillon and McKinley creating very different takes on folk's crystalline quiet. Ni Donavan and her band played a magisterial brand of dirge-like country blues, while Dillon's improvisational musings proved a sonic dead ringer for Cat Power's Chan Marshall, as she and her drummer whisked through a compelling set of raw and powerful confessionals. McKinley, for her part, ended the evening with her sophisticated, icy avant-garde jazz.

"We really try these days to only play the gigs we like, with the right crowd, the right energy," said Dillon after her set. "If we don't have that, we don't play." Her eccentric tales of heartbreak, emotional abuse, disappearing pet cats and masturbation technique seemed to resonate with the audience.

On Friday, the Mission was again the venue of choice, where Portland locals Bingo were the paragon of a band playing in its element. Led by multi-instrumentalist Kevin Ritchey, Bingo's country-tinged jangle-folk ably shifts gears -- a hybrid country blues at one instant to an almost Zep-like Eastern thrum at the other.

Later, headliner Richard Buckner focused on material from his new album, Since, offering tales of life's beautiful losers with a more electric bent than found on record. "I played [Since] for my friends and then I didn't hear back from them for months," Buckner said. "I was sure that I'd made a really f---ed-up record." Actually, only the set's unusual cover of Pavement's "Here," recast as a dust-bowl sing-along, approached the abnormal.

On the final day, fabled underground haunt Satyricon provided the mise-en-scene for a party thrown by Seattle indie music magazine The Rocket. There, the kick-ass muscle-rock of 44 Long moved the afternoon along at a breakneck pace. Major-label bait Sunset Valley wrapped up the smoky affair as heads nodded along with their tart brand of pop, setting up what were arguably the weekend's most anticipated sets -- San Francisco's Creeper Lagoon and Sunset Valley (yes, again) in front of a packed house at La Luna.

Just when rock seems to have run out of possibilities for the classic guitar/bass/drums/vocal lineup, a band like Creeper Lagoon comes along to remind us that the genre's best feature is its capacity for reinvention. Balancing clever songwriting with economic musicianship, the band played a set focused on material from I Become Small and Go.

Then Creeper passed the baton to local heroes Sunset Valley, a band driven by an unholy alliance between the perfect popcraft of the Posies and the sleek dexterity of the Cars. Like Creeper, Sunset appear ready to upgrade their ramshackle vans for plush Greyhound buses. Judging from all the label-types in the audience, their crunchy space-pop is eagerly awaited by the indie masses.

Of course, when indie meets the masses, NXNW meets the drawing book -- conjuring up next year's models.