Portland’s south waterfront venue was open, though Tears For Fears weren’t due to play for another seven hours. The main stage was flanked by industrial sized mesh banners of Captain Pabst who bears, at least at that scale, an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Sanders. If it is Pabst, there’s no sign of him on the cans, although Project Pabst did provide festival-themed PBR souvenir cans complete with the Project unicorn for an investment of a mere $4. Behind Captain P., the nearly finished Calatrava-esque Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People stretched scenically through the cloudscape.
With barely a pause after K. Flay finished on the main stage, X Ambassadors moved onto the Blue Ribbon stage on the other side of the event space. During their set, framed by the more prosaic span of the Ross Island Bridge, the sound engineers slowly turned up the volume, though not enough to intrude if you were over by the main stage. The 45-minute sets of the afternoon bands were barely long enough to play what used to be called an album but they kept the afternoon grooving gently along. The crowd showed polite interest, but was still sparse and had other entertainments to investigate.
13 picnic tables, strewn in the no mans land between the stages, held a mixture of white folk. You had to be at least 21 to get into this beer-sponsored festival, but the ages of the people at the tables spread to at least their mid 50s, with most people — as Curt would note from the stage later — looking more like they were in bands than clean-shaven Tears For Fears. Nose rings for women under 40, beards for men and tattoos in profusion are NFP: Normal for Portland.
Vendors had been invited from renowned Portland eateries to vend at the festival and people munched on a mouth-watering selection of salads, fries and locally sourced sandwiches (many with Asian influences) from recyclable paperware. Everyone clutched water, PBR or both. Heaven preserve us from an event with dehydrated guests. A few wandered toward the river to try out the giant jenga, the bean bag toss or the free video games in the arcade tent.
For many ticket-holders, the Violent Femmes at 3pm were the first real event and so, while X Ambassadors played their penultimate song, Jungle, denim diffused towards the main stage. Attendees steadily dribbled in through the Project entry — designed to look like an open can of PBR. As the gravel became more covered below, the sky became less covered above. The day was hotting up. And although there were still more green t-shirts of event staff and recyclable collectors than punters, with Blister in the Sun, Violent Femmes’s iconic leadoff song there was, for the first time, enough crowd momentum to engulf the stage.
I sang along lustily, “Let me go wi-ild / Like a blister in the sun.” Thinking — perhaps unfairly as is the way with associative memory — of 1989, when New Jersey seemed exotic and my friend Jeff, from that state, who is actually a big Ramones fan. And suddenly, in the midst of the Femmes playing their way through their eponymous 1983 album, I wondered what I was doing there. All around me were 50-year-olds singing about adolescent frustration, “Why can’t I get just one kiss?” while their friends’ children looked indulgently on. As if gently rocking out to some old dudes remembering how they felt 31 years ago (when they were 20 remembering the pain of feeling 15 years old) had any real meaning to them now.
But that was exactly why I was there, to listen, basically, to the adolescent angst of a 1983 album. Yes, I wanted to hear some of Tears For Fears later music, and yes The Hurting was an album that had lived with me, personally, much longer and much more intimately than Violent Femmes, but it wasn’t like I’d spent my life huddled over, listening to Change as my last hope while contemplating suicide. I’d captained the school soccer team, done well in exams, debated at the Oxford Union and listened to a hell of a lot of pop music during high school in the 80s. I’d basically been a happy, well-adjusted kid with caring parents. Yes I listened for hours to The Cure and yes The Smiths, but was I just hanging out now because my work bio had had “Is working on a book about rock band Tears For Fears” for three years? And had I just begun that book research because TFF lacked the bibliography that those two other bands had generated?
What on Earth was I doing?
I was experiencing a strange split. I was having fun in the sun, in a town that so far had lived up to my somewhat inflated expectations. But I was tightening up inside about just being there. I couldn’t decide whether I’d be best seeing Tears For Fears or not. On the one hand, not seeing them would allow me to preserve all my dispassionate analysis of their influences. I hadn’t, after all, interviewed Freud for the chapters of my PhD dissertation about him. On the other hand, there was something to the aura of authenticity bestowed by an actual human audience, why else come to the show? After all, I’d have interviewed Freud if I could.
I couldn’t meet them. I had to meet them.
Maybe Curt and Roland had got my messages indirectly and would invite me on stage. After all, who else in this Oregon crowd of 2014 would know the words and understand the anti-Thatcher nuances of “Politician granny with your high ideals, have you any idea how the majority feels?” I’d been in Yorkshire for the miners’ strike and in England for the Poll Tax — I knew exactly how the majority had felt. Perhaps they’d somehow know I knew it and ask me to sing it. The three studio albums before the band split in 1991 were quite different from one another, but it was almost impossible to think of anyone else singing the first two whereas the third (with that Sowing the Seeds of Love lyric) was more welcoming. It also wouldn’t rely on me being able to sing as high as I could when I was a virgin.
Perspiring freely and needing a snack I made a beeline for the Fifty Licks van to get ice cream. My music-related task was proving tough, but providence was serving up Portland pieces de resistance by the plateful. Despite a nationwide reputation as producers of exquisite small batch ice cream, there was literally no one else at the van and I found myself outnumbered two to one by the servers. “Neh,” they said, “there’s not enough of a big enough crowd here, and people don’t buy ice cream if they are drinking.” I was unable to ask a follow up question about why, then, they were here at the festival at all. Especially since the day had turned out more ice-cream friendly than any Oregonian could have hoped.
They disarmed me with small blue spoons. My silence (in the form of gourmandized bemusement) was won with samples of Chocolate Brown Butter (dreamy), Tahitian Vanilla, Stump Town Coffee, Caramelized Honey, Saffron Coconut (which was surprisingly good for a flavour including a nut I don’t like and a spice I couldn’t identify) and Blood Orange Creamsicle (too creamy). I was going to go with the Chocolate, but in the end I celebrated the recent Jewish New Year with the outstanding caramelized honey flavor.
The knots in my guts grew as the afternoon wore on and my expectations mounted. I tried to focus on observation. The elements of good journalism. Capture detail. I noted in passing the ear piercings, earplugs (do people not want to hear the music?) and ubiquitous iPhones. The weather was warmer then anyone had expected, indeed too hot for Portland, and the plurality of those present who were wearing black leggings, trousers (in various states of distress), socks or tights (in a variety of sheernesses) sweltered.
Despite the costumes, it felt like a nice people’s festival, full of people who would be played in the movie of the festival by a Wilson brother or Kristen Wiig: plotline, convince disapproving parents-in-law that pierced people with tattoos could have heart. Though I knew not a single person, had been rejected by childhood heros and was on the horns of a gentle dilemma about the worth of my entire life so far, I felt at home.
Someone behind me in the queue to buy a crisp Bunk sandwich [http://www.bunksandwiches.com/] was talking about the secret meaning of the festival. PBR sales had actually gone down in 2013. Only a couple of weeks ago a Russian had bought the Pabst company and this seeming all-American extravaganza was merely window-dressing to drive market share. Clearly there was an irony here, and possibly even a metaphor. However, I was sticking to notebook shoe-leather journalism here.
The $10 sandwich came with marinated garbanzo, feta, and arugula, and would have been perfect washed down with a PBR, but I wanted to stay focused and sober for the show, because maybe the interview would come straight after the show and I didn’t want to interview half-drunk or, worse still, with a full bladder. I should note that there was no issue with opportunities to spend a penny: toilets have to be plentiful at a beer music festival and Project Pabst proudly provided plenty of pristine portapotties. One of the two cubicles I used had a toy soldier embedded into the interior plastic surrounding. If that meant something, it was beyond my ken.
How would Tears For Fears start the set? I was sitting on a blanket talking to BJ, Scotty and Mike who, in neighbourly fashion, had invited me to join them when I’d sat between their blanket and the next one along. I’d already given it some thought and reckoned they’d start off with Shout to get everybody warmed up. That was Mike’s thought too, but Scotty thought they’d begin with Everybody Wants To Rule the World which I’d put second. So I put “Mad World” into our informal blanket sweepstake, though I’d be excited if they actually started with a new song. Maybe, though, rather than rollicking the entry, the echoing synth percussion that opens “Mad World” would fill the venue and then build up to a soulful, angsty opener. “I find it hard to tell you /Cos I find it hard to take, /When people run in circles it’s a very very/ Mad world.”
Rocket From the Crypt, the critically-acclaimed Nirvana-era punk band from San Diego, were on the second stage at 6pm but, to be quite frank, no one seemed to care. Random motion of the now fairly considerable crowd within a relatively small fenced in area meant that their effort was not wasted, but the mood was one of anticipation not really appreciation.
Before the sun went down, Mike pointed out the top left corner of the hill, “That’s where Wyatt Earp’s brother Virgil is buried. He died before Wyatt, so Wyatt came for the burial. Gives you a good feeling, knowing that Wyatt was there at the funeral with the other brother, Joseph or something — Bill Paxton. You can go to the grave and know you are standing where Wyatt Earp stood.”
They were waiting for Scotty’s wife to arrive and I wanted to get near the stage, so I left them to wander into the increasingly dense crowd. I wouldn’t get to see the Earp grave this visit, but maybe the next. I’d seen Buffalo Bill’s grave in Denver, why not an Earp?
I could only distract myself so long, and before I knew it, the band were up onstage. To the recorded bars of Lorde‘s incantatory cover of Everybody Wants To Rule the World from the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack, the band crept onto the darkened stage. Curt and Roland strode to the front as in decades past but this time with Carina Round on backup vocals, Charlton Pettus on guitar, Doug Petty on keyboards and Jamie Wollam on drums.
And then they were gone. The 17-song set — led off by the disappointing Secret World, just like the 2005 live-in-Paris album — was over all too soon. I don’t mean to fall into the classic restaurant-goers critique: “The food was terrible… and such small portions.” The music was good and the performance expert. But I was a fan who’d listened to all their songs and legal live recordings a million times and this was exactly what I’d expected.
Here’s how the concert differed from the songs on my headphones. Cigarette smoke. Some annoying dude with a huge camping backpack on trying to impress the woman next to him and swinging around into me and others for an hour. Taking opportunities to move gently forward. Curt, who sang the wrong lyric for the first verse of Advice for the Young at Heart and had to start again, putting in a lot of effort to reach his notes (with success). Roland singing some of the high notes I’d always assumed were Oleta Adams on “Seeds of Love.” Becoming familiar strangers with groups of people I happened to be standing with: young and old, sober and stoned, fans or joiners. Roland joking about Curt singing Mad World when he was still a virgin and joking that Curt needed to pee when he went off stage before Badman’s Song. Saying “Portland” not “Paris” in banter with the crowd.
Plus song highlights. Even though the crowd went wild for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” it didn’t reach that oceanic sense, where you lose your self in the group and the group in the song. That happened with Head Over Heels as finale, which was, unexpectedly, amazing. As was the encore, “Shout,” less surprisingly.
Is Portland the last place in America where it’s OK to smoke tobacco into other people’s faces? Maybe all outdoor gigs are like that now — certainly the proliferation of recording equipment, whether amateur, personal, professional or bootleg was impressive. Flipvids, Android handsets, hi-def audio recorders and iPhones were all held higher, longer, steadier than seemed feasible in a swaying, singing human crush.
Maybe it’s a feature of multiple artist festivals, but people seemed less focused on the band, less thoughtful of others who wanted to focus on the headliner. You can’t always join the dots but this seemed like the closest moment to a show rather than a festival and still people were less willing to open themselves to the moment of the song in a considerate way. Too much ego. Too much preservation through recording. I took no notes, In those moments, I wanted to be there.
“Great gig,” I email to the various press reps while I’m loitering after the concert hoping for a phone call to come backstage for an immediate post-gig interview.
Scotty, Mike and BJ have taken their blanket and abandoned the spot I’d promised to return to. Good job no one had won the sweepstake.
No one calls.
The crowd sweeps out and has disappeared by 9.15pm. The streetcar vacuums up a bagful of pedestrians. Cars circle out of the parking lots and chase the bikes that are performing a mass exodus down the riverbank cycleway. The directions on the Project Pabst website has provisions for arriving by car, mass transit, bike… and skateboards! There are some of those too.
No one calls.
I’m not going to talk to Curt and Roland. I’m not going to talk to anyone. I’m happy. I’m sad. I can’t call New York because it’s after midnight there. And I can’t call the UK, because it’s in the small hours there. I’ve had a great day, I’ve seen Tears For Fears, but I’m no one special. I’m just another bloke who’s seen Tears For Fears. Just like Mike. And I haven’t even stood where Wyatt Earp once stood.
I leave, to walk the 20 minutes to one of the famed brewpubs of the Pearl District. To visit, in fact, probably the most famous one: Deschutes (pronounced, because I asked, “day-shoots.”). On my way I pass a number of homeless people, just as I passed them in the daylight — Portland has a lot of homeless people. This time, though, two homeless young men walk past me and one, the one not in a tartan blanket, yells at me “Just trying to get a fat bitch and a 40.” He uses an aggressive tone, but is not threatening — they don’t slow down. But I feel accosted. What is he telling me? What is it that he’s demanding?
I reach Deschutes and feel suddenly helpless. “Ummm, can I. I mean, I want to sit down and eat something and drink something.” I helpfully tell the greeters. They process me with pity and thin smiles, “Yes, I think we can manage that.” They place me in a bar area. With a minimum of fuss I settle on the tasting tray of six beers and a bowl of Obsidian Stout Mac ‘n’ Cheese. I crave comfort.
I’m losing confidence. One of the beers flat out annoys me. It’s called Zarabanda, and it has a complacent bergamot feel to it. It’s just too excited by its own “dried lemon and sumac” notes to remember it’s a beer and needs to have a good hoppy base, like the Fresh Squeezed IPA does. But maybe I’m just taking out my frustration on the beer. Maybe it’s one of those “beers for people who don’t like beers” like they make sherry cask “whiskey for people [and they mean women] who don’t like whisky.”
The beer does a good job of cutting the grease on the pasta. The principle of the tweaked classic mac ‘n’ cheese is sound: add baby spinach for variety and add grilled red onion for a sweet savoury depth. The onion complements the stout and, along with a pepperiness, gives the base of the dish what it needs. But there’s not enough spinach and the cheddar is, for once on this trip, too bland. It’s like Fleetwood Mac without Stevie Nicks.
I’m picking fights with local beers and comparing pasta dishes to 1970s bands. It’s time to call it a day. A long day. A mixed day.
I walk home to the hotel, though my leg has started to ache and the traffic, though sparse, seems to be targeting me. I’ll get up early in the morning and see if I can catch Curt or Roland before they fly out.
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.
Part 4 can be found here.
Photographs courtesy of the author.