THE RETURN OF… Sunny Day Real Estate & MFNW

While Music Fest
Northwest swirls around them, Jeremy Enigk and Co. make the 15-year leap.

 

BY COREY DUBROWA (with JASON SIMMS & ERIN HARRELL)

 

It’s Friday night, Sept. 18, at Portland, OR’s
Music Fest Northwest (MFNW). Beard factor: high (literally everything from ZZ
Top-style facial gear to neatly-coifed geometric shapes to all manner of hirsute
accessories in between can be spotted out and about this evening, as if Williamsburg had been
transplanted whole cloth within the Pacific time zone).  Indie t-wearing
quotient: major (if I see another obscure band reference – tonight the most
below-ground being Miracle Legion and some dude in a ratty Poison Idea hat – I
will scream, which should successfully frighten all the crossed-arm peaceniks
around me).  Drool IQ over Sunny Day Real Estate’s long-awaited reunion:
“bucketful + bib.” 

 

After releasing two beloved but quirky full-lengths as a
quartet back in the early ‘90s, the Seattle-based Sunny Day Real Estate
dissolved into a puddle of timeworn rock music clichés: its singer found god
(and in an early, prescient move, told the world about it through a post on the
internet
), its rhythm section found Dave Grohl (who subsequently, found his
post-Nirvana special purpose via the Foo Fighters), and eventually, the group
found its way back to one another and to stages across North America as it
reunited in original form for the first time atomizing back in 1995.

 

To say that this reunion was highly-anticipated is to engage
in a fair bit of disingenuousness: outside of Jimmy Page finally coaxing the
old lion in winter (Robert Plant) back onstage in full Zep regalia in 2007 for
a glorious one night stand, one can hardly imagine a less likely scenario, but
one more important to a generation of indie-rockers who related almost entirely
to SDRE’s proto-emo musical platform and vaguely-articulated,
eyes-wide-with-wonder lyrical worldview.  Portland’s Crystal Ballroom teemed with
punters of a certain age champing at the bit to see their anti-heroes take the
stage together once more and party like it was 1995 all over again.

 

To put it crisply: Sunny Day didn’t disappoint.  “You
guys are amazing,” marveled frontman Jeremy Enigk as he scanned the noisy,
seemingly enraptured crowd before him on the night, as if a pastor looking out
to see his faithful flock waiting just where he’d left them.  “It’s been
almost 15 years since we played together.  It feels so great to finally be
back.”

 

And back, they were: the core of the band had always been
wrapped tightly around drummer William Goldsmith’s amazingly complicated
polyrhythms and off-kilter time signatures, and as the group made its way
through the evening’s setlist – confined almost entirely to its first two Sub
Pop albums on which all four original members played, 1994’s Diary and
1995’s LP2 (or “The Pink Album,” as fans have come to know it over the
years due to its monochromatic cover art) – they often turned their backs to
the audience and hovered around him, with Enigk, bassist Nate Mendel and
guitar-whiz Dan Hoerner whipping their heads and hands in ecstatic frenzy as
the headset-wearing Goldsmith whacked everything around him in service of
propelling the set ever onward.  From the very first note of the very
first song – the prismatic guitar figure that opens “Friday,” then explodes
into huge, colorful chords that serve as the backdrop for Enigk’s jaw-dropping
gift of a voice – SDRE were as tightly coiled and rippling as they had been
back in the band’s heyday, with Enigk’s keening voice piercing the surrounding
din with its shredded upper-register timbre (at one point urging the fans to
“sing the lyrics if you know them, this vocal part’s a little high for me!”) as
Sunny Day’s signature loud/soft/loud dynamics kicked into full gear on the
set’s second song, “Seven,” which kicked off Diary all those years ago
in a flurry of speed, distortion and yearning.   

 

The hardcore fans around me seemed captivated by what
unfolded before us: “Song About An Angel” and its message of the inherent tension
between sacred and seeking, “Grendel” and “47” with their early pivots between
downtempo and joyous, skyward distortion, and LP2 mainstays such as
“Iscarabaid” and “Red Elephant,” using the group’s early churning underpinnings
as a starting point but ladling spiderwebbed, effects-enhanced guitars over the
affair to create a denser, more nuanced effect.  In what could be a sign
of good things to come, the group also busted out a composition they called
“New Song,” which they were quick to label a “work in progress” and “public
rehearsal” but which sounded as good as anything in their catalog.  By the
time the quartet encored with its signature song, “In Circles,” it was clear
that the reunion had not only been a success in the traditional sense – e.g., had
avoided the descent into money-grubbing, familiarity and nostalgia that
characterize most of these affairs – but had transcended even its most
wild-eyed fans’ wildest dreams, laying the groundwork for what we can all hope
to be a very productive road ahead. 

 

Welcome back, SDRE.  The emo-loving generation you
helped create in the first place can’t wait to hear what else you’ve got in
store.  As Enigk once wrote about his born-again status, “Who knows what
is going to happen in the future?  Every time I make a plan it gets
changed.  The future is the future.  I hope that we come to a
decision about the band that everyone is happy with.”  To judge from the
sweaty, smiling throng that departed the Crystal
late Friday night, I’d say the happiness quotient is pretty universal right
about now. [CD]

 

***

 

Editor’s Note: Jason Simms and Erin Harrell hit the Portland clubs throughout the five-day (Sept.
16-20) MFNW. Below is their report – to see an exclusive photo gallery from the
festival, go here.

 

 

While traditionally, festivals of the multiple-nights,
multiple-venues nature are reviewed in a chronological, blotter-type format,
what the typical festival-goer walks away with is a set of highlights to report
to their friends the next day or at bars or after parties while still covered
in sweat from the shows.

 

 

Well, we’ve showered, but what follows is an alphabetical
list of yearbook-style awards from last weekend’s Music Fest Northwest. By no
means could the two of us see each of the eight score bands, but similarly the
yearbook staff doesn’t know everyone in school.

 

 

Best Lungs: Arctic
Monkeys
– Singer Alex Turner gets more words out per breath than one might
think humanly possible. His pulmonary feats started the packed crowd dancing
from the dropped jaw on down. (Wonder Ballroom, Friday)


Fewest Fans to Sweat Towels Award: Derby

Nodding to each other with excitement, it was clear that this local Portland band was psyched
to be playing the festival. And the 40 or so people were there to see them had
at least an OK time, to be sure. But just in case things got out of hand, these
guys were prepared with sweat towels, accoutrements not furnished to acts
playing to crowds ten times that size elsewhere. (Ash Street Saloon, Thursday)

 

 

Most Likely To
Succeed: Dillinger
Four – As vocalist Patrick Costello of this long-running
and celebrated Minneapolis punk band took the stage 40 minutes late, he began
to tune and told the crowd to “shut up.” He said, “This is a big
important music festival and we are going to get signed and get huge.” As
he revealed his chest tattoo that reads, “How much art can you take?”
the hefty man explained, “I don’t have this body to do some DIY shit
forever.” By making a mockery of the festival and the music industry, Dillinger
Four connected with their crowd better than anyone else. And as their often
chorus-less songs wrapped up sooner than you wanted them to, they reminded you
that, yes, they are some of the greatest punk composers ever. (Hawthorne
Theater, Saturday)

Best Shades: Dr. Dogg – Three
members of this psychedelic indie band sported plastic square specs with
fluorescent arms. They might have looked laid back, but they were also
considered for the tightest band award. (Wonder Ballroom, Thursday)

Best Dramatic Performance: Explosions in
the Sky
– Thirty seconds into the this Texas post rock band’s sold out set,
they were head banging at the waist like it was the encore. Their energy was
high, but left some near the back of the venue high and dry. (Crystal Ballroom,
Thursday)

Most Optimistic: The Get Up Kids
“We’re gonna play some more songs off Four Minute-Mile, just chill the
fuck out,” said Matt Pryor to the most excited and happy to be there crowd
of the festival. About 90% of the audience was wearing beanies which is perhaps
the only thing that kept their heads from exploding during “Red Letter
Day.” Three fans actually spontaneously combusted during the cover of the
Replacements’ “Beer for Breakfast.” Don’t worry, it didn’t stop them
from closing with “Oh Amy.” (Roseland Theater, Saturday)

 

 

Keep It Classy Award:
Mayer Hawthorne
– Portland
is not a classy city and Music Fest Northwest is not a classy event. Both are
exceptionally drunk, in fact. And though there was one fan vomiting outside,
Los Angeles soul singer, Mayer Hawthorne succeeded in getting the MFNW crowd to
man up, look nice and dance like civilized human beings. Well done, sir. (Jimmy
Mak’s, Saturday)

 

 

Fan Appreciation
Award: Modest Mouse
– Long time fans were pleased when the final set of the
festival was kicked off with a 10-minute version of
“Dramamine.”  “Doin’ the Cockroach” may even have had
some verses that aren’t on the record. Modest Mouse (pictured above and at top
of page) was in no hurry to get the festival done–playing only three extended
numbers in the first half hour of their set. (Crystal Ballroom, Sunday)

 

 

Best Dressed: The
Like
– This dreamy girl pop band took the stage clad half in rockabilly,
half in grandma-chic and immediately started complimenting the appearance of
specific audience members, “like that cute couple over there.” But it
wasn’t enough to make the hundreds of onlookers move–all stood still like
dolls. So vocalist Z Berg figured fuck popularity and slipped some f-bombs into
her stage banter. She’ll never get homecoming queen that way, but she could
have had any of the drooling boys in attendance who were too awkward to give
this catchy set the energy it deserved. (Wonder Ballroom, Friday)

 

 

Extreme Tambourine
Award: The Lonely H
– Mark Fredson, the 20-year-old singer of Port Angeles,
Washington, classic rock band, the Lonely H, is like a Ken doll created by
Robert Plant to sing perfect blues-infused rock melodies. He plays keys too,
but his tambourine arm might have generated a few Newtons of force and perhaps some bruises on
his leg as these rock stars (honorable mention: best denim) stormed the stage
with “Out West.” (Ash
Street Saloon, Friday)

 

 

Best Percussion: Love
is Laughter
– As part of the showcase for Isaac Brock’s new label, Glacial
Pace, this upbeat indie folk ensemble came equipped with three dedicated
tambourinists (all female) and two drum sets each with many tiny cymbals to add
nuance to their familiar formula. (Crystal Ballroom, Sunday)

 

 

Most Mobile Drummer:
Mint Chicks
– The drummer of this New Zealand
experimental electronic pop four piece set up on floor in the middle of the
Doug Fir, one of Portland’s
fancier, more by-the-book venues. Then he proceeded to accentuate the heavier
parts by holding his snare drum up and beating it above his head. (Doug Fir,
Thursday)

 

 

Best Use of Concert
Barricade: Monotonix
– OK, unless you’re a security guard or the owner of a
very large concert facility, you know that having a barricade at the front of
the stage is lame. But Monotonix doesn’t put up with lame. Security is
powerless to stop these three Israelis from doing whatever the hell the want.
In this case, they set up their amps behind the barricade so they wouldn’t get
knocked over as they proceed to crowd surf the drum set and perform some sort
of garage rock muck from the center of a mosh pit. Your move, concert security.
Your move. (Roseland Theater, Friday)

 

 

Best Use of A Capella
and Vocal Rounds: New York Rifles
– As all but the drummer of this Portland
rock ‘n’ roll four piece stood at the front of the stage, microphones in hand
and belted out their final, southern spiritual-inspired number,
“Rails,” it was hands down the most powerful and rock ‘n’ roll moment
of the festival witnessed by your reporters. (Ash Street Saloon, Friday)

 

 

Most Likely to Change
Your Life Award: Team Dresch
– For so many who knew every word and bounced
to every beat and cherished it as these queercore pioneers played their nearly
distortionless brand of punk this set was therapy. Or church–with all the
judgmental bullshit replaced with positive vibes. It was so magical, in fact,
that some of the biggest fans sang along to the band’s one new song out of
sheer psychic connection to their heroes. (Rotture, Saturday)

 

 

Life of the Party:
The Thermals
– Despite the envy of those excluded from them, VIP parties do
not usually get very out of hand. All that changes if indie punk trio the
Thermals is what’s behind the velvet rope. By the time their set wrapped up at
3 am, even the most “important” people were sweaty and horse from
singing along. (Top Secret Location, Friday)

 

 

Best Hair: Viva Voce – This one-time two-piece now plays as a four-piece and its pair of lady
guitarists had body and shine that out-shined the rest of the fest. Yes, these
feathered dos were right out of the classic rock sound Viva introduced on Get
Yr Blood Sucked Out and even the band’s softer numbers were beefed up and loud.
(Berbati’s Pan, Friday)

 

 

[SDRE Photo Credit: Brian Tamborello]

 

 

 

 

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