WELCOME TO PORTLAND! You’ve probably heard a thing or two about the music scene here—unlike some American cities, Portland actually has one. And it’s thriving.
The Portland music scene has undergone a few changes in recent years, and might even be experiencing something of an identity crisis as the city grows in size and wealth. You’ll hear people talk about the Rose City’s punk-rock days of yore, and the indie-rock explosion of the ’00s, which thrust Portland-based bands like the Decemberists and Modest Mouse into the national spotlight. You’ll definitely hear how things used to be so much better, man.
It’s true that the Portland music community is more fractured than it was 10 or even five years ago. And it’s true that, with the influx of transplants and their money, the city’s music scene is—in broad strokes—starting to resemble that of other cities: large touring acts selling large-priced tickets for large shows in large venues. But what’s also true is that inhabitants of our city are making more stylistically diverse music than ever before. And Portland’s underground—which has always been an incubator for the good stuff—is as healthy as ever.
Here’s a thumbnail overview of the past and present of Portland’s music scene and musical culture, with plenty of negligent oversights and oversimplifications.
“LOUIE LOUIE”Ground zero of Portland music, bar none, is “Louie Louie,” a track the Kingsmen cut in 1963 at a recording studio on SW 13th and Burnside. (As filmmaker Marty DiBergi once said, “Don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore.”) A junky, lurching cover of an R&B song by Richard Berry, the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie” initially went nowhere, but as its trash-rock charms worked their way into the public’s graces, it eventually climbed to number two on the charts.
The band sledgehammered the tune’s basic “THUNK-THUNK-THUNK (pause) THUNK-THUNK” rhythm as lead singer Jack Ely slurred Berry’s lyrics to unsettling effect, provoking the FBI to spend 31 months investigating the recording for possible obscenity. (They later determined that nobody in the world would ever be able to understand those lyrics, let alone be turned degenerate by them.) The Kingsmen came and went, but “Louie Louie” lives on as one of the greatest records of all time, virtually defining garage rock with its crude, lumbering, but irresistible groove. Portland declared October 5, 2013, to be Louie Louie Day, and this past June, members of the Kingsmen led a giant sing-along of the song on the steps of Portland City Hall. (The feds were seemingly okay with it.)
WIPERS: Guitarist Greg Sage formed Wipers in 1977, fronting a changing lineup that played off and on up through the ’90s. While they had minimal impact outside of Portland, Wipers have become recognized as one of the most important American punk bands of all time. A listen to any of their first three albums (1980’s Is This Real?, 1981’s Youth of America, and 1983’sOver the Edge) shows why—this wasn’t merely rock ‘n’ roll writ loud and fast, this was songcraft and musical audacity functioning on supremely high levels.
DEAD MOON: Fred and Toody Cole are the ambassadors of Oregon rock ‘n’ roll. Fred performed in numerous garage-rock bands in the ’60s, including the Weeds, which later became the Lollipop Shoppe. After running out of gas during a Portland tour stop, Fred met and married Toody, and the pair settled into a 20th-century version of homesteading life, raising kids and building their own house in Clackamas. The pair formed Dead Moon with drummer Andy Loomis in 1987.
The group was DIY in every sense of the word, recording and releasing their own records, which Fred himself cut on the same lathe used for the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” They played raw, howling rock ‘n’ roll with tinges of punk fury and supernatural blues, and it was fantastic. Fred and Toody later formed the band Pierced Arrows with much the same modus operandi. And there have been some terrific Dead Moon reunion shows in the past few years, although Loomis is currently recovering from a fight with lymphoma (you can help by donating at gofundme.com/andrewloomis). Fred also had a recent health scare, collapsing onstage on September 6 during a Dead Moon set at Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival, due to complications from heart surgery he had in 2014. But he seems to be bouncing back quickly, meaning there will be plenty more great rock ‘n’ roll from Fred and Toody in the years to come.
WHERE WE ARE TODAY: Portland’s music scene flourished in the ’00s, and while we don’t have the nation’s best indie-rock scene anymore (that’s in Philly now), there’s still a lot going on. Titans like Sleater-Kinney and Stephen Malkmus have made their homes here, and the list of terrific smaller groups is nearly endless. Psychedelic rock has been having a moment, and there are countless local metal bands redefining the genre; electronic music is thriving in the city as well. Read these pages every week for the best local shows.
Portland’s hip-hop talent is immense, with rappers like Myke Bogan and Illmaculate garnering attention beyond the city’s borders. Historically, though, hip-hop’s reach to local audiences has been stymied by some unpleasant outside factors. Rap shows in Portland have been shut down (by police, by the fire marshal, by promoters themselves) for a variety of reasons, none of them good. It’s one of the only problems in an otherwise healthy and supportive music scene.
WHERE TO SEE LIVE MUSIC: Aside from a few sit-down auditoriums and outdoor summer venues, Portland’s biggest shows can be found year-round at the Crystal Ballroom (1332 W Burnside) and Roseland(8 NW 6th), both of which host all-ages shows and are characterized by the usual benefits and drawbacks of a 1,000-plus-person room. You’ll see good bands, just not necessarily from the front row. Wonder Ballroom (128 NE Russell), which is slightly smaller, offers basically the same deal.
For a more intimate experience, both Mississippi Studios (3939 N Mississippi) and theDoug Fir (830 E Burnside) need to be locked into your mental GPS. These are small, great-sounding rooms with consistently good booking; Mississippi often hosts more local bands while Doug Fir sometimes veers to stuff you’ve heard on the radio or online.
However, Portland’s most vital venue just might be the Know (2026 NE Alberta), a dive bar surrounded by upscale businesses in the Alberta Arts District. Virtually any night of the week you can see an underground band—punk, metal, pop, electronic, and beyond—in a cozy room at top volume. It’s an unofficial landmark, a goldmine for Portland music. Let’s cherish it.
For dance music, get that ass to Holocene (1001 SE Morrison) and the newly rebranded gay club Euphoria Nightclub (315 SE 3rd), which replaced the longstanding Branx and Rotture clubs. Dig a Pony (736 SE Grand) also has great DJs, although the bar hits critical mass on weekends. As mentioned, hip-hop has had trouble finding a suitable home in Portland, although Kelly’s Olympian (426 SW Washington) often hosts great local emcees.
Portland’s newest venues include the Liquor Store (3341 SE Belmont) and Killingsworth Dynasty (832 N Killingsworth), as well as the luxurious, seated Revolution Hall (1300 SE Stark). Apart from some off-the-radar house venues that we can’t mention publicly, smaller all-ages shows in Portland are few and far between, but Anarres Infoshop (7101 N Lombard), SMART Collective (6923 SE Foster), and Mother Foucault’s Bookshop (523 SE Morrison) have provided a haven for underage music lovers. Let’s hope more venues and spaces join them.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, truly; check the Mercury‘s music listings every week for shows happening at these and dozens of other venues.
FESTIVALS: Newly arrived in town? Love music festivals? You just missed ’em. Portland’s summer is littered with all kinds of music festivals—there’s a stretch of July and August where literally every weekend boasts some sort of multi-day music event. The best one is Pickathon, a roots-based but wholly omnivorous music festival that takes place on a farm in Happy Valley every first weekend in August. This year featured acts like Leon Bridges, Ty Segall, Tune-yards, and Kamasi Washington.
MusicfestNW has been somewhat beleaguered by citywide criticism of its shift in format: Formerly a near-weeklong event at more than a dozen venues throughout the city and featuring 100-plus bands, it’s been restructured to take place solely at the Waterfront over the course of a single August weekend, with about two dozen bands performing on the main stages and a few other events around town. There’s still good times to be had; this year’s fest included sets by Belle and Sebastian and Danny Brown, although the presence of the festival’s many sponsors was impossible to avoid as the crowd shuttled back and forth across the midway in between sets.
Project Pabst is similar, and although it’s another corporately sponsored event, there’s only one sponsor and its name is in the damn title. (Plus, there’s cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon to drink all weekend long, not to mention a low ticket price.) The second installment of Project Pabst this past July saw, along with high temperatures, great sets from Run the Jewels, TV on the Radio, Weezer, and Blondie, plus a host of punk-rock shows at local venues during the night.
PDX Pop Now! is the city’s most earnest and necessary festival, featuring only local bands performing outdoors during three days in July. The festival is all-ages and totally free; it’s become a celebration of the city’s music scene, showcasing Portland bands you’ve never heard of but are destined to become your new favorites.
RECORD STORES: Portland is a fantastic town for buying records. There are more than 20 vinyl emporiums around town, and they’re all good, each and every one of ’em. Grab a “Portland Guide to Independent Record Stores” brochure, which you can find at almost any local record shop, and hit every last one of the spots listed. Used vinyl isn’t as inexpensive as it once was, but most stores can offer you incredibly cheap spins alongside very pricey rarities. The mother lode just might be Crossroads Music (3130 SE Hawthorne), a used-record mini-mall that’s home to more than 30 separate dealers. It’s a browser’s paradise.
We recently lost the fine Sonic Recollections on SE Belmont, which shut its doors at the beginning of the month, but against all odds, more record stores keep popping up. The newest kid on the block is Musique Plastique (1627 NE Alberta), a small but excellently curated shop that opened in an Alberta studio complex earlier this summer. They’ve got a little bit of everything, from rare European pressings to cheapo Fleetwood Macs in the bins on the floor. Also, stay tuned for 1709 Records, a new store scheduled to open this fall in nearby Vancouver, Washington.
Looking for CDs? You’re old. Go to Starbucks.