A surefire way to tell you're an indie rock fan: when you step into the bustling office of Portland Mayor Sam Adams, the first thing you...
A surefire way to tell you’re an indie rock fan: when you step into the bustling office of Portland Mayor Sam Adams, the first thing you notice is the portrait of Isaac Brock. It’s a warm rendering of the frontman of beloved Northwest rock band Modest Mouse, clad in lederhosen and Converse.
That Adams opts to place a portrait of Brock, by artist Alexander Rokoff, in such a place of honor tells you nearly everything you need to know about the respect afforded to the music scene in Portland.
Portland boasts one of the most fertile music scenes in the country. The list of great bands and musicians that have come from or moved to the city — Modest Mouse, Menomena, Yacht, Sleater-Kinney, the Decemberists, the Thermals — boggles the mind.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the finest musical attractions in the City of Roses.
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MusicFest NW, sponsored by local alternative newspaper the Willamette Weekly, is Portland’s pre-eminent music festival (www.musicfestnw.com). In 2010, it brought more than 150 bands to 15 clubs for five nights, including the National, Panda Bear, the Walkmen and Ra Ra Riot, with several free, all-ages daytime shows. The festival takes place in September every year; this year, an all-inclusive wristband went for $90.
The more adventurous can check out Pickathon (www.pickathon.com), a roots music festival held at the scenic Pendarvis Farm 20 minutes outside the city. The festival includes on-site camping. This year saw performances by Dr. Dog, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cave Singers, with a weekend pass price of $155. Pickathon 2011 will take place Aug. 5-7.
Portland’s hippest festival is PDX Pop Now! (www.pdxpopnow.com), a free, three-day event that celebrates local bands. The festival includes more than 50 acts yearly and takes place in late July or early August.
The Smmr Bmmr and Dmmr Bmmr festivals (www.dmmrbmmr.com) showcase punk rock for three days in August and January, respectively.
And the Portland Folk Festival (www.portlandfolkfestival.com), which began this year and included more than 60 bands and 20 venues from Aug. 19-22, will return in 2011.
“There’s probably more record stores per capita in Portland than in any other city in the United States,” says Terry Currier, the owner of Music Millennium, at 41 years one of the oldest still-operating record stores in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s a huge part of the culture.”
For vinyl aficionados, Portland is a delight, with record stores ranging from the large and well-stocked to the tiny and specialist. Your hunt should begin at Music Millennium (3158 E. Burnside St., www.musicmillennium.com) — a community fixture with regular in-store performances.
Other worthwhile visits include the punk rock-focused Green Noise Records (2165 S.E. Clinton St., www.greennoiserecords.com) and Discourage Records (1737 S.E. Morrison St., www.discouragerecords.com), as well as Mississippi Records (4007 N. Mississippi Ave.), with its fine selection of soul, jazz and blues.
Exiled Records (4628 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.) ranges from art rock to krautrock. And be sure to scour the bins at Crossroads Music (3130 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., www.xro.com), which includes inventory from more than 35 individual dealers. At any of these stores, you can grab a free copy of the Portland Guide to Independent Record and CD Stores.
Among Portland’s many music venues, there are a few standouts.
For midlevel touring acts, take in a show at the historic Wonder Ballroom (128 N.E. Russell St., www.wonderballroom.com) or its bigger brother, the Crystal Ballroom (1332 W. Burnside St., www.mcmenamins.com), with its famed “floating” dance floor, which bounces with the movement of the audience.
The Roseland Theater (8 N.W. Sixth Ave., www.roselandpdx.com) also hosts midlevel tours, as does the roots-rock, folk and Americana-focused Aladdin Theater (3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave.), which began as a vaudeville house.
For more regional flavor, check out the Doug Fir Lounge (830 E. Burnside St., www.dougfirlounge.com), with its mixture of local and touring talent and ski lodge chic. Mississippi Studios (3939 N. Mississippi Ave., www.mississippistudios.com) is an intimate space with beautiful sound.
The Woods (6637 Milwaukie Ave., www.thewoodsportland.com), located in a former funeral parlor, is steeped in indie folk. Holocene (1001 S.E. Morrison St., www.holocene.org) is the place to go for dance — with acts ranging from synth-pop to techno.
But the most charming spot is the Artistery (4315 S.E. Division St., www.artistery.net), a house in the heart of Southeast Portland with a basement that hosts all-ages shows. A hive for Portland’s best young talent, it doesn’t serve alcohol — but it does serve a mean cup of free tea.
Blame it on the Portland ethos of creativity, Oregon liquor laws or the prevalence of basements — for whatever reason, Portland hosts a particularly vibrant house-show scene.
“There are tremendously Draconian liquor-licensing laws here, which for years made it difficult to have an all-ages club. So people got in the habit of throwing shows in their basements,” says Dave Allen, who relocated to the city around 10 years ago and blogs about music at www.pampelmoose.com — and was the founding bassist of U.K. post-punk progenitors Gang of Four.
“Counterculture is a cliché, but it’s definitely counter-norm. There’s an independent spirit here that says, ‘Oh yeah, we can work around that.’ “
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, even Portland newbies can enjoy the pleasures of a house show.
You can often find them listed, along with nearly every other show, on Portland Show-Guide (www.pc-pdx.com). Acting as a Wikipedia for Portland concerts, it list shows in venues ranging from hair salons to ballrooms.
Just remember house-party etiquette if you attend a show: Always make a donation to the band and behave yourself.