Portland Music Scene
Lauren Wells | February 2, 2014
Don’t let Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hit sketch comedy series Portlandia be your only insight into the cultural music hub that is Portland. There is much more than meets the eye when it comes to this highly caricatured city. Portland prides itself on locally-sourced food and drink, but the city is also delighted to call itself home to many musical acts. So before you trade your contact lenses for thick-rimmed spectacles and a flannel shirt, think again, because there is something for every concertgoer in Portland, Oregon.
The current music scene in Portland is a melting pot of its past. 1960’s Portland saw the overwhelming success of the Kingsmen’s hit “Louie Louie” (originally penned by Richard Berry). The city’s late 80’s grunge scene played host to the infamous meeting of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, as Nirvana opened for PDX natives The Dharma Bums. Moving into the 90’s, the garage-band rock scene continued on as artists like Elliott Smith, Everclear, and The Dandy Warhols rose to fame. As a portion of musically gifted Portlanders were rocking out, the others were experimenting with genre-defying sounds, as exemplified by Pink Martini (a musical group known for their classical, Latin, and jazz influences). The late 90’s and 2000’s marked the rising popularity of indie folk rock, as singer-songwriter M.Ward and the band The Decemberists gained recognition. From jazz to punk to indie rock, Portland has heard it all.
The Portland community, eager to keep churning out talent, offers an array of venues for up-and-coming artists to be heard. The Wonder Ballroom, with its 778 person capacity, is one of Portland’s more casual, dance-friendly venues. Built in 1914 for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organization dedicated to immigration reform and preserving Irish culture, The Wonder Ballroom has also been the home of a Catholic youth organization, a Portland Boxing School, a Christian Community Center, and an American Legion Navy Post. With its eclectic history, this fully-renovated, standing-room only venue resides in Northeast Portland and features the types of musicians you may not have heard of just yet, but you’ll wish you had when they’re topping the charts.
Mississippi Studios, formerly a Baptist Church (sensing a theme here?), hosts similar musical acts, putting on over 500 shows per year with over 1,500 DJ’s, bands, and comedians performing. As the name suggests, Mississippi Studios was also a recording studio. With its expertly designed acoustics, the small venue has a balcony above its bar and is known for its burgers, cocktails, and lounge atmosphere. The venue attracts young and old alike with its two large outdoor covered patios and its secret garden in the back. Need a place to crash after the show? Mississippi Studios owns a 7-person apartment available for rent via AirBNB immediately above the venue. Whether you’re looking for folk-rock, blues, swing, a dj dance party, or anything in between, Mississippi Studios has you covered. If you’re into bands that have odd names (think Yuck, Surfer Blood, and I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House), stroll down to the historic Mississippi District in Portland and catch a gig at Mississippi Studios.
Another venue to see up-and-coming talent is Peter’s Room at the Roseland Theater located in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood. Peter’s Room is an intimate 400 capacity bar/restaurant area that has served as a showcase venue for artists like John Mayer and The Strokes. The Roseland Theater, however, draws in larger crowds of over 1,000 people seeking to be entertained by larger, nationally renowned acts like Bassnectar, Cake, M.I.A., Willie Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic, Korn, LCD Soundsystem, Tiesto, The Roots, and Jake Owen, among countless others. The Roseland Theater has also hosted Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Miles Davis, and Pearl Jam. Foghat, Prince, Bob Weir and Ratdog have all recorded shows here. So whether you’re looking for a big name or the next big name, Peter’s Room and the Roseland Theater will have something to satisfy your eardrums.
Want an even more intimate venue? Check out Valentine’s, a hidden spot on Southwest Ankeny Street. Known for its small, speakeasy vibe, Valentine’s hosts DJ sets, art showcases, poetry readings, film screenings, and best of all, performances from bands your friends are probably in. Flannel, oversized glasses, and independent thinking are welcome.
Looking to get a little sweatier and rock a little harder? Head over to the all-ages Hawthorne Theatre, known around town for its divey, non air-conditioned, rock club atmosphere. After all, you’re not there to sip champagne and discuss politics. You’re there to thrash your sweaty head back and forth to the sound of Cat Power, The Pretty Reckless, and Black Flag. If you find yourself in the Alberta neighborhood, The Know is another venue that can quench your punk rock thirst. The place is dripping with anarchy and revolt.
If you want still want to get sweaty from dancing, but don’t want all the hardcore rebellion, Holocene may be a better fit. The electro-dance club hosts DJ’s and laptop musicians on Fridays and Saturdays. Wednesdays and Thursdays at Holocene are reserved for live bands. The venue is so big on promoting up-and-coming artists that it even started its own record label: Holocene Music. Opened in the summer of 2003, Holocene is a 325 capacity space built in an old auto parts warehouse in Southeast Portland. Its two main rooms can fold into one large room for massive dance parties. Holocene pays attention to the details: they have a preference for multimedia acts that deftly blend the visual with the auditory (think projectors, lasers, and trippy slideshows). With ceilings 25 feet tall, Holocene uses its walls as a canvas for sweaty young folks to enjoy late into the night.
If small, niche venues aren’t your thing, fear not. The Aladdin Theater, a 600 capacity venue located on the East side of Portland, has hosted Citizen Cope, Rufus Wainwright, Kt Tunstall, Macy Gray, and The Zombies, among others. While still casual, the seated venue welcomes indie-rockers, blues and jazz lovers, as well as folk and roots enthusiasts. Opened in 1928 as the Geller’s Theatre, this venue has a patchwork past as unique as Portland itself. In 1930 the Geller’s Theatre was renamed the Aladdin Theater and became a vaudeville house (a la Jack Benny). With the decline of vaudeville and the rise of cinema, the Aladdin became a family friendly movie theater. The family friendly vibe ceased in the 70’s, as the Aladdin transitioned into an adult, x-rated movie theater. Live music replaced erotic films in the 80’s, and the Aladdin continues to be one of Portland’s most cherished music and comedy venues.
Making Rolling Stone Magazine’s 2013 list of “Top Club Venues in America” is the Doug Fir Lounge in central Portland, less than a mile from downtown. Located in the Jupiter Hotel and founded in 2004, the Doug Fir Lounge is steps away from a tattoo parlor and hair salon for you adventurous types. Boasting a modern design, fire pits, and a chill zone complete with a privacy curtain, the Doug Fir Lounge is a 299 capacity venue built to impress. In 2012, Red Bull and the Art Institute of Portland revamped the space with added amenities such as a charging station, vanity mirrors, a stage clock, suspended Red Bull coolers, a sticker wall, and a hand-painted mural. Don’t let the impressive event space distract you from the talent. The Doug Fir Lounge books indie rockers like Little Green Cars, as well as reggae/jazz bands like the Cat Empire, and synthpop mavens MNDR and Little Boots. This adventurous venue will find a way to entertain you.
With a dance floor that has been infamously compared to dancing on clouds, the Crystal Ballroom (a McMenamins’ brewery venue) was opened in 1914, and has since hosted the Grateful Dead, Ike and Tina Turner, Buffalo Springfield, James Brown, and Nick Cave. The Crystal Ballroom books national, regional, and local bands. While it admittedly does not have the best sound quality in a venue, the Crystal Ballroom doesn’t pretend to be the most elegant space in all of Portland. The wooden floor reverberates from movement, giving concertgoers the light-footed sensation of being able to dance all night. If you find yourself taking a dance break, look left, right, and above you. You’ll most likely be able to spot a unique little piece of art strategically mapped out by the McMenamins’ in-house artists. Everything from the water pipes to the walls is festively painted with murals and designs. One flight down, you’ll find Lola’s Room where the dancing continues. Lola’s Room hosts “Punk Rock Mondays,” “80’s Video Dance Attack,” “90’s Dance Flashback,” and “Bluegrass Sundays,” among other themed events, making it a nostalgic hotspot to relive your glory days.
If you’d rather relive your glory days at a sold-out stadium gig, the Moda Center (formerly known as the Rose Garden) may be more your style. The $267 million multi-purpose arena was built in 1995 and is home to the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. Drake, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Nine Inch Nails, Cher, George Strait, and Katy Perry are just a handful of the names that have graced the stage. The venue boasts its self-proclaimed “theater of the clouds” staging alternative, which allows the 19,980 capacity arena to be minimized to accommodate crowds of about 3,000 – 6,500 for smaller events.
The nearby Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum (home to the Portland Winterhawks) is another option if you’re looking for a Top 40’s kind of show. The 12,000 seat arena was built in 1960 as a memorial to veterans from all wars. The Beatles played two shows at the Memorial Coliseum in 1965, spurring Allen Ginsberg to write the poem “Portland Coliseum.” Elvis Presley also took the Memorial Coliseum stage in 1970 and 1973. President Obama held his first campaign rally in Portland at the Memorial Coliseum in 2008. With 150 events booked per year, the Memorial Coliseum is a venue designed to please the masses.
Portland’5 Centers for the Arts was founded to keep art alive in Portland. Their five venues bring in over one million people to downtown Portland’s Cultural District. Generous donations from Portlanders allowed for the preservation of historic venues such as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Keller Auditorium, the Newmark Theatre, the Winningstad Theatre, and the Brunish Theatre. The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (known by locals as “The Schnitz”) features restored Italian Rococo Revival architecture and impressive chandeliers, instantly making you feel infinitely glamorous. But don’t let the ballet, jazz, and lectures fool you; the Schnitz knows how to get down. 2014 concertgoers will see Ellie Goulding, the Pixies, Chris Botti, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. So strap on your dancing heels, ladies. The Keller Auditorium hosts comedy, opera, dance, and Broadway productions, a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades venue. The 800 capacity Newmark Theatre boasts Edwardian-style architecture, and has played host to lecture series, jazz performances, and children’s plays. The courtyard style of the Winningstad Theatre allows the seating area and stage to be reconfigured dependent upon the needs of whatever show is coming to town, whether it be jazz or theatrical performances. The smallest of the five Portland’5 venues is the Brunish Theatre, with a capacity of up to 200, ideal for plays, conferences, and weddings.
If you’d rather catch some fresh air while enjoying a gig, Portland’s largest outdoor venue, Edgefield, will take care of that. Another McMenamins’ property, the plantation-style venue was a former poorhouse and farm. Now it is home to their “Concerts on the Lawn” series, having featured the Flaming Lips, OneRepublic, The National, Michael Franti, MGMT, Sara Bareilles, Steely Dan, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, fun., and Death Cab for Cutie. For seven decades, the 300+ acre farm was a refuge for people needing work, housing, and healthcare. You wouldn’t be able to tell by the look of the property now! The McMenamin’s brothers turned the vandalized farm into a treasure trove of entertainment. Thirty minutes outside of Portland, Edgefield is supposedly haunted! You’ll hardly notice any ghosts flying around since you’ll be too busy golfing, sipping wine at the winery, touring the distillery, or getting a massage at the spa. Or soaking in one of the pools. Or dining in one of the restaurants. Need we say more?
Want to add some animals into your outdoor concert-going experience? Try catching a show at the Oregon Zoo Amphitheater in Northwest Portland. Bring a picnic, bring the kids, and enjoy act like Huey Lewis and the News, Leann Rimes, the B-52’s, the GoGo’s, and the Doobie Brothers. Keep your eyes peeled for any lions, tigers, or bears.
As if Portland didn’t have enough reason to boast about its music scene, we haven’t even covered the festival circuit. With MusicfestNW, Portlanders have earned social media worthy bragging rights. Modest Mouse, the National, the Black Keys, Passion Pit, Wiz Khalifa, Vampire Weekend, Girl Talk, the Decemberists, Animal Collective, and TV on the Radio? You win, Portland. The six day festival brings in crowds of about 34,000, making MusicfestNW the third largest indoor festival in the U.S. The festival covers roughly 16 of Portland’s music venues, a majority of which have already been mentioned. Four of the six nights are dedicated to outdoor shows in Pioneer Courthouse Square, fondly known as “Portland’s living room.”
If MusicfestNW isn’t your thing, every February PDX Jazz and Travel Portland produce the Portland Jazz Festival featuring national and local jazz musicians. Lasting 10 days, the festival incorporates educational outreach events into its schedule of city-wide performances, where prominent jazz musicians discuss their experiences and the future of the genre.
Every Fourth of July weekend, Portland hosts the Waterfront Blues Festival (founded in 1987 as a concert to support the homeless). The festival has raised over $9 million for the Oregon Food Bank since 1988, and in 2013 alone, the festival raised $1.3 million. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Tad Robinson, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, and Joe Louis Walker, among others, have helped make the festival a musical sensation, and all for a good cause.
Every August, the weekend-long Pickathon Indie Roots Music Festival is held at the Pandarvis Farm (15 minutes from Portland). The goal behind the festival is to create six different stages, each providing their own alternate universe (trippy!), all while being entirely sustainable. 100% of the festival’s energy comes from solar power generators, and single-use items are a no-no for the 43,000 fans. The festival encourages that you arrive by bicycle to enjoy the musical stylings of Feist, Andrew Bird, Divine Fits, Foxygen, and The Devil Makes Three.
Whether you are a tourist or a local, Portland plays host to year-round musical entertainment suitable for everybody. You don’t have to be a hipster on a bike to find some music you enjoy in Portland, so get exploring!