I’ve spent the past five years or so as a rock critic. Over the course of that time, I’ve spent countless hours hearing, over and over again, about what a great music town Portland, Ore., is supposed to be.
It’s a little obnoxious, actually.
But there’s reason for the madness: Indie darlings Spoon, Modest Mouse, the Shins, the Decemberists, Pavement and the Dandy Warhols are just some of the bands who call this northwestern burg home. Below the surface are even more acts — bands with which only the snobbiest of music snobs (read: me) are familiar. And this says nothing of the countless other outfits who’ve told me within the last year or so that they, too, plan on moving there.
But, um, why? Why is Portland, of all places, considered such a good music town?
To that end, I’ve always been a little confused. Portland’s reputation as a music hub is a relatively new one, launched at the turn of the century, when pretty much every National Public Radio–approved act moved here, if they didn’t live here already.
Let’s face it, though: Portland doesn’t have the history of, say, Seattle. And it has neither the incessant festival circuit of Austin nor the ubercool sheen of Brooklyn.
What does it have? Rain. And lots of it.
As for what else? Hell if I knew.
This much I did know heading into my first excursion here: The musicians from this town sure are quite proud of their roots. In fact, one such Portland-based act, the oddball electronic-pop outfit Yacht, is so proud of these roots that, during live shows, the band goes so far as to pull up the Google map of their home address, project it onto a screen and encourage fans to stop on by and say hello if they’re ever in Portland.
It’s a fun gambit, to be sure. Turns out, though, it’s a false one: When I arrived in Portland and reached out to Yacht for a tour of their hometown, my request was denied.
In the band’s defense, the duo had just returned to town from touring and all they wanted to do was crash.No matter. Because within just a few minutes of my arrival, Portland had already pretty much made its case. It’s impossible, you see, to avoid music here. Everywhere you look (or listen), it’s there.
You can see it on the storefronts of the boutiques scattered in every direction. Their windows are fully plastered with posters advertising upcoming concerts around town. And amid all that flier clutter, you’ll even find a sheet advertising a business called PosterChild, which proclaims its poster-hanging services the best way to market your band.
You can see it, too, a few blocks away at independent record store Jackpot Records, where a rack of local music as big as any other section in the store is thrust right up front, near the entrance. And you can hear it in the Jackpot Records employee’s voice when he enthusiastically endorses checking out a performance from a local folk-rock upstart called Typhoon, which just so happens to be playing later that night.
Meanwhile, most of the conversation at the popular Stumptown Coffee Roasters location on SW Stark Street in downtown is similarly centered around nightlife — which bands you’ve been listening to lately, which venue is gonna be the most happening tonight, which spot nearby might make for a good dinner beforehand. Right next door to the coffee shop, the Ace Hotel has a record player in every room. Even more impressive? The fact that the hotel boasts a fairly extensive vinyl collection in its lobby to boot. And, a little farther down the block, Typhoon’s independent music label, Tender Loving Empire, has a storefront of its own to help push its product toward the masses.
Yes, the case for Portland’s music scene is made at every turn — and, indeed, you have to be here to grasp it.Just a few hours later, it really gets hammered home.
That Typhoon show that the record store employee had backed? It very much impresses: The 11-piece ensemble fills both the stage and the balcony of the recently renovated Mississippi Studios in the hip North Mississippi Avenue neighborhood, offering broad instrumentation (strings! horns! a percussion section!) and sounding like the tender musical equivalent of its name. It’s an inspiring display they offer, their soothing swells rushing over their devoted crowd and engulfing them in incessant, wistful tales of loss and redemption.
And it’s just one of the many alluring affairs happening on this night. Just up the road from this show, a warehouse party is celebrating the release of another local label’s most recent signing. Down the road in the other direction, indie favorite Blitzen Trapper is playing a finally-home-from-tour show. And, downtown, a whole cavalcade of touring acts clogs up the stages of the many venues located in the old Chinatown district.
Having this many options? It’s a little obnoxious, actually. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.