Portland, Oregon: The musical heartbeat of America’s West Coast

When one thinks of the music industry in the US, there are three cities that immediately comes to mind: LA, New York and Nashville. The vast majority of music companies are based there, and on face value a lot of the creativity is happening there, too. Historically that’s not wrong – but in 2019, it feels there’s a shift happening that is moving the excitement outside of the capital centres. Large scale music communities that are truly fostering new talent, birthing incredible live venues and giving music a home.

Today we take you to the West Coast, and the city of Portland, Oregon – home to bands like The Dandy WarholsPortugal. The Man and The Decemberists, labels like Tender Loving Empire and incredible festivals like Pickathon. And while both are incredibly supportive of the local scene, the annual event PDX Pop takes it one step further, making it a requisite that every performing band has to have a Portland based member.

Then there’s the venues, like the ones run by McMenamins, a “family-owned chain of brewpubs, breweries, music venues, historic hotels, and theater pubs in Oregon and Washington” that combines architectural heritage and tourism in modern live music (and other) venues. Their shining light in Portland, at least when it comes to live music, is the Crystal Ballroom. But then they’ve also got Edgefield, where they have a Summer series of Concerts on the Lawn. I caught Young The Giant and Fitz and the Tantrums one afternoon earlier this year, and was struck by the quality of the space, and the enthusiasm of the sold out crowd. The venue itself is a hotel, built in 1911 as the county poor farm; the live series taking place on its lawns, a short drive out of Portland. Even the Zoo jumps on board, with the Oregon Zoo Concert series having recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Innovative music media is also coming out of Portland, through publications like She Shreds Magazine, which focuses on Female guitarists and bassists. No surprise that a magazine like this would find a voice in the city that founded the now international Girls Rock! all the way back in 2001. Founded in 2012 by Fabi Reyna (read this great Fender interview with her), an incredible musician in her own right (check out the project Reyna Tropical), She Shreds has seen Australian artists like Nai Palm and Courtney Barnett grace its cover; a recent issue also showcased the music scene in Melbourne (home of course to both artists mentioned). And niche media is no new thing in the city – take Tape Op for instance, a publication for recording engineers run by Larry Crane for the last 25 years. Crane, an acclaimed engineer himself, is also the archivist for the estate of musician Elliott Smith. Music history and adoration runs deep in this city.

Vortex Magazine, meanwhile, takes the spirit of PDX Pop and puts it in a free quarterly magazine, focusing exclusively on Portland artists – or artists / people in the industry that have some sort of a Portland connection. While I was at Pickathon Festival earlier this year, I met the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the five year old zine, Chris Young, who looked back on the growth of the music city in the last decade.  He pointed to the very festival we were standing in, Pickathon, reflecting on how it used to be a Bluegrass festival, yet now is a broad festival encompassing everything from Hip-Hop to electronic music, punk, metal, world music and everything in between. Young told me, “There’s a special aspect of this festival that embodies where the Portland scene is at.

“Five to ten years ago, we were the city of so-called ‘indie folk rock’. It was the blog era, where The Decemberists come to epitomise one Portland sound, The Dandy Warhols or Pink Martini another. Nationally we were more known for these acts and scenes. But we’ve always had a strong and robust punk scene, electronic and even a Hip Hop scene. Now with broader cultural changes and the ease of promotion, it’s become a wider part of the fabric rather than just a part of the local community.”

With Hip Hop and Country music as the biggest genres around the USA, it’s no surprise that scene would grow in Portland too. But there’s no sense that anyone is jumping on a bandwagon. Young tells me how the community that exists today, particularly in hip hop, is born out of the more underground scene that preceded it.

There are incredible activists in the hip hop scene pushing it. People laid the road and now others are standing on their backs. There is a community over competition ethos in Portland. This festival (Pickathon) epitomises it, look around – everyone is here backstage chatting, probably talking about working together and they mean to. They want to help help each other rise up. You see a lot of that in the hip hop world. The older guys are featuring the younger guys music videos.” 

A lot of that community can be found within the city’s seemingly never-ending list of iconic venues, spaces that prove to be its enduring lifeblood. One of my favourite venues, the Doug Fir Lounge, opened in 2004 and is found in an old parking garage at one of the city’s best hotels, the Jupiter.

Frank Rinaldi, a Portland resident for 23 years, used to work at the Doug Fir, and is now a promoter for True West, who run a number of venues in the city including the recently opened Revolution Hall, a 800 cap room, and The Aladdin, a former porn movie house which holds the record for hosting the longest running movie of all time, Deep Throat, and now runs as a beautiful 600 cap room. Rinaldi took a lot of pride in the role that the venues he’s worked with over the years have had in developing the artists, and the scene they inhabit. 

“That era of artists that came out of Portland in the early 2000s, they were incubated at venues like Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios (who co-own Revolution Hall). Now artist development is the strongest it’s ever been in the city, and you’re seeing the music of Portland on the map like never before. For such a small market, it’s grown tremendously in the last few years. There’s not many cities in America that can keep as many venues running as we can in this city. Venues have been crafted to service the artists and not be soulless caverns with a shitty PA… it’s creating an ecosystem to support artists. And we have kept at bay the infiltration of AEG and Live Nation, which has maintained the special nature of the scene,” said Rinaldi.

And that special nature of the scene is seeing a wide range of musicians and genres making a splash. For artists to get excited about from Portland, there’s Help – a punk outfit that features an old friend of the AU, Ryan Neighbors, formerly of Portugal. The Man. You may have heard of the soul artist Blossom, and hip hop artist Aminé, both making some of the best music in the US right now. Space-jazz duo Brown Calculus are worth checking out, as are the hypnotic Candace and Cry Babe, a dream pop trio. MC/DJ/Producer Fountaine is an artist a lot of people are talking about at the moment, and I’ve been banging on about Typhoon for years now; they’re absolutely a band you need to listen to if you haven’t already, especially for fans of acts like Arcade Fire. Pretty much everything on Tender Loving Empire is just fantastic, to be honest. And don’t they know it – they even have their own dedicated stores – including one at the airport!

So what does this scene have that the bigger cities don’t? I think Chris Young summed up pretty perfectly, telling me “there’s less of a drive to success and more of a drive to create in Portland”. And for Rinaldi, you don’t have to look further than at events and venues to find what is keeping that drive alive, “creating communities around events is integral to the Portland scene, and having venues that actually market and support the shows, and in many ways incubate the artists within it”. 

And it’s not just traditional music companies supporting and helping incubate the, but some of Portland most established companies, too. Take Danner Boots, who have been crafting boots out of Portland for a century. They get behind the live music in the city as well, sitting as one of the major sponsors on the Pickathon festival, producing one of a kind posters, as well as selling their wares at the event itself.

There’s no question that NY and LA remain music powerhouses, but they’re corporate led powerhouses with pockets of creativity still existing in spite of it. In Portland that creativity IS the powerhouse, and it’s created one of America’s most exciting and enduring music scenes. A scene not just worthy of more attention musically, but one that make the city itself a destination, like New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before it. To see a show at a McMenamins Venue, on that infamous bouncy floor at the Crystal Ballroom, really is much a rite of passage as Red Rocks, the Ryman or the Troubadour.

Getting There

Hawaiian Airlines flies to Portland from Australia via Honolulu, serving as the most direct route to the Oregon city. Most trans-Pacific airlines will connect you to  Portland through any of the mainland hubs – Los Angeles and San Francisco being the best transit spots on the mainland.

While in Portland we stayed at the Jupiter Next – the brand new hotel adjacent to the legendary Jupiter Hotel. Special thanks to Edgefield for hosting the journalist, and to Travel Portland and Pickathon for looking after us on ground. 

Headline Image: Cake, live at Edgefield Concerts on the Lawn August 9, 2017 – Courtesy of McMenamins.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.