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September 12, 2007

« New York or London? | Main | Gray Areas »

Portland_2 Taylor Clark has a fascinating article in Slate about Portland's rise as the indie music capital. His thesis: There is no "Portland scene" that is attracting great bands, rather it's the city itself that is key.

Why, you might ask, haven't you really noticed Portland's incredible concentration of musical talent before? Because unlike, say, Seattle's grunge boom in the '90s or the Bay Area's recent hyphy movement, Portland has neither a distinctive "sound" nor a "scene" to speak of. Sonically, there's not a whole lot that the twisty pop of the Shins has in common with the "hyper-literate prog-rock" (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert) of the Decemberists. And virtually none of these groups can be considered "Portland bands" since, with very few exceptions, they all moved to town after gaining some level of fame. (Generally speaking, it's rare to meet a young, creative Portlander who's from Portland.) You might see Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss parking her Volvo station wagon in front of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, for instance, but you seldom feel these luminaries exerting any influence on the local musical landscape. They all just kind of live here. Which is why it's often quipped that Portland is the place where hipsters go to retire.

So what's luring them here? The rockers themselves have somewhat confusingly praised Portland as a city "entrenched in juvenilia" (Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein), a place with a sense of "calm longevity" (chief Decemberist Colin Meloy), and a home of "really great public transportation" (the Shins' Mercer, who, it's safe to assume, didn't come here for the bus routes).  If there's any alluring indie mystique to Portland, it's most likely due to the late Elliott Smith, who attended high school on the west side of town and recorded his most-loved work here. (Mercer even owns Smith's old house.)...

The city overflows with hipsters, artists, and independent-minded do-it-yourselfers, to whom someone like Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker is nothing less than a living legend. ... It's easy to live here. In the words of a friend of mine who used to be the music editor at the local alt-weekly, Portland is like a resort community for indie rockers who spend half the year working themselves ragged on tour. You can venture into public dressed like a convicted sex offender or a homeless person, and no one looks at you askew. It's lush and green. Housing is affordable, especially compared with Seattle or San Francisco. The people are nice. The food is good. Creativity is the highest law. For young, hip Portlanders, financial success is a barista job that subsidizes your Romanian-space-folk band or your collages of cartoon unicorns.

And, crucially, indie groups always have good experiences here, because the city produces very enthusiastic rock crowds. Ask a musician why they relocated to Portland and, from Britt Daniel on down, the most common response is: "We came through on tour and I thought it was awesome." It might not be enough to lure the glitterati, but Portland's combination of affordability, natural beauty, and laid-back weirdness is an independent artist's dream. Plus, I hear the public transportation is incredible.

Read the whole thing here.

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Curt Gardner

Local Portland paper The Oregonian ran a very similar story on Sunday, Sept 9 - "This Town Rocks" by Erin Hoover Barnett. Here's a taste:

The musicians are coming for Portland's craft-your-destiny vibe and the village feel of enclaves such as Northeast Alberta and North Mississippi. And they're coming to shape and bask in a rich music scene -- witness this weekend's Music Fest NW -- without the celebrity treatment.

"I could throw a rock from my front porch and hit any one of four or five home studios," says Walla, 31, who settled near Alberta while his band mates stayed in Seattle. "I love that I live in a neighborhood where I can run into my friends on the street. It's like everything I always loved about a college town without the college town baggage."

Full story at: http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/stories/index.ssf?/base/news/1189299323319190.xml&coll=7&thispage=1

Michael Wells

This is only part of the Portland music story. Portland is also a great Jazz & Blues town, hosts literally dozens of music festivals of all genres, has several good classical music groups such as Portland Baroque Orchestra and a decent symphony. The city's favorite band, Pink Martini, is pretty hard to classify -- sort of a Rumba/French cafe/nostalgia/camp sound -- and they sing original music in about 8 languages. http://www.pinkmartini.com/

Portland has full time classical and jazz radio stations, a subculture of instrument makers, relatively cheap living (for the West Coast), and of course the cross-fertilization of different music’s. Two of Pink Martini's members play in the symphony, and at least one is in a "new music" group.

Serious rockers, like other serious musicians, don't limit themselves. Think of The Doors covering Kurt Weill, or Rush's drummer playing Gene Krupa riffs. Musicians ranging from the great Jazz bassist Leroy Vinegar to Jug Band washboard/jug/washtub bass maestro Fritz Richmond have "retired" here because it's a great city to jam in. I expect those indie rockers are in the crowd watching Cuban drummers at Jimmy Mac's.

Bert Sperling

Interestingly, the jazz scene in Portland seems to be suffering a serious decline. Musician friends report that local jazz clubs, gigs, jams, and concerts are all down considerably from their peak of about ten years ago.
The results of a different demographic, most likely.

Best, Bert

Curt Gardner

I think Portland may have taken the 'Slacker' crown away from Austin, TX since Dell and others have turned that city into a more high-tech haven. Portland does not really boast of big company money (main exceptions are Nike and Intel in the area), and I think that has kept things just a bit more affordable and low-key than the other West Coast cities.

But just remember it rains a lot!

Michael Wells

Bert,

I think the levels of interest in different musics ebb & flow, probably in all cities. Many old timers say Portland's Jazz heydey was in the late 40's and '50's, with the Cotton Club and others on Williams Ave. before lower Albina was urban renewed. I'd date it to 20-some years ago with the first great Mt Hood Jazz festivals, when the Jazz De Opus, Jazz Quarry & Hobbit were going. Your friends mention a peak 10 years ago. As you say demographics, and/or maybe the changing genres of the music, affect the crowds (I didn't like the dissonence of the late 60's nor "fusion" in the '80's and drifted away both times.)

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