Being thrown into Portland for a few days is like a beautiful whirlwind. It’s a city with a sturdy history of musical importance having nurtured the likes of Elliott Smith, The Shins and countless others. It sits surrounded by overwhelming greenery in a beautiful landscape, yet towards the centre a rich and gritty culture becomes clear. To celebrate a new direct flight which is launching from Heathrow, I dug out a map and hit PDX to uncover why it fosters such great talent.
Stepping into Downtown you’re instantly struck by the colourful nature of the city which blossoms out of urban architecture. Within the first hour the musical heritage of the city is visible. Venues like The Crystal Ballroom jut out of the streets with neon signs and we drive along street names like Division and Alameda which are present in Elliott Smith songs. The fact that locals call Portland the younger, cooler brother of Seattle quickly starts to make sense.
The first thing that’s observed is the amount of vinyl in the city. The Ace Hotel is constantly spinning records in the lobby and around the corner in the cozy coffee shop they’re playing some relatively obscure jazz. This inspired me to set off towards some of the cities many record shops. Music Millennium is room upon room of new and used vinyl. The store has been serving the music lovers of Portland for generations now and they famously started the city slogan ‘Keep Portland Weird’. An employee called Parker quickly notices I’m holding the new release from The Black Angels and steers me in the direction of Japanese metal band Boris with unhinged enthusiasm. The knowledge, passion and urge to share in this place is infectious. It’s one of the best record stores I have stepped in to date.
There’s an energy in the city that drives the people here to support each other whatever their creative endeavour. I stopped by the workshop of ‘Ear Trumpet Labs’. This is a business which builds microphones out of scrap parts. Founder Philip Graham started it in his garage to make equipment for his daughter. It’s stunning to see manual industry take place in such a small and quaint workshop. The concept of using scrap metal like old tea strainers is pioneering, these products have since been purchased by artists such as Elvis Costello and local recording studio Jackpot. He said, “PDX has been amazing, it was easier to do it here than anywhere else I can imagine. The support of the community has been amazing.” The makers here are all in bands as well, like Hollow Sidewalks, The Variants and The Wilder.
A short walk from here is the office of forward thinking local label Tender Loving Empire who also run a small chain of meaningful stores in Portland. They’ve put out some of the finest local talent recently which may have moved under the radar without their nurturing and attentive attitude. One of their most recent releases is called ‘Friends & Friends of Friends’ which is an annual compilation of music which sees them share the music they love. The most recent output however is ‘Life Is Long’ by label co-founder Jared Mees, it’s a simplistic and beautiful release which showcases a back to basics approach to songwriting.
My final Portland discovery of this trip comes at The Doug Fir Lounge which is a modern venue furnished with stunning log panels. Upstairs the bar is like an elegant diner cooking up some of the best food and drink in town. It’s also coupled on to a motel called The Jupiter for those who fancy staying a night after a show. The bill at the venue tonight is classic Sub Pop band The Helio Sequence and local emerging psych name Jackson Boone. Both perform sets which capture the imagination in this small space. In a sense it’s a venue which sums up Portland as a whole; stylish, edgy and passionate about everything it does.