Saturday, 20 June 2020

Why Oregon Is America՚s Indie Music Mecca

Music to your ears: Portland is Oregon's musical epicentre CREDIT: GETTY

From the blues and garage rock sounds of Eugene to the hipster alt-rock of Portland, Oregon’s music scene is a barrier-breaking bastion of innovation and adventure

The Pacific Northwest has historically developed its own style of music, born of its distance from other centres imposed by its vast geography and topography. It took its own individual route, not only from the tributaries that fed into rock ’n’ roll, but also with its own internal currents, flowing differently from some of the less rugged and more populous regions. But it has certainly been making its mark as the years have rolled on. 

Both this relative isolation and being less exposed to the grunge wave, have proved in time a blessing for Oregon, which has in recent years emerged as a force in music. There is a peculiar quality to Oregonian music, characterised not so much by genre – although folk-pop variations make up a prominent strain – as by sensibility. Rather like wildlife in remote islands, the music of Oregon has evolved largely untouched by developments elsewhere. 

Hills: Eugene, Oregon, is hometown to Paul Revere
and the Raiders and Tim Hardin CREDIT: GETTY

The state’s most celebrated musicians tend to have a stubborn independent streak, expressed not in belligerence, but in a staunch disregard for fashionability – ironic, as its musical epicentre, Portland, is often derided for that very trait. In part this is due to two out-of-state musicians, drummer Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, guitarist of acclaimed Olympia trio Sleater- Kinney, whose satirical comedy series Portlandia put it on the map in an original manner.
A notable exception – certainly to the part about belligerence, if not independence – came about with the Northwest’s hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, from which grunge eventually grew. Washing tin may have claimed the spoils, but Oregon was its ground zero, with Portland trio Wipers beating the path so many punk and then grunge acts would follow. Although less influential, their city-mates Poison Idea were likewise a force in what became a movement. 

Before this, Oregon’s shining moment in American pop had been a brief flourish as an outpost of 1960s garage rock. The Kingsmen’s 1963 cover version of Louie Louie was one of the early, defining recordings in the style – raw, rudimentary, and so far from intelligible that it was investigated by the FBI, which suspected it of subversive obscenity. The song was recorded almost simultaneously by the more sophisticated Paul Revere and the Raiders, a group who, after beginning their career in Idaho, achieved nationwide successes when they relocated to singer and Eugene native Mark Lindsay’s home state. 

Eugene, Oregon, is hometown to Paul Revere and the Raiders and Tim Hardin CREDIT: GETTY

Eugene, Oregon, has also been home to such cult figures as folk singer Tim Hardin, best remembered for his exquisite song Reason to Believe, guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, and Georgia-born blues-rocker Robert Cray. In a curious twist, another Eugene-based musician, former Cray sideman and solo artist Curtis Salgado, was credited by John Belushi with inspiring the idea for The Blues Brothers. 

But it was Oregon’s largest city, Portland, that would truly blossom as a pop-culture centre in the 21st century. The first stirrings came in the last decade of the 20th, with the international success of the late and much lamented Elliot Smith, a singer-songwriter of deep, melancholic refinement; spiky indie rockers Modest Mouse; and rambunctious psych-poppers the Dandy Warhols, all of whom exhibited that counter-intuitive single-mindedness, an instinct to go against the grain. Perhaps the most emblematic Portland band is one whose confrontational name and avant-garde eclecticism have conferred on them, if not fame, then a certain notoriety: Jackie-O Mother******. 


Experience Oregon՚s live music scene

Holocene, Portland

In a state where guitars predominate, and in a town where indie is king, Holocene (founded by San Franciscans with a love of Berlin) is an oasis for devotees of all things electronic. It is, however, by no means strictly an EDM club – it hosts diverse gigs and covers hip-hop and bubblegum pop.

The Space Concert, Salem

Since the demolition of Portland’s Satyricon, the semi-legendary venue where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love first met, the state capital’s pokey, low-slung bar and vegan eatery, hosting often lively weekend gigs, is probably the best claimant to the title of “The CBGB of the Northwest”.

The Know, Portland

Even the smallest, loudest dives hereabout are proud to feed you. The Know (its name reflecting a particular aspect of the Portland scene – either you do, or you don’t) boasts an extensive, inexpensive menu, and a line-up of punk and metal acts that will rattle the fillings you chew with.

Pickathon, Happy Valley

Now two decades old, this most Oregonian and, specifically, Portlandish of festivals is charmingly unabashed about reflecting its environment – a hip, eco-minded, uncrowded, small- scale, indie-inflected late summer gathering spread around a farm just outside the city.

The W.O.W Hall, Eugene

As if the initialisation were not wonderful enough, better still is the realisation it stands for Woodmen of the World. This 19th- century community hall, saved from destruction in 1975, is still communally operated as a performing arts centre, a regular draw for rock and rap acts.

Mississippi Studios, Portland

Billing itself as run “by and for musicians”, and with a reputation for excellent acoustics, this venue occupies a former Baptist church, the upper floor of which is an Airbnb apartment. Below, you will often find well-recognised names playing at strikingly reasonable ticket prices.


Their successors have included some outstanding and equally idiosyncratic acts. Gossip, an incendiary dance-rock group fronted by LGBT advocate Beth Ditto, found a literal and spiritual home in Portland during their peak years; their Standing in the Way of Control is one of the great polemical pop tunes of its era. 

M. Ward, in addition to being one half of the almost self-parodically quirky duo She & Him, alongside Zooey Deschanel (who actually plays the archetypal hipster instrument, ukulele), is an Americana favourite. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is rococo, literary-minded indie-folk band the Decemberists, who from their third album Picaresque (2005) onwards have displayed a marvellous freewheeling sense of adventure. And if Oregonian music has a defining characteristic, that is it.

•By David Bennun

•culled from

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