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a city by city guide to the best indie clubs, bars, record shops and local bands

Portland, Oregon, USA
By Joseph Wrenn

After a decade of living in the shadow of its northern neighbor Seattle, Portland (aka PDX, Stumptown, Bridgetown, P-Town) has quietly emerged as one of the world’s cornerstone cities of indie culture. Low rents, a friendly public transportation system, and an abundance of basements have made Portland a terribly attractive destination for bands from all across the country who have settled in the rose city. As a matter of fact, over half of all Portlanders are from out of town, but nonetheless many of indie rock’s biggest success stories call Portland home, including members of The Shins, The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, The Gossip, !!!, Spoon, as well as the fabulous Kill Rock Stars label. Oh, and Stephen Malkmus lives here…in a castle (not really, but kinda). And if that isn’t enough, we’ve also got Johnny Marr.
  With such a wealth of great music, Portland has become somewhat of a destination for the indie inclined, but a visit could be frustrating for those not familiar with the city’s layout. If you’ve only got a very short time in Portland, avoid downtown and heed Carrie Brownstein’s personal standards: “If you wanna be a friend of mine, cross the river to the east side” ('Light Rail Coyote', Sleater-Kinney’s ode to Portland). SE Portland is where you’re likely to spot your indie heroes being normal people. It’s sprawling and nothing seems immediate, but a good tip is to keep your wandering framed by Burnside to the north and Clinton to the south, with the river to your west, Morrison, Belmont, and Hawthorne in the middle, and the stately Laurelhurst neighborhood to your east. If you’ve exhausted the SE, head up to NE Portland for the Mississippi and Alberta districts for yet more charming cafes, record shops, galleries and grub. On the west side of the Willamette, you’ll find urban congestion and chain stores, but a walk along riverfront park on a sunny day can’t be beat, plus there are a few charming spots to be found up around NW 21st, and the best book store in the country (Powell’s, see below) is a must-visit for bibliophiles.
 Portlanders have a reputation for being one of the most politically progressive urban populations in America. The city’s mayor, Sam Adams, is the first openly gay man to be elected mayor of a large US city, and the Bush administration nicknamed the city “Little Beirut” for the passionate nature of the city’s protests. During the 2008 US Presidential campaign, Portlanders greeted Barack Obama with his largest crowd on the road to the White House. Chain stores are a rare and unwelcome sight in Portland – Starbucks being public enemy #1. Buying local from an independent business is a friendly and affordable experience here. And the prized local coffee, called Stumptown, is something very special.
 Welcome to Portland. While you’re here, why not eat an erotic doughnut, stalk indie stars, hike a volcano, fuck the system, kiss a vegan, grab a coffee, and write a zine about it all.


Clubs

Eye Candy Sundae
Beulahland, 118 NE 28th St, Sundays from 8pm till 2am. No cover.
This Portland favourite recalls the days when music videos ruled all our lives. Two VJs pass out request cards and their impressive catalog of videos, where you can find just about everything from the mountain of 80s cheese and lost indie/punk classics to current pop productions, as well as funny bits from the likes of Monty Python or Flight of the Conchords. It’s a mighty impressive selection. There’s barely enough room for a wee dance party, and sometimes Portlanders need a little encouragement to put down their drink, but dancing is a possibility.

Soul Stew
Goodfoot (downstairs), 2845 SE Stark St, most Friday nights until 2am, $5 cover.
DJ Aquaman (former Dandy Warhols drummer Eric Hedford) spins Motown, funk, soul, and other classic body movers. The room, a former church basement and lesbian bar, has possibly the best cozy dancefloor in Portland to go along with a friendly bar and ample, sociable seating arrangements. The clientele is a healthy mix of cultures, making Soul Stew one of the best places for people-watching in the city.
(www.myspace.com/soulstewlives)

Baby Ketten Karaoke
Tuesdays at BC’s (2433 SE Powell), Wednesdays at Dunes (1909 NE MLK Blvd)
Portlanders may not dance much, but boy do they enjoy belting out a tune! There are karaoke bars everywhere you turn in Portland, but Baby Ketten is distinctly indie. Their home-made selections include songs by Belle & Sebastian, The Smiths, They Might Be Giants, Orange Juice, Joy Division, The Pixies, and the like.

(www.myspace.com/babykettenkaraoke)


Venues

Holocene
1001 SE Morrison St
A nicely renovated warehouse space that hosts gigs and club nights Holocene is a good place for oogling the most beautiful people in Portland whilst trying to look cool with a martini.
(www.holocene.org)

The Doug Fir Lounge
830 E Burnside
Clean, unique, and wooden, the Doug Fir is like a log cabin from the future…we’ll go ahead and call this the home of “lumberjack chic”. This is one of the best rooms in Portland to see a gig, with an attractive drink selection, ample seating/floor space, and a damned stupendous sound system. Upstairs serves great grub (the breakfasts are highly recommended), and for those of you about to get lucky, the Doug Fir operates the Jupiter Hotel just a few steps away, which has pleasantly affordable rates after midnight.
(www.dougfirlounge.com)

Wonder Ballroom
128 NE Russell
A large ballroom space that hosts relatively better known indie acts such as Camera Obscura, Los Campesinos!, or Jens Lekman. The good thing about this place is that they try to make shows all-ages, though in order to do this, you can only drink in a designated area which isn’t quite near the stage as non-drinkers will be, which is a sore subject for some Portlanders.
(wonderballroom.com)


Bars


Beulahland
118 NE 28th St.
If you can only make it to one pub in Portland, make it Beulahland. Moderately priced drinks liberally poured by one of the best bar staffs in town, and the grub is good as well (try the mac & cheese). The jukebox is a goldmine of soul, rockabilly, and new wave, which informs the rotating DJs (Thur-Sun night). Indie stalking alert - Stephen Malkmus has been known to team up with the Sleater-Kinney ladies for Beulahland’s trivia night (2nd Tuesday of each month). The owner is also a big Arsenal fan and happily shows Setanta Sports to footie fans during breakfast.
(beulahlandpdx.com)

My Father’s Place
523 SE Grand Ave.
Aptly named, My Father’s Place (Dad’s or MFP to the locals) serves up dirt cheap pints and greasy eats in an authentic old-school diner setting over three rooms, including pool tables, arcade games, and of course, a juke box.
(www.myspace.com/523mfp)

The EastBurn
1800 East Burnside
Clean, friendly, and cheap bar whose quirks include skee ball, a movie room, and a smoking patio which features swings and fire pits.
(theeastburn.com)

Goodfoot
2845 SE Stark St.
A high-ceilinged, open-plan pub (former church) with booths, pool tables, a jukebox, arcade games, pinball, and some very “interesting” artwork hanging on the custard colored walls. Trivia on Sundays, and downstairs hosts dance nights and gigs.
(thegoodfoot.com)

The Horse Brass Pub
4534 SE Belmont St.
There are a lot of UK/Ireland themed pubs in the US, but the Horse Brass really is in a class of its own. Stellar pints to drown the best fish ‘n chips in town, a huge space, footie matches on the telly, and you’re more than likely to actually hear some accents from the Motherland. You’ll forget that you’ve got to actually pay your tab in dollars.
(horsebrass.com)


Record Shops

 


Jackpot Records
203 SW 9th Ave (downtown) & 3574 SE Hawthorne (east side)
The local indie chain which still manages to operate several locations throughout town, Jackpot is reliable for the latest indie favourites and carries a quality vinyl selection.
(www.jackpotrecords.com)

Mississippi Records
4009 N. Mississippi Ave.
With an old-timey atmosphere, lovely staff, listening stations and high quality selection, this is a haven for vinyl connoisseurs. Bring cash.

Music Millennium
3158 E Burnside St.
This is one of those independent record stores that can still give chain stores a run for their money. Music Millennium has everything you’d want from a music store – a vast selection of cds, DVDs, books, sheet music, rare box sets and vinyl over two floors and several spacious rooms, PLUS an outstanding array of curios and collectables. Don’t really “buy” music anymore? Well then, you can purchase a pig catapult, a Freddy Mercury doll, or some vintage robot toys.
(www.musicmillennium.com)


Local Bands

 


Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
While he’s never sold as many records as a number of other Portland “indie” bands, Stephen Malkmus is Portland’s favorite reluctant messiah of indiedom.
(www.stephenmalkmus.com)

Sleater-Kinney
The term “indefinite hiatus” will turn many a stomach in Portland, but there’s still an aching hope that the city’s greatest ever band reunites. The ladies are all still very active within the scene – Corin Tucker is going solo, Janet Weiss plays drums for Quasi and the Jicks, and Carrie Brownstein is an active blogger and actress.
(www.sleater-kinney.com)

The Thermals
Brainy indie-punk trio on Sub Pop featuring members of All Girl Summer Fun Band and Kind of Like Spitting whose wordy, sonic bursts channel the likes of Husker Du and Beat Happening.
(www.thethermals.com)

Quasi
Janet Weiss’s first notable band, in which she shares music-making with ex-Heatmiser (and ex-husband) Sam Coomes. Music by ageing hipsters for ageing hipsters - it’s really excellent, if occasionally heartbreaking stuff.
(www.myspace.com/theequasi)

Parenthetical Girls
Whimsical, literate Eno-inspired pop headed by local music journalist Zac Pennington and his trembly vocals. Fans of Xiu Xiu, Microphones, and the Fiery Furnaces will dig this band’s brand of multi-instrumentalist lo-fi quirk.
(www.myspace.com/parentheticalgirlsband)

Menomena
Portland’s answer to the Flaming Lips, this experimental Barsuk band produces playful and occasionally gorgeous synth-driven material.
(www.myspace.com/menomena)

Viva Voce
This husband-and-wife duo have been making good-natured indie songs in the vein of Yo La Tengo for over a decade on labels Asthmatic Kitty, Minty Fresh, and most recently Barsuk.
(www.vivavoce.com)

Jackie-O-Motherfucker
A prolific experimental band, JOMF has been a lo-fi favorite since 1994 in a career that has spanned 15 albums and over 40 band members.
(www.myspace.com/jomf)

All Girl Summer Fun Band
Portland’s one bona-fide twee pop sensation. Comprised of members of The Softies and The Thermals, The AGSFB are a fun girl group whose songs inspire “ah ah, oh oh” sing-alongs and hand claps, and occasionally rip into some more driving material.
(www.agsfb.com)

Explode Into Colors
Featuring members of Japanther, Kickball, and Tender Forever, Explode Into Colors are a fun, frenzied funk/disco/punk trio new to the Kill Rock Stars roster.
(www.myspace.com/explodeintocolors)

Tu Fawning
Literate chamber-pop group in the vein of Beirut & The Decemberists, Tu Fawning are raising a lot of eyebrows in Portland and have recently signed to Polyvinyl.
(www.myspace.com/tufawning)


Misc


Portland Mercury and Willamette Week
Pick up these free alt-weeklies to get the scoop on the week’s events around Portland. While both are informative for planning your time, the Mercury is decidedly more amusing, as it carries such syndicated joys as Dinosaur Comics and Savage Love.
(www.portlandmercury.com)
(wweek.com/)

Powell’s City of Books
1005 W. Burnside St.
Upon entering, grab a map - you’ll need it to navigate around this literary Mecca. 77,000 square feet over four floors and taking up a full city block, Powell’s is unlike any bookstore you’ve ever been to (including NYC’s Strand) in that it is among the largest in the world but is clean and spacious enough to feel comfortable. Used books are mixed in with the new inventory to keep browsing efficient. Hard-core bibliophiles ought not miss the elegant rare book room.
(www.powells.com)

Reading Frenzy
921 SW Oak St.
Part book/zine/comic/stuff shop, part art gallery, and occasional event space, Reading Frenzy is a little community-supported, girl-centric space that has managed to dodge big-chain hijackings over the years. An absolute must for any zinester.
(www.readingfrenzy.com)

Independent cinemas
The cine-pub culture is strong here, starting with art-deco gem The Laurelhurst Theatre (2735 E. Burnside St.), where you can grab a pint and a pizza along with your $3 movie ticket to see second-run indie hits and cult favorites. Another awesome old building, The Bagdad Theatre (3702 SE Hawthorne), shows a mix of indie and Hollywood, and is also likely to host local short film fests and random Battlestar Galactaca marathons. With its impressive gothic exterior the 83 year-old Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy) is the crown jewel of Portland’s cinemas. Northwest Portland has two lovely cinemas, the old-school Cinema 21 (616 NW 21st), and the Mission Theatre (1624 NW Gilsan). The Living Room Theatre (341 SW 10th) is an excellent downtown option, and sits in the little pocket of indie consumer happiness nearby Jackpot, Powells and Reading Frenzy.

Voodoo Doughnuts
“The magic is in the hole” is the slogan for this crude, inventive, and hilarious late night Portland institution. Some of the more notable culinary options include: Triple Chocolate Penetration, The Tex-Ass, The Maple Bacon Glaze, Captain Crunch, Old Dirty Bastard, and everybody’s favorite conversation starter, The Cock and Balls. Vegan options available!
(voodoodoughnut.com)

If you'd like to recommend a club, bar, record shop, band or any indie delight for inclusion in the Indie Travel Guide, please email us. If we've included a link to your band/shop etc, it would be lovely if you could link back to us. Thank you!

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