PORTLAND, Ore. — After “Giant recording artists” Big Car broke up in early 1992, bassist Jeff Groves sold everything he owned, including his home recording studio, and embarked on a gypsy adventure with his new bride, Laura. They just took off and drove all over the continent, from Mexico to Nova Scotia, Maine to San Diego, sleeping in the bed of their Toyota pickup and taking their time. When they rolled into Portland after a year on the road, however, the journey ended.
Jeff and Laura weren’t looking for anything in particular when they left Austin, but they ended up finding the hidden treasure of Portland. Looking and feeling a lot like the best part of Manhattan dropped down into a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, Portland shirks its repute as some Weegun-wearing yuppie Disneyland by being as real as Mary’s Club, whichis a cross between “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name, and an old-fashioned burlesque joint. All that’s missing at Mary’s is the comedy, but it’s easy to supply your own, especially when the “dancers” have conversations that could just as easily come in a laundromat: “What time do you have to pick up the kids?” “We’ve been here a year and a half, and it seems like every week I find another cool place,” Jeff Groves said over a beer in the bar of Hung Far Low, one of his latest discoveries. The upstairs Chinese restaurant, with its pristine ’50s furniture, dark-red lighting and jolly bartender, epitomizes the homey-eerie paradox of the town strapped by bridges and shaded by so many dark corners.
When Groves started talking about his band, the Raging Woodies (same name, different lineup than his old San Antonio combo) and their well-received show at Key Largo on Thursday, I was shaken from sweet affinity and reminded of why I had come to Portland. Last week, Thursday through Saturday, the town was host of the North by Northwest Music and Media Conference, and if the name sounds familiar to more than Hitchcock fans, it’s because the convention was organized by the folks who make Austinites willing hostages (mostly) of South by Southwest every March.
Tons of bands, lotsa clubs, tedious panels, parties every evening, schmooze or lose — you know the routine — but the Portland affair felt strange, like it was a pilot episode for a convention organizers are hoping will be picked up. Wristband sales picked up as the weekend neared, to save the conference financially, but attendance at the seminar measured less than 20 percent of the nearly 5,000 people who attended SXSW last March. Unlike the Austin conference, which puts our burg in a tizzy for about a week, NXNW had seemingly little affect on Portland as a whole. That’s partly because of the numbers, but it also could be that this is just too much town to be swept away by panels and showcases.
Like an episode of “Northern Exposure” directed by David Lynch, Portland is a strangely magnetic metropolis where the underlying tangles with the overwhelming, a city of layers begging to be peeled back. Andit’s a great town to walk in.
All within ten blocks of the Benson Hotel, I found 1) Dr. Bill’s Learning Center, a bizarre adult bookstore with cowboy boots and hats in the front window and shelves that display classic books next to skin mags and porno tapes; 2) The Rialto, a classic old man’s bar with an off-track betting parlor; 3) Powell’s World of Books, easily the best bookstore I’ve ever been in; it makes San Francisco’s City Lights look like an airport bookshop; 4) several great seafood restaurants, including the spectacular Jake’s; 5) Chinatown; 6) countless ethnic eateries, serving up Thai, Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Japanese and old Italian fare; and 7) more great coffee places than panhandlers. If I was a free man, I would live here.
I also walked to many of the clubs, which, like those of Austin, are mostly close to the downtown hotels. But the acts were generally so lame compared to the SXSW roster that the clubs were often the star attraction.
The Obvious, from Salt Lake City, were the perfect example, trotting out their tired affectation of Alice in Chains for a vaguely interested crowd that had been browbeaten into standing. Fortunately, the show was in the Paris Theatre, a brilliantly converted porno palace, so even as the band was spooning out its canned angst, there was plenty to keep your mind occupied in the venue haunted with the ghosts of a million gropes.
Other cases of bad band-good club were Portland’s pedestrian Gravelpit at the graffiti-covered punk mecca Satyricon; Billy Jack, from nearby Eugene, at the cavernous Roseland; and Truly at LaLuna. I loved Truly’s latest album on Capitol, but in concert the band’s extreme loudness couldn’t make up for a mysteriously missing ingredient in their sound. Something was wrong, but the band drove me out into the unseasonably cold night before I could figure out what it was.
The biting drizzle was Portland trying to show a downside to the countless out-of-town attendees who kept chanting, “I could live here/ I could definitely live here” like a mantra. But it was the chill of adventure that made Portland so alluring on the last weekend of September. The town may might seem bleak to some or as strangely sinister as a municipality from the mind of Stephen King, but it provided splendid diversions in the midst of yet another derby for the dull and derivative.
Above all, Portland tells us that there’s more to life than music.