The Venues of Portland, OR
Music is subjective. Not everyone likes the same styles, enjoys music for the same reasons, or even appreciates music on the same level. Some folks like to dance – they want any music with a steady beat and good energy. Others want something that will stretch their accepted norms of what constitutes music. Luckily, there are thousands of bands in our scene with all sorts of backgrounds and styles to choose from. In any given town, however, there are a finite number of venues in which our favorite bands can play. The venue, one could argue, is almost as important as the band. The comfort level, the sound, the view, the lines for drinks, the rules of the venue, the crowd and lots of other factors weigh in when folks evaluate a venue. There are as many different angles from which to view the subject of venues as there are viewers, however, and, like music, the topic can be highly subjective based on personal wants and needs.
Portland, Oregon is where I live and frequent live music venues on a weekly basis. This month, I decided to take a look at each of the different venues in the Portland area and give my opinion of how they rate. I wrote a brief review of a Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey show a few weeks ago in which I lashed out at what I feel are the negative aspects of the Crystal Ballroom. Several e-mails I received taking issue with my views were the impetus for this piece. I will rate the venues based on different criteria, trying to give different types of fans the kind of feedback they will find most useful.
I realize that this is a highly regionalized topic and I would probably use it in the West Coast Section if such a thing still existedbut it doesnt. So its here. For all the Portland dwellers, future citizens of Portland, or wayward travelers looking to enjoy some live music while stopping in our fair Northwest city, heres a venue overview to help decide where to check out some great live music. Ive selected the following venues most likely to host jamband concerts based on my experience seeing live music in Portland over the last five years.
The Outdoor Venues
First of all, for an area with as much natural beauty as Portland, its surprising that there are not more great outdoor venues. Also, some great local outdoor venues like Champoeg Amphitheater and the Rose Garden Amphitheater have stopped hosting concerts, apparently. There has been an ongoing struggle to get a larger Amphitheater built close to Portland, but it is has been repeatedly struck down by voters. Until that happens, Portland folks will continue to drive the four hours to the Gorge Amphitheater in George, WA for most of the bigger acts. Here is a list of the outdoor venues of Portland and how they rate. *Portland International Raceway (aka Portland Meadows) * – This is a large racetrack located in North Portland. There is a big old parking lot in front of the venue which is always good for a solid parking lot scene. The venue itself is just ok, however. There is no real beauty here, except for a meager view of Mt. Hood. There is a stage set up at one end of the huge racing track and people can sit in the grass/dirt. Usually, large metal bleachers are set up just behind the soundboard. The venue has little character, if any, however. Basically, one has to sort of endure this venue if they want to see the bigger acts in the summer close to home. The sound has always been loud and clear when Ive been there and the food booths provide above average options if you get hungry after dancing. Try the freshly fried doughnuts..yum!
Overall Grade: B-
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 10
Bob Hornings Hideout – This is THE outdoor venue in the Portland area right now. It couldnt handle a major act like Phish, but it has hosted larger second tier bands like SCI as well as many successful music festivals. The venue is actually in North Plains which is located fifteen minutes west of the city. It has a lake and lots of acres of rolling hills and forests. The homemade main stage is set up in front of the lake in a scenic natural bowl while the camping areas are vast, with many of the spots providing ample shade. The food booths are always varied and plentiful, and there is tasty micro brew available for purchase. The sound and views here are excellent, and the staff is top notch – always helpful, never in your face. The only negative here is just how spread out the camping can be. If camped in some areas, there could be many miles of walking involved for a weekend music festival here.
Overall Grade: A
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 11*The Oregon Zoo Amphitheater *- This is a great little venue tucked away amongst the trees and hills of the Oregon Zoo. You enter at the Zoo entrance and walk to the amphitheater located deep inside the Zoo. The sound is great and the views are phenomenal with the stage plunked neatly in front of a line of pine trees. There are some major problems with this venue, though. First, there are only early evening concerts here as the venue is relatively close to the affluent neighborhoods of Northwest Portland where sound pollution after 9:00pm is heavily frowned upon. Next, the shows here are always all ages. This can be a plus for the mom and dad music fan, but for folks without kids who want to dance or absorb the music fully, it can be a nuisance. Kids will be talking near you, playing near you, and doing things that make mom and dad yell at them near you all while the band is playing hard up on stage. The fact that anyone with a season pass for the Zoo gets in to any evening concert for free can make this place get ridiculously packed and also contributes to the playground atmosphere. Vending options are limited and it can be difficult to fight the crowds to get to the busy food and beer lines in back.
Overall Grade: A+ (for music loving folks with kids)
Overall Grade: B- (for music lovers who want music and only music).
Overall Grade: C (for folks who want uninterrupted music, a drink, and a puff)
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 3
Huge Indoor Venues
The Rose Garden Arena – There is only one really huge indoor venue in Portland and this is it. Its the arena where our Portland Trailblazers lose to the likes of L.A. year after year. It is also the only indoor venue where the major acts like Phish, Roger Waters, or Paul McCartney can play in town. For an arena venue, it is pretty nice. The sound, lighting, and stage views are all very good. The seats are comfortable, the staff is friendly, and there are full bars located near most of the concessions areas. This is not my favorite place to see a show because I like a more intimate live music experience. That said, this is one of the best arenas Ive been in. If you have to see an arena show, The Rose Garden is among the best places to do so.
Overall Grade: B+ (only because I dont prefer multi-thousand seat venues, otherwise it would get an A)
Puffability Scale Rating: 8
The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – Ive only seen one show here. This is a great big old theater that is wonderfully decorated and is used mainly for opera, symphonies, and the performing arts. Theres a large balcony and a beautifully painted ceiling accented with ornate gingerbread decorations. I truly felt out classed while I was here. The shows here are always all ages, the sound is nice and loud, and the views are unobstructed. Some negative aspects I experienced were a somewhat pushy and stuffy staff who seemed unhappy that our show was not yet another symphony performing for Portlands elite. Also, the only bars were a few small stations set up outside the upper and lower seating entrances. The lines were long and slow and the required tuxedo uniform the servers wore certainly didnt help to speed things up. They sure did look pretty, though!
Overall Grade: A- (for under 21 people or non-drinkers )
Overall Grade: B (for those who like to have a drink at shows and not miss large swatches of music)
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 6
Large Clubs and Small Theaters *The Crystal Ballroom *- Ah, the Crystal. I have seriously mixed emotions about this place. Its a large ballroom that has beautiful art on the walls and a bouncy wooden dance floor (due to some ball bearings in there). The room is large and spacious and has windows looking down on Burnside St. all along the one side. The lights provided by the Crystal are merely average, but touring bands often enhance the system with their own lighting. The sound is pretty good from up front, but decreases in quality as one gets farther away from the stage. The tickets for all Crystal shows used to be sold, free of service charge, all over the Portland area at McMenamins restaurants. Now the only place they are sold without service charge is the venues box office with the only other option being Ticketmaster and their convenience charges. The personal search of each patron upon entering is intrusive, with friskers feeling each and every item through folks pockets and asking, Whats this? Also, the bar staff can be somewhat apathetic and doesnt seem to want to go that extra mile for the patron. This is especially annoying since, most nights, one has to wait in a very long line to eventually get served a drink. Finally, the jamband shows here are almost always all ages and, at the Crystal, the 21+ section is in the very back of the room where the views and sound are the worst. The Crystal is shaped like a large rectangular box, so the sound at the back of the room is often muddy and distorted. Of course, when a band I really want to see comes to this venue I skip the drink so that I can enjoy the better sound and views from right up frontbut I shouldnt have to!
Overall Grade: A- (If you can be right up front for the whole show because you have no plan to drink)
Overall Grade: C (if you want to have a drink AND enjoy the show)
Puffability Scale Rating: 8.5
The Roseland Theater – This venue could be one of the best in town. It is a nice big theater with a great balcony that wraps around the perimeter of the room and provides unobstructed views, some from very close to the stage. The floor is large, has no seats, and has only a few pillars that could get in the way when viewing the stage. The stage is spacious and holds any band comfortably while the sound is loud and clear from anywhere in this room. The pat down getting inside is two fold and intrusive. After walking through intimidating metal detectors, people are also forced to empty their pockets. Also, this place is almost always oversold. They pack people in so tightly for most shows that it becomes uncomfortably hot and is difficult to move around. The other major problem with the Roseland is how their all ages shows are set up. At these shows the balcony is set up as the exclusive 21+ section. The relatively small balcony gets so crowded it becomes uncomfortable. Also, the bathrooms are located downstairs. If one needs to go to the bathroom and leaves their jacket on their seat (or leaves their wife or friend to save their seat), they cant necessarily get back to their seat after they have fought their way down to the bathroom. The Roseland only lets people into the balcony when others leave the balcony. So even if you have a reserved seat in the balcony, you could be forced to stand and wait for fifteen minutes before you get back to your seat, friend, or loved one. This is ridiculous and they need to devise a better plan.
Overall Grade: B (if you are under 21, dont want to drink, or its a 21+ show )
Overall Grade: D (if you want to have a drink AND enjoy the show)
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 8 (balcony) 5 (floor)
The Aladdin Theater – The Aladdin is a solid music venue. It is a small theater that has a small balcony in the very back of the room. The entire room is lined with stationary seats, but there is small floor area for dancing located directly in front of the stage. The decor is retro with pale blue being the primary color on the walls, accented by gold here and there. The quick and courteous staff serve only Widmer Brothers beer here, which is fine. Inexplicably, there is no dividing the drinkers from the non-drinkers at all ages shows. If you are over 21, just roll up to the bar and buy a beer before returning to your seat next to an 18 yr old. Why there is no separate 21+ section like at the other venues in town is puzzling, but Im not complaining! There is also a full bar called Paolas located next door for pre and post show raging. Some interesting snacking options here like chocolate-covered nut clusters keep things original. The only real negatives at the Aladdin are their tough stance on puffing (they boot you if youre caught) and the fact that they consistently book acts which are too small for this larger venue. Ive seen smaller acts like the Living Daylights play at this venue and lose energy because of it. Its hard for small bands to keep the energy levels up when there are only twenty people dancing in the front of the room as the band looks out at the hundreds of empty seats.
Overall Grade: A-
Overall Grade: C (for total stoners)
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 2
Small Clubs and Big Bars *The Fez Ballroom *- This is currently my favorite live music spot in Portland. The room is beautiful and spacious with great art on the walls and large windows on the one side. The shows are only 21+, so there is no separating groups of people into their respective sections. And even though this room only has a three hundred person capacity, there are two bars open at the weekend shows, ensuring speedy service. There are plenty of comfy couches with lots of pillows to sit on, all with great views of the well lit stage. Also, the Fez has great lighting with four I-Beams, a disco ball, and lots of colored lights. The sound is always excellent. And while the puff police are usually walking the beat all night, a warning is all Ive ever seen issued (not to mention there are three SINGLE person bathrooms with a lock on each one at the back of the roomnudge nudge, wink wink). As I cant be in all places in all times, Ive had my street team collecting data about venues. I received some disturbing information about a major injustice done to good folks by an overzealous door guy at the Fez. Apparently some twenty people were shut out because one person in the group was drinking a beer on the street. The guy drinking the beer immediately poured it out and apologized, but the door man refused to let any of the twenty people inside because of this one person (which should be no business of the venue anyway). I hope the Fez is aware that their door people are making decisions that affect the incomes of both the venue itself and the bands that play there. Personal opinions should not be involved when deciding who is allowed admittance to any venue.
Overall Grade: A (could be lowered soon if overzealous door guys become the rule instead of the exception)
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 7 *Mt. Tabor Theater *- Good old Tabor. This place is a staple of the Portland music scene. Unfortunately, they figured this out for themselves a year or so ago and prices have steadily increased while service has decreased. The room is large, dark, and dank. The floor often has big sticky spots from who knows how much spilled beer. There are a few cocktail tables and chairs sprinkled in the back. The stage is pretty nice and the sound is always loud. I have been to shows here where the house sound man has not done the best job of mixing, however. The floor area is pretty large and there is always room to dance. The bar serves only beer, but has a nice big selection of quality microbrews. Ducking outside and into the southeast Portland neighborhood for a quick puff is always easy. My main gripe here is the increasing ticket costs and the loss of free water. Show prices have increased so much that they average around ten dollars, even for bands who have never been to Portland before and are just beginning to tour. Tabor also used to have a water cooler so that folks could help themselves to a cool drink after working up a beer-and-dance induced sweat. Now the cooler is gone. Bottled water is for sale. Lame.
Overall Grade: C+
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 7.5 *Berbatis Pan *- I love this place for live shows. The dark low-ceilinged room is large and spread out. There are a few seats right at the entrance area, a main dance floor area directly in front of the stage, and a back corner seating section that has tables, chairs, and sofas. Large and beautiful paintings on the walls enhance the dr near the back seating section. The sound is always great and the views are unobstructed. One can get a close up view of the band from any angle as the elevated stage can be approached from all directions. The bar staff can be somewhat cold as they are not as used to the jamband crowd here as at some other venues. Also, the drinks are quite expensive for their fairly weak strength. The food is delicious (a full restaurant is attached to the performance room) and this venue is always 21+. Puffing is very difficult here, however, as the room is rarely packed enough for puffing anonymity.
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 2
Roseland Grille – This venue is the pleasant little sister of the Roseland Theater. The Grille is located downstairs from the Theater and is a large bar. Pictures of bands performing are hanging everywhere. There is an entire wall devoted to pictures of the Grateful Dead, but the musicians displayed span all styles from Pat Benetar to Steel Pulse. The full bar is in the back of the room and the stage and hard tile dance floor are in the front. Tables and chairs are readily available. The sound is great from the front, but can become muddy in the back as it bounces its way around the hard, flat walls and floors. Also, there are two TV screens by the bar where they used to play video and sound of the band playing upstairs for free. Apparently, this may be a thing of the past.
Overall Grade: B
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 4
B-Complex – Ive only been here once. Its a great room for the under 21 crowd or folks who consider themselves to be on the wagon, as it is completely alcohol free (no BYOB either). The place is somewhat difficult to find since it is tucked anonymously amongst the industrial buildings near the river on Portlands east side. Its a large loft of a space with great modern dr. The unique furniture is placed sparsely but evenly around this multi-leveled room. There is plenty of open space to dance and the stage is easily visible from anywhere in the great sounding venue. Juices and soda pop are the only types of liquid refreshment available at the bar. There is a small outdoor patio which serves as the smoking section. Dont try to smoke anything but tobacco here, however, as there is usually a puff policeman standing guard. I think this venue has found its niche as an under age dance party club, so I would be surprised to see many more jamband shows booked here.
Overall Grade: A (for music and only music)
Overall Grade: C- (for music, a drink, and a puff)
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 2
Small Rooms and Bars *Goodfoot Tavern *- This is the best small room in Portland. The venue has always been friendly with jambands and lots of great acts have made this their inaugural Portland performance venue, including Netwerk: Electric! and the Fareed Haque Group. The place is made up of two small connected rooms. The bar, some tables and chairs, and a few pinball machines are in the back room while the stage, some seating, and a pool table are in the front. The bar serves only beer, but has great options including some organic brews. The strange colorful paintings of elongated people on the walls are fascinating. The sound is always good and it is easy to see the stage from anywhere in the room. The low ceilings can be seen as a negative since the younger crowd which frequents this bar loves to chain smoke. Smoke-irritated eyes are a given, especially on crowded nights. Also, Ive been to shows where people keep playing pool through the entire set even though the pool table is directly in front of the stage. Ive never puffed in the Goodfoot, but I assume its probably easy with any level of stealth due to the high volume of cigarette smoke. Otherwise, just duck outside and be back in a flash.
Overall Grade: A-
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 7
The Tonic Lounge – I havent been to a show here in years. Its a great little space with a small dark room in front and the full bar and seating in the back. The small stage isnt anything spectacular and the dr here is minimal. Basically, its very dark – dark carpet, dark tables, hardly any lighting. The sound has always been plenty loud and the back of the room is great with large vinyl-covered seating booths and a pool table. The loungey atmosphere back here is great for taking in a show as mostly background music while hanging with some friends. As with any small room, the Tonic does get smoky. Go outside for a breather (or whatever).
Overall Grade: B
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 5 *The Bitter End Saloon *- There are two rooms to this bar, but they are slightly larger than at the Tonic. There is a large full bar in the one room and a well-lit stage and some seating in the other. The sound and views are fine. The younger crowd loves to smoke cigarettes here, too, but at least the slightly bigger room makes the smoke levels tolerable. A sort of wild west feel is created with lots of wooden benches, tables, and chairs placed on the very worn wooden floor. No plush comfort available here, pardner.
Overall Grade: B
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 3
Hopefully this overview of venues will help people decide which show to attend on a given night. In no way is this project finished and it should not be viewed as a definitive guide. These are just the opinions of one guy (but one guy who does sees lots of live music in Portland). As new venues step into the scene and old venues fade away, as the currently good venues slip and become bad venues, and as bad venues get their act together and become great venues, I will update this topic. I welcome differences of opinion and would love to hear which venues you like the best and why. Drop me a line and tell me how ridiculous my ratings are at: firstname.lastname@example.org