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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2006/05/16
by John Zinkand

Venue Overview – Portland, OR

A few years have passed since last reviewing some of the live music venues located in the wonderful city known as Portland, OR. Many changes have taken place. Old venues have made improvements, errors, or closed while a few new venues have also sprouted up around town. Portland is a great place to live for the outdoor enthusiast with its close proximity to the beautiful coastline, scenic mountains, and stunning Columbia River Gorge. And for those not into those things, theres still plenty of cool stuff happening around town. Browse at the massive book store Powells, sip espresso at a locally owned organic coffee shop, or knock back a few microbrews at any of the many, many craft breweries all around town. The art scene, bar scene, and restaurant scene are all above average in this groovy little town, as well. So if you are you are lucky enough to live in Portland or if youre just visiting your cool brother who lives here (everyone seems to have one), its good to know what youre in for if you decide to take up a little live music while youre here. Sit back, relax, and enjoy this report on the current state of the live jamband music venue scene in the city of Portland, OR.
The Outdoor Venues Outdoor venues are the best venues in Portland because when the weather is nice here, theres really no good reason to be anywhere else but outside. With the weather being just about perfect every summer day, its an added bonus to add the pleasure of live music to a perfect warm day or sultry summer night. The outdoor live music scene has changed quite a bit over the years, and not necessarily for the better.
Portland Meadows Raceway was always a staple on the big show scene having hosted well known big name acts like Phish, Ben Harper, Bob Dylan, and Phil and Friends. The venue no longer exists. Car racing is now the only action that can be seen at Portland Meadows. We now have the Clark County Amphitheater in Ridgefield, WA (20 minutes north of downtown). Hosting such acts as CSNY, Steely Dan, Tom Petty, and The Black Crowes, this new venue easily wins the best big outdoor venue title. Of course, it also has a monopoly on local outdoor venues for huge acts. Having never been there personally, its a hard venue to review. Our other jewel of a venue, Bob Hornings Hideout, is virtually gone, as well. This year there is only one live music event there all summer; the Northwest String Summit featuring the Yonder Mountain String Band among many others. If you like bluegrass, take advantage of the opportunity to briefly relive the glory days of multiples summer concerts and festivals going down up at Bobs Hideout by attending this event – a killer venue. One last interesting tidbit about the impending outdoor summer music season here in Portland is that Widespread Panic is scheduled to play at McMenamins Edgefield. I dont yet understand how this will go down exactly, as the Edgefield is a bed and breakfast resort with a brewery, winery, distillery, movie theater, pitch and putt golf course, and many bars. Somehow they are going to host a large concert here, but I have no idea how it will work.
The Amphitheater at Clark County Having never attended a concert here theres not much to say. All the big name bands that come through the Portland area play this venue. If Phish or the Dead were still playing, this is where they would play. As far as I can tell, its your basic summer shed set up with seats in the front and a lawn in the back. But again, Ive never been there, so I really have no idea. I just know its big and hosts all the big hitters.
Bob Hornings Hideout Hardly worth mentioning due to the fact that it currently hosts only once concert each year, Hornings Hideout was the former champion of the live outdoor venue scene in Portland. Located a few miles west of the city, this stellar venue boasts beautiful and vast sprawling lands, a scenic lake for fishing or swimming, and a killer live music space in a picture perfect lightly wooded outdoor bowl. It was the prime choice for a hometown outdoor live music experience for a few years. The camping, mellow scene, good people, beautiful landscape, and good food and beer made it the best darn place to see a show outside in Portland.
The Oregon Zoo Amphitheater – This is a great venue tucked away amongst the trees and hills of the Oregon Zoo. The sound is fair and sometimes better if you are able to sit a little closer to one of the speakers that are sprinkled around the audience area. After walking through the zoo entrance and all the way to the back of the park, one arrives at the amphitheater. It is cozy, but still pretty large. The seating area is made up of large swatches of grass and concrete step dividers that lead down to the floor area and stage. People generally throw blankets down to reserve their own bit of real estate. Food is available, but as an added bonus, this place lets you bring in any food at all, just no booze. Not to worry, however, as the Zoo Amphitheater sells bottles of wine on site. Theres nothing better than lying in the summer sun on a blanket, enjoying some home cooked food, and drinking a bottle of wine with friends while enjoying live music in this pristine setting. Blissful. Les Schwab Amphitheater & The Cuthbert Amphitheatre While located in Bend and Eugene respectively, these larger venues are worth mentioning. Every now and then its good to get out of town and drive south or southeast to visit friends in Eugene or Bend. The Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend is basically just a large lawn near a strip mall of shops. It is in scenic Bend, so there are views of mountains on the horizon. There is a beer garden where the folks who want a beer are corralled together near the back. Its a cozier large venue due to its lack seats or pavilion, but nothing stellar. The Cuthbert Amphitheatre is a lovely little venue situated in a nice park with a stream running through it. One must cross the bridge to get to the actual venue, and that can get a bit tight. But other than that this is an excellent place to see an outdoor show. Its a cute little band shell with tiered seating and plenty of extra room. There is also a nice array of vending booths in the back.
Huge Indoor Venues
The Rose Garden Arena Ive seen both Paul McCartney and Roger Waters play here, but both concerts were years ago now. The Rose Garden is your basic large indoor arena type venue. Its a newer version of the indoor arena archetype so its spacious, comfortable, and easy to navigate. There have never been any unpleasant experiences of which to speak while attending shows here. The venue is always clean and the staff is usually friendly and/or helpful. The sound is above average and the multi media shows at both of the performances I saw here were phenomenal. There are plentiful beer stands serving at least a few local brews for the expected outrageous arena prices. I would gladly attend another concert here. Sadly, the only thing on the horizon is the Red Hot Chili Peppersbut not until August. The arena is a good venue overall, though one which is rarely used.
Large Theaters
The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Ive only ever seen one show here and it was Ben Harper back in the late 90s. A few shows come through here, but not enough that I feel bad for not being able to give a more informed review. The main thing about The Schnitz, is its dr. It is a large, fancy, indoor theater complete with balconies, loges, and orchestras. It has the obligatory ornate lights, fancy swirling carving work, and stunning gold trim. When you are here, you feel fancy. The Schnitz is rarely used as a jam venue as it usually hosts more refined forms of entertainment. Because of its general stuffiness and inadequate ability to handle the jamband fan, this venue is not very high on my list of places to see live music in Portland.

Large Clubs and Small Theaters
The Crystal Ballroom The Crystal is a veteran of venues in the jamband scene. Its a large ballroom that has beautiful art on the walls and a bouncy wooden dance floor (due to ball bearings beneath the wood planks). The room is large and spacious and has windows looking down on Burnside St. all along the left side of the room. The lights provided by the Crystal are average at best, 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 ballroom is shaped like a large rectangular box, so the sound at the back of the room is often muddy and distorted. Lately they seem to really be cranking the volume, however, in an effort to provide better sound for the folks in the back (possibly at the expense of those in the front). Theyve done away with the intrusive pat down that used to be standard here years ago, but theyve also made no re-entry the general rule at most shows here. This is very inconvenient, especially at a packed Friday or Saturday night show when the room is humid, hot, and stuffy and you want to go outside to cool down during setbreak. On a crowded night there are still some lengthy lines for beverages, but generally things move much faster these days with a long wait on a busy night for a beverage being only 10 minutes…not bad compared to the average 20 minute waits of the past. While almost all jamband shows here are all age events, older folks are no longer relegated to the very back of the room if they choose to drink. The dividing line between the two sections has been repositioned so that the 21+ section provides some spots to be up closer to the front on the right hand side of the stage.
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. There is usually an intrusive, two-fold pat down getting inside. The Roseland is almost always oversold for popular acts. They pack people in so tightly for that it can become uncomfortably hot and can be difficult to move around. The other major problem with the Roseland is how their all ages shows are set up: the balcony is the exclusive 21+ section. The relatively small upstairs area gets so crowded that it becomes uncomfortably hot and crowded. Also, the bathrooms are located downstairs, adding an extra hassle of trekking through the masses and back if you need to use the restroom after drinking a few beers. With plenty of room, killer sound, and a full bar, its probably the best option in town for a venue of this size.
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. The quick and courteous staff serves only Deschutes beer here. 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 Aladdin used to book acts that were a bit too small to play this larger room, but things have changed. I havent seen a show in here in quite some time that wasnt pretty darn full.
The Wonder Ballroom This is a new venue on the Portland scene. Its a nice big, rectangular shaped box of a room located in Northeast Portland. It is aesthetically pleasing with scattered art on the walls and great sight lines to the stage from anywhere in the room. There is a small balcony where the only bar is located in the 21+ section. Like all venues in Portland (except for the Aladdin for whatever magical reason), this venue is divided into the under and over 21 sections. The sound is good and lights are adequate. There are two drawbacks keeping this place from achieving five star venue status, however. The small bar in the balcony has only one narrow staircase leading up to it and, once up there, its pretty small. So getting drinks, navigating the stairs, and dealing with the sardine-like masses is somewhat inconvenient. Also, since this venue is tucked in amongst a mostly residential neighborhood, shows start and end early here. Dont make the mistake of thinking the show will begin an hour after the stated start time on the ticket like most shows in Portland. They are very punctual here.

Small Clubs and Big Bars
The Fez Ballroom – This is still my favorite live music spot in Portland, although it has been quite some time since Ive attended a show here. The room is beautiful and spacious with great art on the walls and large windows. The shows are only 21+, so there is no rope dividing groups of people according to age into their respective sections needed. The one bar can get an extremely long line, however, and the service can be less than stellar. While the drinks are strong, the beer selection is quite limited and no beer is offered on tap. There are plenty of comfy couches with lots of pillows to sit on, all with great views of the well-lit stage. Lighting is adequate and the sound is always excellent. However, the Fez used to welcome multiple jamband shows per month, now its lucky if there are more than a few jamband shows here each year.
Mt. Tabor Theater This veteran of the jamband scene is a thing of the past. It is now known as Sabalas Mt Tabor Theater and is mainly a punk rock club. While a rock show or jam show might sneak in here from time to time, it is basically gone as far as being a hippie show staple.
Berbatis Pan Berbatis is a solid but underused jamband venue. They do mostly indie and punk shows here, but occasionally a jazzier or more reggae-centric show will pop up. When one does, be sure to check it out as this is a great place to see a show. 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 only slightly obstructed from a few locations. One can get a close up view of the band from many angles since 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+.
The Goodfoot – This is a high-quality 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. 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 and some seating are in the front. Enjoy delicious microbrews like Terminal Gravity IPA and some organic options. The Goodfoot has also now added a full bar. Walls are always strewn with interesting paintings by local artists. The sound has gotten better, but is still only fair due to the small size of the room, low ceilings, and smaller sound system. Thankfully, my main gripe has been addressed at this venue. There is now a smoking section that has powerful fans that suck out the smoke from the venue. It used to be a smoking free for all. Being such a small room, it filled up with irritating smoke very quickly, making it a potentially unpleasant place to try and take in a show. One can head upstairs to the larger bar and restaurant section of the venue for a late night snack or a game of pool. The Goodfoot is now the best and most jam friendly small venue in Portland.
The Hawthorne Theater This venue, formerly known as Conans, is located in hippie central on SE Hawthorne Ave. Its new incarnation as the Hawthorne Theater is a definite improvement. There is now a sleek black bar near the entrance in addition to the main music area. The music area is divided into the over and under 21 sections, with the under 21 section being located in the front of the room by the stage. The over 21 section is in the back of the room and is somewhat cramped and unpleasant if the place is full. The long bar along the side of the room when the venue was known as Conans is gone now, replaced by a smaller bar in the middle of the room that helps to divide the two sections. If it is a crowded night, getting a drink is challenging, and if one doesnt mind missing a song or two, hitting the separate bar near the venue entrance is a good option. There is also a tiny balcony above the over 21 section. While Ive never been, it looks like it might be cramped and hot way up there. Overall, this is a solid new venue but preferably for a show that is not sold out.
The Doug Fir Lounge The Doug Fir is a cool and hip new venue located in the Southeast on Burnside St. It is very trendy and retro cool. Theres a log cabin theme, a nice large restaurant that stays open until 4am upstairs, the live music venue lounge downstairs, and even a little boutique motel attached in case you end up raging a bit too hard and want to spend the night. The actual venue downstairs is pretty sweet. There are light panels in the floor around the bar and logs in the walls all around the room. The stage is small and cozy, but the sound is powerful and the lights are pretty good. As a 21+ only venue, no dividing barrier is needed. Steps lead down to the floor in front of the stage while the bar is in the back of the room. There is scattered seating around the sides of the room. Primarily, this is not a jamband venue, but the occasional jazzy or jammy show does pop up here. One of the coolest smaller rooms in Portland, taking in a show at this very fun and hip venue is highly recommended.

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