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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2007/12/21
by John Zinkand

Hello, Old Friend

Portland, OR area Dead Heads (and those arriving from afar) will be saying hello to their old friend Phil Lesh this January at the Crystal Ballroom. Its been a long time since folks in this town were able to get their Phil. The last Phil Lesh and Friends show here was way back in May of 2002, almost six full years ago. The Dead played here in 2004, but there hasnt been a Phil and Friends show since their performance at the Roseland Theater in 2002. Since the Grateful Deads demise, Phil has been keeping very busy playing with Phil and Friends, The Other Ones, and The Dead. His Phil and Friends band is an ever-rotating cast of musicians that always provides a fresh take on Grateful Dead classics and other musical nuggets. While Phil tours the country each year, for the past five years or so he has somehow missed the Pacific Northwest.

But can you blame him, really? The Pacific Northwest is an isolated region of the country. It takes many hours (if not days) to drive all the way up here from anywhere else in the country. And one you get here, there are only two major cities, Seattle and Portland. But even though these cities boast large populations, the turn-out for Phil in these locations is dwarfed by attendance to shows on the east coast. Not to mention the fact that cities on the east coast are located much closer together. This combination makes touring much easier and more profitable on the east coast, where Phil usually concentrates his efforts.

That being said, the Northwest is a somewhat magical place and holds significance in the history and lore of the Grateful Dead. While it is easy and profitable to tour in the east, Phil needs to show his face in the Northwest more often. Sure its a bit more difficult to get up here and he is not going to make even close to the same money, but the mystique, beauty, and mellow vibe of this area should be enough to lure him up here more than once every five years.

And what makes the pair of shows coming in January even more special is the fact that they will be held at the historic Crystal Ballroom on the 40th anniversary of the Grateful Deads appearance here with Quicksilver on their 1968 Quick and The Dead tour. The 1968 performances at this esteemed venue are recognized as some of the best examples of the early Grateful Dead. The version of Viola Lee Blues from these shows in particular stands out as exemplary for this time period. Its unfortunate that it took such and occasion to have Mr. Lesh appear in Portland again, but were not complaining. Well, most of us arent. Since its been so long since Phil played here, the demand to see these shows was pretty great. The pair of shows sold out in about 45 minutes, leaving many die-hard heads out in the cold with a finger in the air. Demand is also high because these shows could be potentially very special. Tickets on ticket broker sites and on ebay are already going for hundreds of dollars.

The Crystal Ballroom is a special place with a unique and varied history. It was built in 1914 as the Cotillion Hall and was originally owned by Montrose Ringler (today the large bar and restaurant on the ground floor is known as Ringlers). The ballroom fell victim to persecution of jazz and dance which was popular here through the early 20s and had to close its doors. Dad Watson (there is now a McMenamins pub in Seattle named for him) bought the venue in the mid 1920s and held mostly square dances within its walls. It changed hands again in the 1930s when Watson died. Ralph Farrier purchased the venue, renamed it the Crystal Ballroom, and continued having square dances here just like Dad Watson had before him. By the 1960s, it was evident the venue needed to diversify due to lagging attendance, so R&B acts like James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner were brought in. By 1967 and 1968, psychedelic rock bands were all the rage – this is when the Dead made their appearance here. Due to public outcry and concern about what this type of music was doing to Portlands young people, the historic venue closed its doors to the public not too long after the Deads shows. From the 1970s through the 1990s the venue was not used for any public events. It became a place where squatters, artists, and bohemians stayed. In 1979 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Cotillion Hall.

In 1997, brothers, entrepreneurs, and micro-brewers Mike and Brian McMenamin bought the place. The McMenamins were the first to open a brew pub in Oregon after the state laws changed allowing beer to be brewed and served in the same place in 1984. Since then, they have established a micro-brewing empire that spans as far south as Eugene and as far north as Seattle. Their tasty beers (including the famous Terminator Stout and Hammerhead Ale) and solid pub fare have become an immensely popular staple in the Northwest. Theyve expanded that empire to include beer-theaters (movie theaters that show movies and serve micro-brews and food), bed and breakfasts, and music venues. The Brothers McMenamin began buying old historic properties and converting them into wonderful bars, restaurants, and resortsall of which serve their delicious beer and display art that tells the story and history of the building. In 1997, the brothers set their sights on the historic old Crystal Ballroom. They bought and completely renovated the place. The first floor now holds a large restaurant and pub called Ringlers. The second floor has a small brewing room and also holds a smaller venue and bar called Lolas Room. And on the third floor one can find the famous Crystal Ballroom. The old venue is a beautiful sight and contains a large open space, beautiful art on the walls, and a mechanical floating dance floor – possibly the only one of its kind left in America.

When Phil shows up here in late January and plays two sold out shows to an intimate crowd of no more than 1500 heads, the town will be ecstatic. The venue is a magical place with a vibe that cant really be described and must be felt first hand. Well-known artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Little Richard have played here. Important figures that loom large in the history of the Grateful Dead like Ken Kesey and Mountain Girl have called Oregon home. So when Phil and his friends roll into town come January, the anticipation will be high for the 40th Anniversary of the Dead shows played here in 1968. No matter what songs are played or who Phils friends might be, the old psychedelic magic will be felt once again in this wonderful city and historic old venue. While its been almost six years since Phil played Portland, dont tell me this town aint got no heart. You just gotta poke around.

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