Featured Column: ImproviseRevisiting the Venues of Portland, OR
About a year ago I wrote a piece evaluating the different venues of Portland, OR. Although it is a highly regionalized topic, I thought it might be helpful not only for folks who live here, but also for visitors and those who plan to move here. Portland is a great spot and a perfect summer tourism destination with its clean downtown, many beautiful parks, great food and beer, and close proximity to excellent hiking, camping, and windsurfing. Although the music scene is not quite as fertile as in some bigger cities like San Francisco or New York, we do all right here. There are a few local bands one can catch on most nights of the week and we are a stop for most touring bands on their way up to Seattle or down to San Francisco.In the time since that first article came out, there have been some pretty big changes in the Portland venue scene. Some places have changed rules, some have remodeled, and others seem to have stopped hosting jamband shows all together. Evaluating the different venues of Portland is not an easy task and is attempted to be as objective as possible. After my last piece, a few bar and club owners around town e-mailed me and asked me to introduce myself at the door to get in for free. I declined every generous offer so I could maintain anonymity and keep my journalistic integrity so as to serve you, the gentle reader, with an objective viewpoint. I look at several factors and try to consider the multiple qualities and tastes of the many different jamband fans when evaluating the venues.
The Outdoor VenuesThe best place to be in Portland in the summer is outdoors. The weather almost always hovers around 80 degrees and there is negligible humidity. During the summer months, when the city of roses is in full bloom, is the best time to seek outdoor musical entertainment. As one looks around the city, they may spy the distant silhouette of glacier-capped Mt. Hood looming in the background, but they’ll be hard-pressed to locate any outdoor venues. For a town with such stunning natural beauty and wonderful summer weather, there are surprisingly few outdoor venues. There is an amphitheater in the works close to town that I will hopefully be able to include in a future piece on the topic. What the city lacks in outdoor venue numbers, however, it more than makes up for in quality. Two out of the three outdoor Portland area venues are some of my absolute favorites.
Portland International Raceway (aka Portland Meadows) I have not been to this venue since that last piece on the topic ran. With a new amphitheaters popping up only a few hours away in Bend and Tacoma, not to mention the large venue just north of Portland in St. Helens, OR, it seems as bands are skipping this large, bland outdoor venue. There has not been one major jamband act there all summer long, in fact. 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. 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 I’ve been there and the food booths provide above average options if you get hungry after dancing.
Overall Grade: B-
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 10
Bob Horning’s Hideout Although this super venue is probably the best place for bands to play in the Portland area, few bands ever really play here. It is too big for most of the smaller jambands and some of the past festivals like the Family A-Faire and Horning’s Hoedown have not met financial expectations. Every year the Northwest String Summit does very well, though. The smallish venue couldn’t handle a major act like Phish, but it has hosted larger second tier bands like SCI as well as a handful of successful music festivals. The venue is actually in North Plains, which is located fifteen minutes west of the city. It has a trout-stocked lake for fishing and swimming, and many 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 negatives here are the spread out distances between the camping area and stage area. If camped in some areas, there could be many miles of walking involved for a weekend music festival, so get in shape if you go to Horning’s Hideout. Also, new parking procedures entail most people parking away from the venue and shuttling in with their gear.
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. Many of my past gripes about this place have been addressed and the zoo has quickly become my favorite outdoor venue in Portland. There are still some drawbacks like the early show times (all shows start at 7pm and end at 10pm) and the rigid anti-puffing enforcement, but those are very minor issues. In years past, season pass holders could attend any concert here for free. But this policy has changed. Now the venue hosts both weeknight concerts, which are free to the season pass holders, and premium weekend concerts which are available only to concert ticket purchasers. This keeps the riff-raff factor way down at most shows. Families cannot come in and have a huge picnic for free while talking over the music at the weekend concerts. Now, most of the families that come to the weekend concerts are there because the parents want to see the band in question and the kids that attend along with them are much better behaved. Another great aspect of this venue is their food policy. They allow people to bring in full-on picnics including silverware, glasses, and any food at all. Bringing in your own alcohol is not allowed, but it can easily be snuck in. They also have full picnic lunches available for purchase inside the venue as well as other more standard fare like hotdogs and hamburgers. Local microbrews and can be purchased as well as bottles of local wines which they happily cork for you (and they provide as many plastic cups as you need).
Overall Grade: A-
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 3
Huge Indoor Venues
The Rose Garden Arena I have not attended a concert here since the last piece ran, so my thoughts on this place are just about the same. There is only one really huge indoor venue in Portland and this is it. It’s the arena where our Portland Trailblazers lose to the likes of the L.A. Lakers 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 staff is friendly, and there are full bars located near most of the concessions areas. The seats could be a little roomier and more comfortable, however. 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 better arenas I’ve 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 don’t prefer multi-thousand seat venues, otherwise it would get an A)
Puffability Scale Rating: 8
The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – I’ve still only seen one show here. This is a great big old theater that is beautifully decorated and is used mainly for opera, symphonies, and the performing arts. There’s 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 that seemed unhappy that our show was not yet another symphony performing for Portland’s 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 didn’t help to speed things up. They sure did look pretty, though! Of course, I have not seen a show here in many moons so the review of this one should be taken with multiple grains of salt.
Overall Grade: B
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 6
Large Clubs and Small Theaters
The Crystal Ballroom There are some big changes to report regarding this well-known, classic Portland venue. It’s 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 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 ballroom is shaped like a large rectangular box, so the sound at the back of the room is often muddy and distorted. The tickets for all Crystal shows used to be sold, free of service charge, all over the Portland area at the multiple McMenamin’s restaurants. Now the only place they are sold with a minimal $1 service charge is the venue’s box office and the only other option is Ticket Master and their close to $10 in convenience (inconvenience?) charges. The intrusive personal search of each patron upon entering is now a pale, depressing memory. Currently, there is not so much as a light pat down and one walks through the entrance with absolutely zero hassle. Also, the bar staff has definitely improved. On a crowded night there are still some lengthy lines, 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 not-so-distant 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 venue’s stance on puffing differs depending on which security guy catches you. I’ve seen responses as varied as being told to put it away, a glass piece being seized, or even ejection from the venue.
Overall Grade: B
Puffability Scale Rating: 6.5
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 last band I saw here was King Crimson, and at that show the intrusive, two-fold pat down getting inside had disappeared. This place is almost always oversold for popular acts. 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 age 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. 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 can’t necessarily get back to their seat after they have fought their way down to the bathroom since policy is to only let people into the balcony when others leave. 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. I often opt to listen to the show from the downstairs bar that pipes in the sound from upstairs. With plenty of room, a full bar, and no cover charge, it’s probably the best option unless the band is one you really want to see up close and personal.
Overall Grade: B+ (if you are under 21, don’t want to drink, or it’s a 21+ show )
Overall Grade: C- (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 serves only Deschutes beer here, which is a change from the Widmer’s Brothers they use to serve exclusively. 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 I’m not complaining! There is also a full bar called Paola’s 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 you’re caught), the currently most stringent pat down in Portland, and the fact that they consistently book acts that are too small for this larger venue. I’ve seen smaller acts like the Living Daylights play at this venue and lose energy because of it. It’s 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 still my favorite live music spot in Portland, although it has been quite some time since I’ve 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 dividing groups of people according to age into their respective sections needed. And even though this room only has a three hundred person capacity, there are two bars open at the weekend shows, ensuring speedy service. 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. While the lights are still very good, they have removed some of the I-Beams and other lights that added that extra psychedelic edge to shows here. The sound is always excellent. And while the puff police are usually walking the beat all night, a warning is all I’ve ever seen issued (not to mention there are three SINGLE person bathrooms with a lock on each one at the back of the room…nudge nudge, wink wink). I’ve heard no more reports about people being shut out by door people, either. Every time I’ve attended the Fez, a smiling and respectful face has greeted me. I wish more touring jambands would start playing here again soon.
Overall Grade: A
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 7
Mt. Tabor Theater – Good old Tabor has made some major strives in the positive changes department. After some tweaking, the place has now cemented itself as a viable staple of the Portland jamband scene. The room is large, dark, and dank, but not nearly as dank as it used to be. The nasty, stale, gray rug with huge spots and beer stains has been removed revealing a very nice solid wooden dance floor. There are still a few cocktail tables and chairs sprinkled in the back, but now there is also a row of booths that has recently been installed along the far side of the room. The stage is pretty nice and the sound is always loud and clear with some sound system upgrades having taken place in the recent past. The sound has been mixed very well lately, too. The floor area is pretty large and there is always room to dance. Also, the bar is now a full bar. Tabor just happens to be located next to places that are famous for their mega-strong drinks (Sewickly’s and the Space Room), and consequently serves pretty stiff drinks themselves to compete. Ducking outside and into the southeast Portland neighborhood for a quick puff is always easy. The slightly higher ticket costs are now merited and water is now served for free at the bar.
Overall Grade: B+
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 7.5
Berbati’s 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 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+. Puffing is very difficult here and ejection if caught is the norm.
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 2
Roseland Grille – This venue is the pleasant little sister of the Roseland Theater, but it may have to be omitted the next time around. There hasn’t been a show here for about as long as I can remember. 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 play video and sound of the band playing upstairs for free most nights.
Overall Grade: B
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 4
Small Rooms and Bars
Goodfoot Tavern – 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, including the Fareed Haque Group and Moses Guest. 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 just ok, however. Low ceilings and a smaller sound system serve to make the sound muddy, making it impossible to decipher lyrics unless one already knows them. The low, 8ft. ceilings can be seen as a negative since the younger crowd that frequents this bar loves to chain smoke. Smoke-irritated eyes are a given, especially on crowded nights. This is slightly torturous since the Goodfoot has a large and spacious upstairs room that would be perfect for live music. Unfortunately, zoning laws prohibit the upstairs space from being used as a live concert venue. On busy weekend nights they now push the pool table over to the side so that people have more dancing room and so that no one is knocking balls around the table while the band attempts to play a show. Puffing is 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: B
Puffabilty Scale Rating (1-10): 7
Conan’s This is a local hippie hangout for the heads and dread-heads of Hawthorne. The venue hosts a popular reggae night once a week on Mondays or Tuesdays. The entrance is just around the corner from the Smokin’ Glass Functional Glass Art gallery in a very heady part of town. The high ceiling and general set up of the room make me think it used to be a theater of one kind or another. There are many tables scattered all over the spacious wooden floor and a bar runs the full length of the room on the left side. With pool tables in the back, the place is a neighborhood hot spot as well as a jamband music venue. The bar serves only beer, but has a pretty nice selection. Views are fine and the sound is acceptable. My main beef with Conan’s is the sub-par bathroom situation. With only one toilet for each sex, the lines can get pretty crazy on a crowded night…especially after all those kind beers, braah.
Overall Grade: B
Puffability Scale Rating (1-10): 5
The Bitter End Saloon I find it curious that jambands rarely play in this fine little room. The only band I see here on a regular basis is the Danny Godinez Band, but I almost wish they would play a more popular venue so they could generate a bigger (and well-deserved) following in PTown. There are two rooms to this bar. There is a large full bar in the one room and a well-lit stage and some seating in the other, including a few comfy couches. The sound and views are fine for the smaller bands that play here. The younger crowd loves to smoke cigarettes here, too, but at least the slightly bigger room with high ceilings 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. Venues are subjective in nature, so please don't look to this piece as a definitive guide. These are just the opinions of one guy (albeit 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: email@example.com