THE NEWS THAT the Woods is shutting its doors this week is a bitter pill, but it isn't entirely a shock. The sumptuous music venue was a dicey proposition to begin with: a music club located in the mellow suburbs of Sellwood, far from the downtown crowds and the hip hangouts of central Eastside. Its owners, Ritchie Young, Vivien Lyon, and Yoni Shpak, were unseasoned in both running a venue and in booking shows, a sometimes cutthroat business where commerce and art collide, and not always prettily. The digs themselves—a funeral home built in 1928—seem too nice for your typical rock show. The stage boasts an actual, honest-to-god piano for bands to use. The furniture and décor are tastefully ornate to the point of making the Woods feel like your grandmother's place, if your grandmother had impossibly cool taste, a fully stocked bar, and a habit of hanging local artists on the walls. The tip jars are birdcages. There's an organ in the bathroom.
In short, the Woods was too good for this world, and while it's an absolute shame that its intimate shows are not going to continue, the finality of its history offers the realization that, yes, during its too-brief two-and-a-half-year run, the Woods was as wonderful a place as it seems in the mind's eye.
Young says, "I think we wanted more of a clubhouse feel for adults, instead of, 'This is a music venue and we sell Red Bull and vodka behind the bar.'" The Woods' adventurous programming encompassed not just concerts, but readings, comedy, and theater. For me, the venue holds no shortage of vivid memories. I saw Island Records producer Joe Boyd read passages from his exceptional memoir of 1960s London, White Bicycles, as Robyn Hitchcock stood next to him, playing the songs Boyd described. I saw blind Oregon songwriter Bob Desper perform his first public show in decades, accompanied by Al James and Jon Neufeld of Dolorean—one of the most uplifting, hopeful sets of music I have ever heard. I danced at DJ Cooky Parker's monthly soul nights. I sat cross-legged on the floor during A Weather's release show. I drunkenly sang karaoke at Baby Ketten, once.
Claybourne Commons, LLC, bought most of the Sellwood block where the Woods is situated, back when Portland real estate was booming. But as the market tumbled, renting it profitably or reselling it was, for the time being, impossible. "One of the reasons why we even got the place is because we were the only date in town, essentially," Young says. "But because we didn't know what we were doing, we just were paying way too much a month. So we fought that with the landlords for two and a half years."
When the opportunity came to renew the lease, the Woods crew attempted to renegotiate. "It's kind of one of those battles that no one can ever win. We wanted to pay less so we could survive, and they wanted us to pay more so they could pay off their mortgage." Now, according to Claybourne Commons' redevelopment proposal on file with the city's Bureau of Development services, their hope is to move the actual building back a block (demolishing a couple houses in the process), and use the prime real estate on SE Milwaukie for development.
Meanwhile, the Woods will go out with a free show from Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, AgesandAges, and Brothers Young. And a late-night dance party is not out of the question, says Young. "The day that we opened was the day that Michael Jackson died, and the place was creepy and weird. Then as soon as we had people in, we turned Michael Jackson on and everyone danced 'til three in the morning."