THE DREAM OF THE '90S is alive in St. Johns.
It's a balmy evening in mid-September—"flannel and denim weather"—and the younger constituents of the Portland music scene are celebrating the release of local indie rock band Rod's debut tape at Anarres Infoshop—a new community space located in deep North Portland. During ambient opener Taylor Malsey's set, about 30 young punks respectfully sit cross-legged on the floor of the venue, dispelling the age-old myth that kids just go to shows to get fucked up.
It's a strong visual argument that kids actually go to shows to experience live music.
"All-ages shows are a lot different [than bar shows]," says Malsey, who just recently turned 21. "There's a 'can-do' attitude at a show like this—it's a very level playing field."
When Rod takes the stage (which is actually just a tiny area demarcated by hanging Christmas lights), the energy in the room becomes uncontainable, but not in a scary way. There are no circle pits or windmills or fistfights or knives—just a roomful of youths cutting loose politely, smiling and mouthing along to the lyrics. Rod's EP Where I Had Gone is one of the best Portland releases of the year so far.
You're forgiven for just now finding out about it.
- Arya Imig
- Minh Tran
"Tonight is a watershed moment for me," says Arya Imig, one of the fiercest and longest-standing advocates for all-ages music in the city.
In addition to being the former promotions assistant at defunct venue and café Backspace, Imig's old show on KPSU, Sound Judgment, was something of a BBC Radio 1 for the all-ages community up until its final episode in 2009, exposing the city to a wealth of DIY-oriented bands like Starfucker and Typhoon that have since gone on to become household names. Imig's now recycling the name for his new record label, Sound Judgment Records, which—fittingly—sees the Rod tape as its inaugural release.
"There's a vacuum right now and there's a huge opportunity for a bigger action to take place," says 32-year old Imig, who started booking all-ages shows around nine years ago. "A lot of people a few years out of the all-ages scene lament that there's nothing going on anymore, but it's really just that they've grown out of it, or maybe they're just not as 'dialed-in' as they were when they needed it—these things are important and they never stop being important."
Within the past few years, a frustrating, seemingly irreconcilable rift has developed in Portland between all-ages music and the bands and tastemakers who maintain a financial and social chokehold on the city's more established 21-and-over venues. Some of this was inevitable—with the exception of the Analog Café and Hawthorne Theatre, there are no mid-size, all-ages venues in Portland anymore, eliminating the younger scene's interaction with the "grownup" scene, in addition to any incentive for promoters to include younger, more inexperienced bands on larger bills. It's a circular problem that has resulted in the misconception among an older—and ultimately more influential—crowd that all-ages music doesn't exist here, when in reality it's just been displaced: You will rarely hear about some of the best music in Portland from any local newspaper, blog, or radio station because so much of it happens in basements and spaces like Anarres, located miles from what many consider to be the city's cultural core.
And then there's the booze issue.
- Black Water Bar
- Minh Tran
The biggest scapegoat for the lack of all-ages representation in larger Portland venues is the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), the agency responsible for regulating the sale of alcohol in Portland businesses. In spite of amendments over the years, the OLCC's "Prohibition-lite" liquor laws—which understandably catch a lot of non-Oregonians off-guard, not unlike our lack of self-service gas stations—manifest in mixed-ages venues in a number of ways, including brighter lighting, tighter security, and what PDX Pop Now! co-founder Cary Clarke refers to as "the moat," a borderline feudal system that physically separates minors from those 21 and older during shows where alcohol is available. (By contrast, other states' methods of control are simply a Sharpied "X" or wristbands for minors).
"When I was going to college in Connecticut, which has [its own weird liquor laws], I remember going to see Sunny Day Real Estate at the local venue there, and when I went in, there was literally this floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence in the middle of the audience area," says Clarke. "I remember thinking, 'This is a weird setpiece,' and then maybe an hour into the show I realized that it was dividing the overage and underage part of the audience—so when I came to Portland, even though I was 22, it wasn't difficult for me to relate to someone who was two years younger and couldn't have gone to all these shows I moved here for."
Clarke served as the arts and culture policy director in the office of former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, and currently serves as the executive director for Young Audiences Arts for Learning of Oregon and SW Washington. He was heavily involved in a conversation with the OLCC around eight years ago regarding the reform of archaic legislation he considered "most prohibitive to hosting all-ages shows."
- Cary Clarke
- Minh Tran
"We were really specific in working with them to identify wristbands as a viable control mechanism, where in the past the OLCC has always relied on the moat system we all know from venues around here," says Clarke. "That is not the only allowed way of doing things now, but my suspicion is that the OLCC just reflexively goes with that because it's what they're most comfortable with and what they've done the longest. And most venue owners have so much on their plates that the last thing they have time to do is dig into the specific language of whatever the minor posting laws are."
Cooperation between popular mid-level Portland venues and the OLCC on the matter has yet to really get off the ground. Mississippi Studios briefly experimented with hosting mixed-ages shows, but has since stopped due to a variety of OLCC-mandated regulations that allegedly proved unreasonable and uneconomical for the venue. The Doug Fir—probably Portland's premier mid-level venue—doesn't even fuck with it.
"When we've done all-ages shows, we do them during the day and cover up the bar so no alcohol is visible to the public, and then we have security on the stage and at the door making sure no drinks go downstairs," says Lydia Pagett, the Doug Fir's private events coordinator. "If we were to do [mixed-ages shows], we would need stanchions, and we would need to have everything separated, and that just isn't conducive to our space."
As is the case with any faceless government institution, blaming the OLCC is easy, though Christie Scott—a spokesperson for the agency—says a portion of the blame can be put on the venues, as well.
"There's a perception that we tell people that they can't have all-ages events, which is not true," says Scott. "I think if it's important to the business and they want to do all-ages events, then there are several options available to them."
Scott mentions that most movie theaters now sell alcohol and still admit minors with a system that could also potentially apply to venues.
I ask Clarke if he thinks that's true or just PR pap.
"I think [the OLCC] are right, in that the rules were changed in 2009 to create this additional type of classification for businesses who could put on all-ages shows while still meeting their bottom-line needs, which often include selling alcohol," he says. "What I've been disappointed by since that time is that not enough venues or businesses have maybe been as aggressive as I would like in reminding the OLCC there are other ways of doing things."
- Justin Kent
Karen Page, the former head of promotions at Backspace, also agrees that the lack of an all-ages presence in the broader Portland music community can partially be chalked up to venue indifference.
"[Hosting all-ages shows] is a lateral move for a venue, which is why I think a lot of bars don't go after it aggressively," says Page.
Before its closure in the fall of 2013, the OLCC granted Backspace special permission to utilize a unique mixed-ages floor plan that excluded a physical barricade. However, it required the aforementioned additional lighting and additional security, and that everyone on staff be OLCC certified and that non-alcoholic product account for at least half of the venue's sales—a model that Page suspects a venue like the Doug Fir could theoretically adapt. Being a bar that hosts all-ages shows isn't guaranteed suicide, Page explains—but the motivation still needs to be largely idealogical.
"I think [the Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios] definitely have to have an interest in wanting all-ages shows to be there and be available," says Page. "It's not something that's going to make them more money than they're already making, serving liquor to a bunch of adults."
An exception is Black Water Bar, a Foot Clan Headquarters-esque vegan restaurant and bar in the Lloyd District, which has been a nerve center for punk and metal since opening nearly a year ago. Still, according to co-owner Alex Carroccio, acquiring an OLCC minor posting that worked for the venue in addition to serving the all-ages community wasn't easy.
"It's more expensive, because we have to hire at least three employees per show," says Carroccio. "But it's not something we don't want to do—I think music should be for everyone, especially punk, and it's not something we're going to give up on, whether it's expensive or not."
Some of Black Water's criteria for maintaining its posting include selling a certain percentage of non-alcoholic drinks and food before 11 pm, which is when minors are no longer admitted to the venue.
"It took me a long time to get the posting that we do have," Carroccio says, "but it was worth it to me."
"Black Water is probably my favorite local spot right now, but it's still a little less welcoming [for younger people] and a little more comfortable for people who are older," says Colin Sanders.
Sanders, who has been booking all-ages shows in Portland for a decade and fronted Portland punk luminaries Defect Defect before they formally called it quits in the spring, is something of a local celebrity and big brother in the DIY community.
"I feel like there was a period of time about 10 years ago when the shows I was going to and playing were at least half people of high-school age," says Sanders. "Those people were always openly excited about the bands playing, and they showed that by dancing, they showed that by buying merch, and just through an excitement that is so hard to recreate.
"There's a bigger separation between [the two scenes now]," Sanders continues. "And some of that has to do with the all-ages venues back then being sort of... lame—but the kind of lame where a parent could feel okay dropping off their kids."
- Minh Tran
In terms of standalone all-ages venues in Portland—venues that aren't concerned with the sale of alcohol, period—things are looking brighter than they have in some time. In addition to Anarres, SMART Collective—a skateboard shop on SE 69th and Foster that's been open for two years—has been a huge player in the all-ages community. Mother Foucault's Bookshop has also started hosting all-ages shows regularly, and has become a popular spot for touring DIY bands in the wake of Slabtown and Laughing Horse Books' closures last year.
"I feel like now that there aren't a lot of spaces, the scene is way more concentrated," says Dylan Kordani, who, like Sanders, is a punk impresario, and she's one of the moderators for PC-PDX—an invaluable user-edited show calendar that's still the most useful resource for tracking down house shows that outlets (like the Mercury) can't ethically list.
"Once Black Water moved to the new location and Anarres opened up, there's been all this crossover—Black Water is able to have more shows with more variety and these scenes that were once really specific are now blending together because we're being forced to use the same spaces," says Kordani.
I mention that plenty of people think all-ages music in Portland is dead, and I'm met with an incredulous chuckle.
"There's literally no way to kill it," Kordani says.