In 1991, in the middle of a seething mosh pit at the first real rock show he'd ever attended, the young Colin Meloy—aged 15 and not yet singing of acrobats and Russian populist rebellions—had his glasses knocked off, broken, and then returned to him, the punk equivalent of having his eyes opened. The cause of the joyous, spectacle-smashing fracas and the soundtrack to Meloy's induction into the mysteries of independent music were two titans of the late '80s/early '90s Northwest rock community: the Young Fresh Fellows, and the Dharma Bums.
It was cultural boom times in these parts, as the word "grunge" hilariously entered the American musical lexicon, and the Dharma Bums were generally expected by their fellow Portlanders to be the band that would widen the focus of the spotlight then shining on Seattle to include our little valley a few hundred miles to the south. As it came to pass, however, the Bums precipitously broke up in 1992, leaving behind a legacy of three influential and beloved albums of proto-alternative power pop, memories of legendarily frenzied shows charged with a peculiarly positive energy decidedly not of its era, as well as unrealized expectations that Portland music would get the national due that had eluded it since the 1960s heyday of "Louie Louie."
But if poetic continuity is any solace, we can take comfort in the thought of the Dharma Bums in their shaggy-haired, distortion-drenched concert glory unknowingly passing the Portland music torch to the fresh-faced Meloy, who, a decade later, along with his band the Decemberists, would finally win the musical affections of the rest of the country, and direct global attention toward the Oregon music community the Bums helped build. What's more, John Moen—the Dharma Bums' drummer and one-third of its powerful songwriting triumvirate (also comprising guitarist/vocalists Jeremy Wilson and Eric Lovre)—has been drumming for the Decemberists for the past five years.
As with many public figures who become vessels for the collective aspirations of their public, when the Bums are discussed today, talk can tend to drift toward what they didn't accomplish, the breakthrough that never happened. But Moen's presence in the Decemberists reminds us of something much more important, and much more within the Bums' control—that they always were, and remain to this day, intentional, thoughtful, and active members of the local music community. The Dharma Bums' music reverberates with echoes of Oregon garage rock as learned from the Kingsmen, Poison Idea, and Wipers, and is testament to the fact that they were serious about belonging to a tradition and carrying it forward.
Moreover, the Bums were one of the first nationally touring independent acts out of Portland. As such, they helped pave the way for the next storied generation of hometown bands, including Heatmiser and Hazel, whom they also frequently tapped as openers. Subsequent to the Bums' breakup, in addition to playing and recording in new outfits, the members of the band moved comfortably into the roles of elder statesmen with wisdom and craft to share. Jeremy Wilson has been recording bands at his studio MastanMusic for a decade, keeping contemporary clients like Jared Mees & the Grown Children rooted in local history, and Eric Lovre is a renowned analog electronics wizard.
Eighteen years have passed since the Dharma Bums played their last official show, and many of us who are now invested in the Portland music community never had the opportunity to see this seminal band in what everyone agreed was their element—on the stage. However, that all changes this Saturday, February 20, when the Dharma Bums reunite for a show at the Crystal Ballroom to celebrate the 40th anniversary of record store Music Millennium, a local institution in its own right. That night, the band will also be releasing DUMB, an album compiling 16 raw, home-recorded four-track demos the Dharma Bums put to tape as Oregonian teenagers in 1987. It's a perfect capstone to the discography of one of Portland's most beloved bands, and a reminder of how lucky we are that some things never change.
Dharma Bums, Young Fresh Fellows, and Derby play the Crystal Ballroom on Saturday, February 20.