What It Is, What It Was, What It Will Be 

The New Portland Club Scene Trades DIY Spunk for Savvy Business Brains

At this rate, half the apartments in my building will soon be holding semi-regular club nights, applying for a liquor license, and trying out a late night menu. Which is to say, it's hard to throw a drink in this town without splashing some new kind of music club. With the near-simultaneous Eastside explosions of Bossanova and the Doug Fir Lounge (perhaps you've heard of them), Portland's musical landscape is a flurry of new developments--benchmarks of a hasty maturation among the city's perceived "creative class." As more and more members of the local music community are finding themselves in the national spotlight, Portland is casting off its perpetual baby fat and setting its sights on artistic puberty.

That said, as with any such transition (from "community" to "industry," you might say), there's liable to be some growing pains. Aside from the new Eastside stronghold, there's an overwhelming amount of change brewing throughout Portland's fertile grounds, as more venues around the city spring up, die, and live again.

OBITUARIES

Growing pains of such magnitude are liable to claim some casualties, and though it would be foolish to suggest that the insurgence of new clubs would have such a direct and immediate effect on the commerce of other venues in town, it's clear that Portland's climate is at a stumbling crossroads. As of last week, two familiar venues are, for all intents and purposes, lost to the community.

After four tumultuous years of progressive arts programming, the flashing arrow on Northeast Russell is finally turning off--Disjecta has lost its lease, and Portland loses one of its most consistently compelling venues.

"Someone bought the building and lacks a true vision for the space," explains Bryan Suereth, Disjecta's director, in a characteristically caustic tone. "The new owner did not want to extend a lease to us. Instead, he'll likely try to exploit the arts thing established by Disjecta and ride on the next wave of 'gentrification,' sticking something like a coffee shop and recording studio in the building."

Since September of 2000, Bryan Suereth's pet monster has provided the city with what one might call an "eclectic mix" of the contemporary arts--programming that included theater, film, dance, and quite a lot of music, all with its heart firmly resting in the realm of visual art. As a venue for music, Disjecta was never much of a genre-centric venture--between Suereth's booking and the brief existence of Million (the club beneath Disjecta's main space that's been more or less defunct for just shy of a year), the venue aimed to fill an artistic void in the city's musical landscape as a small space for largely more experimental fare.

It remains to be seen what Suereth has next on the agenda--rumor has it he may be carrying on the Disjecta name in some revamped form--but it goes without saying that the absence of Disjecta's ramshackle vision will be sorely felt. (See "The End of the Beginning," page 39, for more details on Suereth's upcoming project.)

The other "loss" as of last week is that of the Twilight Café, whose ownership decided suddenly to cease hosting regular rock shows. The venue, which has largely hosted middling hard rock bands for the past two years, held its final such event on October 30th. Dave Gaysunas, who had been booking rock shows at the Twilight for two years, cites a "difference of interest" for the split, as the venue focuses on "open mic-style stuff" for the future.

AND NOW, THE GOOD NEWS

So, sure, there's much to lament. But let's remember--it's all (however indirectly) in the name of progress. And as the city skyrockets toward musical maturity, we've got a lot of changes to look forward to. First off, the legendary Satyricon--which last year dropped the "Satyr" when its new ownership decided to turn it into a dance club--has returned (sort of), with surprisingly little fanfare. Now "Club Satyricon" for legal reasons, the club is whimpering back to Satyricon's kinder days--capitalizing on the room's former glory with a focus on punk, indie, and hard rock.

Other random notes of note: There's a new 21 and under dance club called the Zone (a name that makes me indefinably uncomfortable) opening up this Friday at SW Second and Pine, while Grand Ave staple The Rabbit Hole has magically transformed into the much-more mysterious "Noir" (a name change that seems to have done little to improve the venue's booking).

And now for the real good news: despite several months of floundering in a purgatory of shitty emo bands, financial woes, and a distinct lack of vision, the perpetually promising Meow Meow (320 SE 2nd) is finally poised to seize its crown as Portland's premiere all ages venue.

For the last six months or so, longtime Meow Meow manager, booker, cheerleader, and gleaming lifeforce Todd Fadel has been working with new business partner Mike Wolfson to retrofit the Meow Meow's structure--both fiscally and physically--into a viable space for community and art. The duo's energy has snowballed since then, enveloping an all-star army of local music scene officials who are now pouring their energies into the cause.

With the likes of booker Chantelle Hylton (formerly of indie hotspot the Blackbird, currently of Berbati's) and publicist Joe Haege (of local mathy-prog band 31 Knots) in the fold, the Meow Meow is, first and foremost, evolving into two distinct clubs--the cavernous downstairs (complete with new sound system) will remain Meow Meow, accommodating larger shows, with the more intimate second floor (a.k.a. Loveland) remaining flexible enough to cater to lesser known performers. The clubs will have separate entrances, and after a bit of soundproofing, will regularly house simultaneous shows. With Hylton's booking assistance, the venue has already begun a renaissance of exciting performances--this week alone housing bands like Subtle, Frog Eyes, and Les Savy Fav. "I've been pining to do smaller shows like the ones I did at the Blackbird," explains Hylton, "and the Meow Meow feels a lot different than any other club in town."

The club is also currently in the process of opening a restaurant on its first floor (which they plan to eventually run 24 hours a day), have upped their regular staff, and are slowly approaching the prospect of a full bar. In short, the Meow Meow is making a concerted effort to survive.

"The Doug Fir and Bossanova are run by music people, but they're also very much business people," says Hylton, "it makes sense in the evolution of Portland music industry that so many people would move here, and that there would be more attention paid to the commerce part of the industry."

"I think Disjecta has been a great space for music and art--and with it closing, the changes at the Meow Meow inadvertently provide an alternative to a more commerce-based approach," continues Haege, "what it is, and what it was, and what it's becoming--the one consistent element throughout is that it just has a much different motivation than most venues and clubs. It's a lot more community based."

LITTLE BIG CITY

In the few months of frantic growth that have enveloped Portland's live music business, the exact trajectory its course will take is a little uncertain--though it's clear the ground is far from settled. As the industry evolves further away from independent club culture toward, well, whatever you want to call it--be it "professionalism" or "hell in a handbasket"--there's obviously a lot at stake for the city's mid-level music venues, and for Portland nightlife in general.

With the long list of club casualties over the last several years (EJs, La Luna, Blackbird, Satyricon, et al.), and the bulk of the city's mid-size venues still finding their legs, it remains to be seen just exactly what Portland's recent bid for slick professionalism might cost the city's other existing small venues (such as the Tonic Lounge and Ash Street, who are making their own bids to stay competitive in the game). As the Little Big City's nightlife pushes through an awkward metro-puberty and venues continue to fight over a relatively narrow market share, the dangers of a square-pegged "progress" are evident. The real question is: We're ready to grow up--but what are we willing to lose?

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