BLUES MUSIC is alive and well in Portland. And it lives on the corner of NE 20th and Sandy, conveniently nestled between a hair salon and a hemorrhoid clinic.
The Blue Diamond has resided here since about 1998, but not until it was bought by new owners Steve Taylor and Bev Rodriguez in 2011 did it became the live music institution it is today. While not exactly a dive bar, Blue Diamond has enough funky old-school charm and funky old-school regulars to make it seem like one at first blush. What makes Blue Diamond stand out is the live music, which you'll find seven nights a week. Almost exclusively committed to blues, funk, and R&B, Blue Diamond books the best in the Northwest, from Cascade Blues Association Hall of Famer and multiple Muddy Award-winning Kevin Selfe and the Tornadoes, to Oregon Music Hall of Famer Norman Sylvester.
"I'm a blues and R&B guy," Taylor explains, and his commitment to and passion for the music shows. Framed LP covers of B.B. King and John Mayall are displayed above the bar. A banner reading, "Blues is our business," hangs on a wall behind the small stage. Blue Diamond fills the void left after the closing of other local popular blues bars—Candlelight, the Tillicum, and Halibut's.
Taylor, who was born in Portland, carefully curates the bands he invites to perform. He remains loyal to his musicians, and they, in turn, remain loyal to him. "We're fortunate to have the musicians we have," he says.
One of those musicians, Fenix Sanders, has had a regular weekly night with his band the Fenix Project for 13 years, long before the change of ownership. "I came with the furniture," he jokes. But he acknowledges the improvements made over the last five years. "This place was a diamond in the rough for a long time," he says, "and it's finally getting some shine."
Selfe has hosted Blue Diamond's popular Sunday night blues jam for three years. He offers his opinion why Blue Diamond has succeeded where other bars or clubs have failed.
"Great food, and the staff is excellent," he says. "Those are things that most bars overlook. I've seen it a million times, where the staff would rather be somewhere else, and they're playing on their phones and the food sucks. Why would you want to go down there and spend money? Steve has taken the time to make this a better place from day one."
The food menu is an A to Z of greasy bar grub: burgers, sandwiches, chicken strips, fish and chips, and more, all served in heaping portions. The cocktail menu has concoctions like the Whiskey Milkshake, made with Wild Turkey, Kahlua, and half-and-half. It's tasty, but probably not the kind of thing you want to drink more than once. Janessa Wagner, a bartender at Blue Diamond, has been working there for nine years. "I like making people happy, and serving them booze makes it easy," she says.
Taylor is at the bar every night, walking the floor like a maître d', pumping hands and greeting the regulars by name. It's easy to spot those regulars—like Clay, who is referred to me as "the Mayor of Blue Diamond." Clay and his girlfriend Betsy met there three years ago and have been regulars ever since.
The bar's clientele is for the most part made up of an older crowd—40 or 50 and well above—but it is one of the most racially diverse you'll find in Portland. Older black men in three-piece suits stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white, middle-manager types in polo shirts, while a guy who looks like Nile Rodgers dances with a woman who looks like your grandmother. Occasionally a group of curious twentysomethings will venture inside, drawn by the live music, maybe while on their way to or from nearby Club 21. Often they'll take one look at the scene before backing slowly out the door—but sometimes they'll do as the Romans do and join the older folks on the dance floor.
Eve, a 28-year-old woman and a regular at Blue Diamond, explains why more people—old and young—are finding their way into the bar, and why they keep coming back, night after night.
"The Blue Diamond has the best people in town, both serving and just hanging out and dancing," she says. "It's like the essence of Portland—not that 'keep Portland weird' shit. It's like Portland Portland. You walk in, and you either leave your fucks at the door or you get out."