YOU'RE NOT going to find the Exploding Hearts up at Seattle's Experience Music Project. Or Neo Boys, or Smegma, or Johnnie Ray. But from now until January 15, you'll be able to see artifacts from these bands—and ones you might be more familiar with, like Elliott Smith, the Decemberists, and Paul Revere and the Raiders—at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS).
The new Oregon Rocks exhibit encompasses Oregon's musical history past and present, and it's not a mere collection of guitars and memorabilia. The exhibit, co-curated by the OHS and the Dill Pickle Club, also functions as an effective cultural history of the region, presented with a breadth and coherence not often seen in surveys of this kind. Considering that the OHS is free for Multnomah County residents, it's an absolutely vital visit for anyone remotely interested in local music—or history, for that matter.
Oregon Rocks begins in earnest in the first half of the 20th century and continues to the present day, covering different eras of note, including the jazz scene of the '30s and '40s and the fertile blues scene that followed. Oregonian crooner Johnnie Ray is one of the exhibit's most interesting subjects: Ray was a gay, partially deaf heartthrob who sold two million copies of his 1952 smash hit "Cry"—a song during which he'd often break into tears while performing—but who has been relegated to lesser-known status in favor of contemporaries like Frank Sinatra.
The '60s garage rock scene follows, with bands like the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders. "Hearing 'Louie Louie' right next to one of the '90s bands like Sprinkler, and you can see a through line from garage to the grunge scene," says co-curator Ryan Tobias, who has worked on Oregon Rocks for close to three years along with Dill Pickle's Marc Moscato and Floating World Comics' Jason Leivian.
The first seeds for the project came from a series of lectures presented by Dill Pickle called Northwest Passage, and the three approached Marsha Matthews at OHS with the idea of turning that project into an exhibition, with the particular goal of attracting younger visitors. "We trimmed some of our extracurricular plans," says Leivian. "There could be a book based on this, and maybe we'll do that later. But I'm doing a covers album with PDX Pop Now!, where we're getting new bands to cover older songs. So that should be ready in a couple months."
In the meantime, the exhibit also includes the coffeehouse-folk era of the '60s as well as funk of the '70s and new wave in the '80s. The familiar punk era of the '70s and '80s is examined, too, with particular emphasis on bands like the Wipers and Neo Boys, as well as the alternative scene of the '90s up to the exceptionally fertile stage that Portland finds itself in right now. Along the way, detail is given to groundbreaking acts like the Exploding Hearts and Fred Cole.
The exhibit kicks off with a special concert with music by soul singer Ural Thomas, Cole's band Pierced Arrows, and others. "It's a pretty concerted effort to reach out to the music community as well," says Tobias. "The bands that we've chosen for this opening concert are all from distinct eras and really represent a multigenerational coming together. I mean, how often are you going to see Quasi and the Kingsmen on the same bill?"