WHEN GUITARIST Pete Krebs was diagnosed with desmoplastic melanoma—a rare form of cancer—Portland musicians got to work. Three benefit concerts were quickly arranged; this week, two of them will take place on back-to-back nights (at adjacent venues!).
The talent playing these shows is evidence enough of Krebs' esteem within the local music scene, where he's been not just a mainstay but also one of its undeniable figureheads. But Krebs has been playing music for long enough—and in such a wide variety of styles—that it might be easy to overlook all of the contributions he's made to Portland music, from his years in '90s seminal rock band Hazel to his countless swing and jazz outfits. I asked the performing musicians in this week's Rock for Pete and Swing for Pete shows if they would share what Pete Krebs and his music has meant to them personally. They responded with memories, stories, and impressions; taken together, they hopefully provide a glimpse at one of the true titans in Portland music.
Krebs, who survived Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was in his 20s, is awaiting the results from his most recent biopsy. Whatever the prognosis, his medical bills will be significant. Those unable to attend either benefit show are urged to assist by contributing to the Jeremy Wilson Foundation; more info at thejwf.org/pete-krebs.
I was at school in Eugene in 1993, a freshman in the dorms, and had some Portlander friends. They introduced me to Hazel; Toreador of Love had just come out. We went up to see the band play at La Luna. The place was packed to the gills, which surprised me for some reason. I guess I thought of Hazel as being a local band, and deserving of the sort of crowd you'd expect for a local band: chatty, distracted, small. But when they came on stage, there was this huge, huge up-swell of excitement and the entire room surged for the stage in one big motion. I remember that so clearly. Having been to a ton of shows at La Luna at that point, all national touring bands, I'd never seen so much feverish love in a crowd, even for those universally adored bands, the ones who ended up on the covers of magazines. The band was great—the show was fantastic and the crowd just gave all that love right back. I didn't know you could even inspire that sort of feverish excitement as a local band. Made me fall in love with Portland a bit. It was the first time I'd seen a band so beloved by their community—and you could sense that that love was totally reciprocal. That Hazel was as much a part of Portland as, like, a school board or a fire brigade. They served a real purpose. They showed me how a local music scene really should work.
Sometime in the mid-'90s, I went to see Seaweed headline the RKCNDY in Seattle. The opening band immediately grabbed me—or at least the hairy man cavorting on stage did. The trick was that once Fred Nemo got your attention, you were hearing Hazel. Catchy songs, noisy arrangements, male and female counterpoint vocals sung by drummer Jody Bleyle and guitar player Pete Krebs. While the music was loud and Nemo was pure chaos, Pete was this grounded presence in the middle of it all. I saw Hazel play a number of times afterward but didn't meet Pete until I shared a bill with his new band Golden Delicious.
It was Eugene this time, at the brand-new club Sam Bond's Garage in the heart of the Whiteaker neighborhood. This western corner of town was anarchist central at the time. The beleaguered doorman spent a lot of time that night fending off underage punks who couldn't get in (to their credit, they were there to see us play something like a folk show). It was nice out, so they opened the sliding doors behind it so the kids could listen to the monitor feed. There was a fire dancer in the street. Golden Delicious was a completely different animal from Hazel—a first-wave '90s alt-country band but deeply inspired by the Holy Modal Rounders. With washboard, fiddle, and tweaked versions of American standards, they could whip a crowd into a frenzy. Golden Delicious was like a train always on the edge of derailing, and again Pete seemed to calmly anchor it all.
Over the years since, I've seen him play in countless combos. Here's the thing about Pete: He is a monster of a musician. While most players reach a certain level and stay there, he has kept striving. His song-forward albums with his backing band Gossamer Wings are all fantastic. The title track off of his record Sweet Ona Rose is one of my favorites. Somewhere along the way Pete started playing swing jazz, taking guitar lessons, and teaching too. The swing combos that he plays in now are all killing good—the Portland Playboys (Texas swing), the Kung Pao Chickens (gypsy jazz), and the Stolen Sweets ('30s New Orleans swing). Kids in rock bands are often there for the scene and later drift off into what will become their lives. A fraction grow up and become working musicians devoted to a craft and a profession. They make music their lives. That's Pete.
If not for Pete Krebs, there would be no Jenny Finn Orchestra. Really, I wanted to play in the Stolen Sweets, but every time I went to see them, so perfectly balanced was the sound that there seemed to be no room for another musician. So instead, I decided to start my own '30s swing band and the result has been the Jenny Finn Orchestra. Just after I started the JFO, I decided I needed to learn more about gypsy jazz, and who to go to but Pete Krebs? Even as a musician with 20-plus years of experience and formal training under my belt, it was Pete who taught me how to play gypsy jazz/swing rhythm and how to approach the instrument in a way I'd never done before. And let's not forget the weekly open gypsy jazz jam session at the Moon and Sixpence that's been going for the last 10-plus years that was started by Pete, where many of Portland's gypsy players, myself included, first cut their teeth in the style.
—Twayn Williams, the Jenny Finn Orchestra
Adding on to Twayn's thoughts, I also likely wouldn't be the lead singer of the Jenny Finn Orchestra if it weren't for Pete. I was singing occasionally with the Stolen Sweets as a sub for Lara Michell, and there was one gig that Pete was really excited and nervous about—they were opening for the Hot Club of Cowtown at the Aladdin and he really wanted everything to go really well, as you can imagine. Well, Lara gets laryngitis, and they had to call me that morning to come in and sing. Twayn, now bandleader of the JFO, was at that show and got in touch with Pete to try and recruit me for his band. Pete was so kind and complimentary of my performances with the Sweets that it went a long way in giving me the confidence to go ahead and try singing lead on my own.
—Carrie Baldwin-Sayre, the Jenny Finn Orchestra
Pete and I got together very soon after I moved to Portland in 1997. He wanted to start a band playing Django Reinhardt music. I hadn't really listened to much Django at that point, and once I did, I thought he was a bit crazy! Pete, not Django—well, actually, Django is crazy too! So the group started, called the Kung Pao Chickens. I thought, why that name?! He said, "Who will ever forget a Chinese-food-dish-named band that plays Parisian swing?!" and I thought, you're right! I remember Pete having this great attitude that was like looking at the band as a humbling experiment to learn this music on stage. No gimmicks, no tricks, just studying this music and trying out weekly at our first gig, which was the Mad Hatter on Grand Ave. We had an amazing time through this period. I remember afternoons spending hours on my patio at my apartment playing with Pete. Just trying to soak in this music. I've always treasured his can-do attitude with anything and everything he does. I'm sure this attitude can and will help him now more than ever... and then I'm sure he'll be off on the next musical adventure. What a great person.
—Jon Neufeld, Black Prairie/Kung Pao Chickens
My favorite Pete story comes from a Stolen Sweets tour that took us through Michigan, my home state, in 2009. We had played a really fun show at Circus in Ann Arbor, to an über-enthusiastic University of Michigan college crowd. The big joke was how old we had all gotten. Each band member had received not the standard two, but FIVE drink tickets from the bar (Michiganders know how to lush it up right). Suffice it to say, we were well lubricated by evening's end. Some of my family friends had taken us into their home for the night, and we were all sharing one bathroom. In the middle of the night, I woke up to pee, and noticed that the bathroom light was already on. I knocked quietly, but there was no response. The door was slightly ajar, so I gently pushed it. On the toilet sat Pete, fast asleep, with his head fallen between his knees and pajamas down around his ankles. Who knows how long he'd been sitting there? The look on his face when he woke up in utter confusion is one I'll never forget. He smoothly quipped, "Oh. Hey, Jenny."
—Jen Bernard, the Stolen Sweets
Just wanted to say how fortunate I feel for having had the opportunity to work with Pete back when he was first exploring gypsy jazz and the music of Django Reinhardt. I remember Pete asking me how I felt about all the bands that had recently formed in the Portland area playing the style of music my group Everything's Jake had been playing since the mid-'70s. I told him I thought it was great to see so many players bringing their talent to gypsy jazz. I could tell he was genuinely concerned whether or not I was getting the proper respect for being somewhat of a retro swing pioneer. Looking back, I think this speaks to why Pete has been so successful, not just in music but in life. Love is the best medicine and you can bet there will be a whole lot of good medicine Wednesday night at the Secret Society Ballroom!
—Bryan Cole Darby, Everything's Jake
It was way back in the late '80s when Pete and I sat down together with beers in front of Escape from New York Pizza on NW 23rd. Pete was dating a friend of mine and we didn't know each other that well. I mostly recognized him as the guitarist and singer of Thrillhammer. Crackerbash (my band at the time) was in its infancy and both of us were excited about the changes we were feeling in the air. Grunge wasn't even grunge yet, but there were new bands up and down the I-5 corridor and the scene was becoming exciting again. We talked about this energy and our hopes and dreams for our bands and the Portland scene. I can still see his face on that day and remember feeling that I had found a kindred spirit in him.
Not long after that evening chat, Thrillhammer broke up and Pete started Hazel with Brady [Smith] and Jody [Bleyle]. Their energy and music personified all that we had talked about that evening in front of the pizza joint. This new spirit, in the scene, the breaking of the old mold and the new one created in its place, shone in every song and every note. This was new Portland. Within a couple years the world found out about the Northwest and that new energy was bottled and sold like soda pop. It became a commodity, and those of us who were there when it was new were left to wonder what to do—fall in step or find a new trail? Pete and I talked about starting something jazzy, but the one time we got together it was obvious that none of us there knew all that much about jazz composition or musicianship. For me that meant going back to my bombastic ways; for Pete it was a challenge, and one he met full on.
After that I watched him become a better and better guitarist. My dad and I would go to the LaurelThirst to watch him play happy hour shows with older and more competent players until the day that he caught up with them. From hillbilly folk to gypsy jazz, over the years he just got better and better. Dad would say, "That is what practice gets you," needling me for my lazy ways, as we watched Pete become a musician and not just another rock guitarist. He turned his back on the fame he could have easily acquired being on Sub Pop and chose something that was more humble and self-enriching. Yep, he is that good.
I think of those old days and my friends from that time. Elliott [Smith], Pete, and I. The poet, the musician, and the comic. What a funny trio indeed.