After more than two decades in business, the Ash Street Saloon will officially close its doors following a final show New Year’s Eve. It’s another casualty in the city’s ever-changing landscape; there’s still no new tenant ready to take over the space, but it’s safe to bet it won’t be another music venue.
Though the downtown watering hole might not have the cool factor of clubs like the Blackbird and Satyricon (which closed in 2003 and 2010, respectively), Ash Street’s community extends well beyond the city’s music scenes. It’s always been a slightly grimier alternative, especially over the past decade, as Portland’s grit has been scrubbed away by shiny high-rises, hip breweries, and upscale eateries.
Since opening on Halloween of 1994, it’s remained a sort of rock ’n’ roll boot camp for local bands. The Grammy-nominated Portugal. The Man played their first show at Ash Street, and Red Fang cut their teeth there before breaking through. Heatmiser, Dead Moon, Richmond Fontaine, Cool Nutz, and hundreds of other Portland groups also ripped up the Ash stage, along with notable out-of-towners like Macklemore and Flipper.
With Ash Street regularly hosting shows seven nights a week and covers that rarely exceed five bucks, some shows are bound to be duds. But it’s hard to think of another venue that’s as welcoming to acts from any genre.
“I inherited a process,” says Barret Stolte, who’s worked at Ash Street since 2011 and has booked shows there for nearly five years. “You’ve got to keep an open mind, or it won’t work. I hear people [say] playing Ash Street is like getting thrown back down to the minor leagues. And it’s like, man, they’re taking it as though we’re trying to be the thing they’re criticizing us for not being. It’s silly.”
The venue recently hosted a wake for fallen punk hero Fred Cole of Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows. Now, for its final week, Ash Street’s putting on six genre-specific shows (it’ll also have a garage sale January 9, for those who want to buy the club’s art, furniture, signs, and dishes). After that, it’s all gone.
But here’s hoping Ash Street’s spirit lives on. According to Stolte, the philosophy behind the venue is simple: “Anybody can do it. Everybody should do it. And you should do it right now.”
The best way to fully appreciate the Ash Street Saloon’s legacy is to hear stories from those who have embodied that philosophy over the past 23 years.
Barret Stolte (Ash Street booker):
“One of my earliest memories is coming here when I was 22 and a delivery driver; it was 1998. The bicycle messengers all hung out here—and there is a ghost of those people still here to this day, lunchtime regulars. There’d be 50 bicycle messengers, and I’d stop by and pick up packages, and they’d be drinking and selling weed. Some of them still come through. Portland is losing a connective path to a lot of things that are gone, and also this ‘weird Portland’ that people like to lionize. But it’s about the people who do it, not the buildings they do it in.”
Toody Cole (Dead Moon, Pierced Arrows):
“I remember Ash Street Saloon way back before the expansion into the larger venue it is today. We had many wonderful gigs and memories there with Dead Moon, our first live show as Pierced Arrows (a sold-out show with Poison Idea), and finally with our duo, Fred and Toody. Best of all is Heather du Lac—always our mainstay, twirling those knobs on the soundboard, cranking Fred’s monitors to 11, and running up and down the stairs in her bare feet. Gonna miss it all.”
Dwight Dickinson (musician and host of the weekly Ash Street variety show Dwight Church):
“There’s no place left that promotes the artist and art in its raw form. There’s a certain freedom you need as an artist to find yourself and grow, and the Ash Street stage offered that. Plus, we have regulars who are already homeless due to gentrification, and they’ve had a place to stay warm most of the day thanks to a caring staff and an owner who knows it’s not all about worrying about your bottom line.”
Kevin Creelman (Volcker):
“Heather the sound girl is the best at what she does in town. Portland is losing a great venue where new and old bands can play on a consistent basis. Being in a band that has played there many times, we are kind of at a loss as to where we will be able to play at the same rate as we did at Ash Street.”
Jonathan Harn (former guitarist of Raise the Bridges):
“Aside from maybe Doug Fir, there was no better sound quality, either onstage or in the crowd, than Ash Street. Nearly all of my favorite live music experiences occurred at the place, as did many of my favorite memories of being a young degenerate. I had engagement photos taken there. We shot a music video there. We met characters larger than life at Ash Street (rest in peace, Lefty), and we met self-proclaimed visionaries. I’m curious to see what pops up to fill the significant hole that will undoubtedly be left. It is the end of an era, one that helped make Portland the indie rock mecca it has become.”
Joey DeMartini (Disenchanter):
“Ash Street is not the first venue I played in town when I got here, but it was always the pro staple venue, in my opinion. The room and stage, sound, location, and, more recently, the staff have really made it a favorite spot for me in a few bands over the years. I think every local band I’ve heard of has played Ash Street. I’m just glad to have one more go at it before it’s over.”
Amy Sabin-Logan (Shadowlands, Phantom Lights):
“Heather doesn’t take any crap and knows her stuff—she managed to wrangle the wiliest of us. I also love the space itself and the historic feel of the building, even though the stage was too high, and I was always concerned about falling off. The place has a special old-town feel about it and hosted all the same bands as the Blackbird and Satyricon. Dive bars and restaurants with room for live music could be persuaded to have shows knowing their sales would increase—back in the day the Jasmine Tree and Porky’s Pub come to mind. In this growing city I hope people will claim spaces for making music and art, rather than just complaining.”
Jessa Graves(J. Graves):
“Rigidly seated at the far edge of my newly turned 21-year-old self’s bed, I nervously hovered over the send button. This was it—a booking email to the Ash Street Saloon. It was a simple request to play a show, any show... hell, I just wanted to play my music on a stage. Over the years I’ve been afforded countless opportunities, formed lasting, meaningful, and lifelong relationships, and was given a chance to do what I love most in this world: play music. I am forever grateful for what the folks at Ash Street have done for me, for my music, and for so many others in this community. It was never just a venue; it was a home away from home.”