Over the past few years, Portland media outlets (this one included) have kept a weary tally of clubs shuttered by rising rents, lamenting the shrinking options for underage music fans. That issue persists today—how venues that serve alcohol (and rely on drink sales to survive) can allow minors without breaking rules imposed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Though being able to attend concerts might seem trivial to adults, for kids it can be a vital lifeline to engage with their community, seek support, and develop their own self-expression. More broadly, allowing everyone—regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status—equal access to these opportunities dismantles the exclusivity of who gets to experience art and have a voice in it.
Portland’s steady decline in all-ages music venues hasn’t necessarily improved: The year-old Fremont Theater closed last November. In May, the owner of Analog Café was accused of sexual harassment, which led some local and touring bands to boycott playing shows there. And just last week, Anarres Infoshop—an all-ages radical community space in St. Johns—announced that after struggling financially for the past few months, it will host its final concert on Sunday, August 5.
But it’s not all bad news: Vegan restaurant and punk venue Black Water Bar continues to prove it’s possible to have a mixed-ages space where alcohol is served. Several venues like the Roseland Theater, Wonder Ballroom, Hawthorne Theatre, and Crystal Ballroom frequently host all-ages shows, albeit with awkward stanchions separating drinkers from the under-21 crowd (PDX Pop Now! co-founder Cary Clarke once referred to them as “the moat”). Mid-sized clubs like Mississippi Studios, Holocene, and Doug Fir periodically host early-evening all-ages shows in addition to later shows (like Strfkr’s upcoming gigs at Doug Fir in September). And some businesses have become unexpected hubs for all-ages shows, like Knockout Taco on Northeast Killingsworth.
There are also several organizations working hard to make music accessible for minors in Portland: Ethos and My Voice Music, which strive to bring music education to kids, regardless of socioeconomic status; Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls and School of Rock, which both offer after-school and summer camp music lessons; Friends of Noise, the local nonprofit “that aims to create an all-ages music and arts venue” à la the Vera Project in Seattle (in the meantime, they host monthly concerts and workshops at S1 about topics like stage fright, how to set up a PA, and media relations); and, of course, PDX Pop Now!, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this weekend.
This year’s bill includes Portland’s septuagenarian soul legend Ural Thomas and his riotous backing band the Pain, who released the 7-inch single “Vibrations” earlier this summer to preview Thomas’ first LP of original songs, The Right Tune, which is due this fall. Then there’s psychedelic coven Blackwater Holylight, who summon the unholy intensity of Black Sabbath on their recent self-titled debut. Nick Normal plays lo-fi, Devo-indebted pop-punk, while Mr. Wrong calls back to riot grrrl bands of yore on their 2017 LP Babes in Boyland. Also on the lineup: anime-loving rapper/producer Fountaine, who released one of my favorite local hip-hop records of last year with H.F.I.L. (Hell for Infinite Losers). Plus, youth performers from Friends of Noise and My Voice Music will open both days.
Even if it’s just for a weekend, PDX Pop Now! exemplifies what an all-ages event should be: It’s centrally located at AudioCinema (under the Hawthorne Bridge), it’s volunteer-run, it’s free, and the genre-spanning lineup reflects the many pockets of the city’s thriving music scenes. Plus, the nonprofit produces a two-disc compilation album from local artists and hosts benefits and outreach programs ahead of the festival each year. Portland’s cultural landscape is changing—for better and for worse—but events like PDX Pop Now! reveal the invaluable work being done to prioritize accessibility.