Spring Arts Preview 2024

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Spring 2024 Gallery Shows in Portland: A Chorus of Art About Work

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Portland Has Two Great Listening Bars, Both Alike in Dignity

We compare Sonder Listening Bar and Decibel Sound & Drink, and recommend they swap names.

Future Now at Portland Art Museum Unboxes the Future of Sneakers

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The arrival of listening bars—meticulously designed haunts built around the playing of vinyl records on high-end stereo equipment—in the Portland metro area was inevitable. A mainstay of Japanese musical culture since the ’50s (an estimated 600 audiophile cafés and bars are currently in operation there), the concept has been imported to the US over the past few years, with a recent arrival being Shibuya, a hotspot in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood that opened last fall. 

It was around that same time that Sonder Listening Bar arrived in our neck of the woods. A similarly themed bar Decibel Sound & Drink has been operating in our area since 2019. Both are tucked into somewhat unexpected locales. Sonder can be found in a small Hollywood District strip mall between two resale clothing stores—a block away from the neighborhood’s namesake movie theater. Decibel, meanwhile, is wedged into a corner lot in Milwaukie, close to an Orange Line MAX Station, on the outskirts of the downtown core.

Both spots stick to the basics, plying denizens with craft cocktails and small bites while engulfing their bodies with music. The similarities end there.

The vibes at these spaces are wildly different—so much so that it would really make more sense for them to swap names. Sonder’s owners Tyson Koski and Natasha Stille may call their establishment a listening bar, but they seem to be aiming for a far livelier and more active experience. Since opening last June, they’ve welcomed in an impressive roster of DJs, such as house music legends Mark Grusane and Tony Humphries, and live electronic artists Best Available Technology and Carly Barton. 

“It’s not as stuffy and definitely more social,” Koski said of Sonder, when we spoke in the fall. “In Japan, a lot of [listening bars] are tiny, and they don’t lend themselves to having a small dance floor. I think when you redirect the focus back to the music and exposing people to new music it becomes a very different thing. People feel like they can come back.” 

Koski, himself a former DJ whose massive vinyl library is packed into every available space at Sonder, is the one responsible for putting together the club’s impressive sound system. The mixture of large Bag End and EAW speakers sound crisp and present, even at a moderate volume. When a great selector is working through a set of dance music and the levels are turned up, it feels like your internal organs are getting a deep tissue massage. 

Sonder's DJ booth - Mercury Staff

There is, however, a surprisingly calming quality to the aesthetics of Sonder. Stille has packed the room with plants and charmingly mismatched furnishings. In the glare of the afternoon, it reads as shabby chic. Under the glow of the red and yellow lighting during a dance night, the space has the rough hewn futuristic feel of Blade Runner. The bites on the menu, like a nice spinach and artichoke dip and tacos, read as warm comfort food rather than high end bar fare. 

A more stereotypical listening bar experience can be had over at Decibel. The low lighting, comfy mid century modern couches and chairs, shareable plates, and stacks of stereo equipment magazines encourage patrons to settle in. The cocktails, especially the rotating cast of seasonal fare—like the delectable umami egg nog-like Kung Fu Pandan—are inventive and inviting. 

The inescapable centerpiece of Decibel is its stereo system. The music pumps out through a pair of tube amplifiers—they were made by JJ Electronics, but look like they were rescued from a late ’50s Soviet science lab—that sit atop a cabinet packed with LPs. On either side of this cabinet sit two speakers (each roughly the size of a smart car) that were apparently rescued from a theater in Detroit. 

Over the course of my visit to Decibel, the staff worked through three albums: a 1966 soul / funk gem from Memphis queen Carla Thomas, Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty’s hit album City To City, and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Each one sounded spectacular, with the sax solo from Rafferty’s “Baker Street” cutting through the air like a bottle rocket and the revelation of some unexpectedly fresh nuances in well-worn tunes like “Oh! Darling” and “Here Comes The Sun.” 

It was truly hard to tell from just one visit whether the folks scattered around Decibel were there for the music or simply to have a cozy spot to hang on a cold weeknight in March. The only indication that anyone cared about the audio was when two boomer gents were spotted drooling over the tube amps. And when the turntable found a very loud pop on the second side of Abbey Road, the clientele was momentarily snapped out of their reverie and reminded that while Decibel does aim to offer, as they put it, “the highest quality music and audio experience,” even they are at the mercy of life’s little imperfections.

Sonder Listening Bar, 1925 NE 42nd, Ste E, Wednesday-Saturday, 5 pm-2 am, thesonderbar.com; Decibel Sound & Drink, 11380 SE 21st, Milwaukie, Tuesday-Thursday 4 pm-10 pm, Friday & Saturday 4-11 pm, decibel-pdx.com