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Portland’s vibrant music scene is no secret. Our city boasts such influential bands as Modest Mouse, the Decemberists and the Shins. Artists including Stephen Malkmus, M. Ward and Grammy-winner Esperanza Spalding call the Rose City home, and the late, great singer-songwriter Elliott Smith rose to fame here as well. But it’s not only the homegrown talent that helps make Portland such a great city for music lovers. We’re also home to a plethora of notable music venues. Sure, plenty of people pour into the Moda Center to see Top 40 acts and music legends, but it’s Portland’s diversity of music venues that makes concerts here so unique. For the uninitiated, we’ve put together a non-exhaustive guide to some of Portland’s best music hotspots.
When it comes to small venues, you won’t find a more popular one in Portland than the Doug Fir Lounge. Located on East Burnside, the Doug Fir may be one of Portland’s younger music venues, but it’s become one of the most desirable spots in the entire city to see music. With a rustic yet hip vibe, the Doug Fir blends a log cabin feel with unique glass design and mood lighting — and that’s just the popular restaurant, lounge and patio upstairs.
The building was a Chinese restaurant for decades, until it was renovated in 2004 along with its adjoining Jupiter Hotel. The inside of the building was gutted, but the large wooden beams that support the basement inspired the development of the log cabin look that makes the venue so distinctive. With a capacity of 299 people, the predominately standing-room basement music venue offers limited lounge seating. While many local acts and smaller touring bands fill out the music calendar (which offers at least 25 shows a month) the Doug Fir also draws in major acts looking to play special small gigs. Bands like the Shins, Alabama Shakes, M83 and Cake have all played there, despite typically selling out huge venues. There’s a reason that Rolling Stone magazine and USA Today have named the Doug Fir one of the best music venues in America.
Of similar size and history is Mississippi Studios. Built in 2003, the venue is owned and operated by musicians, who took special care designing the space with acoustics in mind. For several years after its birth in the historic Mississippi district, the venue only had enough space for 85 people, and it was referred to affectionately as a “living room.” In 2009, a massive renovation took place and the venue was increased to a standing-room capacity of around 300 (there is also very limited seating in the balcony). Rugs on the stage and lamps on its backdrop (along with some artfully designed kick drums) preserve a homey feel, and it’s a premier location for those wishing to get up close and personal with the musicians.
Not all the small venues are new; Portland’s most historic small venue is the Star Theater. Located in Old Town, right across the street from the much roomier Roseland, the Star Theater has stood since 1911, though it’s gone through many openings and closings throughout its colorful history. Upon its opening 105 years ago, the Star screened films and was one of the only “semi-fireproof picture shows” in Portland, as the nitrate-base film used at that time was highly flammable. Throughout the subsequent decades, the Star Theater played host to burlesque shows and eventually adult films. In more recent decades, it was owned for a time by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who used it for storage. Like many old buildings, the Star Theater even houses some rather specific ghost stories, including several instances of performers stopping shows due to seeing a woman in distress — a woman who then disappears. Its stage bedecked in impressive red curtains, the Star Theater now plays host to smaller musical acts, tribute bands and all manner of variety shows.
Just south of S.E. Powell, near the Ross Island Bridge, stands the historic Aladdin Theater. A brightly lit marquee and a large neon sign complete with genie lamp make it hard to miss. Opening Christmas Day 1927 as a vaudeville house called Geller’s Theater, the venue was rechristened the Aladdin several years later. The theater went on to screen family films for decades, before taking a detour into more prurient fare in the ’70s and ’80s. Under new ownership in the early ’90s, the Aladdin was transformed into a live performance venue. Now playing host to both concerts and comedy shows, the Aladdin possesses a vintage feel and fits 620 people in its fully seated theater, which includes an ample balcony. The stage is flanked by faux box-seat designs and the venue’s tall ceiling makes performances seem that much grander.
For those seeking music with a harder edge, the Hawthorne Theater plays host to most of Portland’s mid-sized metal, industrial and hip-hop shows. Situated on the corner of S.E. Hawthorne and César Chávez Blvd., the Hawthorne Theater tends to cater to all-ages shows more than the average venue, and it’s not uncommon to see a line of young people stretched around the corner awaiting entry. Often an energetic space, the venue can be prone to overheating at times, and fidelity purists may not come away completely happy with the venue’s acoustics. Still, the Hawthorne often hosts those shows that you won’t see anywhere else around town.
Meanwhile, the Wonder Ballroom serves as one of the most diverse mid-sized venues in the city. With both a partially seated balcony and a recently renovated basement lounge with a hip, lodge-like vibe, the Wonder offers plenty of opportunities to steal away from the main-floor crowds for a moment. Located just off M.L.K. Blvd. at 128 N.E. Russell, the venue hosts both all-ages and 21+ shows, splitting the main floor down the middle with a barrier during the former. If ticket sales are low, they don’t hesitate to rope off the balcony, but the downstairs lounge is always in full operation.
And finally, Portland’s newest music venue, Revolution Hall, resides in the former Washington High School building (which operated from 1924–1981) in the Buckman neighborhood. To get to the theater, one must walk through long, winding corridors flanked by old lockers, and the entire newly renovated building (which also includes office and retail spaces, in addition to two bars) manages to feel both old and new at the same time. Fitting 850 patrons in its seated theater (the original school auditorium seats are quite narrow with little room for arm rests), the venue opened in early 2015. With the schoolhouse vibe, dozens of craft beers on tap and even helpful parking attendants in its back lot, Revolution Hall is already becoming Portland’s next mid-sized concert hotspot.
Bigger acts tend to play shows at venues concentrated downtown. The Roseland Theater in Old Town lights up a flashing sign along Burnside every night they host a show. With a lobby that sells snacks and walls covered by framed photos of the famous musicians who have walked through its doors, the Roseland also has a smaller concert space and bar on its main floor — complete with a live feed of the performances upstairs played on closed circuit TV, no tickets required. Upstairs, the main floor is usually all ages, with a wrap-around balcony that offers limited seating and a bar that frequently fills to capacity. Though the metal detectors at the door are a bit off-putting, the Roseland is the venue of choice for many notable bands, and even legends like Prince have been known to recently play high-priced shows in the 1,400-person-capacity venue.
Perhaps the most iconic concert space in Portland is the Crystal Ballroom. Opened in 1914 as Cotillion Hall, this three-story building is situated a hop, skip and a jump away from Powell’s Books and is registered as a historical landmark. It predominantly hosted square dances in its first few decades of existence. In the 1960s, the Crystal Ballroom began hosting such R & B legends as James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Ike & Tina Turner. The ballroom shut its doors to public events from the ’70s through the ’90s and was largely used as a bohemian studio space. But in 1997, McMenamins reopened the building as a concert venue with its distinctive “floating” dance floor (it bounces during shows when people jump up and down). Equipped with a large main floor and a small balcony, the Crystal Ballroom still features impressive chandeliers, murals and large arched windows. For smaller acts, Lola’s Room on the second level also serves as a fine spot to see some live music or to attend themed dance parties.
All music lovers in Portland owe it to themselves to attend a show at the ornate Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Seating almost 2,800 people, this glorious theater on S.W. Broadway can’t be missed, with its 65-foot flashing “Portland” marquee out front. “The Schnitz” has been a feature of downtown Portland’s performing arts scene since opening as the Portland Publix Theater in 1928. After operating mostly as a movie house for decades, the theater shifted focus to a concert hall beginning in the ’70s. Concertgoers can now enjoy elaborate crystal chandeliers in the expansive lobby, where all beverages must be consumed. The fully seated orchestra level and balcony, staffed by many helpful ushers, creates a swanky atmosphere that makes any concert experience that much more memorable.
During the drier months, Portland showcases some spectacular outdoor music events. Perhaps one of our most notable outdoor venues is just a short drive outside the city limits. There’s something special about a concert space nestled amongst the trees, and McMenamins Edgefield, out in Troutdale, offers just that. While some concerts offer reserved seats (and there’s always a limited amount of wheelchair-accessible space), most shows focus on general admission grass seating (fitting about 4,000). Dusk often settles in before shows ends, with the twilight providing added ambience.
But you don’t have to leave town to see outdoor concerts. Pioneer Courthouse Square often offers music events during the summer months, when live music can be enjoyed while surrounded by the impressive downtown architecture. And Tom McCall Waterfront Park plays host to a number of music festivals throughout the summer, including the Waterfront Blues Festival and MusicfestNW, Portland’s largest music festival.
However, the most unique festival-going experience takes place out in Happy Valley and Pendarvis Farm. The annual three-day Pickathon festival offers camping options for attendees to enjoy the outdoors while fostering a sense of community during a musical event that shuns the typical excesses of other music fests. In an effort to cut down on wastefulness, you won’t find plastic bottles served at Pendarvis Farm. As a family-friendly music festival, kids under 12 get free admission. With a variety of camping and parking option packages available, Pickathon has become a sterling example of an off-the-beaten-path music festival that puts guests first and foremost.
With so many options available, Portland truly is a great city for music. By broadening your concert-going horizons, you can find transcendent musical experiences within a variety of walls (or spaces with no walls at all). Shake things up and go to a show at a venue you’ve never been to before and you’ll discover yet another aspect of our city that makes Portland culture so eclectic.