Portland, Oregon: The Pacific Northwest Music Town That Shows Up

Sleater-Kinney at the Crystal Ballroom
KEX Portland
Jojo
Deadstock Coffee
Pok Pok
Metz at the Doug Fir Lounge

“It’s important to show up for the people you love,” Carrie Brownstein proclaims to the audience at the Crystal Ballroom on the final night of Sleater-Kinney’s two-part homecoming gig in Portland, Oregon.

Specifically, the guitarist was speaking politically, referring to fighting against social injustice. Activism has always been at the heart of the band’s ethos. But one couldn’t help relating Brownstein’s sentiment to Sleater-Kinney themselves: the riot grrrls have had a bit of a tough go lately, with the departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss. Here, though—in their hometown, in a packed house filled with fans that made the venue’s famous floating dance floor levitate—everyone showed up.

Portland is nestled in the banks of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and framed by thick forest and the snow-dipped Mount Hood. The lush Pacific Northwest surroundings come second only to the creativity that blooms in the Rose City. Filled with artists, designers, culinary visionaries, and musicians, it’s a cultural mecca. There’s something in the water, indeed.

While Portland’s always been known as an eclectic music town (the Kingsmen, Esperanza Spalding, and the Dandy Warhols all call it home) plenty of locals will tell you that, right now, the scene is more diverse, inclusive, and vibrant than it’s ever been.

Queer, Indigenous artists like Black Belt Eagle Scout are getting more visibility and making glorious noise. Hip-hop, which has a complicated history in Portland, is thriving thanks to monthly showcases, rising stars (Karma Rivera, Maarquii), and stalwarts such as Cool Nutz who continue to promote the culture in the city. There’s Sávila, a Mexican American band that plays with cumbia and salsa rhythms. Their guitarist, Fabi Reyna, founded She Shreds, a female-focused guitar magazine.

It’s no secret that Portland has seen an influx of growth in recent years. But the population boom has contributed to an exciting time for the music scene. It’s helped it evolve. Lifelong residents and newcomers alike are engaged. They’re inspired. And, together, they create a powerful force that reverberates beautifully into many other corners of the city.

DESTINATIONS

KEX Portland
100 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd

Housed in the century-old Vivian Apartments on Northeast MLK, this boutique hotel has a design-forward aesthetic, with a variety of accommodations from shared rooms to private suites. The concept for KEX was born in Iceland, where their flagship is already a hip landing place. And, like in Reykjavík, local art and culture is at the forefront of the experience in Portland. The lobby bar, where you can enjoy Nordic-meets-Pacific Northwest cuisine, is a modular space, doubling as an intimate venue for live music nearly every night. Some Rose City history glows in the outdoor courtyard: the Music Box marquee from the now-demolished landmark Fox Theatre. Downstairs has a multi-use gallery, too, outfitted like an old boxing gym with a vintage punching bag. In fact, the entire hotel is filled with antiques sourced from Europe and Oregon’s surrounding areas—the wood floor in the lobby was salvaged from an abandoned train depot across the Columbia River. It adds to KEX’s warm, lived-in vibe that makes travelers feel right at home. Quick tip: take a moment to admire the wallpaper; the magical scene of puffins, horses, and fish was done by local tattoo artist Melanie Nead.

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Ave

Founded in 1892, the PAM is the oldest art museum on the West Coast. It boasts an expansive and impressive permanent collection, as well as exciting traveling exhibitions. On until January 20 is Hank Willis Thomas’ All Things Being Equal…. The first career retrospective of the Brooklyn-based artist features over 90 works, including conceptual photography, videos, and sculpture, that survey and critique American ideals from sports to civil rights from the Black gaze. One of the most affecting pieces is “14,719 (2018),” a large-scale installation the PAM commissioned from Thomas. It resembles an American flag, with the number in the title relating to how many white stars are stitched into the navy fabric—and each star representing someone who died from gun violence in the U.S. in 2018.

EAT/DRINK

Jojo
3582 SE Powell Blvd

If you ask around for the best friend chicken, locals will point you towards this food truck. Whether you order a classic southern fried chicken sandwich, a boneless thigh with spicy Thai fried Brussels sprouts on the side, or one of their many rotating specials, you can’t go  wrong. The offerings are juicy, flavourful, and messy. Bring napkins and an appetite.

The Solo Club
2110 NW Raleigh St

This eatery and cocktail lounge serve up Mediterranean-inspired plates and excellent brunch on the weekend (the shakshuka is top notch). Their drink menu prominently features Amari, bitters, and vermouth in both classic and creative concoctions. Plus, with kitschy details including original barstools and light fixtures from its historic sister-restaurant, Besaw’s, you’ll want to linger longer just to marvel at the décor.

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division

Pok Pok has become so popular for its Southeast Asian street food that it’s opened up a few locations around Portland and even spawned a cookbook, but this one on SE Division is the original. Make sure you try Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings: chicken wings marinated in sugar, deep-fried, then tossed with caramelized fish sauce and garlic. The delicious recipe is inspired by something daytime cook Ike enjoyed at home in Vietnam.

Deadstock Coffee
408 NW Couch St

Sneaker-themed and judgement-free, this coffee shop is at once a creative hub and the place to get a damn good brew. They roast their own beans and have all sorts of fun stuff on the menu, including the LeBronald Palmer (sweet tea, coffee, and lemonade) that’s named for a rare edition of the LeBron 9 Nike shoe. Plus, you haven’t seen latte art until you’ve seen a kick in your caffè crema.

SHOP

Wildfang
404 SW 10th Ave

A go-to for Tegan and Sara and Janelle Monáe, this boutique specializes in gender-neutral styles. Think everyday essentials that look beyond typical ideas of women’s fashion. Their Wild Feminist Collection, which includes everything from fleece and t-shirts to tux blazers, is one of their signatures.

Mississippi Records
5202 N Albina Ave

This little place has been a collector go-to for more than 15 years for its selection of rare blues, soul, and jazz vinyl that also comes at an extremely reasonable price. A quick peek around the shop and you’ll spot hard-to-find titles from John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Blind Willie Mitchell. Mississippi also operates as a label, specializing mostly in re-issues. It all firmly abides by its “Love Over Gold” motto, which emphasizes founder Eric Isaacson’s vision that decisions here are made in the name of love, not money.

Music Millennium
3158 E Burnside St

Opened in 1969, this Portland institution just celebrated its 50th anniversary. And, as the city’s oldest record shop, it’s as much of a destination as it is the place to find quite literally any vinyl, cassette, or CD imaginable. From Angel Olsen and Orville Peck to the Buzzcocks and David Bowie, bins of $2 wax, as well as a thorough selection of rare 45s, Music Millennium has it all—even their own merch. Set aside an hour or two just to explore this awesome space.

Powell’s Books
1005 W Burnside St 

No trip to Portland is complete without a pilgrimage to Powell’s. Known as the largest new and used independent bookstore in the world, it first opened in a former car dealership on Northwest Burnside in 1971, a flagship location that, following a big expansion in 1999, sprawls an entire city block. Now, Powell’s boasts five different locations across PDX, with an inventory upwards of two million volumes.

She Shreds

Founded by Fabi Reyna to provide a visible and inclusive platform for female, non-binary, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC guitarists and bassists, She Shreds is redefining how players from underrepresented communities are presented in the greater guitar industry. Features from what it’s like being pregnant on tour to women instrumentalists in tropical music are just a glimpse into the topics this magazine dives into. “Reimagining, reinventing and redefining language, imagery, design, and music journalism all play a part in how She Shreds aims to push culture forward,” Reyna tells BeatRoute. Pick up an issue at Powell’s.

NIGHTLIFE

Metz at the Doug Fir Lounge.

Doug Fir Lounge
830 E Burnside St 

Dressed up like a log cabin in homage to its location’s roots (Burnside was once a logging road) this iconic venue plays host to some of the best indie and up-and-comers in the city. The performance space is intimate, with a sunken floor and open concept, so there’s not a bad seat in the house. The upstairs restaurant is open all day from 7am until late and features an exceptional science-based cocktail menu. Don’t leave without trying a Nitro Old Fashioned from the north end of the bar.

The Crystal Ballroom
1332 W Burnside St

Since opening in 1914, the Crystal Ballroom has seen everything from persecution for jazz concerts and square dances during the Great Depression, to Buffalo Springfield in the 60s and the biggest names in music today. There’s even an urban legend that Little Richard fired guitarist Jimi Hendrix onstage here. Along with history, sky-high ceilings, murals, and magnificent chandeliers add extra sparkle to the experience of seeing a show at this gorgeous space.

The Lovecraft Bar
421 SE Grand Ave

With a huge pentagon overlooking the dance floor, a room with a coffin in it, and an eight-foot-tall statue of Cthulhu, the octopus-man-dragon creature dreamed up by writer H.P. Lovecraft, this horror-themed bar lives up to its namesake. It’s also well-known for its industrial, goth, punk, and dark electro-dance nights.

Jack London Revue
529 SW 4th Ave

Tucked away in the basement of the Rialto Poolroom, the Jack London Revue has a speakeasy feel to it with, as they put it, “the modern bells and whistles of a cutting-edge 21st century club.” The place to see live jazz and an important facilitator in making space for it in the city, the venue also hosts a number of fantastic weekly nights including Neo Soul Sundays with Rich Hunter, a figure of Portland’s hip-hop community.

Aztec Willie’s
1501 NE Broadway St

Taqueria by day, salsa club by night. Voted as the best spot for Latin dancing in Portland, Aztec Willie’s includes a variety of styles from bachata to timba. You don’t have to be a pro to join the fun. In fact, there’s usually a dance lesson before the floor opens up into a giant party.

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