Seattle’s cooler cousin
Satyrican nightclub might have been the place where Kurt Cobain first set eyes on Courtney Love, but this Oregon city’s musical legacy neither starts nor ends with grunge. Seattle’s cooler cousin, tucked away in the rainy north-west of the USA, Portland has a music scene that’s nothing if not eclectic. From the underground indie-chic featured in the New American Noise: Electric Noise documentary, to bluegrass, punk and house, Portland has it all. And, as befitting musicians from America’s Greenest City, Portland’s soundsmiths urge their fellow citizens to sample the home-grown wares and listen locally. But the rest of the world is curious, too: what’s so special about Portland?
Louie, Louie in hardcore heaven
Back in the early 1960s, Portland band The Kingsmen’s cover of Richard Berrry’s Louie, Louie blew America’s cotton socks off, but it was the 1980s when Portland really came into its own as a kick-ass breeding ground for hardcore punk. Bands like The Wipers, Poison Idea, the Stiphnoyds and Final Warning all cut their teeth here. The Stiphnoyds were early members of the Alternative Arts Association, a punk-group organisation that were trying to spread the word about their new sound, and The Wipers’ frontman, Greg Sage, said, ‘We were even farther out in left field than the punk movement because we didn’t even wish to be classified.’ Now, that’s hardcore.
Singing in the rain
On to the 1990s: while Seattle was grabbing the grunge headlines a couple of hours’ drive north, Portland was rocking out to Everclear and Elliott Smith. Everclear’s lament, Portland Rain, might have been a love-song (of sorts), but it’s also a shout-out to the local weather – that sad, cold, melancholy climate mentioned in American Noise that seems to fertilise a huge amount of musical creativity. Singer-songwriter Smith, who went to school in Portland and lived there throughout the mid-90s, hit the big-time when fellow Portland artist, Gus Van Sant, featured his tracks in his film, Good Will Hunting; one of them, Miss Misery, even got an Academy Award nomination.
Punk edge fiddling and hipster house
Stepping outside the rock world, we can’t forget Portland’s bluegrass scene. Native stars include Foghorn Stringband – described by the press as old-time mountain fiddling with a punk edge – and The Water Tower Bucket Boys, who started as buskers and moved onto square dances. And every year the city hosts the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering, a grass-roots festival celebrating traditional Appalachian-style stringband musicians. On the other side of the dance-floor, house music’s getting big in Portland, too: hipster-house or chill-rave artists like Chromatics, Glass Candy, and, more recently, the Miracles Club are busy pumping beats out of Oregon. The Miracles Club’s Honey Owens and Rafael Fauria have their own label, too, Ecstacy, catering to a small but mighty Portland dance scene.
You’ve probably heard of other Portland exports, like The Dandy Warhols, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, Blitzen Trapper and The Decemberists – but that’s just a tiny sample. Want more? Check out the documentary, then get to Oregon and get your groove on!