DANNY ROBINS' INDIE TRAVEL GUIDE TO...PORTLAND
This week on the Indie Travel Guide we travel to Oregon and, more specifically, the fair and very indie city of Portland.
So, why go to Portland?
Well, it's nice obviously. It is often voted America's greenest city and is one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world. It's a place a lot of people fall in love with and choose to settle in - over half the population are people who chose to move there.
It's the biggest city between San Francisco and Seattle and like those cities it encapsulates the laid back Pacific Coast vibe. It's a city with an independent state of mind - chains aren't encouraged here. Whether it's coffee shops, breweries, record shops or bands, it's all about being indie. The Bush administration apparently used to refer to it as 'Little Beirut' because of the amount of protestors he would encounter there, the city had the first openly gay mayor of a big city in the US and they gave Obama his biggest crowd during his presidential campaign in 2008.
It's strangely split into 5 areas. North, NW, NE, SW and SE. The Willamette River splits the city between East and West and Burnside St splits the city North and South. On one side it's an hour or so from the coast and on the other an hour away from Mt Hood (where they filmed the exterior shots for The Shining!).
The main reason, though, why you'd go to Portland is just the sheer overwhelming amount of quality indie music that's come out of, or is coming out of the place. It's got to be one of the most indie cities in the world.
Who's Who of Portland Musos...
We're talking... The Shins, The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Gossip, The Dandy Warhols, the late Elliott Smith and Riot Girrl female punk legends Sleater-Kinney (named after a street in nearby Washington) - all these guys lived in Portland and most still do.
Johnny Marr has a house there and Stephen Malkmus from Pavement is a bit of a local celeb - occasionally to be spotted doing pub quizzes with the girls from Sleater-Kinney so I'm told.
Oh and how about this for Indie history? Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love first met there - in the Satyricon, sadly demolished just a few weeks ago.
And finally, one non-musical man with an indie state of mind who hails from Portland is Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.
Where to go...
In their song about Portland, 'Light Rail Coyote', Sleater-Kinney sing, "if you wanna be a friend of mine, cross the river to the east side" and it's true that most of the indie haunts, where you're likely to spot a Malkmus or a Modest Mouse, are on the eastside.
The song goes on to say "And Burnside will be our street / where the kids and the hookers meet / diners and strip club junk / bookstores and punk rock clubs." There's plenty of all of those things. The area around Burnside, the street that divides the city in two, has been cleaned up a lot now, but it's still home to some good indie kid hangouts - vintage clothes shops, lots of bars including The East Burn bar (where you can play Skee Ball - an American variant on bowling where you have to get the ball into a hole as opposed to knock down pins), record shops including Music Millennium and to cover the 'bookstores' mentioned in the song, there's actually the biggest independent bookstore in the US - Powell's City of Books - home to over 1 million books.
Where to check out some local indie...
Also around Burnside, have a look at the Doug Fir Lodge. It's like a sort of retro-futuristic log cabin pushing the new frontier of 'lumberjack chic' and is a great place to see indie acts. If you have a band, it's the sort of place you can get yourself a gig too - they do accept submissions - and if you play there, you get a discount off the Jupiter Hotel that the bar is attached to.
Another place to look at is The Wonder Ballroom - a venue for slightly more established indie acts.
Find out what's going on...
Before you go to Portland check out The Portland Mercury's website - and when you're there pick up a physical copy of the paper.
The Mercury is a weekly paper published in Portland and devoted to the city's indie and alternative scene, including interviews, reviews, opinion pieces and the all important listings to find out what's going on. One funny feature is 'I Anonymous' where readers submit anonymous rants addressed to their fellow citizens. In fact, the website's worth looking at even if you're not going to Portland.
Willamette Week is another publication also worth checking out - not quite as fun as The Mercury but still useful.
You can even sing some indie yourself...
Baby Ketten Karaoke might not be the only place in the world doing Indie Karaoke (there's one in North London for instance) but it is a Portland institution. Unlike most Karaoke places, it promises, "flattering sound systems, songs that you actually want to sing but can't find anywhere and magical song slips that self-destruct if 'Grease Megamix' is written on them."
Their selection of backing tracks is, I believe, home-made and includes such indie stalwarts as Belle & Sebastian, The Smiths, They Might Be Giants, Orange Juice, Joy Division and The Pixies.
Karaoke, of course, needs one vital ingredient - booze...
One thing that often upsets me is how hard it is to get nice American beer in this country - we get a false impression that all they have is Budweiser and Miller Lite but the Yanks do have some really nice lagers and ales and Portland is the place to drink them.
As well as Indie, Portland is famous for it's beer. In fact, along with 'Little Beirut', 'Beertown', 'Beervana' and 'Brewtopia' are all nicknames for the city. It's got a lot of microbreweries - 28 to be precise, more than any other city in the US, and there are actually some people who say that Portland should be known as beer capital of the world as it apparently has more breweries then Cologne in Germany.
Whatever, they certainly brew a fine pint - all the necessary ingredients grow close by and there's plenty of places where you can taste the beer in the place it was made, like Hopworks Urban Brewery, which bills itself as Portland's first 'eco brew pub' as it's very big on making sure its beers are all environmentally friendly and sustainable.
One of the more famous breweries is Hair of the Dog which got a certain infamy for brewing very high alcohol content beers, including one called Dave which was a stonking 29%! They don't have a bar but you can pop in for tastings and get their beers in bars around the city.
Strangely, all bars in Portland legally have to serve food whilst they are serving alcohol, so if you're feeling peckish at any point on your boozy night out you can get food right up till when the bars close at 2am.
And for dessert, check out...
If you go to Portland, you have to check out Voodoo Doughnuts. They've got 3 branches now and were set up by two eccentrics know as Cat Daddy and Tres. Known as 'the Salvador Dali of doughnuts', their slogan is "The magic is in the hole" and they specialise in rude sexy doughnuts served 24 hours a day. It's a late night fixture for Portland indie kids, sort of like a Willie Wonka-inspired version of a kebab shop.
They have one doughnut called a Texas Challenge. It equals 6 normal doughnuts in size and if you can eat it in less than 80 seconds you get your money back. Or how about the Bacon Maple Bar - 'where the meat greets the sweet'!
They're even offering a Voodoo Doughnuts wedding for you and 60 of your friends with coffee and doughnuts for a mere $300 (including the legal wedding). Bargain.
Tres from Voodoo Dougnuts also does a thing called Karaoke from Hell - kind of a rival to Baby Ketten I guess, but it's at Dante's, a live music venue downtown. The difference with this is it's you with a live band - who claim to know over 500 different songs...
A few miscellaneous extra tips for you (thanks to Adam Dineen, Jarvis's producer for these - he was over there recently)...
The Red Light (great vintage shop in the trendy Hawthorne district)
East End (decent bar on the Eastside with food and a good live music roster)
Stumptown Coffee - great independent coffee outlet. Everyone who serves you looks like (and probably is) in some local band.
Vintage shops - as well as the aforementioned Red Light, there are loads of good vintage clothes shops like House of Vintage, Buffalo Exchange, Ray's Ragtime, Decades and Avalon.
Magic Gardens - Portland famously claims (or is accused of) having the most strip clubs per capita of North America. Most veer towards the cliché of R'n'B and Hip Hop but Magic Gardens in Old Town seems to be the one where the bands hang out. Within spitting distance of several live venues and possibly the only place where the music can move from Bob Dylan to Joy Division to The Knife.
Good record shops: Everyday Music (on Burnside) and Crossroads Music (on Hawthorne).