IF YOU STAND on the Hawthorne Bridge on the Fourth of July and gaze down at the Willamette River’s shores, where 100,000 or so people gather to groove to the sounds of the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival, you might think that the blues scene here in Portland is thriving.
You’d be about half right.
The festival is, after all, the second-largest of its kind in the country (Chicago’s is the first)—hardly a death knell. But Portland’s blues scene today is a far cry from what it was in the late 1980s, when clubs like downtown’s the Last Hurrah and Key Largo (now dance club Ohm) booked blues musicians alongside punk rockers, funk players, and new wavers practically every night of the week.
“Getting a job was easy,” says guitarist and producer Terry Robb, who’s been playing in town since 1982 and is something of a local blues guru. “And with all those different genres, we all learned from one another.”
But these days, blues clubs are as scarce as Michael Stipe’s hair; only a handful, like the Blue Monk and Halibuts, a fish-and-chips house in Northeast Portland, exist.
Still, just because Portland’s blues clubs aren’t flourishing, does that mean the blues scene itself is a goner? Not exactly. This month, Robb launches his PsycheDelta label with the release of a long-awaited collaboration between singing diva Linda Hornbuckle and Grammy-nominated keyboardist Janice Scroggins. While Robb hesitates to call it a blues label, most of the musicians he would like to work with lean that way.
The 51-year-old, who’s survived disco, glam rock, and grunge while remaining true to his eclectic brand of blues, is realistic about the state of the genre. So why take the risk?
Because Robb, who has been teaching guitar privately for decades, got fed up with seeing his students make albums that went nowhere. “I wanted a label that makes good music people want to hear—not music people are told is good or that falls in some big-box category,” he says. And there’s plenty of local talent to tap: Renowned fingerpicker Mary Flower and singer and guitarist Fiona Boyes were both nominated for Blues Music Awards (the blues equivalent of the Grammys) this year, as were relative youngsters the Insomniacs.
Robb’s new label might not cause club owners to start booking blues bands, but the fact that the genre is still being recorded at a grassroots level speaks to its identity as Portland’s original indie music. It’s a sound and an ethos that Robb is simply carrying on.