Does Portland truly rock? No doubt. Of late, our city’s indie-rock contingent has grabbed more than its share of the spotlight, with accolades pouring in from as far away as Britain. A gushy feature about our mighty music scene that appeared in last April’s London Sunday Times called Portland “a concrete grove of bohemian dreaming.” Uh, thanks?
It’s certainly been a momentous year. The Shins and the Decemberists dropped albums that reached respectable heights on the charts and earned critical rhapsodies, while Elliott Smith’s recent posthumous song collection, New Moon , hit Billboard’s No. 24. And in late March, Modest Mouse (at least some of whom live here) released We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank , which debuted at (drum roll, please) No. 1. And the hits just keep coming.
So we decided “Rocktober” was an opportune month to take stock of our city’s rock heritage, singling out Portland’s greatest musical artists, past and present. After comparing notes with more than two dozen longtime music-industry locals (including Music Millennium’s Terry Currier, record-label owner Alex Steininger and Jackpot! Studio’s Larry Crane, among others), and occasionally debating whether a group truly qualified as a “Portland” band, we hammered out a roster of artists who deserve an encore. Without further ado, we present our 15 finest (in no particular order), spanning nearly 50 years of Rose City rock ’n’ roll history, all of whom left their marks on Portland—and their music ringing in our ears.
1987-2006 Garage Rock
In 1965, when he was just 15, Fred Cole fronted a Las Vegas R&B group and was billed as “the White Stevie Wonder.” That was not, it turns out, mere teen braggadocio. After 43 years of playing, Cole has become a bona fide cult figure in the Northwest, thanks mainly to his recently disbanded garage-rock trio Dead Moon, which featured his wife, Toody, on bass and drummer Andrew Loomis. From Pearl Jam (which covers Dead Moon tunes in concert) to Cat Power (who recorded the band’s song “Johnny’s Got a Gun”), music luminaries revere the group not merely for its defiantly ragged sound, but also for its near-religious devotion to rock—which is as plain as the Dead Moon logo tattooed on Fred Cole’s face.
The Limelight: The documentary Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story , about the life and times of the venerable group, garners a host of strong reviews on the indie film festival circuit in 2005.
The Lowlight: In 1970, Fred, Toody and their kids flee to the Yukon Territory to avoid the draft, where they live in a rustic cabin and are forced to augment their diet with bear meat.
Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the sassy front man for the Dandy Warhols, began his musical career in rather inauspicious fashion: as a doorman at Key Largo, an Old Town rock club so notorious that it was nicknamed “Large Kilo.” Small wonder, then, that when the Dandys started playing their own gigs a few years later, their live performances more closely resembled bacchanalia than rock shows: Onstage nudity was common, as were 20-minute trance jams that would whip audiences into a whirling tizzy. Such provocative theatricality earned the Dandys a deal with Capitol Records in 1996, a relationship that lasted for 10 years and four albums; although their domestic sales were modest at best, the Dandys went multiplatinum in Europe. Some bands might have taken the resulting loot and relocated to a rock megalopolis—like New York—but the Dandys? They chose to purchase a huge warehouse in Northwest Portland, their own Warholesque Factory christened the Odditorium, where they continue to pursue their orgiastic muse—and make a pretty fine living in the process.
The Limelight: The Dandys play a lead role in the 2004 art-house documentary DiG! , the story of their musical rivalry with the San Francisco-based Brian Jonestown Massacre.
The Lowlight: Capitol Records turns up its nose at the band’s first batch of recordings in 1996, citing a lack of commercial potential.
Perhaps because they hail from a city where hip-hop doesn’t enjoy much visibility—or credibility—Lifesavas has cultivated a refreshingly anti-bling point of view. On their 2003 debut album, Spirit in Stone , Marlon “Vursatyl” Irving, Solomon “Jumbo the Garbageman” David and DJ Ryan “Rev. Shines” Shortell point and laugh at thug-life clichés while doing their utmost to maintain a positive musical vibe. “We thought we needed to come with a sound people wouldn’t necessarily expect,” Jumbo explains. “The opportunity was there for us to say something really human.” Lifesavas’ recent sophomore release, a slamming concept album called Gutterfly , provides additional evidence of the band’s more cerebral nature, drawing lyrical inspiration from the blaxploitation films of the ’70s and the groove-heavy musical cues from the same rich era. And with guest spots from George Clinton, Dead Prez and Vernon Reid, it’s clear that Lifesavas are right at home in distinguished company.
The Limelight: This year Rolling Stone magazine taps Lifesavas as one of its “10 Artists to Watch.”
The Lowlight: The group’s plans to record with legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla fail to materialize after Dilla’s untimely death from a rare blood disorder early last year.