A couple months ago, I was given the task of trying to find the ten bands in Portland that everyone should keep an eye on. I thought it would be easy. As it turns out, sifting through bands in this town is a lot like browsing a library that’s been sorted by someone who has absolutely no concept of the alphabet. You look and look and find a lot of books you’ve never heard of, a few books that you started but never finished, a handful that you pick up and put back on the shelf after reading the first line. But you see a lot of very good and even some great titles as well. And they’re always in the most random places. You find the Brothers Karamazov amongst a pile of National Geographics, and Tropic of Cancer wedged between some James Patterson crap. An intricate band with articulate, poetic lyrics opening for a thrash-metal show somewhere out on 82nd. Introspective, psychedelic blues shoehorned in between a couple of bands who really, really miss the late nineties. You find them in basements, clubs, bars, street corners, strip clubs, arcades, amphitheaters, record stores, coffee shops, pizza parlors, garages, storage units, and that apartment above yours that never shuts up until at least 4 AM. This town has got live music hidden everywhere.
Another major impediment is rooted in the inherent flakiness that is shared by all musicians. Since I began working on this article, two of the bands I set out to include have broken up, three have made major and in some cases catastrophic lineup changes, and still more seem to have disappeared entirely…
The list you’ll find below is in no way a list of the best bands in Portland. There are too many of them, they’re in constant flux, and I’ve been unable to catch several of the bands I’ve been told are the best (and I can’t get away with writing about my own band…or could I? Musicians are just as conceited as they are flakey). That is not to say that these bands don’t rank among the finest out there. Let’s think of this as a taste of Portland’s rock and roll spectrum. These are a few of the bands who have impressed me through their performance, musicianship, passion for the music, and plain old fashioned strut. One has made its way into the international spotlight. Others are still in their infancy and could develop into rock-monsters. A few might break up next week, while others will go the stretch. You really never can tell, no matter how much promise a band shows. They’re musicians, they’re flakey, right? So get out and see them the next time you get a chance. You just might hear something you like.
In no particular order…
He made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then performed on American Idol. Sorry Iggy, but as far as I’m concerned that’s the last straw. I can forgive all of the spoiled milk albums that followed American Caesar, but Idol? Really? They only need one aging, decrepit androgyn on that show and Stephan Tyler has that position filled.
As Mr. Pop fades into the twilight, we may be lucky enough to have a replacement. The first time I saw The Ex-Girlfriends Club my band was in the opening slot on the bill. As we loaded in, their guitar player, Orion, expressed some vague concern that their performance for the evening might suffer as singer Albatross had hurt his back before the show. When Albatross arrived it was clear where he’d gotten the moniker. He appeared to be about nine feet tall and possessed a tremendous arm-span to match. There is also the distinct possibility that he is not as tall as he seems, but rather that his height is some kind of optical illusion caused by the fact that he is skinnier than any junkie could ever be.
When the Ex GFs took the stage, it was an immediate explosion of wailing, ripping garage rock piloted by Albatross’ drawling, howling maniacy. He made use of the whole room, leaping onto tabletops and charging the audience. As the band tore through a set that was simultaneously driving and sludgy, Albatross gave off the distinct impression of a person who has studied rock music with an attentive eye. There is a lot of Iggy in the performance, a handful of Bowie, and a thick slice of grand-mal Ian Curtis. If his back was bothering that night, I couldn’t tell.
Let’s get these guys out of the way…I know that a lot of people already are paying attention to Red Fang, and that’s why they belong on this list. Their explosion onto the worldwide heavy rock scene happened rather suddenly. They own much of this to their hilarious, LARP-assaulting video for “Prehistoric Dog”. Shotgun a couple of beers, cream a few nerds, and BAM! You’re opening up for Mastodon. The band’s sense of humor is equally present in their most recent video “Wires”, but don’t get the impression that these guys have done so well simply because they made a couple of silly videos. Red Fang has a massive, ear-rupturing sound that treads the line between complexity-just-for-complexity’s sake and simplicity just for the sake of head banging. Basically, they’re not trying to over or under do it. It’s old school rock just the way most of us like it—driving rhythm with a few killer riffs thrown in. Keep an eye on these guys. If their visibility continues to grow at this rate, someday they’ll be giants.
Proving once again that rock and roll is not a boys-only club, Monster-Sized Monsters fuse the early-nineties, Riot Grrrl punk rock aggression with a bit of the modernized, danceability that has been borrowed from the post-punks by such bands as the Kills and le Butcherettes. If MSM keeps their nose to the grind and finds the right audience, I could really see them going places. The lovely and multi-talented actress, model, and lead singer Emily Galash prances and bops across the stage, plays her guitar behind her head, and has an increasingly powerful scream. She is complimented perfectly by bassist Hannah Armstrong’s driving bass riffs and harmonized vocals. I’ve seen them live several times, and their confidence and stage presence grows with each show. Currently they’re training up a new drummer. I’m looking forward to what the new year brings.
Over the past year, I have been scouring the city for like-minded groups who share my love for the punk/blues/garage blend that has been rising in prominence, and one name that kept floating around was Hairspray Blues. I finally had the pleasure of hosting a basement-show for the duo, and they did not disappoint. The male/female duet (hurrah for drummer chicks!) rocked the house with a set that combined all of the frenzy of hardcore punk, the MC5, British pub-rock, and even a taste of Bo Diddley—if he was high on distortion and fuzz. Throughout the performance, Kyle and Leslie look affectionately into one another’s eyes, and it comes as no surprise that they list Bonnie and Clyde, Johnny and June, Elvis and Pricilla, and Mickey and Mallory amongst their influences.
Truckstop Darlin’ could certainly be going places. Theirs is a genre that I have a bit of difficulty writing about, as my knowledge of country starts and stops with Kristofferson, but I know a rising star when I see it. Truckstop takes down and dirty, old-school country, slathers it with some updated Americana, and the result is something that fans of garage-rock could enjoy with their mothers. Theirs is the sort of pop-infused country that steers well-clear of whatever series of curses I’d usually use to describe modern pop-country.
Did you ever own any of those three dollar Punk-o-Rama compilations? Remember the Humpers’ “Mutate With Me” and “Steel Toed Sneakers”? If you dug it, you’re in luck. Singer Scott Drake is back, this time fronting for The Lovesores. These guys bring all of the fun and fury of nineties-era garage-punk back from the grave (trust me, it was dead), playing a slew of songs that make you feel like driving fast with the windows open, seats jammed with buddies who are on the lookout for some trouble. Relatively new on the scene, the band has been playing up and down the I-5 strip and building its name throughout the region as an up-and-coming group to keep an eye on.
They’re surprisingly nice guys for dudes who have such a grimy, I-screwed-your-girlfiend-whatcha-gonna-do-about-it, I-strut-now-you-strut, smashed-my-whiskey-so-I’m-drinking-yours sound. With big wailing guitar lines and a bass that holds solid as an anchor, there is an easy way to describe Alabama Black Snake: They’re like ACDC with talent. They’ve just switched up singers and added a second guitar, so the future of their sound can only be louder.
This is a fun band to see live. I have a lot of trouble pinning down what genre they fit with, which is a good sign. They’re like an ultra-psychedelic Melvins. Or like a harder-edged Butthole Surfers. Either way, Wizard Boots put on a heavy, ultra-sonic, sample-laden show that, is simultaneously aggressive, in-your-face, and strangely laid back and playful all at once,
Here we have another delightfully cross-genre group. LSD&D takes the best components of early-80s, Los Angeles-based punk, adds a healthy dose of early-90s hardcore (one again, the Melvins come to mind), and stirs in a strange mix of late-80s hair-metal and butt-rock. When combined, this creates a growling, driving garage sludge that feels relentless and sometimes maddening in pace.
Call these guys the ever-touring duo. Hopeless Jack and the Handsome Devil spent all summer on the road, zig-zagging across the country with their whiskey-infused, howlin’ at the moon blues. When the tour was finished they only spent two weeks recuperating in Portland before taking off again. Talk about being “addicted to the white line”. These boys play a raucous, racing blues-rock that harkins back to the days of tending to the still all night. Hopeless Jack croons and wails as Smilin’ Pete lays down a frantic rhythm that drips of Keith Moon. Keep your eyes open—they could arrive in your town any minute now.