The barman gives a conspiratorial glance. “Wanna see the Odditorium?” he asks.
Entrance to the Odditorium is strictly by invitation only. In the back of a wine bar decked out in bohemian velvets and retro-industrial opulence, playing ultracool psych rarities and serving only the finest Bordeaux wines at a price that’s virtually like tipping it down the drain, an innocuous door opens onto a secret wonderland. A full-stage rehearsal venue complete with post-jam lounge area. A plush, well-appointed recording studio with dining room annex graced by the likes of Elton John on his way through town. Even the toilet is a phenomenon, a riot of pink fur.
This is the hush-hush HQ of Portland scene stalwarts The Dandy Warhols, named after their 2005 album ‘Odditorium Or Warlords Of Mars’, hidden behind the frontal façade of their wine bar The Old Portland up on NW Quimby St.. And the Odditorium doubles as a fine metaphor for Portland in general; America’s arty, liberal enclave of urban bohemia, where the underground went overground and a new underground hides behind the scenes. Downtown, gentrification has turned what was once a rough-edged town full of artists, musicians and exotic dancers into Oregon’s renowned epicentre of class, cuisine, arts and, um, even more exotic dancing - my Uber driver recommends a night called Stripperoake, standing out from Portland’s myriad of salubrious strip joints by dint of performers having to sing mid-lap dance. Here, Portland has evolved beyond trendy dining to live off global cuisine served from street carts, or gorge itself on brilliantly sloppy pizza slices washed down with cocktails at slick soul joints like The Crown on SW. Broadway. For every artisan coffee spot or whitewashed gallery space Downtown, there’s somewhere trying to buck the trend and twist the formula.
Hence the city centre still has plenty of secrets up its tailored hemp sleeve. A few steps around the corner from our uber-hip room at the Ace Hotel on, oh yes, Harvey Milk St. – vinyl turntable and bathtub in the bedroom, sanitorium chic décor – sits Pepe Le Moko, a doorway you might walk straight past thinking it’s a drop-in laundry, but step inside, negotiate with the concierge and bag yourself a table and, downstairs, you’ll find yourself in the city’s coolest arched cocktail bunker, guzzling fresh oysters and specialist concoctions to a swish jazz soundtrack, like someone’s mixed up the Blitz with prohibition USA. Likewise, you might steer clear of Dante’s on W. Burnside on a Monday night for its menacing biker look, but venture inside and you’re at Karaoke From Hell, where a live band invite singers onstage to cover Weezer, Don Henley and a compendium of rock classics, all with the added challenge, for female participants, of dodging the wandering hands of the compere.
The Portland music scene is just as full of seditious surprises. Traditionally, the city has been a key hub for the US indie rock scene, home to The Decemberists, Blitzen Trapper, The Shins, Pond, Quasi and The Dandy Warhols, and drawing in alt-rock musicians from around in the world, including REM’s Peter Buck, Britt Daniel from Spoon, Johnny Marr and The Cribs’ Gary Ryan. But according to Chris Young, the editor of the local music and culture magazine Vortex - whom we meet over sumptuous middle-eastern plates and Chupafresa cocktails at Tusk, the chic Kerns eaterie so cool it’s got a huge picture of Keith Richards floating in a swimming pool hanging above the bar - the Portland scene is, stylistically speaking, mid-explosion.
“From the 80s and 90s until the early 2000s Portland was cast as being certain types of sounds,” he explains. “In the late ‘90s that was The Dandy Warhols and in the early 2000s it was The Decemberists. But the thing that’s happened more in the last five or so years – and this is maybe just with the ability of bands to find better ways to self-promote themselves online and not go through gatekeepers and official channels – there is a lot of distinctly different scenes that are rising up and making a name for themselves. There’s been a strong legacy in this city of a hip-hop scene, but everybody’s like ‘Portland hip-hop?’. There’s always been a fairly strong punk scene and underground metal and hard rock scene. Our DIY independent ethos really plays out in a lot of the artistic scenes. If you come to Portland you can find any style or genre of music happening any night of the week, but it comes with a caveat. You have to know what you’re looking for and where to look for it.”
And so it transpires. Down at the White Owl Club, across the Willamette River in East Portland, we catch local “dorito pop” band Cool American proving that Portland’s indie rock underbelly is alive and kicking (in inadvisably tight shorts) with their epic grunge pop anthems akin to a euphoric Pavement. Up at Doug Fir, meanwhile – a modernist wooden cabin of a venue beneath the retro drive-in hipster Jupiter hotel on E. Burnside St – there’s a showcase underway for the more exotic of Portland’s current rising crop. Psychedelic disco freaks Gold Casio take to a stage adorned with fake gold palm trees covered in glitter, their singer wrapped in a golden cape and wearing glittering puma ears. That they have songs resembling a funk punk ELO is perhaps the least startling thing about them.
They’re followed by neon retro R’n’B sensation Chanti Darling, beaming in direct from Miami 1983 to launch his new album ‘RNB Vol. 1’. Backed by Tron visuals and dancers with neon batons doing ‘Word Up’ routines, Chanti is one of those post-ironic singers who firmly believe that ‘80s synthpop was the epitome of cool and Billy Ocean was more important than The Beatles. Half man, half mojito, all boogie superstar.
Like its music scene, Portland itself is a whirl of dislocated wonders. On the north side of downtown sits the Pearl District, a neighbourhood of converted factories turned into futuristic taprooms (like Tilt), southern Americana saloons (like the River Pig Saloon) and fabulous cocktail bars (like the Latin themed Cha Cha Cha – try the Mexican Cosmo). A prime spot here is Teardrop, a chic cocktail hang-out where the bar staff perform frenzied synchronised mixing, classic movies play above the marble bar and dressed-up singletons await their best-shot Tinder match nursing a Joshua’s Moon.
Back across the river, though, East Portland feels like a city still in development. Pockets of culture and entertainment have popped up amid stretches of virtual wasteland, where the city’s homeless camp out on the pavements. Over in Buckland, a few blocks from the Jupiter, you can sample wines blended on-site in a stunning, greenery-framed industrial chic bar called Enso. In the (surprisingly modern) Historic District you can stagger from the classy beerhall of the Loyal Legion to cosy rock dive My Father’s Place and the fantastic, upmarket take on a southern rum shack that is Dig A Pony and barely break a beer sweat. And that’s not to mention the SE. Division St strip, where Oui Wine Bar gathers several local vintners and Ava Gene’s serves some of the city’s finest Italian dishes. The whole of Portland feels like a city-wide Odditorium, wanna take a look?
Enjoy the prospect of Portland? For further travel advice, see Travel Portland