Stop me if you’ve heard, but Portland has changed. The great migration transforming the Northwest is a familiar story by now—and, at times, the economic fallout has been predictably traumatic for the city’s music scene. Rents go up; musicians move away; venues close down.
Except that Portland music hasn’t suffered so much as it has evolved, mutating into a more diverse, esoteric, and fascinating offering than ever before. Ten years ago, groups like Menomena, the Thermals, and the Helio Sequence—all great, all cut from a distinct indie-rock tradition—put us on the national map. Since then, Portland has morphed from a city that produced a lot of great bands out of a close-knit musical community to one that established, eclectic out-of-town acts now gravitate to for its top-notch recording studios and reputation for “weirdness.”
It would be misleading to suggest that there was some sacred “Portland sound” that’s been forgotten: the city’s old tastemakers often ignored whole genres in search of the rightful heirs of legendary punk outfits like the Wipers and Dead Moon. Indeed, Portland’s latest musical reinvention has as much to do with acknowledging previously overlooked locals (MCs from St. Johns, forgotten soul singers come out of retirement) as it does with embracing newcomers. But if the Portland sound has always been something of a myth, what does musical authenticity look like—or rather, sound like—in a city in the midst of a personality crisis?
One answer is The Last Artful, Dodgr. A standout at last year’s PDX Pop Now! music festival—long a rite of passage for local artists on the rise—the Los Angeles–born MC-singer-songwriter sounds unlike any other musician in Portland. Or anywhere, for that matter. One minute she’s belting out smoky jazz-club hooks; the next, she’s rapping like a crazy person with the hiccups. Last November’s Fractures EP is a stunning, next-level release: dystopian hip-hop with an old-school work ethic that isn’t just weird for show—which is why it sounds right at home in the Rose City.
Recent transplants like the Last Artful, Dodgr may tap into the spirit of the city, but they also slide into a scene still defined by community. In a town lacking the music biz infrastructure of Seattle or Los Angeles, the most beloved Portland artists build bridges within that music scene. Right from its humble basement-show origins, the terribly sexy “space-age doo-wop” outfit Radiation City seemed as interested in creating community as it was in making records. The band’s members have run a record label, produced albums, and taken a handful of Portland acts on the road during their seven-year run. Their most inspiring collaboration was a brilliant 2013 hip-hop remix album with producer G_Force. Now, as elder statesmen of the Portland music scene, they’re reinventing themselves as an outlandish experimental pop group. New album Synesthetica, out this month, should earn them serious national attention—which they’ll undoubtedly deflect toward the people they love back home.
From the Kingsmen to Five Fingers of Funk to the MarchFourth Marching Band, a degree of wild abandon has always characterized Portland music. Perhaps the most unapologetically extravagant supergroup ever to emerge here, Chanti Darling offers a live show that’s brilliant in every sense of the word. Synchronized dance moves, booming house beats, catchy synth melodies, and buckets of sweat all feel like a throwback, but to what? This is ’70s excess, ’80s futurism, and ’90s neon rolled into one slick package. And given a roster packed with past-and-future local legends (electro-diva Natasha Kmeto, members of Wild Flag, Gossip, and Magic Mouth), the band’s PDX street cred is through the roof.
Long before the indie-rock heyday, this city was a thriving jazz mecca, often shorthanded as Jumptown. While trumpeter-composer Farnell Newton isn’t a native Portlander, he has done more than his fair share to keep jazz a relevant force here for the past decade. In addition to his work in various combos, Newton has played with everyone from author and songwriter Willy Vlautin to soul diva Liv Warfield and jazz kingpin Mel Brown. The last few years have found him crossing continents with Bootsy Collins and Jill Scott, but somehow he’s found time to start a Portland-centric record label (dubbed Fnbeatsgalore) with friend and fellow renaissance man Tony Ozier.
While it’s a genre-rich time for Portland music, singer-songwriters continue to anchor the scene, and Boone Howard, former front man of the We Shared Milk, is one of the most exciting. A sophisticated lyricist, even as he addresses decidedly low-art themes of boozing and breaking up, his upcoming debut solo album, Other Side of Town, finds him emerging fully formed in the mold of Harry Nilsson or even John Lennon. Few local musicians can party as hard as Howard—and fewer still write songs this good.
It’s not all coming up roses: homegrown acts like YACHT, White Fang, and Strfkr have left for shiny Los Angeles in recent years, and small to midsize all-ages venues are almost nonexistent. But there’s every reason to be upbeat about Portland’s scene. Rising rents and shuttered dive bars be damned, it is still a great time to be a local music fan.