Can Black Water Bar Save Portland’s Punk Scene?

With the loss of the Know, the vegan, all-ages, underground music venue steps into the breach.

With Sam Pape May 23, 2018

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Black Water's NE Broadway space

Image: Sam Pape

It’s been a rough few months for the Portland punk scene. The Know, one of Portland’s most important venues for punk and metal since 2005, has officially closed its doors less than two years after relocating to Northeast Sandy Boulevard from Alberta. Another venue, this one all-ages, is also under serious fire: Analog’s one-time owner Donnie Rife resigned after anonymous accusations of sexual harassment (which he denied), and while the venue remains open under new ownership, numerous artists have rebooked their shows elsewhere since the controversy.

Enter Black Water Bar, which just might be the savior of underground music our city so desperately needs.

Sure, it's been here for a while in various iterations: Black Water was born in 2008 in a version of Southeast Portland practically unrecognizable from the neighborhood today—think fewer Apple store-slick doughnut shops and bars with names like “Bar,” and more public drinking at Colonel Summers and semi-affordable housing. Located on Southeast 21st and Morrison, the original Black Water sold vinyl and coffee and, most importantly, put on reliably amazing all-ages shows in its pitch-black, stale malt liquor-stained back room.

In 2012, it relocated to a bigger space on NE Russell, with a record shop and a slate of live shows. But it didn’t take long for noise complaints from nearby residents to make live music an impossibility if the bar wanted to stay open and afloat.

The solution? In 2015, Black Water expanded to a real-deal bar space on Northeast Broadway with a huge menu of cheap vegan food and beer, where it continues to host the killer all-ages shows that established its reputation in the first place. (The record store remains on Russell.) Now, with the Know's closure and Analog's troubles, it's become the last all-ages bastion for Portland punk and metal bands and their audiences, inheriting the shows that would once have been slated for those venues.  

There just aren’t a lot of all-ages venues anymore,” says Alex Carroccio, one of Black Water Bar’s founders and co-owners. “That was always important to us. It took us a long time to build something sustainable, where we could keep enough money coming in to keep the doors open and have an all-ages space at the same time.”

Putting on all-ages shows in a Portland bar is no small feat. The OLCC is infamous for its unforgiving stance on minors mixing with booze-drinking adults. But the venue’s staff has taken every available precaution to keep kids coming, setting strict boundaries for when and where they’re are allowed, staffing up, and making sure to keep shows within the allotted time frame.

“We just want to be an exciting place to discover new music,” says Carroccio, “and to be a part of a supportive underground community. We want to inspire people to meet each other, to play music together, no matter your age or musical preference.”

Want to see for yourself? Public Eye (featuring members from Wild Ones) plays Black Water this Friday. All proceeds go to a friend of the venue currently battling brain cancer.

Public Eye

8 p.m. Fri, May 25, Black Water Bar, $6–10 donation

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