by SP Clarke.
Part 8: The Early ‘90s (Continued)
In the early ‘90s, two enterprising women, Rhonda Kennedy and Fiona Martin established a weekly two-hour broadcast on KBOO-FM radio, dedicated solely to original music created in the Northwest: chiefly Alternative music. Kennedy had been on the local beat for sometime, both as a well-known singer and as an activist in many arenas.
Martin, a brilliant young woman, had been the manager of the Obituaries, as well as one of the best music journalists ever to maintain a by-line in the pages of Willamette Week. Her astute observations, keen insights and point-perfect diction were binding forces for the radio program, where cerebrality in the music they showcased was often a scarce substance to be found. Fiona continually lent the proceedings an uniquely discerning perspective.
It was on New Year’s Eve 1992 that Chris Monlux and Mike Quinn of Monqui Productions officially took over the management of Pine Street Theater from former owner Al Salazar (who sold the business to the owners of Seattle’s RKCNDY, who immediately put Monqui in charge of the building) , remodeling the structure and renaming it La Luna.
The appearance of La Luna rang the death knell for Starry Night. Though Larry Hurwitz, ever the innocent bystander swept up in a whirlwind of his own controversy, had managed to keep Starry Night propped up as a “major” venue; Monqui’s reputation for being straight-shooters with sharp business savvy and good connections, lowered the final curtain on the Larry Hurwitz story in Portland, Oregon. However, unbeknownst to all, Larry would eventually return for an encore, summoned back for his involvement in what was ultimately to be uncovered as a cruelly sinister tragedy indeed.
By the mid-nineties, the Portland music industry was thriving. National attention on the Northwest was primarily focused upon the Grunge movement in Seattle. But, enterprising capitalists from the major and indie labels could not help but cast a wandering eye toward the untapped resources which lay to the south.
Seattle’s Sub Pop label, which had served as a conduit to major labels for that city’s best Grunge bands, made a pre-emptive strike. With a better knowledge of the musical terrain than most, Sub Pop made their first incursion into Portland territory by signing Pond to an album deal in 1992.
Pond had developed a devoted following, primarily at Satyricon, throughout 1992; formulating a distinctive sound- centered upon the dense, droning guitar musings of Charlie Campbell. Campbell, who had first arrived on the scene in the late ‘80s with Mood Paint, was looking to expand the possibilities of the standard Rock format.
Joined by bassist Chris Brady and stalwart drummer Dave Triebwasser, Charlie was able to realize his aspirations with Pond, creating a band that had a great deal in common with the Wipers and Greg Sage. Their album Pond, released on Sub Pop in early 1993 met with immediate local acclaim, as well as gleaning interest from several major labels and the national press. This eventually led to even greater things for the band in the next few years.
Another band rising to the fore was Everclear. Moving to Portland from San Francisco in 1991, Art Alexakis was equally talented as a musician and as a shrewd businessman. Having worked for labels and one-stops, as well as running his own Shindig label, while living in the Bay area, Alexakis had learned the ropes in the business of music. Calculating that his best opportunities for success as a band leader lay in the burgeoning Northwest scene, he wisely elected to move to Portland rather than Seattle; reasoning that the players were already locked in for the Grunge movement- whereas Portland seemed poised to ride the next wave of popularity.
By 1993, Art had formed Everclear with bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund, meeting with positive response in the local clubs: especially Belmont’s Inn. In April of 1993, Everclear released World Of Noise, purportedly recorded on an 8-track machine for $400, on the Portland-based Tim/Kerr Records label. A year and a half later Everclear was signing a three-album contract with Capitol records, the first being a re-release of World Of Noise. Sales of the album were respectable, helped immeasurably by radio airplay of “The Fire Maple Song,” and numerous cross-country tours.
But as the band’s national popularity grew through increasing media exposure, so did local rancor over Alexakis’ apparently blatant disregard of local hierarchical protocol. For, nothing breeds contempt so much as success. In late 1995, Everclear had released their sophomore album on Capitol, Sparkle And Fade. On the strength of the Number One single “Santa Monica,” the record quickly zoomed up the Billboard charts, eventually replacing Nu Shooz’ Poolside as the most successful album ever released nationally by a Portland act.
Still, this did not prevent the local press from portraying Alexakis as the anti-Christ. The band chose to respond to these criticisms in an unique way. On May 3, 1996, for their first appearance on the David Letterman Show, each member masking-taped a message to the back of his suit coat. Alexakis’ message read “most unpopular,” paraphrasing Dick Martin of Willamette Week, who had pronounced in an article published only two days earlier that “Art Alexakis is the hottest rocker in Portland and the most unpopular.”
The themes expressed in that story soon became fodder for the national press. In the Summer of 1996, a cover story ran in Spin Magazine, in which Pete Krebs, of Hazel expressed fears for the safety of Alexakis’ wife, Jenny Dodson, who happened to be Krebs’ ex-girlfriend. Krebs intimated that Alexakis was extremely violent. Jenny’s response was succinct: “I can’t believe I fucked that guy! This is worse than venereal disease.”
Spin journalist Jonathan Gold wondered “Is it well deserved animosity or just the hollow carpings of jealous scenesters?”, referring to Alexakis’ detractors as “hipoisie, coolies and rock swells.” Still, from that point forward, Everclear was targeted for vehement wrath- slagged at every turn by the local weekly and daily publications. But Everclear obviously had the last laugh (all the way to the bank). They followed the success of Sparkle And Fade with their third Capitol album. So Much For The Afterglow (originally entitled Pure White Evil) was released in the Fall of 1997 and promptly went gold. Soon thereafter, their local critics were silenced, once and for all.
The Grunge movement, which may have been born at Satyricon in 1989 when the unknown band Nirvana opened for the Dharma Bums- where Kurt Cobain and Courtney McNeeley (Love) first met- began its decline in early April of 1994, when Cobain elected to blow out his brains.
In Portland, the Grunge movement had never been particularly strong. But the local locus for many Grunge-minded bands was Belmont’s Inn. It was at Belmont’s that Gravelpit held sway. Gravelpit, drummer Marc Vatter, bassist Johnny Huck, guitarist Grant Cumpston and vocalist Steve Wilkenson created a sound that probably most closely resembled Seattle bands such as Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. Wilkenson’s husky growl was a powerful loci for Huck’s sinuous basslines and Cumpston’s laserlike guitar attack.
Gravelpit continued to play in the local clubs throughout the ‘90s, meeting with consistent critical acclaim. However, the discovery in 1998 that another band had already secured the rights to the name Gravelpit, forced the band to change their name. The band chose Mission 5 as the new moniker. However, shortly after that, Vatter left the band, replaced by Dan McGuire. the band broke up in 2000.
Another popular band at Belmont’s was Thrillbilly. Thrillbilly’s music, while clearly influenced by the Folk-flavored stylings of bands such as REM, practiced what was classified as Alt.Country locally and on tours across the Northwest and Southwest (including several appearances at South By Southwest).
Lead singer J. Bowman, lived the kind of hard drinking, hard fighting, on-the-road sort of lifestyle his songs described. Bassist Davey Hall and drummer Tom Kilman laid down a hard driving beat, while guitarists James Carbaugh (replaced by Mark Dybvig in 1996) and Doug Lindstrom provided sure support for Bowman’s Ernest Hemingway influenced vignettes of life in the real world. When Kilman left the band in 1998 (replaced by Danny Carbo) it seemed to signal the end for the band, who broke up at the end of 1999.
Probably the most popular of the local Alt.Country bands, Haymaker rode their musical pickup truck to widespread local success from their inception in 1992 to their demise in 1998. Vocalist/ rhythm guitarist Steve Lockwood exhibited a simple style that was as comfortable as an old pair of jeans. Lead guitarist Kevin Jerde, bassist Jeff Farnand and drummer Rick Barry provided strong support for Lockwood’s cornfield observations.
Several major labels expressed interest in Haymaker throughout the mid-‘90s, but nothing ever came of the scrutiny. After years of ‘almost’ making the move to the next level, the band finally broke up in 1998. Lockwood returned in 1999 with a new band, Pacific Wonderland.
The scene was thriving at Belmont’s Inn. But that too changed in early 1994. Sheilagh Conroy, the daughter of a PSU professor, was a popular waitress at Belmont’s. Her artistic flair imprinted the club with touches of her style. It was Sheilagh who conceived the idea of dressing her cat in various outfits. Thus Bob The Weather Cat was born, beginning a long career on KATU-TV weathercasts. Her huge smile and wisecracking ways were an attraction at the club. Everyone liked Sheilagh. Or so it seemed.
In the early morning hours of March 21, 1994, Sheilagh was busy closing the bar from the previous evenings revels. She was alone, except for the presence of Cheryl Youngren, a recently hired part-time cook. It was at this point that a masked man entered the building, demanding from Sheilagh the night’s bar receipts.
What transpired next was never made entirely clear in the court proceedings which followed shortly thereafter. Ostensibly, the story goes, the robber was unmasked to be Youngren’s erstwhile half-brother James. Apparently, Sheilagh attempted to escape from the premises. For whatever reason, James shot and killed Sheilagh at the front door of the club. A botched robbery. The Youngren siblings were soon apprehended and later sentenced to life-terms in prison.
Though Belmont’s Inn persisted in featuring live music for a year or two after her murder, the atmosphere in the club seemed to die with Sheilagh. When upscale loft apartments and a Zupan;s market were installed in the vacant Carnation building complex, the club succumbed to neighborhood pressure and discontinued altogether the staging of live music performances.
But, with the diminishment of the Grunge influence in Popular music, a new, “unplugged,” acoustic sound began to arise in its wake. Eastside bands such as Thrillbilly and Haymaker best represented that “Alt-Country” style, while Gravelpit maintained the Grunge standard. All three bands found life at Belmont’s and met with success at the Mt. Tabor Theatre & Pub, as the Eastside scene gradually transitioned from the one club to the other.
Having fielded numerous neighborhood noise complaints, Mark Meek, owner of Mark’s Hawthorne Pub on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard at 35th Avenue, determined that he needed an additional venue for the louder Rock bands that were eager to play his club. The ancient Mt. Tabor Theatre at Southeast 48th Avenue, on Hawthorne had been most recently been a nickel arcade. It was not immediately obvious that the building could succeed as a music venue.
The original high-ceilinged theatre, a massive hall- substantially larger than the Baghdad Theatre located just down Hawthorne- had been built at the turn of the century as a vaudeville and burlesque venue. But in the Cineplex “mini-theatre” craze of the ‘70s the one big auditorium was divided into three smaller (though quite large) rooms. This presented a logistical conundrum for Meek. At first, when the club opened in early 1994, the bar in the Mt. Tabor Theatre & Pub was located in one room, while the music stage was located in another. The third auditorium remained a theatre, where musician Tim Otto attempted to attract patrons by running classic underground movies, including most of Federico Fellini’s better known films. Response was tepid. When the McMennimin chain opened the Baghdad Theatre a year later, the idea of drinking a beer while watching classic films suddenly became fashionable.
The cost of upkeep and maintenance of the Mt. Tabor eventually drained Meek’s funds, before he could effect any major renovations to the space. When he sold the business to Lyle Jones and Phil Braun in early 1995, few within the local music community believed that anything much would ever come of the place.
But Braun, who worked as a film processor for Teknifilm in Northwest Portland, had also done time as a roadie in the early ‘80s, for the notorious LA punk band X. He was not a stranger to the circumstances. He and his partner Lyle, immediately dispelled any disparaging notions, first by partially breaching the partition which extended between the two adjacent larger rooms; installing a long, antique bar along the back wall, spanning portions of both rooms.
Tasha Carpenter, who was an experienced stage tech, had booked the short-lived alternative club The Bone (yet another incarnation of Eli’s) in downtown Portland. Braun and Jones hired her to book the Tabor in April of 1995. Her intrinsic involvement with the club and the bands who played there, whom she referred to as her babies, brought immediate respect to the operation. With each succeeding week, better known bands began to appear on the expansive Tabor stage. Meanwhile, Carpenter maintained a loyal cadre of second-tier bands, helping to nurture the better ones to headline status. But, owing to personal problems, Tasha left her position six months later.
Her replacement, Reverend Tony Hughes, was a savvy musician who had come to Portland five years earlier from Detroit, Michigan. A jack of all trades, Hughes used his experience as a carpenter and painter to remodel the main hall at the Tabor. Hughes tore down the wall which divided the two main rooms. Immediately the club’s capacity doubled to around 300. The Mt. Tabor Theatre became a point of destination for the best local and regional alternative bands.
Bands such as Henry Moon, Ragin’ Woodies, Mourning Tuesday, Skinhorn, On A Lllama and Land Of The Blind, even Chelsea Rae’s Alphabitch were mainstays at the Tabor in the mid-‘90s; as the room evolved into one of the very best on the Eastside of the city.
Henry Moon was an eclectic trio comprised of a veteran, surehanded drummer, Dennis Elmer, wildman Agro-Cowpunk bassist Eric Hilden and versatile guitarist Tom Wells. Together, the band churned out propulsive, Zappa-esque metalized Pop songs and tangentially strange Country Folk hoedown numbers, winning for the band a small but loyal following for their dense, sometimes difficult music.
The Ragin’ Woodies were the brainchild of Jeff Groves, a talented singer/songwriting guitarist, who made his name in Austin, Texas with a band called Big Car. Moving to Portland in 1994, he soon recruited ace bassist Don Corey and slamming drummer Todd Bishop. The band was quite successful in attracting label interest in their idiosyncratic Pop sound.
Hip Hop was another style coming into play within the larger music community. Rapper Pete Ho formed Pete Mizer and the Five Fingers of Funk. Pete’s intelligent and clever raps dealt with social and interpersonal issues and met with widespread acceptance, especially at Berbatti’s Pan.
Located on the corner of Southwest Third and Ankeny Street, the Pan was managed quite expertly by Tony Hansen, who fell into the job after Dub Squad broke up. Utilizing his managerial skills honed in dealing with the Squad, and after a brief stint with the McMenamin’s empire as special events coordinator at the new Edgefield Manor complex, Hansen quickly opened Berbati’s Pan up to a lot of new music. The Pan was the location for a transcendent gig by a then-unknown Alanis Morissette, beginning her tour in support of Jagged Little Pill. So impressed was Morissette with the club, she returned at the end of her tour for a triumphant encore performance.
Tres Shannon , who had been working at the Pan since it opened in 1994, eventually took over the booking duties in 1997, continuing in that capacity until April 1, 2001. He added to Berbati’s the same sense of the sublime and the ridiculous as he had displayed at the X-Ray. His performances with the Rolling Stone tribute band, the Miss Yous, remain legendary.
Shortly after leaving Berbati’s, Tres resurfaced in 2001 at Dante’s Cafe & Lounge in Old Town, hosting karaoke with a live band, a natural progression for Tres Shannon, it would seem. In 2003 Tres and partners opened Voodoo Donut at Southwest 3 rd and Burnside, featuring an array of unusual donuts, unseen in the known universe: donuts with Nyquil frosting, caffeine-laced donuts to offset sugar-induced drowsiness- all helped to keep Tres’ name in the news.
One of the first bands to call Berbati’s Pan home was Rubberneck. Utilizing Latin rhythms over Soul structures, with Funk elements thrown in for good measure. The 1993 brainchild of lead vocalist/guitarist Ricardo Ojeda and his bassist brother Pablo, Rubberneck’s sound combined a vibrant horn section with solid Soul organ charts to create highly danceable songs. The public swiftly took note, pronouncing Rubberneck one of the favorite local bands for the rest of the decade.
Another spot which served as a proving ground, especially for solo acoustic performers, was the eclectic bistro, Cafe Lena. Founded by poet Leann Grabel, the cafe, located on the corner of Hawthorne Boulevard and Southeast 23rd Avenue, was a haven for artists and poets of all persuasions. Kelly Joe Phelps played several memorable gigs at Cafe Lena, as did Lew Jones, Billy Kennedy Kaitlyn Ni Donovan and Cheralee Dillon.
Kaitlyn Ni Donovan broke onto the scene in 1994. Her unique ethereal songwriting style, coupled with her angelic voice made an immediate impact upon the league of critics in the Portland music community. Cheralee Dillon, whose style was much more direct, appeared at about the same time, quickly making a name for herself with her Victoria Williams-like affability.
Ni Donovan and Dillon also made regular appearances in the waning days of the East Avenue Tavern, located on Northeast Burnside, near Ninth Avenue- as did Doris Daze, fronted by talented singer/songwriter Maria (Ortizi) Calahan. Calahan, along with fellow singer/songwriter Erin Moreland, bassist Eric Merrill and drummer Scott Crabtree, created a warm, affable sound that won praise for sharp songwriting and tight musicianship. Doris Daze performed on local stages from 1994 to 1999.
East Ave Tav, long a stronghold for Irish troubadors and hardcore Folkies, was introduced into the realm of Rock with the help of Lisa Lepine. Lepine was a well-known local entrepreneur and promotional maven (as well as the manager of a band or two). She helped to create and supply a circuit of acoustic acts between the East Ave and the Laurelthirst Pub that was integral to the development of several artists’ careers.
Kaitlyn Ni Donovan also played a role in the opening of another club, serving as the manager for the 1201 Club at 1201 Southwest 12th Avenue near Jefferson Street. The 1201 a ‘50s style bar, replete with tuck and roll upholstery and red velvet wallpaper, was the perfect locale for Kaitlyn’s own moody offerings, as well as for those of chanteuse McKinley. In addition, the 1201 was on the cutting edge of the entire “Cocktail Nation” trend well before it ever became an overwrought and clichéd fashion statement.
McKinley, who was an accredited architect, sang intelligently of relationships in cool clinical detail, with precise measurements: all items to scale. More quickly than either Cheralee or Kaitlyn, McKinley quickly made an impression with local radio, especially KINK-FM, for whom she soon became a local darling. She continued to perform intro the late Ô90s, before fading from the local scene, most likely to resume her architectural career.
Jesus Presley, a band that became associated with the Cocktail Nation, began life in the late Summer of 1995, as a Sunday jam, which Hughes put together in order to utilize the Mt. Tabor’s expansive stage and fine sound system. He recruited guitarist John Anderson, who had backed him in Hands Of Fate, a short-lived Pop configuration. Others picked to participate included, bassist Bret Malmquist, who was Hughes’ roommate at the time, drummer Jason Mockley, who also played for Sylvia’s Ghost, percussionist Matthew Siroka and Paul Brainard, who played pedal steel guitar and trumpet; as well as the former keyboardist for Ed And The Boats and the Rainy Boys.
Between them, the band quickly devised a couple of sets of material and began to play out in the clubs, primarily the Mt. Tabor. By the spring of 1996, Jesus Presley had evolved into a 12-piece ensemble, which included three female back-up singers, a horn section of saxman John Leubner and Dave Monnie on trumpet and three percussionists. The band’s unique sound was founded on the fact that they did not have a drummer who used a standard rock drum kit, instead allowing the three percussionists to provide the beat.
Despite their association with Swing music, Jesus Presley’s sound was comprised of elements of Rock, R&B, Funk and even Jazz, over Latin, Rock and Middle-Eastern rhythms, with Brainard’s ethereal peddle steel guitar swirling around in the mix. Through interminable personnel changes, Hughes guided the band throughout the ‘90s, and into the new millennium, performing regularly at big civic events, such as the Bite (six years in a row) and NXNW (five years in a row) as well as regular club engagements.
One of the other bands with whom Paul Brainard played pedal steel guitar was Richmond Fontaine. Originally known in Potland as the Impalas, the band was forced to change its name when news came down that there was another band somewhere in the US with claim to the name. Singer/guitarist Willy Vlautin’s booze tinged soliloquies mingled well with Brainard’s plaintive pedal steel phrasings. Several times, Brainard, bassist Dave Harding and drummer Joe Davis, faithfully followed Vlautin to perform at South By Southwest in Austin, garnering for the band enthusiastic response from the Texas locals. Richmond Fontaine continue to perform to the present.
Sylvia’s Ghost was a Goth Pop band featuring drummer Mockley, Mike Draper on bass, guitarist Ken Westin, Ken Bancroft on keys and vocalist Billy James . Together they created a thick, dark, organic sound, over which James layered his operatic tenor vocals. Releasing several recordings on Rainforest Records, Sylvia’s Ghost prospered throughout the mid-‘90s, breaking up at the decade’s end.
The mid ‘90s were witness to other changes within the hierarchy of the local music scene. Hitting Birth broke up, with founders Daniel Riddle and David Parks splitting off to form their own projects. Riddle initiated the hypnotically experimental King Black Acid, while Parks became a member of the Hip Hop crew Hungry Mob. Shortly before that, the Dharma Bums had broken up.
After coming so near to achieving national recognition through a series of well placed indie releases, the Bums ran out of mutual gas, splintering into multiple factions. At first. drummer John Moen and bassist Jim Talstra briefly fell in with Mark Sten’s Oblivion Seekers, before leaving to form their own band the Maroons. Meanwhile, guitarist Eric Louvre spawned Springtooth. Lead singer Jeremy Wilson moved to Seattle to establish Pilot.
Perhaps the one to benefit most from the breakup of the Bums was Rebecca Gates, their former manager. While the actual members of the band seemed to spiral in disarray, Gates was suspiciously composed, forming her own band, the Spinanes, with ace drummer Scott Plouff. With hardly a live performance under their collective belts, Gates parlayed her business connections to secure for the Spinanes a recording contract with Sub Pop records.
Before her two-year stint as the Bums manager, Gates had worked for Monqui Productions for a time. In addition, she had a radio show on KBOO. While the Bums were negotiating a deal with Epic Records, tensions within the band grew so impassioned that they broke up. “It was weird,” guitarist Eric Louvre said, a few years after the breakup. “Mine and Jeremy’s frustration at the time of the breakup was that we needed a full-time manager and it was obvious that Rebecca wanted to be a musician rather than a manager. Then she got that deal with Sub Pop for the Spinanes…”
In May of 1994, the Spinanes released their first album, Manos, immediately becoming the darlings of alternative media. The success of the single “Noel, Jonah and Me” helped to propel the Spinanes upon a wave of popularity they shared with other alternative female performers such as Liz Phair and Julianna Hatfield. An appearance on the Conan O’Brien Show and in-depth articles in Spin magazine ensued. A year and a half later they released their follow up Sup Pop album Strand, to lukewarm critical response. By early 1997, they had broken up, so that Rebecca could be free to pursue a solo career- which, three and a half years later, has yet to come to fruition. Plouff now plays with Built To Spill.
A similar career trajectory was experienced by Pete Droge. A Folkie from the Seattle area, Droge hardly played any gigs in Portland before he was signed in 1994 to a contract with Rick Rubin’s indie label American Records. A friend of Droge’s, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready recommended Pete to Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, who contacted producer Brendan O’Brien (Stone Temple Pilots, Black Crowes) to do a demo.
Within a year Droge was touring, opening for Tom Petty to coliseum-sized crowds. His debut album, Necktie Second, never did crack the Billboard Top 200 album chart. But Droge was able to place the catchy song “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” on the soundtrack to the Jim Carrey movie Dumb And Dumber. This led to an appearance for Pete on the David Letterman Show and short-lived fame. Since that time, Droge has recorded three more solo albums, his fourth album released in the Summer of 2003. He also co-founded the Thorns, with Shawn Mullins and Matthew Sweet. Their debut album was released in the Spring of 2003.
SP Clarke © 2011 – All rights reserved
Great web site. Plenty of useful info here. I’m sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thank you for your effort!
Yay ThrillBilly! Mark Dybvig is a dear friend of mine. Such an amazing musician and all around good guy.