Getting Bluegrassed: Exploring Portland’s Musical Obsession |

Getting Bluegrassed: Exploring Portland’s Musical Obsession

November 30, 2011

By Kara Wilbeck 

Before I moved to Portland, I would have never expected the city to have such an intense obsession with bluegrass.  Alas, the first week of my residence included seeing about six different bluegrass bands, and the crowds were huge and energetic.

My first Friday night, the 18th of November, I went to my first show at the Crystal Ballroom, Portland’s famous and historic downtown venue that comes complete with a spring-loaded dance floor. The headlining band that night was Greensky Bluegrass, a band I’ve never heard or seen before, supported by Hot Buttered Rum and Portland’s own local bluegrass superstars Fruition.

I’ve since realized that I’ll probably be seeing Fruition play at least once a week as long as I live here. They share their music everywhere, playing at bars, cafes and parties.  The show at the Crystal Ballroom was their first time at the venue, and probably their biggest show to date.

Hot Buttered Rum is a band I’ve seen many times on the East coast, where it’s not uncommon to see them play at summer festivals. Their style of bluegrass is fun and youthful, and everything you’d want out of that genre. There’s a lot of bouncing, spinning and laughing at one of their shows. Top off their set with an excellent cover of the Grateful Dead’s Cumberland Blues, and you’ve got a solid show.

After the headlining set, Greensky Bluegrass, I could not stop talking about how blown away I was by that band. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of them before, and swear I’ll go to every show they play in my area from now on. This band has a completely unique style of psychedelic bluegrass, with a sound reminiscent of Jerry Douglas (mixed with a little bit of jazzy Bill Frisell). It’s so hard to describe their sound that my only recommendation to readers is to listen to their music. Immediately.

At the end of this show, the musicians from all three bands joined together on stage for a scheduled group encore. Finishing the show with a ripping version of Bertha (yet another Dead cover), the bands left the crowd elated and giggly, leaving the Crystal Ballroom to the exit music of Dr. John. (An excellent choice, if I do say so myself.)

This concert was my first introduction to a distinctively Portland bluegrass way of saying the crowd likes it: intense foot stomping. And with a floor like the Crystal Ballroom’s, the literal bouncing up-and-down of the crowd is an accurate measure of the energy in the room.

The night of Saturday, November 19 showcased a different facet of Portland’s bluegrass scene. My first stop of the night was The Devil Makes Three at the Roseland Theater, another historic staple of downtown Portland. The Roseland is well-known as a venue at which many musical legends played right before they exploded into mainstream fame.

However cool its history is, though, the Roseland left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The venue isn’t very attractive — it feels old and dirty — and the staff is nothing short of mean. The crowd was treated as if it was a rowdy and violent punk rock crowd, and the lobby was littered with signs that read “no moshing.”  The bar area and the dancing area are separated, and in order to get anywhere, a concert-goer must wait in a long line.  I’m telling you, in order to get me back at the Roseland, the band better be *good. *

Unpleasant venue aside, The Devil Makes Three is pretty awesome. The first thing I noticed about the trio is how adorable they all are. The two men in the band, Pete Bernhard and Cooper McBean share the duties of playing guitar and banjo, and are constantly switching off on instruments. They wear matching outfits of white shirts, black vests, skinny jeans and fedoras, which only serves to highlight their otherwise contrasting physical appearances. The lone female in the band, Lucia Turino, plays a bad ass standup bass, grooving with it as she plucks the strings.

The Devil Makes Three’s music is very accessible, with catchy refrains and understandable lyrics. If mainstream music listeners aren’t already aware of this band, they soon will be.  However, with gypsy-folk infused songs about whiskey, whiskey and more whiskey, the crowd at the Roseland was a mix of country folk, hippies, and punkish hipsters. This slightly rougher crowd ended up showing me something I never thought I’d see at a bluegrass show: a mosh pit (undoubtedly provoked by the signs prohibiting that very act).

As this show ended before midnight, I decided to head back to the east side of the river to check out Great American Taxi at the Mt. Tabor Theater on SE Hawthorne St. This venue was far less packed to the brim, and was full of great dancing space and happy faces. I made it to the venue in time to catch the entire second set of their show.

Great American Taxi plays a great mix of psychedelic, fun, and hippied-out bluegrass. In a very well-thought-out manner, the band constructed their second set around a theme of Grateful Dead teases, which were playfully included between each of their songs. Several times, the crowd was tricked into thinking they’d soon be dancing to Cumberland Blues (the irony of the cover of that same song by Hot Buttered Rum the previous night is not lost on me), I Know You Rider or Going down the Road Feeling Bad.

Great American Taxi didn’t give the crowd what it wanted until the very end, finishing off their encore with an amazingly good cover of The Eleven.

The weekend of bluegrass was a great demonstration of the beat of this city’s heart, and I’m sure there are only good things to come in the future.

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