Most nights, Congress Street, in the arts district here, is a ridiculous feast of merriment. A free-form food court of food and drink, the neighborhood is a mess of sports bars and dive bars and cocktail bars; of pizza by the slice, Thai street food by the skewer, Southern-style barbecue, Quebecois poutine, and rich ramen all the way until last call. And then there’s the music. With full calendars at a dozen different venues, one night it’s Snoop Dogg at the State Theater, or Thurston Moore at Space Gallery, or some local hair metal band at Geno’s Rock Club.
Concert promoter and photographer Bryan Bruchman moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., in the summer of 2008. “In Portland, there was exciting music going on, but not necessarily huge crowds,” he says. To share the happenings he built a website — Hilly Town (www.hillytown.com) — with photos, videos, and a curated event list in blog form. The local music scene grew along with Hilly Town.
“Bands like coming to Portland,” says Bruchman. “In big cities there’s usually a big barrier between the bands and the audience. Here it feels warm and comfortable. Plus, the kids in town don’t want to go to some big corporate-sponsored event. They want to go out and see local music. In most places only weirdos like me show up to see the local bands, but in a town like Portland there are hundreds of weirdos.”
Now Bruchman splits his time between New York and Maine. He brings Maine bands south and Brooklyn bands north through Hilly Town Presents.
According to Bruchman, Portland’s music scene just keeps getting better. The iconic rock club has a new sound system, the nonprofit experimental space just opened an annex, and the Art Deco theater reopened with a full schedule of acts from around the world. In addition to the legitimate venues there is also a rich underground culture of secret DIY concert halls in temporary and industrial spaces.
Here are five of Bruchman’s favorite Portland spots to see great live music.
Geno’s Rock Club Capacity: 184. Upcoming highlights: Sunrunner, May 19; Atlatl, May 26; Vampirates, June 14.
“Geno’s is the dive bar rock club that every great music town has to have,” says Bruchman. “It’s a really great, go to place for punk rock, for metal, for loud rock. People drink beer and have fun. You know what you’re gonna get, you want to see a rock band you’ll be satisfied.” 625 Congress St., 207-221-2382
One Longfellow Square Capacity: 200. Upcoming highlights: Jeffrey Foucault, May 17; Dar Williams, June 2; Aoife O’Donovan, June 13.
Last month Greg Brown, an Iowa-based singer-songwriter, played a sold-out show to Portland’s most earnest bearded, braided, and dressed-in-wool crowd of fiftysomethings. Brown wore faded denim overalls and a top hat. He drank red wine out of a coffee cup and sang about gardening and fly-fishing for brook trout.
“One Longfellow has a very intimate feel,” says Bruchman. “It’s perfect for an evening ‘with’ type of thing, to hear stories, to settle in, and watch a solo act where it’s more than just someone playing songs.” 181 State St., 207-761-1757, www.onelongfellowsquare.com
Space Gallery Capacity: 300. Highlights: Ty Segall, May 14; Bower Birds, June 20; Shonen Knife, July 25.
“I can’t even explain how much I love Space,” says Bruchman. “The diversity of events, the care that they give to everything that they do, doesn’t feel like a rock club, doesn’t feel like an art gallery, it feels like what it is.”
Since August of 2002 Space Gallery has been at the center of Portland’s art scene. A nonprofit, multidisciplinary gallery and performance space, they book a little bit of everything.
Nick Rosenblum, the events programmer, brings hip-hop, metal, indie. “Anything that feels right for the room,” says Rosenblum. Last summer the venue expanded into the space next door. “We can do shows that are more experimental than what we would have done in the main room,” he says.
Last month Future Islands, the Baltimore-based synthpop act, played a packed show to what seemed like every young and beautiful music fan in Portland. Everyone was dancing and sweating, screaming out lyrics — in love with the band and in love with the night. 538 Congress St., 207-828-5600, www.Space538.org
State Theater Capacity: 1,870. Highlights: Gogol Bordello, May 31; Fiona Apple, July 1; Rufus Wainwright, July 31.
The State Theater opened in November 1929 in the middle of Congress Street. Moorish and Art Deco in design, the State played movies for 30 years, and then from the 1940s through 1960s added theater and dance. The theater fell on hard times in the late 1960s and continued as a porn theater until it closed in 1990. The space reopened from 1993 to 1996 but was in need of major renovations.
In 2010 The Bowery Presents and Alex Crothers from Higher Ground in Burlington, Vt., got involved. They spent a lot of money on repairs and reopened with general manager Lauren Wayne booking shows.
“The space is huge and Lauren Wayne is killing it with booking,” says Bruchman. “Involvement from Bowery Presents means a strong network and great international acts. The theater feels like you could be in the 1920s.” 609 Congress St., 207-956-6000, www.statetheatreportland.com
Strange Maine Capacity: 25. Highlights: Any and all of the regulars: Glade Swope, Dan Knudsen, Crank Sturgeon, Id m theft able, Big Blood, Mystic Outbop Review.
On a Saturday night in early spring the door is open and the lights are off. The crowd is young, nerdy, sitting on the floor, wearing cowboy boots and cardigans. The bathroom is out of order, the ceiling fan whirls. The Vermont band MV&EE is playing what it calls “lunar ragas” — wailing guitars, lots of reverb, rural imagery.
“We focus on primarily experimental and avant-garde music,” says employee Skot Spear (he is a musician himself, touring as Id m theft able). “Our shows probably wouldn’t fit into other venues in town. It’s weirder music that most of the other venues would want to touch, mostly because if they did there wouldn’t be enough people to sell beer to.”
In addition to the music there are used movies (plenty of VHS), video games, a found photo section, and a deep selection of handmade music by local musicians. 578 Congress St., 207-771-9997, www.kraag.org.
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jonathanlevitt.com.