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Recalling when the magic happened at Presto Records

Short-lived but celebrated Boston label is reissuing its catalog on digital platforms

Presto Records founder Chris Porter
Presto Records founder Chris PorterHayley Young

For more than two decades, Lowell native Chris Porter has made the West Coast his home. He moved to Seattle in the late 1990s to work for the production company behind that city’s annual music and arts festival, Bumbershoot. A few years ago, he took over the role of talent buyer for San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a huge free annual festival in Golden Gate Park.

These days Porter butters his bread on the left coast, but he’s never lost sight of where the bread came from in the first place. He still maintains his family home in Lowell, where he established the Town and the City Festival in 2018.

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Porter established himself in the music business in and around Boston, first as a college radio DJ, then a band manager and the talent buyer for several local clubs.

He also started his own record label. Presto Records — named for the luncheonette Porter’s grandfather once ran in Lowell — was, for a few years around 1990, the home of some of Boston’s better local bands, including Classic Ruins, Miles Dethmuffen, Miranda Warning, and the Trojan Ponies.

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About five years ago Porter attended a memorial service at Medford’s Chevalier Theatre for Margaret Weigel, an arts writer and onetime bassist for the Trojan Ponies. News of Weigel’s death sent Porter to the Internet in search of any unlicensed uploads of the records he’d released on Presto. To his surprise, he found little.

“I wouldn’t have cared,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Seattle. “I just wanted people to hear it.”

So he set about preparing the Presto Records catalog for its first digital release. Idle time during the pandemic helped speed up the process; beginning on May 5, Porter will roll out every release by the seven bands he signed to his label (the Terrible Parade, Evol Twin, and the Visigoths make up the rest), one band per week, on Spotify and YouTube.

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Porter’s first exposure to the music world came on the air at WJUL, the student-run station at the University of Lowell (now known as WUML), where he co-created the program “Live from the Fallout Shelter” with Bob Weston. Weston would later join the bands the Volcano Suns and Shellac and make his name as a noted recording engineer. At WJUL Porter met the members of the Classic Ruins, and he started managing them soon thereafter.

“I was probably the only underage manager in Boston in 1986,” he says.

Classic Ruins’ debut album, “Lassie Eats Chickens,” came out that year on the local Throbbing Lobster label. When Throbbing Lobster went under, Porter tried in vain to find the band a new deal. That’s when he decided to start his own label, with the 1989 release of “Ruins Cafe.”

“My mother, God bless her, gave me a few thousand bucks to start it,” he recalls.

To finish his degree, Porter transferred to Brandeis University. Melrose native Ad Frank was an underclassman there; to him, Porter was “an enigma. He didn’t live on campus. He was a cool guy, managing local bands. I was a fan of Classic Ruins. I was a little bit starstruck.”

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One night in 1990, Porter went to Bunratty’s in Allston to see Miles Dethmuffen, Frank’s band with bassist Linda Bean and two of her classmates from Malden High. It proved to be a serendipitous evening. Porter would soon sign the band to his label, and also become the talent buyer at the club.

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From there he went on to run the concert schedule at the Middle East Downstairs and at Mama Kin, the short-lived club on Lansdowne Street co-owned by Aerosmith and the Lyons Group. By 1993, Presto Records was defunct.

In hindsight, Frank thinks that his band’s “arty, jangly, poppy” sound may have been a step behind the times, more in tune with ’80s Boston bands like the Neats and Dumptruck than their ’90s peers. But Miles Dethmuffen — later known as PermaFrost — had a nice run.

“Chris did a great job as our manager,” says Frank. “We had a bunch of showcases in New York. Every A&R person at the time had a list of 30 bands they wanted to sign, but they only got to sign two or three a year. I think we were on a bunch of people’s list of 30.”

For years Frank led the band Ad Frank and the Fast Easy Women. His newest group, the Daylilies, are preparing an album for the new local label Red on Red, which recently released a single by Linda Bean’s latest band, the Chelsea Curve.

These days, Frank works by day in the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs.

“I’ve never felt like my job was more essential than in the last year,” he says.

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The members of Miles Dethmuffen recently taped a brief set for JJ Gonson’s ONCE Virtual Venue, which will present a Presto Records Relaunch event on May 8.

For Porter, running a record label was not exactly lucrative.

“I remember at least two or three distributors going out of business, and our money went bye-bye,” he says. “One in Chicago, I lost over $800. It might as well have been $8,000.”

Though his little imprint didn’t gain the recognition of some of the other Boston-based labels of the time — Ace of Hearts, say, or Taang! — “I made my mark to some extent,” Porter says. “I’m proud of all the releases, and I wouldn’t have done anything different.

“I looked at it as sort of the tuition for the School of Hard Knocks,” he says. “It opened up other possibilities for me.”

Presto Records Relaunch Show with founder Chris Porter, band footage, and a “Where Are They Now” segment. Saturday, May 8 at 8 p.m. on the ONCE Virtual Venue site: www.oncesomerville.com. Tickets free with suggested donation.

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.