Compared to spending a Friday night circling the streets of downtown Portland looking for a free parking spot, venturing 15 minutes north on I-5 and slipping into Vancouver's city center at night feels like entering an alternate universe. The sidewalks are almost completely empty, save for a few souls braving the downpour to hit up one of the bars or restaurants lining Main Street. And finding a parking spot took all of two minutes after exiting the highway.
More than that, it's the scene I tumbled into at Pop Culture, one of the few spots downtown that books live music, that makes Vancouver truly seem like another world. The small, all-ages venue and restaurant has all the aesthetic charm of a church rec room: It's a square performance space with scuffed concrete floors and plastic lawn chairs lined up in front of a foot-high stage covered by a Persian rug.
And yet, every one of those lawn chairs was filled with a fresh-faced, fashionable youngster quaffing a bottle of soda after having plunked down $8—$7 if you wore a hat—to watch a bill of five Vancouver bands. The lineup includes Jeff Buckley-styled singer-songwriter Bev Lapuz and metal-funk quartet Kings and Vagabonds, a group featuring a wheelchair-bound virtuoso bass player and a singer with long, stringy black hair and a penchant for headbanging.
"It's usually a lot busier than this," says Joey LeBard, Pop Culture's owner. "The rain must be slowing people down. We usually get a lot of kids that like to bounce between here and the parking lot down the street.â
As many people were quick to point out to me, not all shows in Vancouver look like this. In fact, on that same Friday night, just down the street at the more traditional Brickhouse Bar & Grill, a sedate bunch of middle-aged patrons greeted the prog-y jams of local quartet Guillotine Necktie with the polite applause of indifference.
Regardless, the musicians and promoters in Vancouver are adamant the city's music scene is a growing, thriving entity—even if Portlanders rarely take notice.
"I don't know why we're kind of like Portland's dirty stepsister," says Travis Zimmerly, one-half of booking and promotion crew Vanclocal360. "A lot of the same bands from here are playing in Portland, and some people from there are fans, but we canât get them to come to a show over here.â
The roster of bands Zimmerly lists on his company's Facebook page offers some insight into that disconnect: The majority of them are heavy-metal and hard-rock bands or hip-hop acts, genres that boast few midlevel success stories. Bands dabbling in more mainstream genres have managed to make inroads outside Vancouver. One local sensation, '90s-inspired alt-rockers I Digress, has two shows booked in Hawaii, including an opening slot for Everclear. Groups like reggae popsters the Sindicate, proto-grunge trio A Killing Dove and the punk-tinged Atlas and the Astronaut have also become mainstays on the Portland show calendar.
What Vancouver ultimately needs is a figure to help foment a combination of civic pride and creativity that helped put Olympia firmly on the cultural map. The person who comes closest to filling that role in Vancouver is Zimmerly. A tireless music junkie, Zimmerly has, for the past three years, put a great deal of money and energy into Local Fest, an annual, all-day concert held on his in-laws' 20-acre spread in nearby Battle Ground. "The best part was, all the other musicians would get right up by the stage and support the other bands, no matter who they were," Zimmerly says.
Beyond wowing their local fans and peers, the Vancouver musicians I spoke to all acknowledged that one of the biggest steps toward getting their music and city the attention they deserve is nudging them into the jaded view of the gatekeepers and tastemakers in Portland.
"You have to establish that audience," says Atlas and the Astronaut singer Beau Rosser. "Build a culture around your band so it doesn't matter where you play, people will be there. And most of all, don't be afraid to say youâre from Vancouver.â
GO: Pop Culture is at 1929 Main St., Vancouver, Wash., 360-750-1784, drinkpopculture.com.