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May 5th, 2004 KELLY CLARKE | Night Avenger
 

Candlelight Humpin'

     
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As if on cue, a crowd of thirty- and fortysomethings surges into Portland's de-facto blues bar, the Candlelight Cafe, on Wednesday nights. It's ain't just for music--it's for booty.

"We're here, gettin' you through your hump night, baby," LaRhonda Steele, a silky-voiced, blond-haired black woman, purrs into the bar's microphone. "This is Ocean 503."

By the time the band finishes its opening song, a jazzy riff on General Hospital's theme song, every corner of the retro lounge is packed with weekly believers: salt-'n'-pepper-haired couples, buxom white singles in sparkly low-cut blouses, and stylish black men in T-shirts or shiny Motown-era suits.

Unlike the Northeast lounge that shares its name, the Candlelight (which sits on a lonely Southwest Portland stretch of asphalt buttressing I-405) is devoted to free, daily rounds of live blues and jazz for its love-hungry regulars--the kind of place where Portland police officers could learn a thing or two about affable race relations. But on hump day the bar hits its meat-market pinnacle with Ocean 503's boozy, floozy R&B.

The unflappable drummer keeps his time signatures as tight as singer Steele's miniskirt. A trio of big-haired ladies who smell like baby powder giggle as the bassist levels a dance-floor invitation in their general direction--his Barry White-esque voice caressing their curves. Sure, the whole scene is cheesy. But the melding of classy musicianship, worn AM radio standards, and funk-driven flirting produces its own unique, "so bad it's fabulous" aura.

As an ash-haired divorcee on her third martini pulls a young Usher look-alike out onto the floor to shimmy to a cover of the Spinners' "I'll Be There," it's clear that this bar will never be colonized by the scouts of indie culture. Although the Candlelight is located only blocks from Portland State University, nary a pair of black Converse lo-tops shuffling across its airport carpet will ever drown out Ocean 503's latest Mary J. Blige cover. This crowd is too old, too drunk and having too much fun to lease the Candlelight to a younger generation.

"I wish those days could come back once more," Steele sings, belting out the signature line to Stevie Wonder's 1976 hit "I Wish."

"My life these days is more about baloney sandwiches and getting the little ones off to school," Steele says to the crowd with a rueful smile on her face. A shout to the affirmative bursts out from the dance floor. "But tonight, you can forget about your troubles," she says. "Forget about work tomorrow."

Tentatively bumping and grinding--thoughts of their daytime lives left atop Candlelight's padded bar alongside their half-finished drinks--the crowd already has.

 
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