A perfectly coifed throng of nightclubbers crowds the street-level bar, an intoxicated traffic jam of pressed shirts and faux furs. The restaurant in the complex at the corner of 9th Avenue and East Burnside Street is abuzz, its staff of beautiful, tattooed, brown-T-shirted twentysomethings hustling drinks, burgers and fries sizzling out of the kitchen.
The most significant thing about Doug Fir, however, isn't happening in that crowd at street-level. It's happening underground in the lounge where Lou Barlow is playing.
Many of the people milling through the club's sleek, gold-lit basement are just the sort one would expect for an indie-rock mainstay like Barlow. They're skinny; they're young; their haircuts are shaggy; they're wearing tight vintage T-shirts. But also in the crowd: everyone from a 50s-ish woman in a black velvet dress to three bachelors on the make with military crew cuts. This is not a normal rock club-and that's why it is threatening to change everything.
Once a greasy-spoon relic from the '60s, this 10,000-square-foot cube was transformed last October into a ski lodge with Jetsons-esque cocktail chic. Much talk about the combination bar-restaurant-rock club has focused on architect Jeff Kovel's design. In the New York-based magazine Metropolis, former WW staffer Karen Steen enthused: "Doug Fir's juxtapositions of high and low, sleek and rough-hewn, are both comical and lovely."
Yet its visual flair makes it easy to miss Doug Fir's true impact on Portland's cultural fabric. In six months, Doug Fir's below-street-level, 300-capacity live-music room has become the most celebrated, and in many ways most innovative, rock club in a city loaded with them.
A typical issue of WW lists well over 100 clubs and other venues in its nightlife directory. The range is wide-from the Dunes, a tiny bar behind an unmarked door on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to the Rose Garden, local way station for overblown, overpriced and over-everything touring rock gods like U2.
Doug Fir competes for a specific niche in that market, against other clubs-like Dante's, Berbati's Pan, Nocturnal and Holocene-each with capacity of a few hundred. These clubs vie for the most buzzed-about local bands and touring acts on the rise. But Doug Fir, owned by longtime local rock promoter Mike Quinn and two partners, snaps up sought-after acts from a Wild Kingdom of pop genres. A week at Doug Fir can veer from British hip-hop to alt-country to the avant-garde band with a drummer who lives in your neighborhood.
Buying up talent, though, is just part of Doug Fir's novel equation. The club is a carefully crafted environment, designed to lure a broad array of nightclubbers. Shows start and end early. There's no smoking. As trivial as those tweaks seem, they're bold moves in a business better known for its eccentricity and edgy volatility than its marketing savvy.
The city's vibrant music scene is a big reason Portland attracts fresh blood. According to a study by local economist Joe Cortright, Portland is adding college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds at a rate five times the average for the 50 largest U.S. metro areas.
"The influx since I moved here in 2000 has been amazing," says Adam Mackintosh, the booking agent at Dante's, one of Doug Fir's direct competitors. "It's gotten to be like Austin, where people move to town just because they're into music."
So even if it proves fleeting, Doug Fir's rise as a new kind of club on a formerly seedy stretch of East Burnside marks a significant moment in a key local cottage industry. Doug Fir's owners specifically crafted it to compete in an age of fragmenting music genres and splintering audiences.
"Part of the idea is that you've gotta make your venue like Disneyland," says Quinn, who has booked rock shows in Portland since the early '80s and used to own LaLuna, a fabled (and defunct) club just a block south of Doug Fir. "The venue itself has to be a draw."
The best measure of Doug Fir's success so far: how the club's competitors are scrambling to keep up. They're knocking down walls. They're remodeling their bars. They're banning smoking. In a couple of cases, they've even surrendered and shut down.
"I wouldn't say that we are making the changes we are solely because of Doug Fir," says Chantelle Hylton, who books bands for Berbati's Pan, a venerable, brick-lined club in Old Town. "But it definitely has made us think more creatively about the way we present our shows." Berbati's recently started renovations to boost capacity, added more free shows and prohibited smoking in its live-music space.
"Clubs are always changing," says Hylton. "But sometimes
it takes a bit of a push from somewhere to make those changes happen."
If a single word could capture Alicia Rose, the woman in the middle of all the ferment Doug Fir has agitated, it would be "moxie." A tall woman with meteoric purple highlights through her black hair, the club's booking agent cuts a striking figure. After about 10 years as a Portland fixture, Rose juggles a dizzying number of projects, both creative and commercial.
She performs herself as-of all things-an avant-garde accordionist. Until the end of 2004, she managed a large CD distribution company. Now, she runs international distribution for cocktail-jazz stars Pink Martini. She shoots publicity photos for folk-pop band the Decemberists. Fifteen years ago, she was hiring bands to play San Francisco clubs she was barely old enough to drink in.
Her résumé basically makes Rose the ultimate indie-music "geek"-her word. When she found out Quinn and John Plummer, two longtime pals from Portland's small music-industry circle, planned to open a club, she wasn't shy. [Editor's note: Rose, Quinn, Hylton and Mackintosh are, or have been, on the board of MusicfestNW, WW's annual music festival.]
"Plummer was like, 'Well, I'm not sure who's going to book it...,'" Rose recalls. "And I told him, 'Look, I'm only going to say this one time, but I'm a secret weapon.'"
Quinn and Plummer hired Rose as Doug Fir's booking agent-in Nightclubland, a combination curator and sales manager, the person who hires bands, signs contracts and sets door prices. Rose attacked the job with her signature typhoon energy, plus a Rolodex bulging with national contacts and fiercely catholic taste. Just about every club varies its musical diet to a certain extent; Rose takes particular pleasure in shifting gears.
This Thursday, for instance, Doug Fir stages the first-ever
Portland appearance by Dizzee
Rascal, a critically acclaimed MC from London's East End. Two nights later comes Ida, a breathy, dreamy band with as much in common with Dizzee Rascal as Finding Neverland has with Black Hawk Down.
"I want to see the best of all genres," Rose says. "What I'm thinking is, how can I pull from 20 different subcultures?"
She is, by all accounts, a tough competitor. Some say Doug Fir often simply outbids competing clubs for choice touring acts. "There have been a few times when they've just gone over the top," says one insider, who preferred not to be identified given the small, tight-knit and generally collegial nature of the local music industry.
Rose acknowledges-volunteers, actually-that she's aggressive. In addition to sometimes outbidding rivals, Doug Fir can offer weary bands a room in the adjoining Jupiter Hotel, one of Portland's trendiest. She says her national contacts often give her a jump on acts hitting the road.
However, Rose argues that Doug Fir's musical success has less to do with dealmaking than with a zealot's attention to detail. Unlike most local booking agents, Rose never lets an outside company promote a show in her room-she maintains total control over which bands play, and which bands play together. For every show, Rose burns a customized compilation CD of music to play between bands. She also chooses the music that plays in Doug Fir's upstairs bar/restaurant, which draws diners and drinkers from all over the metro area.
"It's part of creating a whole experience," Rose says. "What I want is for people to start thinking, 'Well, I don't know about any of these bands, but if it's at Doug Fir, it's gotta be good.'"
And Rose's fanatically detailed "whole experience" plays out in a club that, itself, is different by design.
One afternoon in June 2003, Jeff Kovel picked his way downstairs, into the basement of a decrepit '60s diner. Kovel, 30 at the time with a handful of high-profile design jobs under his belt, had no idea this urban twilight zone would turn into his biggest project so far.
The underground den had lived former lives as a punk club and a parking garage. Dingy white panels covered the walls. A wagon-wheel chandelier hung in a shabby little hideaway lounge. The tile ceiling was purple.
"Things were leaking all over the place," Kovel says. "There were rats. I mean, the place was trashed."
At the time, Kovel's commission was to remake the courtyard parking lot of a sleazy old Travelodge, which was becoming the retro-hip, boutique Jupiter Hotel. While surveying, he wandered into the defunct restaurant at the property's edge. In the basement, he pushed up one of those purple tiles to reveal pristine concrete cut into a waffle pattern.
"Never painted, never touched," Kovel recalls.
He thought, hmm....
After glimpsing the restaurant's well-hidden bones, he called Quinn and Plummer, partners-in-nightlife for whom he'd designed East, a modish lounge in Chinatown, three years before. The troika decided to create a club unlike any Portland had ever seen.
"I'm in my mid-40s," Quinn says. "It seems like a lot of us are cursed with liking bands, wanting to go out to see them, but not being quite as young as we used to be. It was a sense I got from people I know, saying they'd go out a lot more if the experience was a little different."
Kovel, too, wanted to break the mold. "For most new clubs, the design consists of, 'Well, we can paint it black and hang a curtain over here,'" the architect says.
Early in his career, Kovel had worked on a house built for rock star Lenny Kravitz in Miami. He applied lessons from hammering together a home recording studio to the subterranean space. The bar, for instance, which like the upstairs lounge is made out of sliced sections of log, is designed to diffuse sound waves. A wall of upholstered acoustic foam is cut to resemble the big rounds of pine that define Doug Fir's look.
More subtle distinctions were brought to bear, too. From the beginning, Doug Fir banned smoking. Portland clubs traditionally operate in their own time zone-about an hour and a half behind the real world. In contrast, Doug Fir's shows start promptly at 9 pm and end, with weekend exceptions, around midnight.
These moves may seem pedestrian, but they're also highly unusual. Music critics for weekly newspapers in Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Philadelphia and other cities say there's nothing quite like Doug Fir on their beats.
And all those small stratagems serve the club's larger goal: to broaden Doug Fir's appeal by attracting both younger scenesters and older people interested in music, but not necessarily the-shall we say-"lifestyle issues" traditionally involved.
The Doug Fir crew is looking to harness some elemental changes in American pop music. In the iPod age, with unknown independent bands a mere mouseclick away, keeping up no longer demands obsessive attention to 'zines and the wisdom of record-store clerks. Gone, too, are the days when you couldn't trust anyone over 30. First-wave punks could be in their 50s now, and scenesters from the Northwest's '90s alt-rock explosion are as likely to have mortgages as vintage Sub Pop vinyl collections.
"Now you can draw on people in their 20s, 30s and 40s," Rose says. "I have friends who've brought their parents to shows here. That's pretty remarkable."
A rock club where you can take your parents? A scene in which thirtysomething professionals matter just as much as 22-year-old hellions? It's a bold act of re-imagination.
"I've toured all over the country and Europe," Rose says. "In the majority of clubs, you have to hang out in a bar that smells like piss and watch a band play on crates. We're trying to revolutionize that experience."
No one would mistake Doug Fir for church camp. Both upstairs and downstairs bars sell plenty of booze. Downstairs, staff and customers are equally tattooed. Undoubtedly, though, the place is way too boutique for some Portland tastes.
"I've seen some good bands there, but I really don't like the place," says Peggy Dainty-Cross, who pogo-ed to punk bands at the Doug Fir building's former incarnation as the Chinese Tea Room and worked at EJ's, a gloriously gritty, much-missed club. "There's no grime at the Doug Fir. Every morning at EJ's I'd have to mop up all the blood and vomit from the show the night before. If someone threw up at Doug Fir, I think they'd have to bring in a professional cleaning crew and sterilize it."
Kovel gets her point. "It was a fine line for me," the architect says. "You could argue that a big part of the attraction of going out to a rock club is the rough-around-the-edges feel. I guess the jury is out. At least now, whether you love it or hate it, you have something to compare everything else to."
Doug Fir's closest competitors certainly have taken notice.
"When we saw Doug Fir on the horizon, we were like, 'Oh, God, here comes the crunch,'" says Adam Mackintosh, the ringlet-haired, 32-year-old booking agent for Dante's, a club decorated in red velvet and midnight black at the corner of 3rd Avenue and West Burnside Street.
Dante's luxe-bordello look suits both the acts it books-a mix of cabaret eccentrics and over-the-top rock acts-and its sexy vibe. The club hosts an exotic dance revue every Sunday, and there's a strip club called Aja's upstairs. Dante's owner Frank Faillace also runs Exotic, a magazine dedicated to the "adult services" industry.
Dante's looks and feels, in other words, like the kind of racy scene your mama warned you about. Over the last few months, though, its swagger has been shaken.
Mackintosh, who frequently tours Europe with his own rock band, Gruesome Galore, has a keen sense of how Portland's various clubs fit together, both economically and culturally. He says things have been tight since last fall. At about the same time Doug Fir opened, another new East Burnside club, a refurbished ballroom called Bossanova, debuted in the old Viscount space. Suddenly, the city's established midsized live venues-Dante's, Berbati's, the east side's Nocturnal and Holocene-faced a competitive crisis.
"Two months ago, it was really starting to feel like there were too many midsized clubs," Mackintosh says. "Things were oversaturated. Suddenly, every small room in town started doing live music, too. Something had to give."
For Dante's, which opened in 2000, what gave was bricks and mortar.
"It merited Frank knocking out a wall," Mackintosh says. "I think he was losing sleep-three or four nights in a row-wondering just what the hell we were going to do."
This winter, Dante's ripped out its bathrooms, creating a more spacious live music room and allowing it to reconfigure its bar service. Again, it's seemingly little stuff-little stuff Mackintosh says means the difference between rocking on and hanging a FOR LEASE sign on the door.
In addition to Dante's cool style and reputation for treating bands well, the club's grand-central location in Old Town, the pocket of 19th-century buildings home to Oregon's densest concentration of taverns, makes it a place many musicians would kill to play. Like Doug Fir, it draws a wide range of audiences: the Japanese punk band Guitar Wolf, country troublemaker Hank Williams III and German rock icon Nina Hagen have all sold out shows there recently.
Still, Mackintosh says, the game has changed.
"I don't know how many times we've looked at the calendar ads and been like, 'Wait, how did that show go to Doug Fir?'" he says. "We've had that band play here three times, and lost money every time. How did it happen?
"It stings," he says. "It's like we were these bands' publicity agents, and then they fired us when they got big."
(Part of the club's advantage, Mackintosh and others say, lies in the fact that another Quinn venture, MonQui Presents, wields leverage by putting thousands of people and hundreds of bands in large venues across the Northwest.)
Dante's isn't the only club grinding gears. In addition to Berbati's remodel and other moves, Holocene is adding seats, improving its acoustics and playing around with a Spanish theme for summer. Nocturnal and Bossanova both scuttled their live-music business in February, shifting to emphasize rental events and the lounge business, respectively. Surveying the battlefield, Mackintosh says a little sledgehammer work was necessary to give Dante's a fighting chance.
"Were we going to knock down the wall sometime anyway? Probably. It was on the list of things to do, some time after you answered the 300 emails every day from bands wanting to play here.
"Well, it came to the point where it needed to happen. When it becomes essential to your survival, you do it."
The road of the local music club has never been easy. The economics are confusing and ever-shifting. The hours will exhaust you; the temptations could turn your liver to alcoholic pate.
The business's many vagaries can transform clubs lauded by bands, fans and critics into boarded-up shells with astonishing speed. Just three years ago, the Blackbird, on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, was the hot new name, winning slobbery praise from rock writers and driving its rivals to distraction. Now it's long gone. Two years from now, Doug Fir could join the Blackbird-along with EJ's, LaLuna, Satyricon and countless other nightlife ventures-as a fading memory.
For now, though, this club with a dramatic look is thriving. There's something different going on here, and almost everyone, like it or not, has had to react.
"It's obvious every time someone plays there for the first time that it's not business as usual for them," Kovel says. "No one gets on that stage without saying something about it to the crowd."
Go to the following web sites for more information on the venues mentioned in this story, and for upcoming concert calendars. Doug Fir Lounge, www.dougfirlounge.com Berbati's Pan, www.berbati.com Dante's, www.danteslive.com Holocene, www.holocene.org Bossanova, www.bossanovapdx.com Nocturnal, www.nocturnalpdx.com
Snapshot of Portland's nightclub industry: Last Thursday night, March 24, Doug Fir drew an estimated crowd of 275 to a free show. The same night, at a selection of six of the city's scores of other clubs (Berbati's, Dante's, Ash Street, Jimmy Mak's, Loveland and Mississippi Studios), cover charges for combined attendace of about 800 came to more than $5,000.