Slabtown is more than a bar. The name not only denotes a region—Industrial Northwest Portland—it embodies a history: In the 1880s, rich folks used "Slabtown" to refer derogatorily to working-class residents who had to use slabs of cheap wood from local sawmills to fuel their fireplaces.
But the bar itself has a rich history, as well: Its many incarnations include a disco, a fringe theater, a lesbian bar and a cowboy bar. This all goes without mentioning Slabtown's inherent link to everyone's favorite local band to love/hate, the Dandy Warhols—who pretty much lived at Slabtown during the bar's post-Satyricon days of hipsterdom in the early aughts. (The band even released an EP titled Tales From Slabtown in 2000.)
And, as we speak, the boozehole is taking on yet another face. Armed with sleeping bags, loads of paint and a never-say-die attitude, Slabtown's newest owners—longtime local bartenders Brinda Coleman, Chris Spinelli and (sometime WW contributor) Sam Soule—are gearing up for Slabtown's quickly approaching reopening party, a three-day rock extravaganza titled "The Bender."
Spinelli says their incentive to purchase the storied bar (for an undisclosed amount) is simple: "We didn't want to work for anyone else." And it's an incentive they're not taking lightly: "Lets just say we're not eating much these days," says Coleman, who's working on the bar despite a recent bout with pneumonia. "We scraped together every last dime [from] friends and family, home equity...every way you could think of, we've explored it."
And they're exploring a more rock-club-oriented image for the space, as well. Coleman says the previous owners were very "hands off," so the staff started to steer the then-hippie-themed sports bar's entertainment toward primarily jam-band-ish artists. "That's how low it had sunk," says Coleman. Spinelli adds, "[When] I came in a couple of times to check the place out, there was not a time when there wasn't an acoustic guitar and hand drums onstage. It was definitely a Widespread Panic show in the making."
Despite staff-change difficulties—Coleman, Soule and Spinelli offered all of Slabtown's employees the opportunity to reapply; only two did—the new owners are enthusiastic about Slabtown's future; Soule, the club's primary booker, says, "I love this neighborhood. It's like Drugstore Cowboy land...and people are really excited that somebody's coming back to treat music more seriously."
The new owners hope to give the bar a music schedule and personality that reflect their own: "We're all owners. But we'll be the ones behind the bar, cooking the food," says Coleman. The new Slabtown—which will include a revamped bar, a more open stage and a back room with pool and pingpong—will be "a solid Portland bar," says Soule. "We're not high concept. This is not going to be the Doug Fir. It's not even going to be clean, you know? It's basically going to be the same bar with new paint and new faces...moving in a better direction."
Slabtown opens for business Friday, Feb. 2. 1033 NW 16th Ave. 223-0099. The Bender begins at 8 pm. Free. 21+. For full lineup and details, see Headout, page 42, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday music listings. Also see profile, page 45.