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September 5th, 2007 Casey Jarman, Amy Mccullough | News Stories
 

Sonic Youth

Portland’s music scene is one of the best in the country. Try telling that to its youngest fans.

     
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Zack Osterlund is a full-fledged member of Portland’s creative class. A musician and photographer, the 20-year-old has stubble and an angular face that lend him a few extra years. A Portland native who works as a waiter at Blue Olive, Osterlund beams with love for his hometown and its music scene. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” he said on a recent afternoon while sipping RC Cola outside Holocene. But as much as he loves this city, there’s one aspect that, well…

“It sucks.”

He’s talking about his weekly ritual: Looking at local concert listings and getting pissed off. While Osterlund can rattle off his favorite Portland bands without hesitation, he rarely gets to see them live. That’s because, with few exceptions, one has to be 21 to see music in this town.

“I wanted to go and see [local dance/rock artist] Starfucker [at Holocene] last night,” he said with a nod toward the venue he can’t legally enter. “But his next few shows are all 21 and up.”

This weekend, Portland plays host to MusicfestNW (a WW production), Portland’s biggest music festival. In a celebration of music from near and far, 158 bands will swarm 16 local stages. But for Osterlund—and anybody else under legal drinking age—those numbers dwindle to 40 and four, respectively.

“There’s an amazing amount of fantastic music being created in this town,” says Cary Clarke, founder of local nonprofit PDX Pop Now! (which hosts an annual all-ages festival of its own). “And it’s kind of a miracle that it has been as supported in town and then celebrated nationally as it has with this whole demographic…being excluded.”

The problem is the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the state agency that controls the sale of alcohol in supermarkets, liquor stores, restaurants and clubs. The OLCC is one of only 18 state agencies (plus the District of Columbia) left in the U.S. that has this authority. Its rules mean most clubs in Oregon that sell alcohol cannot host minors.

In a nutshell, the OLCC recognizes most alcohol-serving establishments as either restaurants or bars, with virtually no in-between. If food sales exceed liquor sales, it’s a restaurant. If the opposite is true, it’s a bar. And if it’s a bar, the commission considers it unsuitable for minors. (See page 30 for a guide to more OLCC-speak.)

People who go see live music rarely eat as much as they drink. So unless most of a music venue’s crowd is chowing down hamburgers while they rock, those clubs remain off-limits to minors. “If something is primarily a drinking environment,” says OLCC executive director Steve Pharo, “we obviously want to make sure the public safety is served.”

There are exceptions: The OLCC allows under-21ers into a handful of Portland venues if they can be physically separated from drinkers. At big clubs like the 800-plus-capacity Crystal and Wonder ballrooms, this means hiring extra security and erecting moat-style barriers between drinkers and minors.

Portland rock club Satyricon is allowed to admit youth, though it comes at a cost. The club has a two-room, separate-bar layout, but if you want to drink, you have to be in the room away from the music, meaning showgoers drink less. Despite the complications of running what feels like two businesses under one roof, 32-year-old co-owner Jeff Urquhart says staying all-ages is important to him. And while he still works a full-time sales job to support himself (he says Satyricon doesn’t really make money), Urquhart adds, “That’s the way you have to do it. We’re not messing around. We want this place to last.”

Clubs in cities of similar size to Portland, with historically lauded music scenes, operate under far more flexible laws. In Texas, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission says there are no state laws regarding minors being in bars. Of course, Texas bars are required to prevent underage drinking—and face strict penalties for failing to do so—but how they keep kids from obtaining alcohol is up to each establishment.

Bill Corsello, general manager at longtime Austin all-ages club Emo’s, says his club’s enforcement policy is simple: “We put black X’s on the top of [minors’] hands—big nasty X’s.”

Colorado’s bars, according to that state’s Division of Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement, don’t have state age restrictions, either. Jay Bianchi, co-owner of Denver’s Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom—a 700-capacity club—runs things similarly. “We do wristbands for the older and X’s for under,” he explains, adding that such enforcement is the norm for Denver venues. Both Corsello and Bianchi feel that their methods work. “I think we’re just a little more diligent on security,” says Corsello dryly. “We train our minors, and eventually they’re broken.”

Despite the more lenient regulation, underage drinkers don’t appear to be running rampant in these states, puking in every gutter of these cities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ most recent survey regarding substance use, differences in underage drinking in these states is minimal. The numbers of underagers in Colorado who answered that they’d had a drink within the past month ran about 3 percent higher than in Oregon, while in Texas it was 3 percent lower.

Oregon’s tough liquor laws are part of the reason Portland is littered with the corpses of all-ages clubs. Well-loved venues like 17 Nautical Miles, X-Ray Cafe, Meow-Meow, Nocturnal and Food Hole all closed after relatively short runs.

Another one almost bit the dust earlier this year. After operating for its first two years as an all-ages music venue and cafe, Valentine’s—a bright room tucked away in downtown’s Ankeny Alley that was known for warm fuzzies like super-sized cookies and group drawing nights—decided that it could either close, or apply for a liquor license and ban minors. “I think alcohol was the only option,” explains Valentine’s booker Jen Olesen. “It wasn’t so much a want as a need in order to stay afloat.”

Olesen, who pauses often to fidget with the collar of her lacy blouse or to rustle her dark, shag-cut hair, adds that she and owner Liz Haley didn’t go down without a fight: They made the most of an exception that allows minors during dinner hours. “We were able to finagle all-ages until 10 o’clock out of the OLCC,” she states triumphantly, “which is shocking .” But 10 pm is when the music starts, and Olesen appears truly saddened that music fans won’t be able to attend Valentine’s shows anymore. “We’ve had shows involving the Rock Camp for Girls,” she says helplessly. “We’ve had Saturday-morning cartoon shows for the really little ones. [Valentine’s] really is a safe space.”

Bill Perry, one of the Oregon Restaurant Association’s head lobbyists, sympathizes: “I think the mentality [of] many at the OLCC—that if there’s alcohol served, minors can’t go—really harms what I would consider some of the family venues out there. I don’t think that just because alcohol is served, it’s not a family environment.”

But if the OLCC thinks its rules are somehow preventing kids from watching music and drinking, it needs to spend some time on Portland’s east side. “For as hard a time as the OLCC gives different venues in this town,” explains Olesen, “it does create a weird incubator for an alternate framework.” She’s talking about Portland’s house-show scene, an all-ages culture that Olesen says has been “really, really, really strong in the past couple of years.”

It’s 10 pm in a quiet, dimly lit inner-Southeast Portland neighborhood, but one house—a generic-looking two-story—is bright and buzzing. Inside, Nicole Perry sings her spoken-wordish bicycle love song, “Endless Summer,” to a starkly furnished room full of attentive young faces. The light from the room beams her silhouette out the home’s front window and onto the yard, where a pack of scruffy teens laugh, smoke and keep loose grips on tall cans of Pabst. When they snuff out their smokes and head back in to catch the last few songs of Perry’s set, there’s no one at the door to ask for identification or a cover charge. They’re welcome here, no questions asked.

Propelled by OLCC rules, social networking sites like MySpace and what one house venue owner, Randy Bemrose, refers to as a “pretty incredibly understanding” police force, Portland’s house-show network has blossomed into a thriving scene in the past few years. On any given night, underage kids can follow trails of Christmas lights and electrical cords into beer-soaked basements to see some of the most exciting young bands (many of them, like Hurah Hurah and Eskimo&Sons, made up entirely of underage members) in Portland. These houses have names like the Pink House, the Green House or Camp Rainbow. Located primarily on Portland’s east side, they host shows that are often free and BYOB—and always all-ages friendly.

Though musical styles vary from house to house—punk- and metal-centric houses having different audiences than indie-rock and acoustic-minded venues—the ideology behind them is often surprisingly similar. Damian Vander Wilt, a 24-year-old who runs a website that posts notices about upcoming shows, says the Portland scene is different from others: “It’s not DIY here,” explains the Denver-area transplant. “It’s DIT—do it together.”

Among the house-show scene’s greatest boosters is 24-year-old Arya Imig. The KPSU radio DJ host uses his show, Sound Judgment , to publicize bands that play primarily in the house-show circuit, listing showtimes on-air. The nasal-voiced Imig says he’s been called a lot of things in relation to Portland’s house party scene—“the king, the godfather”—but, flashing a toothy grin, describes himself as “just an amateur impresario.”

Imig, who estimates he went to 65 house shows last year, says the scene is not only a reaction to OLCC rules and Portland’s limited supply of all-ages venues. It’s also because some venues, he argues, often have a bad rep among underage performers—employing tactics like pay-to-play (a system where performers have to pre-sell tickets to secure a gig). Besides, Imig says: “They want to go through somebody who’s not like ‘the Man,’ you know. Somebody who’s like them…and who’s in it for the same reasons.”

Bemrose’s home is in North Portland, and he averages a few shows a month. He serves vegan food and occasionally champagne, and never charges admission. The shaggy-haired, quiet 27-year-old (who plays in a myriad of Portland bands, including Junkface and Swim Swam Swum) acknowledges that minors probably drink at his house, but he says drinking is less of a priority than seeing live music.

But alcohol and minors do come together in the house-show scene, and drinking is one aspect of the scene’s popularity. The average age of attendees at some shows can run as low as 17, Imig says. And while Bemrose says part of the job of hosting a show is to keep excessive drinking in check—recounting times he’s let intoxicated guests sleep on his couch or ponied up for cab rides—it’s unrealistic to think hosts can keep an eye on everyone.

Bemrose still feels good about hosting. The alternative to beer-friendly house shows, he suggests, is “small groups of kids [with] no social safeguards, nobody there to say, ‘Hey, you’re out of line. Don’t get in that fight…don’t get in this car, you’ve had too much.’”

Bemrose also says that, as a homeowner, he’s aware of the possible consequences of minors drinking on his property—fines up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail, not to mention the lawsuits if a kid gets into an accident. But he and other Portland house-show hosts claim that when they keep things civil, they’re rarely hassled.

Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz says officers rarely break up house parties and shows on a first visit. “We give the person an opportunity to shut it down,” he says. “We don’t go there and, like, give people tickets and take their crap away—unless they’re jerks.”

In the past few months, objections to the OLCC’s current system have gained some traction. At an advisory meeting on July 25, the OLCC considered amendments to its rules that would redefine what constitutes a “drinking environment” and give venues the opportunity to propose their own plans to regulate underage drinking. Where the current OLCC rules live in a time capsule of “dance halls” and “stage revues,” these changes could help bring the commission up to date.

This is exactly what Cary Clarke has been waiting for.

The part-time language teacher attended that July 25 meeting. He says his conversations with the commission seemed fruitful. “I expected to have this unpopular opinion and that I would have to argue with people,” the 27-year-old Yale grad explains from his cluttered Southeast Portland living room (which doubles as the headquarters for PDX Pop Now!). Clarke, who also plays in Portland indie-rock band At Dusk, had long thought of the OLCC as an enemy of the Portland music scene, forcing age restrictions on its venues. He still sounds shocked by his experience with the organization. “I got there, and they were very nice, very receptive,” he says. “It just seemed that they had never really thought of these issues before.”

The commission claims to be thinking about those issues now. “What we’re trying to do is create the opportunity for us to be more flexible in supporting a reasonable venue that’s out there,” says Pharo, the OLCC’s executive director. “Without that flexibility, it sometimes does get difficult to take these new ideas and different ideas and fit them into the old boxes.”

Encouragingly, the most recent draft of proposed OLCC rules specifically mentions the word “wristbands” as a potential part of a venue’s plan for keeping minors from obtaining alcohol. It’s a suggestion that Clarke made at the July meeting.

Bruce Fife, president of the Portland chapter of the American Federation of Musicians Local 99, still has his doubts. In 2002, Fife began the fight with the OLCC to allow underage performers onto the stages of 21-and-over clubs. And though he won his fight two years later, he’s still afraid that the OLCC board—which is made up of five governor-appointed citizen commissioners—is out of touch: “They’re completely removed from reality. Whenever you leave it to them to come up with the rules, they go as conservative as possible.”

Clarke says he’ll make the fight for an all-ages Portland his organization’s first priority until a significant change occurs. He’s willing to use his sizable PDX Pop email list to help carry on the fight. “If [the OLCC’s rules coordinator] were to receive 500 emails* from kids who want to go to shows other than in houses or at the Crystal Ballroom,” he says, “that would have a big impact, I think, on the final draft of the legislation that made it to the OLCC commissioners.”

The OLCC itself encourages public input. “Both the commissioners and staff not only are interested in hearing those views,” says Pharo, “but they can make a huge difference…the more we hear, the better.”

“Think about some of the historic great scenes in the country,” Cary Clarke says emphatically. “Think about D.C. in the ’80s, think about New York City in the late ’70s, or like L.A. and the South Bay in the mid-’80s—it’s always people who are under 21 who are really driving those scenes.” Portland could be next—but not without its youngest supporters, many of whom, like Osterlund, will still buy a $40 bracelet to MusicfestNW even though they’ll only be able to see a fraction of the music.

“There’s a huge hole in the heart of the music community,” says Clarke. “And that belongs to people under 21.”

*OLCC rules coordinator Jennifer Huntsman can be reached at jennifer.huntsman@state.or.us.


All-Ages Picks at Musicfest Northwest

Sure, Portland can be a bummer if you're underage, but some of this weekend's best MFNW shows are all-ages. Four stages—the Crystal Ballroom, Hawthorne Theatre, Roseland and Satyricon—cater to teens. Nike chips in with some extra daytime all-ages shows at AudioCinema. Here are WW's top picks:

Thursday

Cat Power
Cat Power is crazy unpredictable, driving some fans nuts and bringing others to tears. Either way, you'll leave with a story to tell. 5 pm at AudioCinema.

Sandpeople
The future of Portland hip-hop storms the Roseland tonight, playing cuts from its forthcoming album, Honest Racket. 9 pm at Roseland.

Spoon
Try to get there early—the house should be packed for Spoon, one of America's finest rock bands. 11 pm at Crystal Ballroom.

Friday

Typhoon
Ten kids + percussional fury + sea chanties = One of Portland's most promising young bands. 9 pm at Satyricon.

Lifetime
Yes, Rilo Kiley is good stuff. But with Lifetime you have a chance to witness a piece of punk history, as well as one of the most energetic shows you'll ever see.11 pm at Hawthorne Theatre.

Saturday

Ghostface Killah
Are kids still down with Wu-Tang? They ought to be, because one of the group's greatest members (and arguably its most relevant) is playing for free. Don't miss it. 7 pm at AudioCinema.

The Thermals
You don't want to be balancing a drink in the 21-and-up section to see the Thermals, anyway. You want to be flailing, bouncing and smiling so big your cheeks hurt! Midnight at the Crystal Ballroom.

Sunday

Swim Swam Swum
One of Portland's finest catchy/punky/underground pop outfits, Swim Swam Swum, landed the gig of a lifetime— opening for Wolf Parade at MFNW's closing show—and the band is absolutely worth showing up early for. 9 pm at Crystal Ballroom.

Find out what we asked MusicfestNW participants in this week's Local Cut Q&As. For more info on MFNW, visit musicfestnw.com or check out WW's MusicfestNW Guide.


OLCC-Speak

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission rules can be confusing, mostly because of some vague and loosely defined language (the term "antiquated" has been thrown around). Here are some of the more confusing OLCC terms defined.

Minor Postings

Those red, black and white signs that hang inside every Oregon bar. There are currently five different minor postings, which allow minors during certain hours, in certain areas of a space, with certain conditions, or not at all. A proposed sixth posting would give spaces more flexibility in working with the OLCC to accept minors.

Control Plan

No, not the OLCC's roadmap to world domination (that's Phase 2). A control plan is a special deal that an establishment works out with the commission to allow minors and still serve alcohol. Current rules for crafting control plans are subjective and vague, though proposed changes could standardize the process.

Drinking Environment

To let minors in, venue/bar owners have to prove that their establishments will not only keep drinks out of kids' hands, but that minors won't be exposed to a "drinking environment." Factors that make a drinking environment include "dim lighting...entertainment devices, games, music and multiple televisions." So that's why strangers are always getting drunk in my living room!

Stage Revue

From the current OLCC rules: "'Stage revue' means a live performance with adult or sexual themes of a type usually performed on a stage, involving players performing such activities as skits, song, dance and comedy routines."Hee-Haw was probably big when this definition was written.

Performing Arts Center

Like a music venue, only boring. The OLCC relaxes its alcohol rules in spaces "where fixed seating is provided in the performance room for each ticket holder and there is no location provided for patron dancing." You know, like in Footloose!

Dance Hall

A place in which your grandparents did the jitterbug before the war.

Wet T-Shirt event

The OLCC doesn't define this, but it's when you pour jugs of water on girls'...you know, jugs. These "contests" (and I never understood how they decide a winner) would specifically be made off-limits to minors in the latest draft of the commission's rules. Which pretty much ruins Portland's chance of becoming the next big spring break destination (as if the cards weren't already stacked against us).


A 2006 survey conducted by the Oregon Department of Health Statistics states that 80 percent of high-school juniors say it’s either “very easy” or “sort of easy” to get alcohol if they wanted it.

Special thanks to Amanda Waldroupe for research and transcription assistance.

Clickhere for tons of extra interviews and links to the latest OLCC revisions.

 
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