Last Monday night, I found myself wandering under the Fremont Bridge's industrial east side. The block I was pacing—between North Albina Avenue and Tillamook Street, just off the MAX's yellow line—was as empty as a ghost town. Half expecting to see tumbleweed roll by, I stood under the glow of streetlights repeating "1121 North Loring" to myself and feeling utterly lost. I was looking for new venue/gallery Exit Only, and the space's logo—a road sign of clusterfucked arrows and dead-end turns—was beginning to make a lot of sense.
A desperation text later (to Carcrashlander frontman Cory Gray, whose organ-led folk-rock band was just about to go on), I stumbled upon the warehouse space, where curator Zach Barnes met me at the door and quickly noted our matching Midwestern accents. A 23-year-old Chicago transplant, Barnes intended Exit Only to be a haven for all sorts of "underground arts," a place where you'd just as likely catch a puppet show or indie film screening as a rock concert. But, thanks to Portland's startling lack of all-ages venues (thanks, OLCC!), Barnes found himself bombarded by requests from bands wanting to fill the cavernous, plywood-lined space with music.
"Honestly, I had no idea the response the place was gonna get," says Barnes, who describes Exit Only as an art gallery that's open when bands play. But he and "jack-of-all-trades volunteer" Nate Sloss agree they'd like to see the venue, which opened in February, turn into a nonprofit "community art space." While Portland's alcohol-serving venues will find out this Friday whether or not the OLCC approves proposed changes to rules regarding minors in liquor-serving establishments (enabling 21+ clubs to host more all-ages events), Barnes says he's not interested in running a bar; he'd rather skip the hassle and welcome all tastes and ages straightaway.
In the one evening I spent at Exit Only, I witnessed an all-out rock show; Carcrashlander's moving away from sad-bastard music, according to Gray, whose set was ably embellished by the insanely cool guitar stylings of experimental hip-hop artist Alexis Gideon. I also met a musician I'd just written about (country crooner Shelley Short was among the off-night's few attendees) and, later, sat in a folkster-friendly circle while Ohioan's Ryne Warner played a low-key set of acoustic covers (from Dolly's "Jolene" to Townes Van Zandt) and originals from a neighboring room's plaid couch.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor to my right was local blues-folk singer Down South Sallie, chiming in on the songs she knew. As trains rumbled in the distance, Warner played a mariachi-tinged number with a refrain along the lines of, "Let's get the fuck out of this town!" But, when Gray grabbed his trumpet for a bit of impromptu accompaniment and a couple of youngish fans apologized for having to split (it was "past their bedtime"), it was hard to imagine ever wanting to leave. For a chilly warehouse in a barren corner of North Portland, Exit Only sure feels like home—if you can find it.
Alexis Gideon plays Friday, April 18. 9 pm. $5. All ages. Visit myspace.com/pdxexitonly for upcoming shows.