Rhododendron Is Fueling the Post-Pandemic Rise of Portland’s Youth Rock Scene

Formed in 2019 by three Portland School of Rock students with shared interests in jazz and left-field prog rock, the band initially came out of the gate bearing the social media descriptor “pdx prog punk.”

Rhododendron (Rhododendron)

Of the young guitar bands popping up in Portland, Rhododendron is one of the most ambitious and eccentric—and one of the tightest.

Formed in 2019 by three Portland School of Rock students with shared interests in jazz and left-field prog rock, Rhododendron initially came out of the gate bearing the social media descriptor “pdx prog punk”—but, according to guitarist Ezra Chong, “We’ve kind of lost the progressive tendencies and I guess a little bit of the punk tendencies too.”

What’s left? Their upcoming Hawthorne Theatre show, with support from fellow School of Rock alumni Growing Pains and local trio Twistur, should provide an opportunity to find out. Rhododendron hasn’t released a proper album since Protozoan Battle Hymns—which came out in May 2021, just as the first inklings of live music were beginning to return to the Portland scene. But the band has a new release slated for July, following three years of near-constant gigging on the Portland DIY circuit.

Rhododendron includes Chong, bassist Gage Walker and drummer Noah Mortola, who were 15, 16 and 13, respectively, when they first met at School of Rock in 2018. Mortola is a jazz drummer training under local instructor Alan Jones, but the local all-ages house show scene called to him early.

“I started going to shows in 2018, 2019,” Mortola recalls. “That seemed like a really crucial turning point in the Portland scene. For whatever reason, a lot of new bands started popping up and way more people were coming out to these basement shows.”

Meanwhile, Chong and Walker were bonding over prog-rock bands like King Crimson and the Mars Volta—and dreaming up complex music that required a serious drummer to play.

“We knew [Noah] would be able to make a lot of the ideas we were thinking of really come to life because he had that solid force behind the kit,” Chong says.

Named for the blossoms commonly seen on residential Portland streets, Rhododendron had its first practice in 2019—and, according to Mortola, played “five or six shows” before the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’d never really seen a huge amount of success from what we were doing,” he says. “And then we really grinded during COVID. We wrote this whole album and practiced a lot and just got our stuff together.”

Rhododendron’s first show after lockdown took place in a cramped basement in July 2021. The band was surprised to find themselves headlining despite having played so few shows at that point, and Mortola’s expectations weren’t high at first.

“It was like 10 at night or whatever, and it’s summer in Portland, so it’s super hot,” he says. “But there was this basement just packed with people, and it was crazy to see that people were still down to see our music. It was the first time that we had really seen a reception like that.”

Since then, the band has been hard at work writing their new album, gigging and building a network of young bands in the Portland rock scene. Work on the new songs started almost immediately after the release of Protozoan Battle Hymns.

“I would say as we’ve evolved as musicians and as bandmates; I would say that our tastes have definitely expanded a lot,” Chong says. “But they’ve also been refined to a very sharp point, especially in the past three years, when we haven’t released anything and we’ve just been working on making this new record.”

The Portland scene is not always welcoming to a band so young (Walker is currently the only member of the band who is of drinking age). Rhododendron has often been forced to turn down opportunities to perform at venues like Dante’s and the High Water Mark Lounge due to restrictions that would force Chong and Mortola to remain outside the venue when not performing.

“Obviously, those are great venues, and it’s not their fault for having to enforce these laws,” Chong says. “But, at the end of the day, it just makes it so unappealing for us as minors to not just hang out there and be a part of the show.”

With many post-lockdown house venues now defunct and all-ages DIY spots like Honey Latte Cafe no longer hosting music, the lack of all-ages infrastructure in Portland is an impediment to the livelihood of young bands like Rhododendron. Yet the young Portland rock scene perseveres, and with bands like Rhododendron and Growing Pains making the leap from smaller clubs like McMenamins Mission Theater to larger ones like the Hawthorne Theatre and Crystal Ballroom, its momentum shows no signs of slowing.

“We’re really grateful to live in a city that, for all its faults, really encourages a lot of different types of music to have a supportive audience,” Chong says. “It’s really cool to play well-established spots with your friends, knowing that people are going to come through.”

SEE IT: Rhododendron plays with Growing Pains at the Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE 39th Ave., 503-233-7100, hawthornetheatre.com. 8 pm Saturday, March 2. $12. All ages.

See the rest of 2024′s Spring Arts Guide here!

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