MusicPortland’s Summer City Sessions Want to Revive the City

The outdoor concert series is the latest effort to attract tourists and office workers back to the downtown sector.

Music Portland's City Sessions (Music Portland)

This is a city for music lovers. It may not be an industry town where an artist goes to become a rock star or a band tries to “make it,” but it’s certainly a place to be embraced by listeners—because Portland’s got some of the best.

“Intolerant fans will only go see a tribute band or a big band, [but] our fans go to see the opener,” says Meara McLaughlin, executive director of MusicPortland. “That’s the real treasure of our music scene—we have this wealth of talent, and the sensibility that says, no, we don’t want to just listen to music that was made in the ‘70s.”

But that audience has been missing for the past few years as venues remain on the emptier side, post-COVID lockdown. MusicPortland—a nonprofit, grassroots group focused on the economic well-being of music culture—is ready to change that. This summer, the organization hosts City Sessions: free, all ages, outdoor shows across Portland. The performances kicked off June 5 and will run through the end of September.

“We’ve got jazz, Brazilian, accordion, folk, tribute—every kind of band you can imagine,” McLaughlin says.

MusicPortland ran a pilot version last summer, but this year, it’s booked more than 70 shows, partnering with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and receiving sponsorships from several organizations to make sure bands and staff are paid and each show operates with proper sound equipment.

Spread out across nine locations in Southwest and Southeast (with one spot in Northeast), the shows will take place primarily at PBOT plazas, along with stages at Midtown Beer Garden and The Old Church. Upcoming shows include Night Brunch at Ankeny Alley between Southwest 2nd and 3rd avenues on June 23, and Jet Black Pearl at the Cart Blocks on Southwest Park Avenue at West Burnside Street.

“We really recognize that downtown needs our help,” McLaughlin says. “The Pearl, downtown—we need to get people back in those spaces. It’s not just cleaning it up, not just activating the waterfront and downtown remains unpopulated—we wanted to make a perpetual music festival designed to engage and attract tourists, but also attract back the remote workers.”

These shows offer the chance not only to reengage listeners, but to rebuild community.

“If I come to work every Wednesday, after work the team and I can watch some music and have some drinks and rebuild company culture, which is a big thing that was lost during COVID for downtown companies,” McLaughlin says. “We don’t think that’s a good thing—so music to the rescue.”

The shows are a two-way street. MusicPortland puts an emphasis on making music economically viable for artists (the nonprofit hosts monthly meetups that include panels and open dialogue addressing money in music). Playing downtown for office workers gives musicians the chance to access new listeners and maybe book a gig for a corporate or private event. MusicPortland encourages that, offering a comprehensive performer directory of MusicPortland artist members on its website that a user can filter by things like genre or types of performance. The main goal: support local artists.

“You go to Seattle and they’ve got signs in the airport saying, ‘Get out and see live music,’” McLaughlin says. “Our city enjoys the benefits of music, but collectively we’re not lifting it up. It’s like we’re not proud of it—it’s very strange.”

According to an informal survey by the Independent Venue Coalition of Oregon that polled 80 of the state’s independent ticketed venues (IVC received roughly a 60% response), local stages currently operate at 70% to 75% of their 2019 gross revenues. Venues are up against rising costs, less active showgoers, and more frequent cancellations or rescheduling by artists who can’t bear the often overwhelming upfront costs of touring, especially early in their careers. The hope is City Sessions will remind listeners of what they’re missing and the spaces that might disappear.

“Once we’ve plugged people into the music by bringing it to them, the big push is to say, great, now get out and check out our venues,” McLaughlin says. “It’s about building audience.”

Longtime local music booker Nalin Silva has been putting together City Session bills, bringing in MusicPortland members, along with longtime local artists. Up and comers like Kendall Lujan, experimental veterans like Old Unconscious, the buzzy busker Johnny Franco—the list is vast and strong. “Getting to offer a bunch of musicians paid gigs to share their art is pretty awesome,” Silva says. “Music is part of the community and an economic force; it can be a catalyst to help the greater good.”

The greater good might not show up overnight, but the call is out there. Now it’s just time for Portland to listen.

“We want to make sure City Sessions are a way for people to plug into this incredible asset,” McLaughlin says. ‘It’s free, it’s all ages, they’re during daylight hours—it’s a way for people to tap into the incredible bounty we have here.”

GO: Visit for details about City Sessions taking place at multiple locations now through September.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.