Saying goodbye to Portland’s best-sounding venue.
Two weeks ago, the Florence, Ore., house I grew up in—which even in my fondest memories has a sagging, moss-covered roof; crooked floors and cracked windows—collapsed completely in what I'm told was "a mild windstorm." The pictures of the wreckage were a bit of a shock (luckily, the current owners, who had been nobly attempting to remodel, were gone at the time), but I can't say I shed a tear. That house, as the old cliché goes, was no longer home.
I only bring up the wreck at 274 Harbor St. because it reminds me just how much I care about the club at 213 SW Ankeny St. Berbati's Pan, the 15-year-old downtown venue that goes dark after New Year's Eve, has often felt more like home to me than the six places I've lived in as many years since I moved to Portland. I've been to the club in many capacities—as a music critic, a show host, a performer and a fan. It's not a perfect venue—the U-shaped room with support beams in the line of sight is chattier, dirtier and generally less convenient than a handful of younger Portland music clubs—but all of those things give it character that a new generation of pristine Portland venues don't generally share…not yet, at least.
Berbati's also has what I consider to be the best sound in Portland. That's a position some techies may take issue with—and I'm not savvy enough to speak to the system's technical merits. But having seen at least a hundred shows there in the past six years—a list of my favorites would include the Hold Steady/Constantines date in 2005 and Spiritualized in 2008, as well as a handful of local hip-hop showcases and Best New Band celebrations over the years—I am convinced that Berbati's gets it right more often than anyone else.
For that, Portland owes a huge pat on the back to Dave Hite, the club's primary soundman for over a decade. I called him up to thank him myself, thinking I might get a choked-up farewell quote and a few trade secrets. But Hite, composed and businesslike, didn't crack—instead dropping a handful of technical specs. "I've brought it up from being a three-way mono system to being a four-way stereo system," he said the way a proud father talks about teaching his kid to ride a bike. "We went from two monitor mixes to four monitor mixes." But some lessons were clearer than others. "Trying to get a soundcheck in an empty room is a challenge, but I kinda developed a technique to do that. It's always going to sound better at showtime," he said. "And you try to instill that confidence in a band."
Hite—who used to play with the PA system at his church when he was a kid and admits he needs to study up a bit on digital equipment—hasn't devoted much thought to where he'll wind up after New Year's Eve. The decidedly old-school soundman has spent so much time in his own club that he doesn't have an ideal Portland club to wind up at. "I did a night at Doug Fir, and it's a great room, but I don't see it rocking the way I like to rock," he said. "It's a little more subtle in there."
I asked Hite what he'll miss most about his time at Berbati's. "It was fun," he said. "I got a lot of props from bands onstage…I felt kinda like part of the family." Not the choked-up farewell I had hoped for, perhaps—but what can you really say when your house collapses?