In many ways Portland is postdiscotheque: There aren’t that many clubs devoted solely to dancing. Most of the clubs listed here for live music also have dance nights, often with dress-up themes involved.
Probably the most lively dance club in the city is the gay disco Embers ((110 NW Broadway, 503/222-3082, open nightly), which welcomes gays and straights and everyone in between.
Aura (1022 W. Burnside St., 503/597-2872, www.auraportland.com) is a very sleek multifloor lounge and dance hall, like a bit of Los Angeles drifted north: pools of colorful mood lighting, banks of curtains, and a cool-to-the-touch industrial patina that goes well with the insistent pounding of techno, hip-hop, and ’90s hits. Aura doesn’t feel like Portland, and that’s why the pretty young things like it so much.
Jazz and Blues
The hottest jazz club in Portland is Jimmy Mak’s (221 NW 10th Ave., 503/295-6542, www.jimmymaks.com). This longtime favorite in the Pearl District recently relocated to new, more upscale digs across the street. There’s live music every night except Sunday, frequently featuring local drummer Mel Brown and his band. National touring jazz groups also often appear.
The lounge at the back of the popular steakhouse Clyde’s (5474 NE Sandy Blvd., 503/281-9200) is the top jazz club on Portland’s East Side. There’s usually live music Thursday–Saturday evenings, but especially popular are the Sunday-evening jazz jam sessions led by local drummer extraordinaire Ron Steen. The atmosphere is friendly and inclusive.
The exquisite and formal Tea Court at the Heathman Hotel (1009 SW Broadway, 503/790-7752, www.heathmanhotel.com), paneled in eucalyptus and illuminated by crystal chandeliers, is a delightful counterpoint to live jazz music, performed Wednesday–Saturday nights with no cover charge. Local jazz vocalist Mary Kadderly is a frequent guest artist. This is the spot to dress up a bit, sip cocktails, and slip into a reverie about the golden age of jazz.
Located in historic Union Station, Wilf’s (800 NW 6th Ave., 503/223-0070, www.wilfsrestaurant.com) is an atmospheric spot to take in live jazz. The large, high-ceilinged, redbrick dining room was created as the formal dining room for rail travelers during railroad’s golden age. Jazz is normally offered Wednesday–Saturday evenings. Many of Portland’s top local performers cycle through, including Ron Steen and Tom Grant.
Blues aficionados will appreciate the array of talent at The Candlelight Room (2032 SW 5th Ave., 503/222-3378). The atmosphere is pure dive bar, dark and dingy with that well-lived-in feeling that can only come from years of hard drinking. In some kind of contrast, the crowds are friendly and diverse, and by the end of the night everyone is dancing. This is a Portland original, and if you like the blues and great blues bars, you have to visit.
Rock fans enjoy Berbati’s Pan (231 SW Ankeny St., 503/248-4579), where good Greek food and music of all genres have made it one of Portland’s leading late-night live music clubs. A block from Berbati’s is Dante’s (SW 3rd Ave. and Burnside St., 503/226-6630, www.danteslive.com), where, in addition to live alternative bands, you’ll find often outrageous cabaret and burlesque shows.
Portland’s East Side has developed a lively music scene. A major destination in any tour of Portland’s music hotbeds would include Doug Fir (830 E. Burnside St., 503/231-9663, www.dougfirlounge.com), which attracts some of Portland’s most interesting acts and is part of a hip development that includes a vintage motor-court motel and late-night restaurant.
Another hot spot is Holocene (1001 SE Morrison St., 503/239-7639, www.holocene.org), where the nightly entertainment can be live music, DJs, performance art, or regularly scheduled evening events. Many events hover at the intersection of music, performance, and technology, and the crowds are fun and varied.
If you came to Portland to find the remnant of its hippie Grateful Dead roots, then the Laurelthirst Public House (2958 NE Glisan St., 503/232-1504) is where you need to be. This old and funky tavern has excellent local folk and country swing bands along with a feel-good vibe that takes you back to the Summer of Love.
Other Live Music
Kell’s Irish Restaurant and Pub (112 SW 2nd Ave., 503/227-4057, www.kellsirish.com/portland) is a landmark not just of Victorian good looks but also of live Celtic music. The musicians are usually local—Portland has a large Celtic music community—although touring bands are also featured; most Sunday evenings offer easygoing jam sessions. The first Saturday evening of every month brings Irish dancers, kicking up a jig to live music.
One of the pioneers along gentrifying North Mississippi Avenue is a tiny, acoustically rich recording studio called Mississippi Studios (3939 N. Mississippi Ave., 503/288-3895, www.mississippistudios.com), where local and regional bands go to record music and sometimes to perform in the studio’s intimate space. Check the website to find out what concerts may be offered during your visit; this is a great spot to catch a rising singer-songwriter star.
Before you hit town, check out the performers scheduled at the Aladdin Theater (3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 503/233-1994, www.aladdin-theater.com). This 1920s burlesque house has been gussied up to host an eclectic array of performers including Laurie Anderson, the Buena Vista Social Club, Rufus Wainwright, and Arlo Guthrie. Many folk, world beat, and indie rock bands play here, and it’s a wonderful small theater for taking in a concert.
A throwback to swinging supper clubs of the 1950s, Tony Starlight Super Club (3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 503/517-8584, www.tonystarlight.com) offers high-energy jazz performances and a spoofy lounge act that is among Portland’s funniest music–stand-up comedy combos: The Tony Starlight Show, offered on Saturday evenings, is a hilarious and always changing routine by owner Brett Kucera, whose stage persona, Tony Starlight, is a great musical performer but also a first-class comedian.
Tony offers versions of jazz classics from Frank, Sammy, and Dino, but as the evening goes on, the shtick and the songs—slightly rewritten and increasingly irreverent—get funnier and funnier. When the wigs and costumes come out, prepare for complete insanity.
On other evenings, the club offers a variety of entertainment, including straightforward jazz, Latin rhythms, karaoke nights, and fashion shows. You’ll need reservations for the Tony Starlight show ($10), and it’s 21 and older only, two shows nightly every Saturday. The best seats are reserved for diners at the supper club—the menu offers well-prepared pasta, chicken, and steaks.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel