Ever wake up after a night of venue hopping and having one hell of a good time to wonder “Where was I last night?” This zine takes you through the best of the Portland music scene in one unforgettable night.
About Last Night: Live music guide
Check out 16 of Portland's best live music venues.
By Ian Shaine Edwards and Lloyd Eugene Winter IV | Dec. 14, 2015 (updated Dec. 13, 2016)
The Aladdin opened in 1930 as a vaudeville house but quickly made the jump to showing motion pictures. It was one of Portland’s premier family film houses for the next 40 years but switched courses to become a premier purveyor of adult cinema during the 1970's. These days, the Aladdin stage plays home to all varieties of national touring acts. Its past show roster reads like an inductee list for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a comfortable, beautiful old theater whose long legacy lends a sense of stateliness matched by only a small handful of Pacific Northwest venues. The seats are old but comfortable. The sound system is excellent, and the lobby features a rotating selection of local beers and wines. If you prefer a spirit before the show, head through the lobby to The Lamp, the Aladdin’s in-house bar.
If you can’t find the Know, ask a punk for directions. Portland changes. The Know doesn’t. A dive of the very highest caliber, the Know has been serving cold beer and punk rock for a decade. Divided into two spaces, the bar side is functional if small and packed with locals waiting for the show or the Blazers game to start. The real action is through the curtain, where high-volume punk rock peels the paint off the walls most nights of the week. For such a welcoming bar, the Know presents a laser-focused calendar of noise-based musical aggression, which has made it a flagpole for local and touring punk bands. To the patrons of the surrounding Alberta Arts district, the Know may just be a friendly rock-and-roll dive bar. But to DIY music fans, Maximum rock-n-roll readers, and an international underground of loud musicians, the Know has achieved near-mythic status as a venue.
We were a bit early, so we grabbed a bite to eat while the bands loaded in and marveled at the sparkly curtain and potted plant onstage. The World Famous Kenton Club was an inspiration to dive-bar enthusiasts the day it opened back in 1947, and not much has changed today. Like, literally nothing about the place has changed. The bar’s motto is “Music, Booze, and Regrets,” which is just the kind of truth in advertising that makes our city what it is. Drinks are cheap, the food is hot, and there’s almost never a cover for bands. While it’s a bit out of the way for a lot of Portlanders, the MAX Yellow line will drop you off 850 feet from the front door.
With a capacity of 778, the Wonder Ballroom is a perfect stop for bands too big to play the bar circuit but not yet able to sell out the Roseland. Thus, the calendar is quite diverse. The venue has balcony seating and a really great sound system, but show sound can be hit or miss due to the shape of the room. On the plus side, it’s easy to get close to the stage if you are trying to figure out if your favorite indie-pop star smells as good as they look.
Shows are usually 21+ but there are occasional all-ages shows, in which case the management divides the room directly in half. If you like to drink at shows, I recommend you pregame downstairs or at one of the neighboring bars and then stand in the all-ages section. It will be less packed and you’ll have more fun.
Mississippi Studios is an intimate theater in Portland’s “most Portland” neighborhood. With a max capacity of around 300, it’s also one of the best places you’ll ever see a show. Each note from the custom acoustics and all-analog sound booth demonstrates the great care (not to mention expense) that has been taken to ensure one of the best concert experiences in town. In fact, if you tend to frequent live music and aren’t always diligent about ear protection, Mississippi Studios is probably delivering sounds that your ears can’t even hear anymore. It’s also in a good neighborhood for food and drink, which makes the venue a great place to take a date. There’s no need to leave the building though — the adjoining Bar Bar serves some of the best burgers in Portland.
Black Water is a vegan supper club and bar that also hosts all-ages punk and metal shows. It’s a type of business that can not only exist but thrive in a town like Portland. Ever wonder where the shows you see on those black-and-white flyers with all the band names you can’t read happen? Wonder no longer! At Black Water you can see punk bands from all around the world while eating mozzarella sticks that somehow manage the unlikely task of actually being delicious, all while enjoying some brewed-on-site beers. If animal rights, antiwar politics, anarchism, and D-beat are your thing, you are probably reading this at Black Water right now.
The Crystal Ballroom opened its doors in 1914. It was a dance hall through the Depression and into the post-war period before finding its true calling as a music venue in the sixties. It’s even on the National Register of Historic Places (look for it under its original name — Cotillion Hall). The Crystal has — at one time or other — hosted a majority of the biggest bands of any given era. James Brown. Marvin Gaye. Ike and Tina. The Greatful Dead. Blue Cheer. It has a big sound system, numerous bars, and a sizable upstairs seating area if you need to take a load off after dancing the night away. Speaking of dancing, one of the Crystal’s distinguishing features is its mechanical “floating dance floor.” In plain terms, the entire dance floor is designed to be springy. You may not notice it much at a sparsely attended show, but when a packed house starts moving, it’s like dancing on a trampoline. Which sounds sketchy! But it’s safe! And weirdly fun!
Another venue with a century under its belt, the Star has one of the most interesting stories in town. It opened as the Princess Theatre in 1911. The self-described “semi-fireproof picture shows” showed silent pictures until changing its name to the Star in 1939. It spent decades as a burlesque theater and was frequented by some of the city’s social elite (the chief of police was a regular there in the ‘50s). As the stage shows became more controversial in the 1970s, the Star found itself at the center of a landmark decision by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1979. That ruling still provides the strong freedom of speech laws that Oregon and particularly Portland are known for. After changing ownership many times through the ’80s and ’90s (local filmmaker Gus Van Sant held the keys for a few years), the Star was turned into a music venue just in time to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2011. Now it’s a beautiful mid-sized venue with a slight cabaret feel (no doubt strengthened by the grand red-velvet curtains that frame the stage). There’s also a huge covered patio with a second bar. Though it’s been completely refurbished, stepping into the Star feels like stepping backward into a more raucous time for this city.
Explore all of the Portland Zines