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Portland, Oregon’s Indie Scene

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Photo: João Canziani

A swallow flutters about the rafters of the Oregon Zoo band shell and out over a vast green meadow as Thomas M. Lauderdale—the pianist and artistic director of Pink Martini, everyone's favorite postmodern cocktail-lounge orchestra—strolls through a gathering of his tribe and distractedly chews on a slice of pizza. This being the People's Republic of Oregon, the 3,500 or so picnicking audience members include Birkenstock families with Live Green, Live Well stickers on their strollers, lesbian riot-grrrl collectives, cheerful Marxists, and the requisite too-camp-to-live fan pool of the orchestra's neoclassical-goes-international oeuvre: reinterpreted Carmen Miranda numbers; compositions performed in Arabic, Japanese, and 10 other languages; and "The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley," a lilting ode to a wistful Portland afternoon. In an offhand way, Pink Martini, which played Carnegie Hall this summer, concocts a glossy-postcard vision of the city as an eternal carnival of whimsy: the band's brilliantly evocative concerts, with the musicians dressed for cocktails, are about longing—Portland as it ought to be, not as it is.

Then again, Portland is a perverse and obstinate place, adept at resisting the imposition of sentimentality and outside values: this is the city, after all, where a brand-spanking-new Starbucks was firebombed in 2004, shortly before its opening. The citizenry believe in throwing it all out there—rampant political correctness, vice, whatever else might be handy—without sweating the distinctions. To "shamelessly promote" the band's third album, Hey Eugene!, Lauderdale, a self-styled musical archaeologist who serves as the unofficial mayor of bohemian Portland (and toys with the idea of running for the real mayor's office every few years), has his 12-year-old nephew come onstage in a Pink Martini bomber-style jacket inspired by one sold at the circa-1954 Mary's Club, a downtown institution and Portland's first topless bar. This is a pure Portland moment, a long way from the mythological terrain of Cole Porter's New York or even Louis Armstrong's New Orleans.

Alternative Portland is a peculiar utopia that believes in both unbridled sensuality and the notion that doing good actually makes people happy. This may be the most right-thinking community in the United States, brimming with green buildings, biodynamic wine, light-rail systems, homeless programs, fair-trade restaurants like the Proper Eats Market & Café ("organic, local, proper!"), bicycle-commuter lanes, solar-powered parking meters, and such resolutely moral establishments as the Red & Black Café, a collectively run coffeehouse lousy with laptop beatniks conforming in their devotion to the fight-the-power manifestos the management has posted on placards: We Want to be an Example of an Ethical, Nonhierarchial, Worker-Run Operation. The more heedless this country becomes, the more thoughtful Portland tries to be, and the city invariably makes visitors wish their own hometown could be a little nicer.

Even the layout of Portland, founded in 1851 as a shipping hub and logging town hugging the banks of the Willamette River, was intended by the city fathers to be intelligent and vaguely nonhierarchical. The best feature of the city is its classic American urbanism, pockets of bungalows and Victorian houses with howdy-neighbor front porches close to small historic movie theaters, shops, and taverns. In the early 1940's, a grandiose and half-deranged proposal by Robert Moses to carve up Portland with freeways led to a neighborhoods-above-all movement, and the movement prevailed. Today, each little enclave is a small, restful village that's handy to the big bad fray of downtown.


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