The year the music died

Two thousand fourteen is turning into a brutal year for Portland’s dining, arts and nightlife scenes. Several of the city’s most creative and beloved establishments have closed or are preparing to shut down or move away, while others have cut back on live entertainment or consolidated, ceding control to a monopolistic corporation based out of state.

In January, Mesa Verde, a homegrown Mexican restaurant on Congress Street, closed after more than 16 years in business. The Old Port gained another Starbucks this year and lost two locally owned cafes: Mornings in Paris, on Exchange Street, and Port Bean, on Commercial Street. A couple blocks west, The Farmer’s Table is gone, and another chain burger joint — the third such franchise in a two-block area — is moving into its iconic space.

Rose Contemporary, the hip and innovative downtown art gallery, also called it quits this winter. Sangillo’s, the beloved neighborhood bar on the East End that’s been a staple since the ’60s, is fighting for its life after just one troubled year convinced a slim majority of the Portland City Council to refuse to renew its liquor license last week. Across the street from Sangillo’s, the owner of Pepperclub, a pioneering vegetarian eatery, announced this month that it’s been driven out of town after a quarter century by a rent increase. And now, days later, we learn that real-estate speculation is shuttering Slainte, a music and performing arts venue on Preble Street that’s been a crucible for emerging talent for well over seven years.

The loss of Slainte (pronounced SLAHN-cha) comes at a particularly bad time for fans of original local music. As I reported a couple weeks ago, The Big Easy — long a destination for a rich variety of acts — now largely limits its schedule to stand-up comedy and cover bands, and Portland’s Downtown District (whose board is now chaired by The Big Easy’s landlord) has cut two free summertime performance series and handed the Alive at Five concerts to The Bowery Presents, the New York-based concert-promotion company that runs both the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall, and now books most of the shows at Empire (formerly Empire Dine and Dance). Bowery now has control of three major venues downtown and the city’s most popular free concert series (which, we’ve since learned, likely won’t offer any music during the three shows Bowery isn’t booking with national headliners).

“There’s almost no place for bands to get a start,” said Slainte owner Ian Farnsworth, whose club offered an eclectic schedule of indie rock and folk, DJs, comedy and poetry over the years. Aly Spaltro (a.k.a. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper), who’s fast becoming a nationally renowned singer-songwriter, played her first Portland gigs at Slainte.

“They’re pushing everyone to the side … going after the big dollars,” Farnsworth said of the new powers that be. Around the turn of the last decade, Portland’s music scene “was so vibrant. Every place was doing music, and there were so many bands, and then you started seeing places close up, and you started seeing less bands and people because they didn’t have a place to play.”

Singer-songwriter Nick Poulin, who recently began booking shows at Slainte and whose promising indie group Tall Horse was one of many that came together there, said he’s been contacted by numerous touring bands in recent weeks looking for a place to play in Portland. “I say, ‘Well, there’s Flask. Geno’s? Mathew’s, maybe?’ The Big Easy is a comedy club now, SPACE Gallery has moved far away from music. … I’m seeing this horrible combination of great national bands coming in and people having to make decisions on what shows they’re going to go to,” Poulin continued. “They’re gonna spend more money going to the State Theatre or Port City Music Hall, and they’re gonna make those decisions over the local scene.”

Slainte’s landlord is Stephen Goodrich, CEO of the credit-card-processing company PowerPay, which took over the former Portland Public Market across the street from Slainte shortly after Farnsworth arrived. Farnsworth said Goodrich declined to renew his lease because he has a new tenant willing to pay “quite a bit more in rent.” That prospective tenant is Arcadia National Bar, a combination bar and pinball/video-game arcade whose owners are still trying to fund their venture via Kickstarter (with three weeks to go, their campaign had raised just over $7,000 toward its $25,000 goal).

Slainte will be open until the end of this month. A big farewell show, featuring many performers who cut their teeth there, is scheduled for April 26.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.