Thursday, August 13, 2020 16:54

Remembering Portland’s La Luna

Portland in the 90’s is where and when I started to attend club shows.  While I did attend shows at The Aladdin Theater (Richard Thompson & Steve Earle), the Roseland (Leo Kottke), or even the Melody Ballroom (Albert Collins),  La Luna was the center of the Portland musical club scene as far as I was concerned and looking back at the setlists posted for the club (which is only a small fraction of the shows that were put on), I regret terribly not hanging out at La Luna more often.

One needs to remember that the area around the club wasn’t as gentrified and trendy as it is now.  East Burnside between Union (yeah, MLK was Union until not that long before I moved here) and Sandy was Portland’s skid row during the 90’s.  La Luna wasn’t far off East Burnside and I would never loiter around the club before or after a show…I’d walk quickly to my car and leave.  As for finding out about the shows…I’m sure they were listed in the Oregonian, but I picked up free copies of the Willamette Week each Wednesday and eagerly perused the concert ads.  It was always a risk whether tickets would last until we could get them at the door…for the more “important” shows, someone had to stop by & get them early.

The actual aesthetic of the club itself wasn’t special.  It was extremely dark (which might have been a good thing for some of the stuff that was going around me that I couldn’t see).  It was very loud and I can’t remember the acoustics of the place being all that great.  However, the shows were affordable, the place was packed most every time I attended and the musical vibe in that place was amazing.

The vibe at all the club shows I go today is polite and friendly (which isn’t always a good thing). By contrast, there was just enough meanness and edginess at La Luna to keep things interesting (without going too overboard).

I recognize some shows from the set lists that I attended…oddly enough, they might have been the least notable of the bunch.

Matthew Sweet:  I’m not sure if this was the Matthew Sweet show I attended or not (might have been a year or two later).   I really got into his music in the 90’s and my memory of this show is that I went by myself because I was such a fan and didn’t know anybody else who was.  I believe it was a decent show but it doesn’t stick out in my memory as being all that exceptional.  I just saw him play at the Aladdin for the first time since the La Luna show and while he’s still extremely talented, it’s really sad how morbidly obese he’s become.

Bob Mould / Mark Eitzel:  I’m 100% positive I attended this show and I had gone with a couple co-workers of mine.  I wasn’t (and never really became) a Bob Mould fan but he was such a legend that I attended the show anyway.  What I remember very vividly is that it was supposed to be a “Duo” show (Mould + someone else), and then the other guy didn’t appear and Mould had a bad respiratory infection that night, which clearly threw him off.  I still remember digging the show.

Squirrel Nut Zippers:  Another show I attended on a lark.  The “90’s” generation of hipsters were out in force at this show.   I really loved the music that influenced this band…but I remember thoroughly hating this show and leaving early.

Pete Droge: I didn’t remember I attended this show until I read about it while researching this blog post. So, the show wasn’t notable enough to remember on my own…but I am very much a fan of Pete’s music.

Now for the really good stuff:

Golden Smog:  Yeah, this is the “other band” Jeff Tweedy was in while he was starting up Wilco.  I’d never heard of them before seeing the show…and it totally rocked!  I remember that they covered Charlie Rich’s “Most Beautiful Girl” in the “traditional” way…and immediately segued into the punk song “Buick Makane” (which Guns & Roses covered on their Spaghetti Incident album).  The whole show covered an extremely wide range of musical influences and to this day, I still listen to Golden Smog and think this was one of the best club shows I’d ever seen (and best show at La Luna).

James:  I never heard of James before seeing this show and again, James is a band I still listen to frequently to this day (and saw again recently in concert).  Two notable things about the show that I remember (beside really digging it): The first was that the lead singer had just been in a car accident and spent the show rocking out in a neck brace.  The other notable fact about this show was that though I attended with the same two co-workers that joined me for Bob Mould, I also took the woman who is now my wife on our second date to this concert.  I bought her a ticket to James not knowing if she had heard of the band.  It turns out that she knew James quite well…because her ex-boyfriend was a huge James fan and she was worried about perhaps seeing him at the show (that didn’t happen…and I ended up meeting him a few years later).

La Luna closed at the end of 1999 and I left Portland briefly thereafter.  When I got back, La Luna was a distant memory.   The Aladdin, Roseland & Crystal Ballroom get most of my ticket dollars today, but these venues lack the grit & earthiness of La Luna.  I suspect the local clubs that most resemble La Luna today wouldn’t be welcoming environments, musically or culturally…so I’m just left with my memories.

And, please don’t mention that I never got to see Elliott Smith play here live…

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