|Feature: New Players In Portland
There are those of us in these post-Waterfront Blues Festival days who savor the lingering flavor of yet another successful run.
Where but Portland - with its reputation for tolerance, fertile ideas, and the hippy ideals of good karma, positivity and playful weirdness -- can you so successfully combine the ingredients of American roots music with a humongous community rally to fight hunger?
The fest is a bellwether. Partly because of our egalitarian lawn party there are some new faces in town, lured by the peerless livability and spirit the fest suggests, and everything else that keeps Portland on that fuzzy edge of modern hipness.
Though not necessarily well-known by Michael Jackson or Madonna standards, these are musicians of some repute who now call Portland home. Each has his or own reasons for resettling within, in bluesman Robert Cray's words, "God's own time zone."
Mary Flower's love affair with Portland began with her son Jesse attending Lewis & Clark College and his current bass duties with neo-bluegrass band Jackstraw.
Self-taught, Flower is a renowned finger-picking guitarist who performs and teaches far and wide. Based for 30 years in the Denver area, taking time off to marry and have children, she's built an exhausting career of touring, teaching and recording, including a new Yellow Dog Records CD coming this fall.
But, she says, "I knew there was a better life." She found it in Portland. With the sale of a guitar she'd won at a national finger-picking competition, she funded her move to Portland a year ago.
Under the panoply of art, music, scenic beauty, a bevy of diverse neighborhoods, and what she calls "the love of the unconventional," she says, "Every day is an adventure in this city," including a recent Alberta Street Last Thursday art walk, where she encountered an accordion-and-saw duo and transvestite on stilts. "This city is full of surprises."
Say Flower, "In Portland there's this support of creative people making a living doing art. There's great radio, there's OPB's 'Oregon Art Beat,' who did a piece on me. There are lots of venues. It all works together to create a support system. Otherwise a creative community couldn't exist. I'm not used to seeing those in place. There's the small-town thing of it," she says. "It's changed my life."
For the itinerant Original Snakeboy, the decision was easy. "It feels like home when you get here."
A Southern gentleman and Delta-style guitarist (who dodges the origins of his nickname), he arrived on the scene last year and quickly wove himself into the music community fabric. Though he visited Portland 25 years ago, and got wind of local bluesman Lloyd Jones and Paul deLay, he headed elsewhere as peripatetic musicians do.
He landed in Austin, Texas, where he was befriended by a then-unknown guitar slinger named Stevie Ray Vaughan. Snakeboy fell in with some of the city's hottest electric bands, but as the scene morphed into high-tech industries and real estate scams, he bolted.
"I'm not a big city guy," says the award-winning guitarist and recording artist in an easy Southern drawl. "Portland is a surprising city for as big as it is. There's diversity, an attitude that's reflected in the city's neighborhoods, like Hawthorne Boulevard. It's real appealing. The city has a character all its own. It's way more European than any other North American city. There's a kinship of community, a sort of shared humanity. It's always inspirational."
Guitarist to the Stars
Guitarist Eddie Martinez stops in his tracks to listen to Robert Palmer's hit "Addicted to Love" drifting from the Muzak speakers at Town & Country Motors in Milwaukie. "I played on that track," Martinez says. "I remember everything about that session."
The South Bronx born-and-raised Martinez spent many years as a session player and sideman for many of pop music's biggest names, including Palmer, Mick Jagger, Run DMC, Patti LaBelle, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clark, and scores of others.
"I was always crazy about the guitar," he says. His passion fueled a career that found him touring the world and laying down licks in the most famous hit-making recording studios.
"It was time to make a change," he says from his office at Town & Country, where he handles marketing and advertising, including doing the musical scores, for the chain of car dealerships owned by his brother. "The [music] business was starting to decline. I was at a crossroads in my life."
Martinez has been in Portland for just over three years. It took a chance meeting with saxman Patrick Lamb to lure him into the local scene. As a board member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Martinez was attending a meeting on the Nike campus in Beaverton, where he saw Lamb perform. The two chatted and soon performed several dates, including Lamb's tribute to Ray Charles at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
"The Portland music community is great," he says. "There's not much recording, but there's a vibe here with the live scene. Portland is a small town with a big-city mentality. It's a charming place to live. And it's a well-kept secret."
Art and Guitars
For someone who's flourished, endured, and abandoned the high-powered music scenes of Nashville, Austin, and Los Angeles, Ron Rogers is, appropriate for Portland, one laid-back dude.
He packs a double-edged artistic sword, as a musician, engineer and producer of national reputation, and as an artist whose fine and found-object art pays tribute to fallen music legends like Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters.
Rogers worked his way up through popular Texas bands before landing as a songwriter with Island Records. He performed at two NXNW music gatherings, the first time as a duo, then in a band with bass legend Bob Glaub. "I really dug Portland," he says, "Even though I didn't even get out of downtown."
Rogers was, like Snakeboy, disheartened by Austin's economic slide. He and his wife Deborah headed for Los Angeles. He fell into a gig with A & M Records working post-production, where he spent the next eight and a half years.
He got his art start in 1996, doing tributes to his musical idols, mostly for himself. Three years ago, they started to sell. He's spent the last two summers with a booth at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
Portland was an easy move. "I was so down in LA," he says, "and my wife was losing her mind," as a vice president at the high-powered Carsey-Werner television production company.
"We came up here for a five-day weekend," he says, "rented a house, went back, and then moved. Deborah and I needed to do something different. Portland reminds me of Austin in the '70s. And there's no scene in LA. Everybody just wants to be a star instead of practicing their craft."
These days, he works on his art, a few pieces of which hang in Music Millennium, plays with the Outside Agitators, writes and produces in his studio, and lives the good life.
"I don't care if I'm popular or not," he says with a smile. "I do it to have fun. If I've learned anything, it's that you've got to have fun. I don't take myself too seriously."
LA No More
Jennifer Batten checks in via email during a tour of Japan, before departing for England to attend rock guitar god Jeff Beck's wedding.
Batten grew up in San Diego, where the guitar consumed her life. She moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and landed a high-profile gig with Michael Jackson in '87. A solo CD, two more Gloved One tours and a guitar slot with Jeff Beck have put her at the pinnacle of her career.
Batten was impressed with the city during a Beck tour stop at the Schnitz, buoyed by the fact her sister moved to Corvallis a few years ago.
With such a glamorous life of rock stars and world tours, why relocate?
"I lived in LA from '84 to '04," she says. "Twenty years is plenty!"
She needed out and narrowed here search to four cities. Portland won. She sold her house in LA, paid off her bills, bought a new home in "the forest outside of Portland," and took a good junk of 2004 off.
"I spent a lot of time going to all the arts and crafts festivals, seeing tons of music and getting to know the area," she says. "My father came for a visit and I became the tour guide from hell. We did everything. I took him on a cruise of the Columbia, a bus tour of Portland. We saw Steven Wright at Roseland, went to Harvey's Comedy Club, went to hear jazz at Jimmy Mak's, saw Django's Tigers at the Edgefield Winery, visited the Sellwood area, did Cinco de Mayo fest on the waterfront, went to Timberline Lodge, and just took in a lot of the beauty that surrounds the area. We'd try to watch a movie at home every night and would invariably fall asleep half way through from exhaustion."
For her, it's a quality of life. "All I need is access to an airport. I've found PDX to be a dream, compared to LAX."
Cheseborough in Paradise
For Steve Cheseborough it was a jugband cohort from Phoenix that first lured him to Portland, and a woman who convinced him to stay.
He and his partner Tiazz Medalia share a steaming pot of hand-roasted Ethiopian coffee in their Northeast Portland home. Amid guitar cases and stereo gear, the musician, scholar and author talks about his love of old 1920s and '30s blues and hokum.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Cheseborough played rock and roll, but like many contemporary blues musicians, got wind of the blues genre via the Rolling Stones. He discovered reissue labels JSP and Yazoo, and plunged deeper into the blues.
Cheseborough came up through the coffeehouse circuit during a stint as a newspaperman in Arizona. Inspired, he headed for the South, earning a Master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. He's the author of "Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues," a guide for blues lovers headed to the South, and has recorded two CDs.
Loren Schulte, with whom Cheseborough played in a jugband in Phoenix, moved here within the last year. Cheseborough was intrigued.
Then on a trip last summer through the Northwest for dates and workshops at the popular Port Townsend Blues & Heritage Festival, Cheseborough played a party here thrown by guitarist and singer Lauren Sheehan, who performs solo and with old-time jugband Eagle Ridin' Papas.
Sheehan asked Medalia if she could provide a ride for an itinerant Mississippi bluesman. "I wouldn't do it," she said, at first, drawing on her image of what being a Mississippi bluesman entailed.
"But we met and became close right away," Cheseborough says. He ended up coming back to Portland for Thanksgiving and stayed for two months.
"There are so many musicians here," he says of Portland, "and the pay is kind of low." But as a beer aficionado ("Mississippi is 50th out of 50 for beer," he says, laughing) and coffee connoisseur, he's fallen for the city. "It's very culturally alive for a medium-sized city."
Cheseborough continues lecturing, writing, and performing. Though more accustomed to show-type settings and presentations, he's finding a home in local clubs with his jugband, and maintains an active solo tour schedule. "This," he says, "is a wonderful place to live."
Rose City Redemption
For saxman Reggie Houston, Portland is his salvation.
A deep and learned man, Houston was long a journeyman on the New Orleans' music scene. He played for years in Fats Domino's band, and his exhaustive list of family and friends is a who's who of New Orleans heritage. Lloyd Price is his cousin. Irma Thomas, his daughter's godmother.
Houston played Portland several times in the past few years, as part of Charmaine Neville's band, she of the famed New Orleans Nevilles. He arrived last summer for a series of dates with D.K. Stewart, Turtle van Demarr's Freak Mountain Ramblers and others that proved to be a major turning point for him.
A Vietnam veteran and a long-time sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, Houston hit the absolute bottom after years of drug abuse, fearsome militancy and abject anger, compounded by a devastating divorce. "I was very bitter and paranoid," Houston, the father of five, says. It got to the point where contemplated ending his own life. "But every morning," he says, "I kept waking up."
A devoutly religious man, Houston, in the depths of despair, chucked his faith, until a fateful morning when he found himself on his knees. "I done got to my bottom," he says, "I needed deliverance." At that moment, he gave up the drugs and started down a path of redemption.
Houston credits Portlander Jim Adair for clearing the way. Adair, a longtime doorman at the White Eagle who's promoted several Houston shows, arranged for the saxman to visit Portland and make the gig rounds. It was that trip here last summer that Houston also quit his anti-depressant medication cold turkey, against the advice of counselors. "I needed," he says, "clear thoughts."
The deal was sealed. He arrived here with $27.50 in his pocket, now shares an apartment with Adair, works regularly with his Earth Island Band, his Box of Chocolates ensemble, and the Freak Mountain Ramblers.
"Saying goodbye was easy," Houston says of leaving the Big Easy. "I left with no regrets. I'm an Oregonian now."
As are they all, and not one of them complained about the rain.
Need to know more about your new musical neighbors? Check our their websites.
Mary Flower: www.maryflower.com
The Original Snakeboy: www.theoriginalsnakeboy.com
Jennifer Batten: www.jenniferbatten.com
Ron Rogers: www.ronrogersart.com
Steve Cheseborough: www.stevecheseborough.com
Reggie Houston: www.reggiehouston.com