When I moved to Portland in 2008, I was a young musician eager to prove myself. The LaurelThirst Public House was the venue where you wanted to start. It’s a homey, blue-collar place where the folk, country, rock, bluegrass and roots musicians of Portland mingle and share ideas, onstage and off, and a place where all the best weirdos as well as the most square among us are consistently given a truly unique experience.
When you walk in, you’re immediately struck by the black-and-white checkered floors, cozy booths, and the memorabilia-laden roadhouse bar with its original mirrored backsplash from 1912 when the building housed its first occupant, a drug store. The stage sits in a back corner that’s wrapped in maroon velvet curtains and glittery silver stars hang from the crimson ceiling above.
On this stage on any given evening, you may, at the very least, enjoy some very nice Americana music while sitting, chatting and knocking back a few beers; or, at the very most, you’ll be transported back to 1972 by The Portland Country Underground’s twanged-out traditionals and rollicking barn burners on a sweaty, booze-filled, dance-your-ass-off type of night—all before 8 p.m. on a Monday. I’ve seen hundreds of shows inside those walls and I can’t remember ever seeing a bad one.
From the Freak Mountain Ramblers’ Sunday “Church” shows—where hippies young and old have come to worship at the feet of Portland’s psych-country pioneers since 1997—to the tightly curated but highly welcoming musical ambiance, to two performances every single day (including free happy hour sets on weekdays and all-ages performances on weekend afternoons), to the generations of musicians who have come and gone and are still coming and going: The LaurelThirst has hosted them all through the years and you can feel it in the exposed brick walls.
An atmosphere and scene defined by its limitations, the bar’s capacity maxes out at 100 people, and because of its quiet neighborhood location, nighttime shows must be kept to lower volume levels. But the room sounds as warm as it feels. Artists must be competent enough to handle the technical side of their own performance, setting up their own microphones and turning the right knobs on the soundboard. It is this work ethic, combined with a focus on community, that has carried the LaurelThirst through the years—an ethos embodied by the venue’s musical curator, resident in-house musician and figurehead Lewi Longmire.
“By the time I showed up [in 1998], it was pretty obvious that it was already a family sort of scene,” Longmire says. “It was a community”—a thriving, tight-knit one. It wasn’t your typical venue where different bands were passing through every night.
This aesthetic still carries on today. Longmire himself plays in a half dozen or so bands that gig there on a regular basis, as do numerous other familiar names who frequently dot the calendar. Yet, Longmire is continually working to bring new life into the pub—and it’s that commitment that keeps us coming back. While generations of Portland musicians have passed through the 'Thirst, it remains a breeding ground for new musical ideas.
Local singer-songwriter Taylor Kingman, age 25, is part of the new wave of musicians coming up at the ‘Thirst, hosting a Sunday night open mic where you can see everything from Jay Cobb Anderson of Fruition debuting a tune, to John Craigie trying out a stand-up comedy act, to a novice performer giving it a go for the first time. Kingman gives open mic attendees a songwriting prompt each week that keeps the spirit of creativity moving through the building.
“With the open mic, I wanted to create an actively creative and communal space for both veteran songwriters and performers and folks still cutting their teeth,” Kingman says. “A place to inspire and be inspired in a low pressure, supportive environment.”
More important than what style of music you play, “It’s about what style of person are you,” Longmire says.
The “style” of person who frequents the LaurelThirst is what draws you in. Susannah Weaver, better known as Little Sue, has been a patron and performer for over 25 years. She currently plays happy hour every fourth Friday with Portland icon Lynn Conover, who has been a mainstay in the local folk scene for more than 20 years.
“My very first night in Portland was August 30, 1992, and that was the first bar I went to,” Weaver tells. She was instantly drawn to the pub’s personal sense of community. “It’s like a family—and it has been for a long time and it was right away [for me].”
The nighttime volume check doesn’t stop the party. Weaver recalls the days of her first band, The Crackpots. “We played the 'Thirst a lot. We broke attendance records and danced on the bar and all kinds of crazy shit. We’d have pajama parties and gender benders. Where else could we have done those things? I do not know.”
Fostering the type of community where you can be yourself, a man I only know as Jimbo dances in tight pants like nobody’s watching, complete with high kicks. I was was once told by Kingman: “If you ain’t down with Jimbo, you can get the fuck out.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Steve Weiland, David Lee Williams and Bill Leeds set out to make a public house in Portland that was centered around community. And from a quiet corner at NE Glisan Street and 30th Avenue in the Kerns neighborhood they have done just that. Proclaiming to be “the oldest independent music venue in Portland” on its website, the 'Thirst has been proud to provide “the community with music daily since 1988!”
But those things seem to matter less and less in a Portland where housing developments shoot up from the plots of land where treasured landmarks once stood. The LaurelThirst is a place that has captured what is good about new Portland while holding on to an important part of what made this city great in the first place.
Last year, the owners of the 'Thirst were approached with a pile of cash for the building and the business; however, the original trio wanted to give the community a chance to keep itself going, offering it an opportunity to buy the pub. So longtime bartender Bart Yanoch, steadfast patrons Nick Zerr and Brandon Logan, and Longmire pooled their resources and became owners of the place they had already loved for so many years.
They couldn’t have done it without the support of their community, something they still need today as the pub launches a crowdfunding campaign to get them over the hump for their down payment on the place.
“It’s not the most comfortable thing to ask for money from the public,” Longmire says, “but I will do anything to keep this place from getting torn down like everything else in this town.”
During my first summer in Portland, I was taken to Jackstraw’s free happy hour set on a perfect Tuesday afternoon—a slot they’ve been holding down since the '90s. We drank beers and smoked cigarettes in the sunshine, forgetting everything else. I was a stranger in this town but the LaurelThirst immediately felt like home. My personal evolution at and attachment to the 'Thirst was a bit of a slow burn, but the people I’ve met there—the dancers, bartenders and regulars—and the memories I’ve made there—that one time I made an ass of myself, or cried with a friend, or sang songs at the bar after the show—leave a lasting impression. My life wouldn’t be the same without them.
Family and community are oft neglected in a world where values are rapidly changing and we fall further down the rabbit hole of technology. Places like the LaurelThirst keep us connected to each other in a physical way. We need them and I hope the LaurelThirst is here long after we are all gone—so long as they keep it in the family and keep it weird.
Brad Parsons is a local singer-songwriter who’s been 86’d from the LaurelThirst but has worked his way back into the pub’s good graces. Catch him there on Friday, March 23.