Before he was the doughnut baron of Old Town, Voodoo Doughnut’s Tres Shannon could very well have been the impresario of Old Portland’s once-nascent, laissez-faire underground music scene. Between 1990 and 1994, Shannon and his friend Ben Ellis ran the once-in-a-lifetime all-ages music venue the X-Ray Cafe at 214 W Burnside St., where the duo booked a lot of acts—from three-chord punk bands, to totally experimental, idiosyncratic artists, to in-the-thick-of-it ’90s bands like Hazel, Dead Moon and The Dandy Warhols. Green Day played there. So did Hole.
And Shannon’s own band, The Kurtz Project, also frequently took the X-Ray stage. The Kurtz Project was an oddball outfit comprising a bassist, a violinist and a deaf drummer, with Shannon vocalizing tunes like “Nights in White Satin,” Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)” and once, in a famous show at a long-shuttered gay downtown disco, the entirety of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Most people who remember the X-Ray remember the not-quite-a-riot of July 1993, when some up-to-no-good anarchists made their way from downtown to the X-Ray where a big punk show was underway. They slipped into the cafe, with some Portland cops in pursuit. What followed was rock throwing, broken windows and 30 arrests, all while young punks danced the hokey pokey, which was blasting on the jukebox.
Just don’t ask Shannon what it was like—he was visiting his parents in Colorado the day it all went down. That incident didn’t put the final nail in the coffin, but it definitely signaled that the end was near.
“It really was a magical place,” he recalls. “The kind of place that let people really fly their freak flag.” In modern times, many threads of the local music and food scenes still lead back to the cafe’s stage, including Pip’s Original Doughnuts & Chai’s Nate Snell whose rock bands played there, and community radio station XRAY.fm’s call sign is an obvious nod to the influential venue. There’s even a Voodoo Doughnut Recordings, an offshoot label that has released numerous ’90s-era live albums tracked at the X-Ray and Satyricon alongside doughnut-themed 45s, and custom-embossed pastries often appear backstage in the green rooms at many area concerts. “I never went to college, but I ran the X-Ray for four years. That was my education.”
And while most people would yearn to pack up and sail forth after earning their education, Shannon has stuck to that Burnside block for his entire adult life, with the aim of making that rundown section of Old Town cooler than it should be.
Of course, you already know that Shannon owns, with Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson, Voodoo Doughnut just around the corner. But you might not know that he also spent more than a decade moonlighting as the entertainment booker for the adjacent (and now-defunct) Berbati’s Pan, bringing acts like The White Stripes and Tenacious D to a venue that shared a wall with his world-famous doughnut shop.
But Shannon’s deeper, continuous contribution—to the music scene and that part of town—is helping front what is likely one of Portland’s oldest, most-gigged musical acts: the Karaoke From Hell band, which the 52-year-old Shannon has been performing in for half of his life.
“No one even considers us a band,” he says, “but they’re really fucking good.”
Every Monday night for the last 17 years, the band has taken the stage at Dante’s, just a block up from the old X-Ray space, with 750 memorized songs in their collective back pocket to lead Portlanders and tourists through live covers of “Me and Bobby McGee” (still enjoyable to play, Shannon says) and “Rebel Yell” (which he secretly hopes people will give a rest). The current lineup consists of Mistress Dawn on acoustic guitar, Dave Langeles and Ian Miller on electric guitar, Brian Saunders on bass, and either Greg O’Dell, Tom Sullivan or Jacob Ignacio on drums.
Shannon doesn’t play an instrument outside of vocals, so you’d wonder why he’d co-found a band that would do away with him every time a new crooner took the stage.
“I consider myself the bouncing blue ball,” Shannon says. He’ll shake a tambourine or blow the kazoo, and he’ll harmonize, too, if the song calls for it. But he considers his main job to be your backup, to help you get things back on beat if you’ve lost your way.
“It’s pretty special,” he says. “It’s the reason we keep doing it.”
And in a competitive music scene where the going rate for bands is still at 1990s levels, Shannon says his bandmates make enough cash from Dante’s and other shows—especially weddings—to earn a real living leading stranger after stranger through epic throwdowns of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“It’s fun to watch people nail it,” Shannon says. “When you bring a stranger on stage, you never know what you’re gonna get in terms of their voice, or what song they’re gonna pick.”
That who-knows-where-this-will-go situation, especially on a song-by-song basis, can lead to the kind of adrenaline spikes that usually thrill much younger, leave-your-guts-on-the-floor musicians—not rockers in their 50s.
But after 26 years, the recipe still works. Just retire “Rebel Yell,” for the band’s sake. “Dancing with Myself” is a much better song anyway.