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Opinion: Portland, me and music

March 22, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

If you had the chance to read the story in Sunday's Herald-Star you would have learned that Toronto native and guitarist/singer for the legendary band fIREHOSE Ed "From Ohio" Crawford was rejoining the band for a West Coast tour with the apex being an appearance at the granddaddy of all modern rock festivals, the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, Calif., on April 20.

Getting to interview Crawford was a real treat for me, since I saw the band live at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore., during the band's Live Totem Pole Tour in 1992. I remember the show well, and so did Crawford, namely for bassist and indie music legend Mike Watt announcing from the stage the show was over because his bass amp blew up in the middle of the set. I'd say there were about 600 disappointed people in the audience. A huge fIREHOSE fan, I bought a T-shirt at that show that I carried back with me to Ohio when I moved back here some 15 years ago. I kept that shirt for years, but I don't know what happened to it.

It really doesn't matter. There were a lot of things from that time in my life I lost.

But I didn't lose my love of fIREHOSE and was really shocked I found out Crawford was from Toronto. I don't remember exactly how I learned this, but I do remember myself and Rose Angelica talking about Ed and how he was talented on trumpet. Apparently, Rose gave Ed trumpet lessons at some point, and she said he was a talented guy who came from a musical family.

I was introduced to fIREHOSE's music by a woman I was living with at the time who would go on to become the band Everclear's first manager. She was into going to see bands nearly every night of the week, and who was I to say no?

I saw countless shows during that time and so many artists it's really hard for me to remember them all. But Portland was cool because there was a show somewhere every night, and living legends were walking down the street all the time.

It's hard for people here to imagine what Portland is like, but I would say the city is more European than American. Nearly rebellious in its independence from even the rest of the state, Portland is like no other city.

Contrary to views held by Easterners about the West Coast, Portland was hardly just a "liberal" city. It was way beyond that but also far more inclusive. I knew communists, REAL socialists, radical environmentalists, Nazi skinheads - that's just a start.

Anyway, talking to Crawford brought back memories of myself playing in some pretty cool bands there in the early 1990s. I did play at some legendary clubs, including the CBGB's of the West Coast, the Satyricon Club, the same place where up-and-coming stars such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden used to play.

It was an absolute dump -small dingy, cramped and seedy, with graffiti on the walls and junkies in the unisex bathroom. It was also a lot of fun to play the same stages as some of the "bigger" acts, but it was hardly glamorous.

My favorite band I played with in the mid-90s was Kaiju 7, which consisted of two percussionists, a great groove drummer, a saxophonist playing free jazz, a bassist playing hypnotic, cyclical lines and a singer/rapper. I basically played a lot of fills and bebop jazz lines, which was cool because the rhythm section was so good. I was free to do just about anything.

In one stellar weekend the band played at Satyricon, an on-the-air show on KBOO-FM and La Lunar, one of the best nightclubs in Portland at the time. We opened up for Pink Martini, a highly-respected world-beat band based in Portland that is still together (Google the band).

One song from the KBOO show was released on a compilation CD of up-and-coming bands from Portland, but the band had broken up and I had moved back East by the time it came out.

I can't remember how many great shows I saw at La Luna, but some of the stand-outs included the P-Funk All Stars, Bootsy, Public Enemy, Iggy Pop, X, the Rev. Horton Heat, Todd Rungren and dozens of regional bands, including Pond, the Dharma Bums, Hazel, the Dandy Warhols, Everclear and Hitting Birth. These units were the indie spawn of the first wave of grunge bands from the Northwest, and many of them, particularly Hazel, never got the recognition they deserved.

I also got to see a lot of jazz greats in small clubs, my favorite being the Hobbit, this small, dark little club situated in a northeastern Portland neighborhood. There I got to see legends perform in an intimate setting, including guitarists Joe Pass, Jim Hall and Herb Ellis, along with McCoy Tyner and house bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who I used to sit in a booth with and talk about his days playing with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonous Monk and just about every classic jazz musician you could think of.

I was there one evening watching a very young Harry Connick Jr. perform when a trumpeter by the name of Dizzy Gillespie walked in and played a short set with Connick. Dizzy played a concert in the city's rose garden amphitheater earlier in the day and decided to stop by during Connick's set. It was kind of like Miles knocking on your door and walking into your living room to play for awhile - unexpectedly surreal, but that was Portland.

I also saw a great young pianist from New York named Benny Green at the Hobbit, sat with him during breaks and asked him what it was like to be mentored by the jazz piano legend Oscar Peterson.

Then the conversation turned to his 19-year-old bassist, a big guy named Christian McBride, who would soon become the most in-demand jazz bassist in the world.

I could go on and on, but I'll spare you dear readers and quit here. Needless, to say, Portland is where I became, shall we say, "musically aware."

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