Minor Musicians

Portland band Atless, made up largely of youth musicians still in high school. The band was formed from the remaining members of a former all-youth-band, The Castaway Kids. Photo by Jonas Boone

The lights are low in the Portland Potato Vodka Stage of the Analog Cafe, and a distinct fragrance distills from the combination of alcohol-breath and the sweat of this densely packed audience.The legal capacity is only 267, but the white noise provided by the crowd as they gear up for the final band to play is loud enough to betray that number. The frontman Avery Haines, a Grant High School senior, introduces the local youth supergroup: “Hi, we’re Atlas spelled wrong.” The members have been milling about the crowd throughout the duration of their fellow bands’ sets until the moment comes for all seven of them to storm the stage, do a soundcheck before the eyes of their eager audience, and greet them with the charm and passion that can only be provided by a band ranging from high school aged kids to graduates preparing to leave behind the stage for college.

This night is only a snapshot of the live music akin to Portland’s “underground.” This isn’t a picture of out-of-towners in expensive clothes playing to sold out stadiums, trying to charm the crowd with fill-in-the-blank jokes about the 20th city they’ve passed through on tour. These are kids out of school for winter break, rehearsing in their parents’ garages, and filling rooms with their adolescent friends and dutiful family members. These are dingy, dimly lit, charming little bars hosting local punk rock staples that can still scream and raise hell, just like when they first picked up their guitars. These are sweaty, wall-to-wall, bouncing crowds emptying out into the slick city streets, minds still buzzing with echoing electronic music as they carry themselves home through the neon-soaked cityscape. However, the “scene” isn’t as perfect as it may seem at surface level.

If those very same kids that rocked the roof off of the Analog wanted to utilize their free passage around the city in order to appreciate music a little more widely and embrace the bountiful options of venue and genre, they’d be sorely disappointed by the wealth of signs plastered across the fronts of favorite niche musical spots: “NO MINORS PERMITTED ANYWHERE ON THESE PREMISES.” Local fixtures such as The Know and Mississippi Studios, Dante’s (which boasts a large “KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD” mural across its side despite excluding a massive portion of the city’s weirdos) and the Doug Fir Lounge, and more (by choice or by force) almost completely remove minors from the equation.

“Portland I think is super unfortunate, because there are so many youths that are so down to be creators and go out and do sh*t,” says Haines. “But the venues here are some bullsh*t. There’s very rarely a venue that will allow under 21 performances.” Haines’ hot take on the state of youth in music isn’t a rare perspective. After all, a large portion of Portland’s music venues either serve dual existences as bars and restaurants turned music venues or vice versa. These establishments theoretically make the majority of their sales at a show off of food and drinks, and from a business standpoint they might as well not admit people that can’t legally make some of those purchases. As Haines puts it, “It’s understandable, but it sucks.” And that limitation doesn’t just extend to audience members; the bars aren’t willing to budge on account of the bands either. “The only way we were able to get gigs as younger people was through programs like MITS (Music In The Schools),” says Haines, who himself is part of a program that aims to provide support to youth musicians. “I’m part of this non-profit called Friends of Noise and we basically book shows for youth bands, and we’re all ages. Always.”

The work of groups like these and Atless’ successful show at the Analog both bode well for the future of youth musicians in and around Portland. Historically, there have always been havens in the city for young people to get involved with music, one of the most notable being School of Rock. The organization not only provides employment for musicians and opportunities for young ones and hopefuls to interact with their older counterparts  through musical lessons, but also provide opportunities for these minor musicians to showcase their skills on a real stage, no training wheels. “When I was around nine, I discovered the School of Rock here… that’s what kind of inspired me and was when I first realized that music was super dope,” says Haines. “I got to be up on stage and got to work with people who were like 18 and working with 11 year olds.” In addition to the School of Rock, Friends of Noise themselves have an admirable goal in mind concerning supporting young people in live music. “Our end goal is to make an all ages venue with a stage and practice spaces for youths in Portland,” says Haines. “Because we know it’s such an incredible city for creators, but it’s not very available for youth.”

At the end of the bands’ set, colored by feedback problems, quirky dance moves, youthful screaming, guest singers on stage who are home from college, and (somehow) more, Atless and all of its members descend from the stage with a glow, or rather a kind of electric, rock and roll buzz that defies their cool expressions and their mingle-mode conversations. Their self-proclaimed mission from the beginning of the show to get the audience, “wet with sweat,” has been a resounding success. As the lights shift from the dim reds and purples that these folks had just been bouncing to, the crowd’s noise level kicks into post-concert frenzy. Proud parents make their quick exits to avoid the wave of teens shoving their way out of the club. This image of the future for Portland’s youth bands is incredibly bright, filled with satisfaction and joy. “It’s very possible to make a career out of your passion,” says Haines. Any member of the audience knows just how true that statement is. The question is if moving forward the city will open up to these moments coming more than just once in a blue moon.

 

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