Rocket Queen: Music Town, U.S.A.

Why Port Townsend is a hidden music mecca.

"We're all here because we're not all there."This is the sign hanging proudly next to the bar at Sirens, a warmly welcoming watering hole and part-time music venue that overlooks Admiralty Inlet on Water Street, the main drag in Port Townsend, Washington. Flyers for shows past and present are preserved under the glass tabletops; the one sitting beneath my pint of hefeweizen advertises 2008's New Year's Eve show featuring the New Faces, the Blakes, and Paris Spleen. It's happy hour on a Friday, and the place is slowly filling with a relaxed mix of locals and tourists, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them. It's still the chilly off-season, so the only people visiting the small, historic waterfront town in Jefferson County seem to be diehard, long-term fans of the place like myself. Arguably, I'm not all there either, considering my disdain for tired urban conventions and affection for stridently independent communities.I regularly have fantasies about moving to Port Townsend and putting down roots. I'm not alone: Musician Slim McCarroll moved his family out there before he passed away last year, and former 7 Year Bitch guitarist Roisin Dunne lived there for several years before the East Coast unexpectedly called her back to New York City. Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green currently resides in Port Townsend, the rising young stars in the New Faces claim it as their hometown, and Fleet Foxes are presently hunkered down there, recording their upcoming album in a nearby barn.There's something about Port Townsend that appeals directly to my punk-minded, artistically inclined peer group. For me, much of it has to do with its codified refusal to gentrify and the preponderance of charming small businesses. The entire downtown district is on the National Historic Landmark registry, and it shows in both the architecture and the attitude. The programming at local art-house movie theater The Rose rivals that of any of our Landmark Theaters (last time I visited I caught Young at Heart, the rockumentary about a senior-citizen singing group that covers Sonic Youth and Ramones songs). You can't even find a convenience store on Water Street, and the local independent record store, Quimper Sound, has been in business since 1974. I always make a stop there when I'm in town, and invariably find something fantastic (last time, it was one of the few remaining limited-edition vinyl copies of Rodriguez's Cold Fact).Quimper Sound (aka "The Analog Lounge") proprietor Mark Hering has owned the wax-lovers' paradise for only two years, but he grew up here and spent his teen years scouring the stacks for choice vinyl. The store also has a history of nurturing young live-music fans. "Back in the day, before Ticketmaster, the original owners used to drive to [Seattle] to buy tickets for the local kids so they could see the big touring acts." Hering's employees include Michael Townsend, who has been the go-to local audiophile for 15 years—veteran status that leads some customers to wrongly assume he's the owner of the store. The wall behind the cash register is lined with valuable vinyl of every genre, from Miles Davis to Captain Beefheart. Surprisingly, Hering doesn't even bother with online sales, something many small record stores have come to rely on. "It's hard right now for independent record stores," he acknowledges, "but I just want to keep the store funky and full of rare vinyl. But it's hard not to buy up my own stock," he says with a smile.Just a few blocks north of Quimper is the American Legion Hall, a military veterans' social club that also serves as an all-ages venue. Seattle's Vera Project is great and all, but if we had a youth-friendly space that was also this accommodating to the 21-and-over set, I'd go to all-ages shows a lot more often. It's essentially a cavernous auditorium that can easily hold a couple hundred kids, with decent sound and sightlines, but with the distinct bonus of having an immaculately preserved old-boys'-club cocktail lounge attached in the rear. There's a real, roaring fireplace, antique military para-phernalia everywhere, and a cozy bar that I belly up to for pre-show refreshments with Jonah Bergman and Ryann Donnelly of Schoolyard Heroes. They are playing the hall that night, along with the New Faces and Black Houses. "We've played here at least five or six times," recalls Donnelly. "I think kids are very open to different styles of music," says Bergman. "There's a lot less pretense out here. And an unabashed desire to have fun, which I think is what every band wants, really."

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow