The story has been told a million times before: Promising band or musician leaves town—the town that once had a thriving music scene, before venue after venue locked up its doors—and moves to the fertile musical grounds of Portland for a chance at something greater. Missoula’s best have followed this trail too many times to count.
Stephen Ashbrook has no obvious connection to Missoula, but the singer-songwriter can relate to its plight. He spent 14 years—“cutting my teeth,” he says—in the clubs and backrooms of Tempe, Ariz., playing sold-out shows and standing-room-only bars. Then, one by one, the old establishments—the ones with the graffiti on the walls and the best sound systems—started to close. So Ashbrook left the desert and headed with his family to Portland.
“I could see the writing on the wall in Tempe,” he says. “There used to be a time you could park on Mill Ave. [Tempe’s equivalent of Higgins], park your car and hit four bars to see four great bands. Nowadays, there are a few places to play down there, but there’s basically a few that fit about 350 people and then you move to the one that seats 1,000.”
“Is that like Missoula?” he asks. Uh, pretty much.
In Portland, Ashbrook has found a nice fit between community and music. His shows—think Warren Zevon’s voice, straight-ahead pop rock and the occasional acoustic mush tune—are smaller in the Pacific Northwest since he’s still considered new to the area, but the vibe is more supportive. Local radio plays local CDs, and live music is plentiful. Clubs are opening in Portland, not closing—“There’s something kind of bubbling here,” he says.
The scene has inspired Ashbrook to write more songs of late, in preparation for his first studio album since 2002’s American B-Sides. The new one will follow Ashbrook’s 2004 double CD, Live at Long Wongs—recorded at one of those since-closed clubs in Tempe. It’s interesting to note the last time Ashbrook came to town was almost two years ago to promote B-Sides, and he played The Ritz. Of course, The Ritz is now home to a sports bar.
“It’s really been over two years since we’ve been there? Wow,” says Ashbrook to himself. “A lot’s happened in a few years.”
Stephen Ashbrook has a place to play with his band at Sean Kelly’s Friday, April 22. Show time to be announced. Tickets cost $2.