A few months ago, I sat on the patio of the Produce Row Café in Portland, Oregon, and listened as my friend Jay Martin — aka DJ Hwy 7 — spun 45s all night long.
Over 2,000 miles from home, and the soundtrack for the evening was Mississippi blues and Southern soul — the latter served up by Beyonda, a transplanted Memphian named Casey Minatrea, who has made her monthly "Hole in My Soul" DJ nights a Portland institution.
The PDX-Memphis connection crosses decades and musical genres. In the 1990s, native Memphian Cort Williams booked acts at Portland rock club E.J.'s. Bruce Saltmarsh once ran Portland's punk-roots label Casting Couch Records. Another Portland-based label, the now defunct Empty, mined Memphis' garage scene for releases by Lover!, the Reatards, Lost Sounds, Destruction Unit, and Mouserocket.
Portland's fascination with blues, gospel, and soul is less easy to decipher, although clues abound, ranging from the vinyl reissues of Skip James and the Memphis Minnie tracks in the bin at Mississippi Records to the superlative three-disc set Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007, compiled by Portlander Mike McGonigal and released on October 26th.
"Gospel took longer to get to than other genres," says McGonigal, a music journalist who, until now, was better known for penning a book about My Bloody Valentine and editing the circa-1980s underground music guide Chemical Imbalance than for praising the power of the Holy Spirit via the likes of north Mississippi performers such as the Rev. John Wilkins and the late Lula Collins.
"I love so many kinds of music. To me, music has the ability to be a spiritual medium even if one is listening to only the Complete Funhouse box set by the Stooges," McGonigal continues and adds: "Gospel today is the one music that speaks to me the most — in terms of sound and also message. I try to not over-think why, since it's simultaneously such a visceral and spiritual and personal thing, you know?"
Factor in the hungry record buyers who haunt the aisles at Portland's dozen or so record stores, and it begins to make sense.
"I think we all want what we do not have, and this might be part of why that music is so popular here," McGonigal says. "Since gospel is the root of a vast majority of popular music, and it's often the most raw and beautiful and real kind of sound. It's something that people tend to get to later in life, once they've exhausted other avenues and genres and sounds."
Memphix Records co-founder Chad "Chase" Weekley has traveled to Portland several times for special guest appearances at Minatrea's Hole in My Soul night, along with fellow Memphis DJs Andrew "Buck Wilder" McCalla and Daniel "Leroy Trenton" Mathis.
"People were handing us requests," says Weekley of his latest appearance at Portland club Rotture on September 10th. "You just don't get that from 20-year-old kids in Memphis. It blew my wig off!"
Recalling the New Year's Eve 2008 party he DJed with Minatrea, which drew a sold-out crowd of 600, Mathis says, "Maybe Portlanders are more receptive to [Southern roots music] because they don't take it for granted."
Weekley and Mathis give high props to Minatrea, a graduate of Hernando High School who manned the counter at Shangri-La Records before heading west.
"I've got a lot of respect for Casey," Weekley says. "If she was still in Memphis, she'd be struggling to find her audience. But she runs the scene in Portland."
"She sells herself really well," Mathis adds. "She's very strict about what she wants played, and because she stays focused, she's been able to build her image."
Memphians will get a chance to see Mathis and Weekley in action on Friday, November 27th, when So-Cal's "Ambassador of Boogie Funk" Dam-Funk makes his local debut at the Hi-Tone Café.
A circa-1980s session musician who arranged synths for West Side Connection, Nate Dogg, and Dr. Dre, the 38-year-old Dam-Funk is currently coming into his own. His new album, Toeachizown, released on the Stone's Throw label in late October, spans 139 minutes and features vocoder, drum machines, and keytar.
"Dam-Funk didn't come out of nowhere," Mathis says. "He's been around forever, but people are just now starting to figure it out."
"He reminds me of Prince mixed with a little bit of Parliament and some sick West Coast hip-hop," Weekley says. "We're lucky to get this guy here."
Dam-Funk's appearance will be anchored by a spate of local DJs, including Homework, Chase, Hype Taylor, Leroy Trenton, Redeye Jedi, and Chicago-based Memphix cohort Dante Carfagna. Admission to the show is $10. Doors open at 9 p.m.