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Portland's welcome vibe

From the Old Port to the Arts District, a mix of sounds lures crowds

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2007

PORTLAND, Maine -- Coming from Boston, I figured I knew the makings of a decent night life scene. So when I arrived in Portland, I brought a touch of urban snobbery. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

This city has become a vibrant mecca. On a recent Saturday, crowds filled the many rooms that line Portland's two prime nocturnal neighborhoods -- the Arts District (boasting several excellent concert venues) and the Old Port, where young people swing through pubs, taverns, and dance clubs with a festivity similar to Boston's Quincy Market or even Newport, R.I., in the summer.

Over the course of two nights, I visited a couple of dozen spots that ran the gamut from upscale wine bars to basic, four-walled rooms with a Guinness tap. They were all within walking distance -- and nearly all were full and bustling. For a city of 64,000 people (230,000 in the metro area), there was no shortage of entertainment options.

"Some people have the impression that Portland is a quiet town," says Jeff Inglis, managing editor of the Portland Phoenix. "There's certainly quiet to be had here, but if you want to go and check out the music and night life, you won't run out of things to choose from. There's more here than many of the locals realize. . . . It's a very busy, active scene."

No kidding.

My Saturday started in the Arts District on Congress Street, with a stop at the Space Gallery, a loft-style room that doubles as a 300-capacity concert venue and art gallery. Local bluesman Moses Atwood warmed up a hip, age-diverse crowd with songs that bridged the sounds of Mississippi John Hurt and Townes Van Zandt. The acoustics were impressive and you could understand why some national acts have been attracted to this room, including the Killers and My Morning Jacket.

"We pride ourselves on wearing a lot of hats," says Space Gallery creative director Todd Bernard. "We're typically open four nights a week. We do music and also show documentary and independent films, and have readings here."

Across the street is the White Heart Bar & Cocktail Lounge, an elegantly appointed room with red seats and banquettes for cozy conversation. The curved ceiling is lighted with psychedelic lights and looks like a Day-Glo poster. Students from nearby Maine College of Art hang out here, but it has a welcome vibe for everyone.

Farther up Congress Street, I walk by Yes Books, where Bob Dylan shopped for photography books and poetic texts by William Blake when he was in town to perform. Next up is the Downtown Lounge, full of artsy characters and with booth seating reminiscent of Boston's J.J. Foley's. Its jukebox is stocked with songs by the likes of Nirvana, Queen, and Black Flag.

Across the way is Geno's, a funky, no-frills rock club that recalls such bygone Boston spots as the Rat and Bunratty's. There's nothing like it in Boston today. Located in a former porn theater, the loud and casual Geno's offers "garage-rock, punk, '70s rock, metal, and indie rock," says owner J.R. D'Alessandro, son of the late namesake Geno. "We're like the old Rathskeller or CBGB's," he says proudly. He books many Boston bands, but also emerging area groups such as the Hot Tarts, Loverless, Covered in Bees, Pigboat, and By Blood Alone.

When I leave the racket and the pool-table delirium of Geno's, I notice a surreal sight across the street -- ballroom dancers doing their thing behind the windows of the Maine Ballroom dance center. Pondering the odd juxtaposition, I head a couple of blocks down to the Old Port, a nexus of late-night hedonism.

Many bars in the Old Port have a generic feel, but they're still pulsing with activity. Bars such as Rosie's, Gritty McDuff's brew pub, Liquid Blue (with a DJ pumping up the crowd), the Lava Lounge, and Digger's Pub feel like they could be in any town. A younger crowd is drawn by the promise of cheap drinks and a loose party atmosphere. Many of the clubs are on teeming Fore Street, such as the inevitably named Fore Play Sports Pub, with its familiar magnet of billiards tables. Revelers eagerly roam this street in a time-honored bow to the mating ritual. Not surprisingly, there's a condom store on the block called Condom Sense .

The best spot on Fore Street is Bull Feeney's, an Irish tavern that occupies two floors. It's a homey site with a fireplace, exposed brick walls, and multiple bars replete with Irish street signs evoking the old sod. There's also a live music room overlooking the street where I caught a terrific cover band called One Two Many on my first night in town.

Around the corner is the Old Port Tavern, a subterranean club where a hip-hop DJ is working fans into a frenzy. But it's annoyingly crowded and is so hot and steamy that I don't stay long. There's also a line out the door. Been there, done that.

Needing a respite, I head to cobblestoned Wharf Street, a block down from Fore. One place, the Iguana Lounge, has an undulating sea of dancers who are apparently continuing the "el loco" partying for which the club is known. I walk farther down the narrow street to the Wine Bar, a lovely hideaway where romancing couples can flirt on couches and enjoy the "Elvis Corner," where various portraits of Presley are on display.

"I moved here in 1987, when there were five or six places in the Old Port. But now it's crazy," says Michelle Buckley, a Wine Bar staffer. But remember this place if you need a respite from the madness. And also remember the Armory Lounge, another laid-back bar in the basement of the nearby Portland Regency Hotel. It stays open later than the Wine Bar .

A few other rooms should be mentioned. The small concert club the Big Easy is rewarding for its intimacy and fine sound system. The up-and-coming Pete Kilpatrick (who has opened shows for national act O.A.R.) played some progressive acoustic-rock that suggested he may be going places. Another live club is the Asylum, which has some local and national acts as well as a basement dance bar that offers "Maine's only weekly goth/industrial night" on Fridays.

Should you want to hit a gay bar, try Styxx, which was exploding with a high-energy, 50-50 mix of men and women when I stopped in to hear DJ Kate at the turntables. One customer, Domingo Nieves, originally from Puerto Rico, says Maine's gay bar scene has grown in recent years. "I went to San Francisco to live for a while, but I came back here," he says.

Portland offers a striking diversity, but there's no doubt that Irish taverns are well represented. Ri Ra is a humming Celtic place on the waterfront along Commercial Street. Another Irish club called Brian Boru, a few blocks up, is worth finding. It has two outdoor decks with a view of Portland's skyline. The Jason Spencer Trio jammed skillfully through the New Orleans classic "Iko, Iko" during my stop there.

As I was leaving late Saturday night (the clubs close at 1 a.m.), I passed an older street musician on Fore Street singing the gospel tune "I'll Fly Away," an unlikely choice amid so much partying. But it only added to the moment. It had been a hyper-stimulating night, but I'll be back . Once you sample Portland's ample night life, you will undoubtedly feel the same way.

Contact Steve Morse, a freelance writer in Boston, at spmorse@gmail.com.

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