Neighborhood 'clubhouse' marks 25 years of music and community

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Lewi Longmire and the Left Coast Roasters perform at Laurelthirst Public House.On a recent Thursday evening, a distinguished-looking, white-haired gentleman arrives at the Laurelthirst Public House a good 30 minutes before Lewi Longmire and the Left Coast Roasters — the club’s regular Thursday night happy hour band — begin their two-hour set.

Claiming a primely positioned barstool, Dale Martin orders a Rainier and chats with the bar staff and familiar faces as they drift by. Amid the slowly building raucousness near the small, back-corner stage area, the 79-year-old retiree provides a stoic, yet passionately music-loving presence at the club, which turned 25 in October.

With his late wife, Shirley, Martin was a founding patron of the Laurelthirst. It was the fall of 1988 when partners David Lee Williams and Steve Weiland bought and rechristened the old Blue Keg beer garden on the corner of Northeast Glisan Street and 30th Avenue.

Recalling a handful of patrons listening to songwriters such as Billy Kennedy, Michael Hurley and Jimmy Boyer playing in the front window area, Martin admits the wide-ranging crowds the club draws these days can still throw him off.

“Sometimes I look out at this sea of faces and think, ‘What the (expletive) are these people doing in my living room?’” he says, chuckling softly. “The cadre of regulars you see anytime, we’re a stubborn bunch. But it’s good to see new people too.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Bill Leeds (left) and David Lee Williams are two of the three co-owners of the Laurelthirst Public House. Williams helped start the club 25 years ago.

Together again

Loyal patrons, musicians and veteran bar staff — who simply refer to it as the ’Thirst — have celebrated 25 years of from-the-heart music, good times and warm camaraderie in the ’Thirst’s typically low-key fashion. October, which marked the official silver anniversary, drew overflow crowds to several special pairings and shows, among them the reunion of Golden Delicious, a bluegrass/country-rock ensemble led by Pete Krebs and Kevin “Bingo” Richey, and the lineup of the Little Sue Band that was featured on leader Susannah Weaver’s 2004 album, “Shine.”

From here on out, the anniversary will be honored by simply continuing the ’Thirst’s long tradition of offering two musical performances a night, every night. As always, there’s no cover for the 6 to 8 p.m. happy hours. Rarely does a 9 or 9:30 p.m. show set one back for more than $7.

To bass guitarist and singer Dave Reisch, 63, who has logged countless hours on Sunday night’s with the Freak Mountain Ramblers, the ‘Thirst is something beyond a bar or venue.

“It’s more of a clubhouse,” he says. “David’s made money off of booze, and we’ve made money off of tips and people have enjoyed the music. It’s been a pretty symbiotic relationship.”

Unlikely entrepreneur

Reflecting on 25 years of business, Williams recalls his primary motivation to buy an old bar after dropping out of Portland State University. “Because I hated working for anybody,” the Wilsonville resident admits. “I quit PSU and said to Steve (Weiland), ‘Can we buy me a job?’ ”

A fan of plays on words, the Alabama native considered the bar’s proximity to the genteel Laurelhurst neighborhood. By simply adding a T to its name, the Laurelthirst was born.

“It helps to locate it,” Williams says. “People hated (the name) at first. This was an old man’s bar. It was a little bit intimidating.”

He didn’t know it, but his timing — as it turned out — wasn’t bad.

The relocation of the Dublin Pub, a folk- and country-friendly venue on Southeast Belmont Street, to Southwest Portland opened up an eastside niche for a roots music and singer-songwriter venue.

“The Dublin had just been shut down,” recalls Martin, who with Shirley was a regular. “They wouldn’t cooperate with the neighborhood association. It left a musical void.”

Going on the recommendations of friends and curious new patrons, Williams invited musicians such as Kennedy, Lynn Conover, Neil Gilpin, Tim Acott and others to play in the stageless bar’s storefront window area.

“Dale and Shirley Martin talked David Lee into having music,” says Reisch, who played as a duo with Boyer on Thursday nights. “They said it was a selfish thing because it was close to their house. For us, it was just a place to play.”

Good neighbor policy

During the Dublin’s final days, word got around. When Bill Leeds, fresh in town from Dayton, Ohio, found his acoustic trio double booked with Kennedy at the Dublin one night, Kennedy suggested this “cool new music club on Glisan” to them.

“I started work at the Laurelthirst the day after our first gig there,” Leeds recalls.

With Leeds, who would become the club’s third co-owner, booking music, the ’Thirst’s reputation as a laid-back, songwriter-friendly venue gradually blossomed.

“They were so supportive of music, especially when Bill Leeds came on board,” says Acott, a stand-up bassist, guitarist and singer who ended up with a weekly gig. “They always took really good care of us and made us a home here.”

To keep neighbors in the otherwise sleepy neighborhood happy, musicians learned to keep the volume low.

“You had to learn to play quiet here because of the neighbors, which made us better musicians,” says Acott, 62. “You really learned your craft here.”

While making friends with the artists, Leeds wasn’t afraid to disrupt regular gig slots if it wasn’t the right combination. It took firing Reisch and Boyer from their regular Thursday slot to lay the groundwork for the Freak Mountain Ramblers — whose members have deep roots in Portland’s musical history — and their wildly popular Sunday night slot.

“Jimmy still gives me s—t to this day. He’s like, ‘You fired us from Thursdays!’ ” Leeds says with a laugh. “I said, ‘Yeah, but I moved you to Sundays.’

“If something wasn’t necessarily working in one form, it wasn’t like, ‘OK, you’re out the door,’” he adds. “It’s like, ‘Here’s another slot. Let’s try something different.’ That’s a good example of the kind of experimentation (in) the music community that was going on here.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - The Laurelthirst Pub, also known as the Thirst, has put on from-the-heart in a low-key fashion for 25 years. The pub established its niche of roots and singer/songwriter music when the Dublin Pub relocated to Southwest Portland.

A musical magnet

Longmire, who took over music booking duties from Leeds, agrees the ’Thirst’s intimacy provides an opportunity — rare for a popular live venue — for musicians to find their voices as well as audience.

“As a musician, you’re fairly free to do all kinds of things here,” he says. “If you get 30 people here, it takes very little to have attention paid to you. You can create an intimacy, a living room vibe.

“It’s probably not the greatest stepping stone for a career,” he adds, “but just to have people there in your face removes that audience wall.”

As the ’Thirst’s reputation as Portland’s de facto haven for Americana-oriented music has grown, so has the volume of calls and emails Longmire gets from far and wide.

“I’m constantly getting requests from bands from all over who want to play here ... We almost never book touring outfits. It’s still kind of a neighborhood pub, even if that neighborhood is based on a scene more than it is geographically.”

Leeds attributes the ’Thirst’s ongoing appeal to being a rock in the swirling sea of Portland’s pop-cultural trends.

“We just feel like it doesn’t matter what the rest of Portland is doing,” he says. “We’re not affected by fads. We’ve never been a hipster bar. We’re a musicians’ bar.”

Williams credits his 14 employees, most of whom have been on board for 10 years or more, with keeping the unique hub humming along.

“I’m amazed we’ve been here this long,” he says. “If I didn’t have the right people around me, we wouldn’t be here.”

Pub music

What: The Laurelthirst Pub, celebrating its 25th year of live music, spirits and fellowship this fall

Where: 2958 N.E. Glisan St.,

corner of 30th Avenue

Live music: Free happy hours from 6 to 8 p.m. seven days a week; late shows with occasional cover charges at 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Call: 503-232-1504


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