Live from Multnomah Village it's Wednesday Night Bluegrass
It barely left, but live bluegrass music is back in Multnomah Village on Wednesday nights.
And it's all because of a surgeon/mandolin player who clearly loves this acoustic form of American roots music performed without drums or electric guitars.
Kevin Johnson (he doesn't go by doctor since he's retired) is staging weekly bluegrass shows at what used to be the perfoming annex at O'Connors on Southwest Capitol Highway but is now known as the Gastromania Vault.
On Wednesday, February 27 JT & Rowdy Mountian will perform. The show begins at 7 p.m. The cover charge is $5. The full menu from Gastromania will be available.
"What do people do on Wednesday nights?" he asked over a beer at Gastromania before a performance by the band Whiskey Deaf. "There's not a lot going on and it's a low cover charge ($5) and it's good music so we'll see what happens."
So far, says Johnson, signs are promising. On that cold night in February the crowd of bluegrass fans was pretty close to the Vault's capacity of 50 people and many were ordering off the Gastromania menu.
Does that mean there's a legacy of bluegrass music in Multnomah Village?
"Well," says Johnson, "we started here in February 2017 and the first couple of weeks were painful. There were like 8 people."
Then in May of 2018 O'Connors was sold to the current owner Alex Nenchev.
Bluegrass Wednesday went on hiatus until one day Johnson, who lives six blocks away in Garden Home, was walking in Multnomah Village and saw workers on site. "So Alex and I got talking. I asked him about next door (The Vault) and he said he didn't know what he was going to do there. I told him I used to book bluegrass bands on Wednesday nights and right away he said 'Yeah, yeah, I want to do that.' I barely had to say anything. He was into it."
Steve Arel, who used to book acts for O'Connor's Vault, is now doing so for Gastromania and there are live shows most nights. This website will have a fullstory on Steve Arel's plans later this week.
Johnson himself plays with a group called The Big Dickens, which will occasionally fill in on Wednesday nights. He taught himself to play the mandolin as a teenager while laid up with a dislocated shoulder at his parent's home in Ukiah, California.
"My father was kind of into country music but I was listening at the time to Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield and a rising local guitar star named Robben Ford. One night in junior high school I was listening to KSRO out of Santa Rosa and I heard Doc Watson and that turned my head around. I knew I had to learn how to play that music," he said.
(Watson was abluegrass/folk guitar player who won seven Grammy awards as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.)
A friend loaned him a mandolin. "I had no lessons but started playing songs I heard in my head like "Turkey In The Straw" and "Sailor's Hornpipe" the Popeye theme.
"Most of the time it was in the wrong key but I realized I had a good ear and it just took off from there," he said.
He set his mandolin aside in 1992 when he was a second-year Resident at Oregon Health and Sciences University, but picked it up again 20 years later when he was an established surgeon and veteran of four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I saw some messed-up stuff. It was definitely some of the peak moments of my life along with my kids being born and times with my wife. It was incredible," he said of his medical service in the military.
That's all behind him now as he takes on a career as musician and promoter of bluegrass music in Multnomah Village. "We've got plans for Bluegrass Wednesday at Gastromania Vault from here forward as long as the place stays open and I hope it stays open for a long time," he said.
The weekly performers are listed at the Facebook page for Gastro Mania Bluegrass Wednesday's Formerly O'Connor's. On June 12, Johnson is bringing bluegrass legend Mike Compton to Multnomah Village. Compton plays with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and performed on the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou."
Gastromania Vault - 7850 S.W. Capitol Highway.