By Gabe Frayne
On a soggy Saturday evening in Portland, a band called The Resolectrics belted out a rendition of Have Mercy from the stage of the Laurelthirst Public House on NE Glisan St. while co-owner Lewi Longmire adjusted his headphones and checked a laptop propped up on a pair of milk crates in front of the band.
“Thanks everybody, thanks for letting us be ourselves,” says guitarist and lead vocalist Tate Peterson when the song has ended.
The live audience for this three-member band consisted of Longmire, an employee straightening up the bar, a friend of Longmire’s sitting on a bar stool and one journalist. Piled high on the pub’s tables – including the billiard tables in the back room – are slabs of sawed wood, power cords, wrenches, hammers and paint cans. “We’re redoing the bar tops,” Longmire explains.
The scene appears light years removed from the Laurelthirst’s pre-pandemic bustle, but is barely 12 months in plodding calendar time.
Despite the pub’s decision to livestream regular performers on weekends, Longmire admits that “we have been hanging on both thanks to the support of our community, who has donated money during this closure, and then the advocacy of the local venue association,” which has secured modest grants for the pub.
Portland’s iconic “roots music” venue is housed in a brick building that began its existence in 1911 as a pharmacy. In the 1930s, it became a pub, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it began featuring live music. Over the next two decades it established a reputation as a showcase for local talent.
“I first went to the Laurelthirst in the late eighties,” recalls Michael Hurley, a veteran of the 1960s folk revival who recorded his first album with the legendary Folkways label in 1963 and now lives near Portland.
“At that time they were not featuring a lot of live music and didn’t have the stage,” he said.”Things at the Laurelthirst had changed a lot when I first appeared in 2002 and I was treated like King Farouk.”
Unfortunately, the Laurelthirst’s easy years did not last long and the pandemic is only the latest crisis the pub has faced since 2016. In that year the pub’s previous owners came within days of selling the building to developers who planned to make a quick date with the wrecking ball.
Longmire, who was the pub’s booking agent at the time (as well as a regular performer), partnered with three associates to buy out the club and continue “serving the community and keeping music going and being a neighborhood place.”
Two years later, the new owners purchased the building itself, which includes two rental apartments, using $135,000 raised through a crowd-funding campaign. They christened the new ownership corporation Double Skunk LLC.
It turned out, however, that Double Skunk’s timing was not propitious. Also in 2018 the Portland City Council was debating various options to force the owners of unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) to undertake costly seismic retrofits in anticipation of The Big One. The Laurelthirst, along with various other Portland music venues, was squarely in its crosshairs.
Late in the year, the Council approved a mandate that would have left URM owners little choice but to either undertake the retrofits or sell their properties. Longmire and his associates suddenly found themselves staring over a financial precipice.
“There was no public funding available, or [planned] to become available, for privately-owned URM building owners to conduct city mandated retrofits,” recalls Bart Yanoch, a co-owner who served on the most recent URM Committee Workgroup.
“There is no arguing seismic upgrades are positive and beneficial to our communities – they just went about pushing for that in a really, really, poor way.”
Months later, the mandate became moot when a judge ruled against the City in a lawsuit brought by URM owners. Yanoch says the Laurelthirst has been “partially upgraded” and the owners have looked into further retrofit options, but in the meantime the Council has suspended the debate over standards during the pandemic.
In the back room of the Laurelthirst, Longmire mused over how to describe the impact the shutdown has had on the pub. “I don’t even know what word you would use…complete impact,” he says finally. He says that the business is hanging on because it drastically cut expenses such as utilities, insurance and licensing right from the outset of the shutdown.
Longmire said the pub makes no money from its weekly livestreaming. “Basically, we are livestreaming music to keep some sort of cohesion to our community and provide music for the people as we always have,” he explained, though he added that he does solicit donations for the bands and pub staff.
The Resolectrics, for their part, seem happy to be performing, if only digitally, from one of their favorite venues.
Peterson, the guitarist, sums up his gigs at the Laurelthirst this way: “For a lot of people who, you know, they’re not white collar, they have a fixed income or whatever, but they love music, they can go in there, stop in for a beer, drop another five bucks in the tip jar and don’t feel like they have to spend half their paycheck just to see music.”
Photo of The Resolectrics by Greg Homolka