Alberta Street Pub: Home is Where the Music Is
Indie/Alt talks to singer-songwriter Hayley Lynn, Portland glam-folk band Glitterfox, and venue owner Ezra Holbrook about how Alberta Street Pub is keeping live music alive and providing a home for the Portland music community during a global pandemic.
The crowd at Alberta Street Pub was sold out, technically speaking. Though every table was filled, there was enough room to spare between them to accommodate for social distance. There were masks aplenty on the patrons of the pub, but many others were hunkered down with a beer and a burger, mask off, simply enjoying the comfort of the evening air and the music they could finally experience after so long.
Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive shutdowns throughout the live music industry in Portland. The places where people used to gather, drinking and singing freely, were left silent. But for many people there the night of April 8, at a small outdoor patio bar in Northeast Portland, live music was found again.
Welcome Back to Alberta
Alberta Street Pub has been a fixture of northeast Portland for over 30 years. In the past five years, the venue has ramped up its live music offerings, putting on multiple shows every day. That is, until March 13, 2020.
As live music began to shutter worldwide, so too did the Alberta Street Pub. But almost immediately, venue owner Ezra Holbrook, fueled by his deep background and passion for Portland’s live music community, began to brainstorm ways for Alberta to make its comeback.
The venue attempted to reopen last June and again in November, however ongoing statewide freezes in Oregon ended up cutting their attempts short. They decided to wait until after the holidays to try again. Finally, at the beginning of February 2021, Alberta Street Pub opened their doors and have stayed open ever since.
But being able to create a space that is safe for performers, the audience, and the bar’s employees alike has presented challenges for the Alberta Street Pub. In order to bring live music back while making sure nobody is put at risk, the team had to rewrite their entire run-of-show with COVID safety at the forefront.
“There are all these little things that you have to think about,” Holbrook said. “Like, if you do not have your own vocal mic, please let us know. We’re going to have sanitized ones available. Please don’t leave your mic up, take it down when you’re done. Don’t let anyone else sing on it. Just like all these strange little things.”
But the biggest challenge, Holbrook said, was not so much running the show from the musician’s perspective, but running the show from the audience’s perspective.
To create a safe environment for the audience members at their outdoor shows, Alberta came up with an entirely new system for concerts in a pandemic era. For example, they no longer sell individual tickets, instead opting for selling tickets by the table to keep people in their own groups.
“We implemented that to kind of try to make a situation where we didn’t have people wandering around and sitting down with their friends,” Holbrook said. “Which of course I would love, but right now it’s just not safe.”
Though the whole process has been a challenge, the response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, with many of their shows selling out within hours of going on sale.
“I’ve seen more adult people cry in the last three months than I’ve probably seen my entire life,” Holbrook said. “And I mean that in a really good way.”
At the Band Table
Tucked into the back corner of the patio, the band table was bustling with activity. Everyone seated there was a tight-knit community, all Portland-based musicians who have shared the same challenges in the past year. As patrons of the pub got up for another round of drinks, Solange Igoa, lead singer and songwriter of Portland glam-folk band Glitterfox, approached the table, proudly holding out a COVID-19 vaccination card.
“I got vaccinated bitches!”
Igoa was followed by Holbrook, who explained that a clinic down the street has been offering unused vaccines to employees of the pub at the end of the day. Because Igoa was a guest performer that night, Holbrook took them and one of Alberta’s cooks to the clinic to receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
On the night of the show, Igoa’s only immediate side-effect was the bandaid on their arm. However, Igoa said, “I had the worst day the next day. It was worse than when I had COVID.”
Igoa, along with their partner and bandmate Andrea Walker, had a very rough start to the shutdowns when both contracted COVID the week before stay-at-home orders came. It was a devastating blow for the couple, especially since live music has been the lifeblood of their relationship ever since they met.
“I mean, this is what we do for a living, full-time is just play gigs,” Walker said. “We literally went from playing shows to having to cancel our whole April tour. Like everything’s done, everything’s canceled. It was very surreal for a while.”
Walker and Igoa immediately tried to take things in stride, finding fun ways to stay in contact with the music community—playing Zoom birthday parties and regularly taking to Facebook Live. Then in July, Glitterfox was able to make a return to an in-person concert experience at Mississippi Pizza in Portland. But unfortunately, it just wasn’t the same as it was before.
“It was honestly really hard to play a show and then also to have to be so vigilant about safety measures. Like, you’re the band. You’re the one that’s inviting people into this experience. So of course you feel some responsibility,” Walker said. “That was definitely a struggle, but we felt like it was important to do because we could do it safely.”
Though the experience back in July wasn’t the live comeback they were hoping for, fortunately, Alberta Street Pub has created an environment that brings hope to Walker and Igoa on the state of live music.
“Before we booked our show [at Alberta], we went to multiple shows there to make sure. And we were like, okay, this feels good. This feels safe,” said Walker. “We felt really comfortable going to shows there, so when the opportunity came to book our own show there, we were like, hell yeah. These folks are doing a really great job.”
Amongst the rest of the group at the band table sat soul-folk pop singer-songwriter Hayley Lynn, the headliner for the evening. For Lynn, this show represented a rare opportunity: a real-life premiere show for her latest single, “Danny DeVito.” But the road to this point had not been an easy one.
Before the live music industry first shut down, Lynn had two tours planned. Unfortunately, COVID quickly brought everything to a grinding halt, forcing Lynn to cancel her planned excursions.
Going from playing shows every week to not being able to play shows at all affected Lynn deeply. More than anything, she said, it made her reevaluate her priorities overall.
“There were a lot of moments in 2020 where I wanted to quit music,” Lynn said. “But I had a few gigs in 2020 during the summer that really reminded me like, no, this is what you’re supposed to do.”
When Holbrook reached out to Lynn about doing a monthly residency at the venue, she said yes with no hesitation. Since then, Lynn has been playing at Alberta Street Pub every second Thursday of the month.
“It’s been fun ever since,” Lynn said. “Every single person in the audience is just so happy to be out and enjoying music.”
The Road Ahead
Looking ahead, Alberta Street Pub is looking at ways to create an even safer environment when the pandemic ends. For example, the team is looking into keeping a limited capacity for their shows.
“We used to pack as many people in as we could, but we’re also seeing an interesting change since we reopened where we’re a quarter capacity, but people’s tabs have tripled,” Holbrook said. “Maybe giving people a little more space is not only safer, but frankly, maybe it’s good for business.”
Igoa and Walker’s hope for the future is that live performing will return to its previous state soon. Though it may be smaller in the future, Igoa says, “as long as things feel safe, damn, I mean I am totally cool with it.”
“I’m just hoping that when stuff starts to come back, that people are feeling grateful for it,” Igoa added. “I just don’t want to forget how much it’s sucked to not be around people.”
As for Hayley Lynn, with her previously planned tours canceled, she is looking forward to hopefully being able to get back on the road again in the future.
“I think we’re just kind of like all waiting for the second shoe to drop, but all the shoes kind of dropped over this last year,” Lynn said. “So we’re just kind of like, if we have a chance, we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna play. We’re gonna make it happen. We’re gonna be safe. But let’s do it.”
A Moment of Hope
The sun was just beginning to set when Hayley Lynn took to the stage. The crowd, bellies full and a second or third beer cozied in their hand, looked toward the stage, where twinkling lights surrounded the wood architecture of the patio roof.
“I can’t begin to say how awesome this night has been,” Lynn said, leaning into the freshly sanitized microphone. Tuning her guitar, she looked out at the crowd of masked faces, all happy to be experiencing this moment together.
“I want to see something,” Lynn said. “Raise your hand if this is your first time hearing live music out in public since the pandemic.”
All across the patio, hands shot up in the air.
People looked around at the hands that surrounded them, everyone finally experiencing something they hadn’t experienced in so long. As Lynn began to sing, that moment felt like hope.
Find Alberta Street Pub’s full calendar and buy tickets for upcoming shows at albertastreetpub.com. Listen to Hayley Lynn’s new single, “Danny DeVito”, now on all streaming services. Glitterfox’s new EP, ‘Night’, will be available this summer.