Before He Was a Bridgetown Founder

Andy Wood's secret past in Portland music tells a broader story of post-rock comedy refugees.

Andy Wood (second from left) in his comedy element, with Dax Jordan (L) and Richard Bain and Lance Banks.

Andy Wood (second from left) in his comedy element, with Dax Jordan (L) and Richard Bain and Lance Banks (R).

Andy Wood sang on my record. “Not the comedy guy,” you say. “Yes, the comedy guy!” say I.

In all likelihood, this only came up because you were one of the 200+ comics at Bridgetown Comedy Festival, wondering why I, a non-comic, crashed your party and asking how I, as I claim, know Andy, a festival founder. Well don’t sweat it; it was years ago. He was a similar Andy, but it was definitely a different Portland.

“I’m about to turn 36, and I’m glad,” Andy told me last weekend, looking his part in a crisp plaid shirt and squarish glasses. “I’m better at being this age. I don’t think I was good at being a Portlander in my 20’s. I couldn’t do what everybody was doing.”

Well—to his credit, he tried. Working a prosperous day job as an engineer and sometimes surfing at the Oregon Coast, the 20-something Andy who’d just moved west from Michigan zealously nerded out on indie rock (or whatever cooler name you have for it) like Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire and Guided by Voices. He’d catch several local shows a week and fully commit to fests like Sasquatch and the then-fledgling PDX Pop Now. Proficient in many musical instruments, the precocious home-owner recorded cover songs in his basement, where he stored a drumkit and hosted house shows. He’d wrangle crowds for the bands he hosted, served them Captured By Porches craft brews and helped them schlep their gear, lavishing them with thanks. I played Andy’s basement; it was really the nicest. Eager to help other musicians and willing to play a supporting role, Andy played and sang backup in the band Meyercord, the songwriting vehicle of Ben Meyercord, who would later become a side-man himself in breakaway Latin folk outfit Y La Bamba.

I think of Portland’s popular bands less as kings of the jungle than top fish in a short food chain, where the biggest still contain bits of every creature they’ve consumed. Picture a small sleek sardine lured by a medium-sized lantern fish, which in turn gets inhaled by a giant killer whale…but when it surfaces, the winning whale still emits a faint glow from its blowhole, and its backwash still smells of sardine. I poetically digress to say that people like Andy played a small part in bands that are thriving to this day, despite his own relatively short swim in the scene’s cold waters.

Anyway: as a contributing former music-scene insider, what was the self-effacing Bridgetown founder talking about being “bad at?” Cracking Portland’s inscrutable coolness codes, that’s what. Before our city’s new “young people retiring” rep started sucking every handsome handshaker into its ever-accelerating force field, this town was ACTUALLY an underdog-championing, weirdness-worshipping otherworld. First it was kinda punk, and then it was kinda rural-twee. And Andy—tall, traditionally good looking, and sporty—was none of the right things except talented and willing, which often left his good-faith musical efforts unfairly marginalized and mistrusted. I heard skinny indie dudes murmur “meathead” after they met him. I saw him dismay when musicians he loved didn’t even offer their t-shirts in “large.” He simply didn’t fit through the very narrow cookie cutter at the time.

From the late 90’s through the early-’00’s, fueled by Seattle grunge runoff and the antisocial anarchism of Chuck Palahniuk, Portland advocated, among other things, the ritual smashing of mainstream handsomeness. In fact, “I felt like destroying something beautiful” was practically Portland’s creative mantra. Punk-rockers like Kleveland and the Altar Boys were swaggering and roaring around town and Portland Organic Wrestling was literally kicking ass. Conventions of “sexy” were twisted, too, as recounted by cute young stripper/outspoken activist Vivalas Vegas, whose memoir “Magic Garden” lionizes bald, confrontational Grace Jones-ish burlesque artist Mona Superstar. Lounge singer Storm Large purposely smudged her natural sparkle with self-effacing swears, calling herself names like “cum-slurping gutter-slut.” In the era when hard copies of Barfly Magazine still littered (and lauded) every dive, their ads flashed the kind of natural nudity that would blind an LA casting director, accompanied by sneering punk-rock puke-til-you-croak stories. In the northwest at least, you simply weren’t allowed to serve conventional beauty or talent straight up; you had to dash them on the rocks.

Elliot Smith, a daisy breaking through the cracks of this cultural concrete, was a bridge from urban cynicism to introverted pensiveness farther afield. The space he left was filled by a wave of regional, nature-gazing “lo-fi” from Olympia’s K and Anacortes’s Knw-Yr-Own Records (while nationally, there were the brooding Bright Eyes and the soothing Iron & Wine). The smoke-free, hi-fi Doug Fir made Portland’s climate safer for soloists, and PDX Pop was also on the lookout for tentative young folk blood. By the mid-00’s, a pendulum had swung ever-so-softly from raging angst toward twee idealism, naivetee, and the impenetrable introversion of erstwhile nerds. Artists who allegedly sequestered themselves in the wilderness were suddenly prized over those who admitted to working (or worse, networking) in the real world. Isolationism was especially evident in label names like “HUSH” and “Secretly Canadian.”

Those who best channeled a twee Thoreau began to get mad love in Portland—but that love was rarely spoken aloud. It was whispered and journaled and Myspaced and mix-taped into instant legend. As one who’d grown up in Anacortes, I was surprised to hear my old classmates rewriting our childhood as an enlightened meditation retreat. (I’ll grant that we grew up in the woods, Guys, but I also remember you lip-syncing to En Vogue.)

While the trees were rustling about these shy new folk heroes, their revenue streams were quickly drying up, leaving them clinging hard to their magical mystique. Many musicians were so serious about keeping everyday worries at bay that they completely shut out regular conversations with normal-seeming people. Speaking plainly about work or pay or practical plans became the social equivalent of a fart. Suffice to say, it was hard to talk to these folks, let alone help them out with their elfin quest.

Despite his musical interests, Andy never committed to philosophical extremes. He went to Barfly parties and ranted about all that’s wrong with the world, but he never drank to the puking-point or turned any of his amps “to 11.” He also courted fragile folksters, but his straightforwardness frightened many of those types right back into their supposed snow-caves. By the time he sang on my record (circa ’07) Andy’s musical efforts had dwindled from broad scene support to private, almost ashamed solo tinkering. “I used to see these awesome musicians and imagine that they all got together for cool parties,” he once told me, “but now I don’t really believe that they do.”

Why am I telling you this? To bring down a comedy catalyst? Andy obviously gets invited to enough cool parties NOW, and anyway Portland music seems to have since become a cleaner machine with more meritocracy and fewer secret subcultural handshakes. So why even tell these tales out of school?

Well, I’m trying to find a context for how comedy got so huge in Portland, while indie-rock may have, at least for a moment, jumped its spirit-buffalo. As one well-meaning late-twentysomething floundered in a music scene that rejected his very viable help on really shallow grounds (Extroverts are evil! Jocks are dumb!), I think his skin thickened. His existential questions sharpened. Before his eyes, the twin curtains of punk angst and folk preciousness fell away—and he had to laugh. His whole quarterlife crisis had actually been a big joke.

This is where the story of Bridgetown begins (widely chronicled in the media, and oft-recounted over cocktails last weekend). Since Portland has about a five-year cultural memory at any given time and Bridgetown just turned five, the history scrolls have writ: Andy Wood emerged—maybe in a wetsuit, from a clamshell, on Cannon Beach—an obsessed fan of comedy. He started going to the Famous Mysterious Actor’s shows, then dabbled in hosting some great national acts at his house, where (of course) no one thought to scoff at his tidy haircut or friendly grin. He expanded his booking/facilitation efforts into clubs and started doing his own turns on the mic. He and Matt Braunger founded Bridgetown, and grew it rapidly into the 200-talent juggernaut it is today. At some point, he quietly moved to LA to expand his networking base, but maintained tight trade relations with Portland.

Though Andy’s the most productive and least bitter indie-rock deserter I know, he obviously wasn’t the only one on that path. Virginia Jones, another comedian and PDX-pat, also put down her guitar to pick up the mic. Rebecca Waits, a relatively new local comic, moonlights with rock band Reverend Mrs. but readily admits that the standup ball is rolling faster. In the past five years, Portland entertainment culture, erstwhile dominated by waves of hot new bands, has undergone a broader comedy-friendly climate shift—to wit, the advent of Curious and Brody, the arrival of Helium, increased interest in first Suki’s, then the Boiler Room, then Bagdad and Tonic showcases…and ever more. Whatever I’m forgetting.

Comedy offers a warm welcome to those who’ve felt indie-rock’s cold shoulder. And generally, it’s more accommodating to those who’ve made a few grownup compromises. With kids, jobs, or less-than-radical looks, rock fans may start to feel self-conscious at youthful, über-cool house shows and crazy festivals (with rare exception). Even those who MAKE music may eventually let other responsibilities encroach on jamming all night, van-camping all month, or updating their Soundclouds with fresh demos every day. Still eager to enjoy shows, they may see comedy as a safer place for regular people to drink and be merry.

Add to that crew the last couple years’ influx of “young retirees,” looking for accessible entertainment with blissful disregard for Portland’s more traditional tortured zeitgeists—and we have ourselves a huge comedy crowd, as evidenced by many capacity-packed Bridgetown shows with lines down the block.

Come to think of it, the cryptic duet I once sang with Andy Wood (yes, that one) was practically a premonition: “Do you think there’s a point to catching up with the others?” it asked. For Andy, the answer was no; he was ready to break away and lead.

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2 Responses.

  1. rachel taylor brown says:

    This made me smile. Great article, Anne.

  2. Collin Casey says:

    A fine piece, yes, but notably missing the crux of this (and, indeed, his life) story… Which is that of Portland’s premier two-man, Rhodes-based Christopher Cross tribute band, CrossRhodes. Our parents had Woodstock. I suppose the CrossRhodes phenomenon sort of apexed that.

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