PORTLAND, Maine — On Thursday night, in a former jukebox repair shop on Hanover Street, musician David Yearwood slapped and knocked on his enormous wooden bass laying on its side atop a makeshift stage.
With the help of electronic sound-repeating technology, Yearwood layered the taps and rattles into a weird, looping beat. Then, he began stabbing his instrument’s thick strings with a horsehair bow, adding criss-crossing melodies to the trance-like soundscape.
Next, a young woman clad all in white and going by the name Ghostegirl bounded out of a backroom, grabbed a microphone and also took the stage. She began chanting along with Yearwood’s unorthodox bass sounds. Ghostegirl’s ecstatic phrases were largely unintelligible, but their effect was undeniable.
A small, supportive crowd stood watching, listening and swaying, transfixed in the semi-darkness.
The performance was part of a night of experimental sounds produced by local DJ and rapper Graphic Melee and hosted by the Apohadion Theater, an underground art and music venue in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.
The theater is one of a handful of DIY music venues still thriving in a rapidly gentrifying city, presenting non-mainstream acts whose self-expression and eccentricities are celebrated over mass, commercial appeal. Presenters at these artsy rooms say they have no trouble finding innovative acts to play but have doubts about the future.
With Portland rents skyrocketing and cheap commercial space now non-existent, how long will it be before the stages and the artists who make them crackle with excitement get priced out of Portland?
Patrick Corrigan, owner of the Apohadion, is glad he opened his venue years ago, when old workshop buildings were still available and inexpensive. Corrigan couldn’t imagine finding a space to operate in these days.
“We got started a long time ago and put down roots before all the microbreweries moved into the neighborhood,” he said. “We were lucky.”
The Apohadion, housed in a low-slung, cinder block building, sandwiched between an electrical supply dealer and a recording studio, began as a true underground performance space in 2009, not open to the general public. It went legit, getting all the proper permits, in 2017.
Clockwise, from left: Old show bills decorate the wall inside the Apohadion Theater in Portland in Portland on Thursday, March 23, 2023; Patrick Corrigan hangs a hand-painted show bill outside the Apohadion Theater on Hanover Street in Portland on Thursday; Dave Chaplain (far left) Erin Bott (center) and John Bott of the punk band Jug perform at Geno’s Rock Club in Portland on Saturday night. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
However, it still retains its secretive vibe.
There’s no sign outside. Corrigan hand paints show bills on scrap paper each night, either taping them to the glass door or on the wall outside. Admission is strictly cash at the door, often with a sliding scale based on what patrons can pay.
“It looks largely the same as it did in the old days,” Corrigan said. “Our sound system is better now, but it feels about the same.”
In general, a venue is considered to be DIY when artists put on package shows consisting of several bands and only get paid from ticket sales. The bands play their own original music only.
Like other DIY venues in the city, which include Sun Tiki Studios and Geno’s Rock Club, the Apohadion usually hosts three or four acts a night. Artists get paid from the $10 to $20 cover charge after the house takes a small cut for sound and sometimes to pay a doorman. The venue keeps profits from the bar and bands keep profits from the sale of CDs, tapes, stickers and other merchandise.
Nobody is getting rich, but money is not the main draw. It’s the music, the art.
Corrigan said there are still plenty of uncanny musicians who want to put on a show in his out-of-the-way theater.
“A lot of emails come in every week,” he said.
It’s a similar story at Geno’s, where owner Kat Taylor books the shows.
“There are so many bands — and I don’t necessarily get the time to answer everybody,” Taylor said. “I’m one person doing so many jobs.”.
On Saturday night, she collected empty beer cans and plastic cups around her club, which Taylor bought in 2020. Housed in a former porn theater on Congress Street since just after the turn of the century, it first opened in a Brown Street basement in 1983.
Saturday night, four ear-splitting punk rock bands thundered on stage. A decent sized crowd had paid $10 a head to get in but, split between the house and 13 different musicians, most of the artists would be lucky to clear enough for gas money.
Taylor said she could probably make a better living by opening up a fancy Portland restaurant but that wasn’t her style. She’s still in love with dive bars, like her own.
“I want all the working-class weirdos and the punks and the creatives and artists in here,” she said.
While business at Geno’s is steady now, Taylor said she worries about her clientele, artists and bartenders getting pushed out of town by unaffordable rents.
“That’s the scariest part — people getting priced out of their apartments to the point where regular people don’t live here anymore,” she said. “I feel like that’s all my friends ever talk about. Last year I had 12 friends get kicked out of their apartments for Airbnbs.”
Artists who play Portland’s DIY venues are also worried. Some take on several roommates to make the rent, some couch surf. Others live far out of town, where digs are cheaper.
On Saturday at Geno’s, longtime punk rocker Bobby T raged and hollered out in front of his band, Septic Approval. T said he was grateful to be in Portland with its thriving DIY scene. Where he grew up, in Oklahoma, there was no punk rock at all.
But it’s also a challenge for him to remain here financially. T said he sometimes has as many as five roommates just to bring the monthly costs down.
“It’s [obscenity] expensive,” he said. “I’m the kind of person, on paper, that shouldn’t have a problem paying for a place. I have a master’s degree. I’m a [obscenity] social worker.”
Yearwood, the Apohadion soundscape bassist, said he performs somewhere nearly every night in various bands. He has to stay busy to make enough money for his Portland rent. He lived in New York City for more than a decade before coming to town 17 years ago and thinks Portland’s music scene is more vibrant and satisfying than in the Big Apple, he said.
“I played seven nights this past week, and none of the gigs were artistically compromised,” Yearwood said. “I didn’t play any covers. We exist here, in a land free from playing [other people’s] music. It feels quite spiritual.”
David Dumais plays in the metal band Twin Grizzly but performs solo as Diriglow. He opened the show at the Apohadion the night Yearwood performed, making swirling synth sounds while also employing pre-recorded tracks, including a short spoken-word piece by his toddler.
“This is a way for me to explore, sonically, ambient textures, glitchy noise and hip-hop — all with a little improvisation,” Dumais said.
Dumais lives in Lewiston, where the rents are cheaper, but commutes to Portland for both his day job and nighttime performances.
“I come here to work and play,” he said. “Up there? There’s nothing like this. Just cover bands. Places like this are the foundation of what Portland is all about — the arts. Without that, it’s just another city.”
Ashton May, another musician who often plays the Apohadion under the name Trashton and the Bandits, was in the audience the night Dumais and Yearwood played. He is currently homeless, surfing a network of friend’s couches.
“My apartment applications are being denied left and right and the rents go up every year,” May said.
Still, Portland is home and he plans to stay and make music, somehow, he said.
“I’m frustrated, but I’m enduring,” May said. “I don’t want to leave this place behind.”