Interview: Henry Abel of the PDXchange Program

Monday, May 24th, 2010, 6:38 pm by Ben Salmon

When is attending a concert more than just attending a concert? When attending said concert may lead to other concerts by bigger and better bands down the road. That’s the situation Bend finds itself in tomorrow night with Horse Feathers at the Tower Theatre.

Don’t get me wrong, seeing Horse Feathers is reason enough to buy tickets to this show. They’re a great band, and you should want to see them perform. But they’re also the first installment of the new PDXchange Program, a concert series that organizer Henry Abel hopes will bring Portland-based indie-rock bands to the Tower for a long time.

Whether he’ll get his wish remains to be seen. A lot will depend on the success of his first two shows: Horse Feathers on Tuesday night, and The Helio Sequence, who’ll play the Tower on June 3.

Really, though, the Horse Feathers show — and more specifically, how many people show up to the Horse Feathers show — matters. Abel told me recently that other Portland bands are watching this particular date to see how Bend responds to having a Portland band with relatively limited name recognition playing at the Tower. I cannot tell you who these bands are, but believe me: You are much more likely to have heard of them than Horse Feathers. People in New York and Florida and California and everywhere in between are much more likely to have heard of them than Horse Feathers.

Now, there’s no guarantee that these mysterious bands will sign on to play PDXchange if Tuesday’s show is a success, with most of the Tower’s seats filled. But doing so will look a heck of a lot more attractive if that’s the case.

So there you go. I can only do so much. Abel can only do so much. Whether those seats are filled is up to you.

Enough of my rant. Time for you to study up. Hear Horse Feathers here. Read my feature on the band here. And below, read an interview with Abel about the roots of PDXchange and his hopes for its future.

Frequency: Who are you? Where are you from originally? How long have you lived in Bend and what do you do for a living?

Henry Abel: My name is Henry Abel and I grew up in Ohio. I went to school for graphic communication in Eugene and after living in Hawaii and Boston briefly, I have been in Bend for seven years. My real job is at WebCyclery — the bike and ski shop near the Old Mill.

F: What is the PDXchange Program?

HA: A concert series that brings the top tier of Portland-based alternative and indie-rock bands to the Tower Theatre. Prior to each show we encourage and arrange collaborations between our local Bend musicians/bands and Portland bands in hopes that they will share the stage during each concert. And ultimately, if things go well, we hope to repeat these performances in Portland, giving our Bend musicians the chance to open for the same bands again at future shows in Portland. Ultimately it’s an exchange program between Bend and Portland for indie rockers and it starts at the Tower.

F: Is producing this kind of series a long-time goal of yours, or a recent idea? What sparked the idea?

HA: Like a lot of people my age (39) in Bend, I’ve longed for more diversity and excitement in the shows that come to the Tower. WebCyclery and I put on a film premiere at the Tower during Cross Nationals last December and we brought (Portland band) Talkdemonic, who was featured on the soundtrack of the film, to play a short set ahead of the movie. It was incredible. I sat in the audience, and for the first time at the Tower I could feel the energy and excitement of hearing my kind of music being played just for me at one of the nicer venues in town. We (WebCyclery) got so many comments about how amazing Talkdemonic was — and how cool it was to hear them play in the Tower — that I vowed to do something like it again.

I wanted to keep it at the Tower because it’s the only venue in town where people go solely to listen to music. The Tower has its own challenges, but there’s not a bad seat in the house, there’s excellent sound quality, it’s clean and totally pro. And there’s no bar in the back of the venue — and the commotion that comes with it — to distract from the music.

F: The concept, as of now, is pretty specifically defined. Why is it so important to you to bring Portland indie-rock bands over to Bend?

HA: First off, I like the idea of a series. And I felt that a good music series would need a theme to keep it consistent and earn the trust of the people coming to the shows. You may not have heard of all of the upcoming bands but you know what they have in common. And you trust that they’ll be good. The real reason is that the logistics for getting a very popular band to come from Portland to Bend at their convenience is so much easier than trying to tap into a tour of a band that’s traveling around the U.S. and being courted by bigger markets. Booking is the hardest part, and this makes it so much easier. The really good Portland bands all know each other to some degree. I do my part to make it a killer show and make it an event and a venue that they love to play — and then they go home and tell their friends to come play at PDXchange Program. It makes my job easier, and the pool of incredible music coming out of Portland is bottomless.

F: You’ve expressed a commitment to incorporating local artists into these shows, either as openers or, when possible, as collaborators with the headliner. Why is that important to you?

HA: There’s a couple of reasons for that. My girlfriend is in a local band, and through that I see that the Tower is not a venue that a lot of our local bands get to play. I see some amazing music in this town at a bar or restaurant where only some of the people can hear or are really paying attention. For a musician that can be a real drag. I realized that as long as I’m going to pay to rent the Tower I want to let as many local musicians take advantage of it as possible. I can’t pay much to my local openers, but I’m asking my Portland bands to give them some amazing opportunities. And the resulting collaboration just adds an element of surprise and excitement to it for everybody involved. Everybody benefits, especially the audience.

F: Is there a part of you that wants to help expand the kind of music we expect to see at the Tower? Or has that not entered your mind?

HA: Yes, I do and it has. My mantra in working on all of this has been to “Take Back The Tower.” I want to give our local alternative bands more opportunities to play there. I know that Les Schwab Amphitheater has more country acts because even the biggest alternative bands can’t fill the amphitheater. So let’s bring them to the Tower instead. I’ve set a goal to only charge $15 for PDXchange concerts so that the Tower is affordable to everybody. I want the shows to be all ages (minors are seated in the balcony) and I want to change the way we think about concerts at the Tower.

On June 3, The Helio Sequence is going to play the second PDXchange concert. At that show I’m going to remove the first three rows of seats and expose the orchestra pit. I’ve had steps built just for this show that will step down into the orchestra pit from each aisle so that people have the option of going down front to stand or dance right at the stage, but they’ll be low enough so as to not block the views of people who prefer to sit in the seats on the ground floor. It’s never been done at the Tower before, and I’m grateful that the Tower is letting us try something different.

F: Beyond the June 3 show, what does the future hold for PDXchange? Or what do you hope it holds?

HA: We are doing something completely different and doing our best to keep it at the Tower. I’m very aware that it’s a big gamble. I would never pretend to know what people in Bend want. But I know what I want — and I know what a lot of my friends want — and I think it looks something like this. There’s a big void between the good shows at McMenamins, Silver Moon and Midtown and the giant shows at Les Schwab Amphitheater. I am not competing with those venues. I predict that the PDXchange Program is going to appeal to a new segment of music fans in Bend who, just like me, love going to the Crystal Ballroom or the Aladdin in Portland and wish we had venues and bands like that here in Bend. I’d be flattered if PDXchange spoke to an untapped crowd of dormant music fans among us who up until now might not be listening to much live music in Bend.

What kind of music will come? Well, I’ll run down some of my favorite Portland bands … Weinland, The Thermals, Blitzen Trapper, Horse Feathers, Loch Lomond, Death Cab, Portland Cello Project, The Helio Sequence, Viva Voce, Spoon, Menomana, Blind Pilot, Laura Veirs …

F: Finally, why should people go see Horse Feathers on Tuesday?

HA: Two reasons. First, Horse Feathers is a breathtaking indie-folk-alt band that has a unique sound and one of the most arresting live performances I’ve ever seen. They were recently signed to Kill Rock Stars and are touring the U.S. right now in support of their new album, “Thistled Spring.” They are playing in San Francisco the night before coming to Bend and this will be the last show on this leg of the tour before getting back home to Portland. We are so lucky to have them making the detour to Bend. Actually, it’s not luck. We’re busted our asses to get them to come to Bend!

Second reason: If you’re a fan of Horse Feathers then obviously you’ll be there. If you’ve never heard of Horse Feathers but like this concept of the PDXchange Program then show up and make a big difference in the programming that we get in the future at the Tower. If Bend shows me that I can fill the Tower with this concept then I vow to do it again and again. I have four more incredible shows on deck for the coming months, but those bands and I are all waiting to see what the response is on Tuesday. If Bend packs the Tower Tuesday then I’ll be announcing additional dates and shows that night.

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