2019 saw Garth Brooks sell out Autzen Stadium and the Oregon Country Fair celebrate its 50th birthday with a music lineup appropriate for the occasion, including Phil Lesh, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Dandy Warhols. Other positive 2019 developments include the rise of a few new venues (Spectrum and WildCraft Cider Works) and the rebranding and reopening of Sessions Music Hall, formerly Hi-Fi Music Hall.
This year also marked the return of live music at Wandering Goat, if only on occasion, and we lost a beloved record store this year, Skip’s Records and CD World. I categorically reject the idea there will be any such outpouring of emotion when and if Spotify should ever go away.
The standby venues in Eugene stayed relatively strong in 2019, and countless individuals worked tirelessly to throw shows in basements, backyards or whatever space they could find to host them. Stahman Guitars, a new guitar shop in downtown Springfield, even hosts live music from time to time, and 2019 saw the arrival of a few Eugene-based live music webcasts.
Some of the best shows I saw in Eugene this past year include Caroline Rose, Starcrawler and Summer Cannibals at Sessions as well as Charly Bliss at WOW Hall. In addition, The Mountain Goats returned triumphantly to the McDonald, and BIG|BRAVE transformed Old Nick’s.
Another bright spot on the horizon is the signing of Eugene electro-swing musicians High Step Society to a big-name booking and artist management agency, as well as the growth of a solid classic country scene. For a night of fun covers, Candy Apple Bleu and Sara B3 continue to impress. There are year-in-and-year out great bands in Eugene, and 2019 was no different.
What concerns me most about the future of live music in Eugene is an uptick in competition from around the region.
Bend continues to nip at our heels as Oregon’s other live music destination, a distinction long held by Eugene second only to Portland. Salem is making noise at The Elsinore Theatre, and even flexed hard last summer, landing Avett Brothers at the L.B. Day. The Rogue Valley area continues to grow, and even our friends to the north in Corvallis are making some moves, booking touring acts at their Majestic and Whiteside Theatres.
This is all as Eugene’s Cuthbert Amphitheatre went underutilized last summer (at the time of this writing, one of the two shows announced for next summer include the return of Rebelution, so next year may yield more of the same). A source close to the Cuthbert tells me the venue needs to be expanded to stay relevant in the regional market. I dream of a hotel and tourism complex. Who has the will to make that happen?
In addition, The Shedd and Matthew Knight Arena are lazy susans of rapidly tiring boomer and gen X acts — no disrespect to Bryan Adams, who appeared this year at MKA or Richard Thompson, Del McCoury and Rodney Crowell, all of whom played The Shedd in the past year. But based on some of the other Shedd programming, boomer might be calling it a bit young. Even the Whiteaker Block Party feels like it’s time to take next steps.
Meanwhile, The McDonald has become EDMcDonald, booking for the most part electronic music and DJs. I get it, EDM sells tickets and brings out that ever fickle college market, and I will give some credit to Hult Presents, though in 2019 they scored more wins with comedy than live music, whereas in 2018 we saw artists such as David Byrne and more.
A little competition is a good thing. I just wish I had more confidence in how Eugene will handle it going forward. I don’t live in Bend for a reason, but Bend is a town that knows on which side its bread is buttered, and attracting live music is clearly part of that vision.
Eugene has a vision of itself as a growing city with a vibrant music scene.
Where does live music fit in that vision? Heading into 2020, that remains to be seen.