How The Kenton Club Is Reviving Portland’s Soul

Portland’s urban landscape has seen a dramatic facelift over the past few years. Williams St. looks more like Silver Lake, CA, than the gravely charming shadow it used to be. Club 21 and other local dives have moved or been built over with overpriced one-bedroom studios, some units remaining unoccupied long after development ceases. But what good is a space without a soul?

This observation isn’t purely held by a few overzealous “Old Portland” xenophobes. Many have felt an incipient vacuum growing, in what was once Portland’s soul and funk dance scene.

Going out should serve a multilateral purpose, in which vicarious hedonism and safe spaces are facilitated and provided by the community, and reinforced by an approachably spicy medium. Recently, the Kenton Club has stepped up with its Club Nitty Gritty night, lead by small local talent, DJ ActionSlacks, also known as Shannon Wiberg.

Wiberg began spinning in 1995 at the KAOS community radio station in Olympia, WA, where the station hosted a “Soul Kitchen” night for nine years. Since 2005, Wiberg has graced Portland audiences, performing the night the Velveteria opened, and later hosting her first DJ party at the Sloan in 2006.

At the first Saturday of every month, DJ ActionSlacks and friends curate a special place, deep in the obscurely safe hovel that is North Portland. I caught up with DJ ActionSlacks and asked her perspective on what she thinks about Portland’s rapidly changing urban and cultural atmosphere, and how her love of soul music is pacifying the process.

Porter: What kind of atmosphere does early soul music offer that other forms don’t?

Wiberg: If you’re asking what do I think that Motown/early soul uniquely provides to a dance party, my response is this: Obviously rhythm that is specifically designed for dancing. More deeply though, I would say vintage soul music has a way of reaching directly into people’s hearts to reach listeners on a visceral level. If I were to venture an extremely simplified explanation, I think soul music moves people on such a level because it grew out of African-American spiritual music. It is music with a purpose- to lift spirits and inspire by either celebrating joy, or therapeutically addressing pain and struggle. Either way, the listener is likely going to end up in a better state by the end of the song.

“[T]his music is uniquely qualified in bringing a group of strangers closer together.”

Additionally, this is communal music. There is a lot of call and response, which encourages participation by the listener. Because of this, this music is uniquely qualified in bringing a group of strangers closer together. When a group of people dance and sing along to a soul song, they are having a shared experience. Right there on the dance floor, through their action, they are building community and celebrating human connection.

Finally, vintage soul music was often music with a message. The societal struggles addressed in the music are still relevant today, maybe even more so at this time.

P: Do you think Portland needs to slow it down a bit?

W: Each time I throw one of my Sugar Town events I’m reminded of just how much heart is still left in Portland (at least in terms of the LGBTQA community). People are craving connection to their community and I’m thrilled to be able to provide an avenue for that.

I believe there are still a lot of people living here who still remember and love the “Old Portland” culture, arts, and music scene. What ARE disappearing are the venues in which to showcase local talent and creative expression that reflect the culture that was once prevalent here. It has been replaced by a homogenized, commodified Portland that has been packaged for tourists and potential transplants.

“Old Portland currently lives on in the shadows. We need to bring it back into the light.”

I don’t knock those folks who came here to join “the party”, but what once made Portland so special (its “heart”) has fewer and fewer places to pump out the cultural lifeblood of what used to be this town. Old Portland currently lives on in the shadows. We need to bring it back into the light.

I’m trying to contribute in my own way with Club Nitty Gritty, which is designed to preserve Old Portland’s grit not only for “Old Portlanders” but also for the new folks in town. I want them to have some kind of connection to what has traditionally happened here so that maybe it will live on in another form.

P: What are some of your favorite spots/venues to share your collection with people?

W: My favorite venues for events are always going to be the few remaining “Old Portland” dives or new venues that are community-oriented that also have a unique aesthetic.

P: Do you fancy any foreign Motown emulators?

W: Yes, I really dig Sister Cookie based in the UK, Gizelle Smith based out of London, Virginia Brown & the Shameless based in Italy.  To be honest though, my DJ career allows me little time to explore contemporary artists. I try to keep up with current music trends, but I spend most of my time digging for fresh vintage records to spin at my events and in my sets. I used to spend time actively listening to all kinds of music, but when I began producing events in Portland I made a decision to concentrate my focus solely on vintage recordings.