PORTLAND, Maine — Any given night, there are ample opportunities to hear live music in the city, whether it’s a major touring artist, quadruple bill of local bands, a metal band or singer-songwriter. Show up at the venue, give them your ticket or cover, order a drink, perhaps, and listen.
In the midst of all that musical and social diversity, however, there’s only one Portland venue that offers the mix of genre-spanning artists, laid-back intimacy and community engagement — One Longfellow Square, a nonprofit 200-seat venue located at the intersection of State and Congress streets.
It’s proudly called a listening room by fans and patrons — a place where the focus is solely on the music.
“Where else in town are you going to see a folk legend like Tom Chapin one night, and then the next night a local indie rock band?” said Joe Walsh, a bluegrass mandolin player and regular performer at OLS, who also sits on its board. “In a venue that’s that cozy, too? It’s a unique musical experience that’s not duplicated anywhere else around here.”
Through the switch to a nonprofit organization in early 2012, OLS has brought a renewed vitality for its community engagement activities, like open mics for teenage songwriters, performing arts workshops and free technical training for at-risk youths.
But it’s also put a squeeze on its finances.
On Sept. 27, OLS launched an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign, with the goal of raising $40,000 through the online crowdfunding platform to keep the organization and venue up and running into 2014. As of Monday morning, nearly one-third of that amount had been raised. The money raised from the campaign will create a “seed fund” so that the venue is not constantly using all its money to keep the lights on, with little left over.
“Ticket sales and concessions alone do not pay the rent,” said Joyce Schmitt, a board member who spearheaded the campaign. “We have sold-out nights, and then we have some lower attendance nights, but part of our core mission is to support those up and coming artists, so that eventually they have sold-out nights, too. Nevertheless, it is a challenge.”
Among the venue’s regular patrons, the love for the music and community that surrounds it is palpable. Schmitt, who describes herself as a “total live music junkie,” moved to Portland five years ago and immediately sought out OLS. It has a similar vibe to Club Passim, the nonprofit Boston venue she’d frequented for many years prior.
“What I love about a place like One Longfellow is that it doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone feels comfortable,” said Schmitt. “I feel as comfortable going to a place like this now that I’m 48, as when I first started going when I was in my early 20s. It’s not for older people or young people. It’s for anyone.”
What makes OLS special is the vital place it holds in Maine’s musical community. It’s one of only a handful of all-ages venues in the state, and it’s strategically located in the middle of the creative and culinary heart of Portland.
It’s also one of the only fully-equipped rooms that just about any kind of band can play at. It’s played host to folk and bluegrass but also bands like the cajun legends Beausoleil, the North African band Tinariwen, Maine hip-hop star Spose, electric blues guitarist Alexis P. Suiter, and Portland indie rock-electronica artist Dominic Lavoie.
“If you’re in a local band, you probably won’t ever get the chance to play the State Theatre,” said Tom Rota, booking manager for the venue. “But if you’ve got a CD and you’re working hard, you can play One Longfellow, and it’s a step up. It’s not like playing in a bar, even though we have a bar. We’ve also got a full stage and a nice PA and proper sound. People aren’t there to make the scene or just talk over the music. They’re there to enjoy it. It can feel like a luxury.”
Lake Street Dive, a Boston-based band, had only 20 people at its first show at OLS two years ago. This year, their most recent show was sold-out.
“It’s very rewarding, to watch a band grow and attain some level of success,” said Rota. “I always tell people to just look at our calendar and just pick something to go to. You never know what you might discover.”
In a town that sees near-constant openings and closings of lots of different businesses, OLS holds a precarious place among the multitude of nightlife opportunities. A nonprofit performance venue surrounded by trendy restaurants and bars isn’t exactly swimming in money — it depends on the community to support it, rather than tourist dollars.
John Nels Blanchette, a Portland musician and member of the indie rock ensemble Forget, Forget, has been onstage as well as in the audience at OLS many times. He can attest to its importance for the creative community in southern Maine.
“The appeal is in the accessibility of many different forms of live entertainment. It’s within these doors that I’ve seen ridiculously great talent that I wouldn’t have noticed anywhere else,” said Blanchette. “It’s important to remember that this place breeds community and collective art. It’s important for southern Maine to remember this, and it’s important for others to support this effort.”
“If a room like this closes in a community, be it a huge city or a small city, the effect is felt,” Schmitt said. “I think a lot of us are waiting to see if this community will come out to support it.”