Q’s With Sweetwater Music Hall Talent Buyer Chris Porter – From Curating Festivals To Celebrating Kerouac

Chris Porter

HARDLY STRICTLY A TALENT BUYER: Chris Porter receives floral thanks from the late Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman’s family.

Chris Porter, the newly named talent buyer for the Bay Area’s legendary Sweetwater Music Hall, is sort of an anomaly. He is based in Seattle, yet most of his business is elsewhere – largely in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New England. 

He’s independent to the core and has a deep love for creativity and community and, after spending 18 years booking Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival, is taking on booking a historic and much-loved institution preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary. 

He took over booking San Francisco’s beloved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2018. There’s a certain synergy between the two; one that Porter is well-suited to strengthen. 

In addition to continuing booking Seattle’s South Lake Union Block Party, Porter is also a driving force behind the Jack Kerouac-inspired Town And The City festival in Lowell, Mass. 

He is president of the Jack Kerouac Foundation, which is a nonprofit tasked with converting the town’s former St. Jean Baptiste Church – where Kerouac was an altar boy as a child and where his funeral took place – into a museum and performance venue. 

In booking the 300-capacity Sweetwater Music Hall, Porter furthers a legacy that started in a saloon that was a favored hangout for not only Mill Valley and Marin County residents, but for musicians living in the area; no less than the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir is an investor who’s helped keep the spirit of Sweetwater alive over five decades. 

Pollstar: You’re a busy guy, programming several festivals and now venues across the country from a base in Seattle after cutting your teeth in Boston.  

Chris Porter: I have a lot of different things on my plate. In fact, I have my plate in different parts of the country, too, which is interesting.
I’m still a Seattle resident, but less than 10% percent of my businesses here. It’s kind of weird, but that’s the way it works. 

You haven’t booked club venues in some time. Is taking the talent buying position at Sweetwater a sort of return to your roots for you? 

From 1990 to ’97, I was booking different rooms in Boston. One place called Bunratty’s – I did that for three years. And then the Middle East club, and then a place called Mama Kin music hall. In 1997, I had an offer to book and do the music programming for the Bumbershoot festival, and I came out to Seattle then. I thought I’d try it out for a couple of years, and 18 years later I was still doing it. I did the programming and eventually became the festival’s program director. 
Tell us about your work with the Kerouac Foundation.

I grew up in Lowell and this year is Jack Kerouac’s centennial. I was very inspired by what’s happening in a lot of smaller cities, like the Shreveport Music Fest, Big Ears in Knoxville and even Iceland Airwaves in Reykjavik. These are good, eclectic festivals. I thought something like that could happen in Lowell. It’s near a major metropolis in Boston. You have trains and highways that go near it. There’s a large university there, UMass Lowell. It’s a very walkable, historic city. 
Town And The City Festival is named after Jack and his very first book, which was largely about Lowell. It’s not meant to be a Kerouac-themed festival per se, but it’s really meant as a nod to the spirit of Kerouac as far as discovery, exploration and love of life, things that he wrote about. And it’s also meant to be a celebration of Lowell and also the regional music and arts community. It will have some touring musicians like Robyn Hitchcock and Tanya Donnelly performing this year, but the bulk of it is local and regional artists. 
What convinced you to take the job at Sweetwater?

I got a call in November from my longtime friend Maria Hoppe, who I hadn’t talked to in a while. We were former colleagues at ONE Reel and Bumbershoot and stayed in touch over the years. She reached out to me after she became GM of Sweetwater in June and wanted to make a change. I thought she was just calling me up about some advice or something. And she said, “I want you to do it.” I have all these things on my plate, but  I had this opportunity fall in my lap and I thought about it. There’s a rich history there. 
Were you aware of Sweetwater’s legacy? 

I knew about it, but I didn’t realize fully the whole history of it and what the venue means for the Mill Valley area, both to the community and to the music community. I went down to visit in early December and met with Maria and a couple of the board members and staff. I was really impressed. I was like, my god, this seems like such a great fit and something that could have such good synergy between Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and having a venue that’s part of the family there. Not to mention it’s just a wonderful business and creative opportunity, because I really look at what I do as an art, putting together shows and festivals. 
What do you mean when you say it’s an art?

Sometimes a venue can be just about filling your calendar and worrying how the bar did. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m really attracted to venues where I see a lot of eclecticism and open-mindedness to trying new things, and Sweetwater certainly fits that bill. After meeting and seeing the place and meeting people, I thought “I can’t pass this up.” 
It’s been a challenging couple of years for everyone, most of all independent venues and events. How does 2022 look?

With Hardly Strictly Bluegrass [which takes place the first weekend of October], I’m just in the early stages of working on the programming now. We’re going to move forward in hopes that we can present at least the same level of what we did in 2019. 
With Sweetwater, and I think this is true for all the venues, we’re all just doing the best we can. At least we can be open. We might not be as full as we would be in a non-pandemic time, but we’re able to at least move forward. I hear anecdotes of 15% to 30% no-shows with people who bought tickets. It’s inconsistent, though it sort of depends on the demographic that shows draw. Some shows have been totally full. 
Can you give an example of what you mean about demographics?

We’ve got a Los Lobos show coming up at Sweetwater. Obviously, that’s a big underplay for them, but that sold out practically in a day. And that’s a little bit of an older crowd. It’s amazing how different every city and state can be as to what their comfort zone is with masks and showing vax cards. But it feels like we’re going in the right direction. 
Toward something approaching normal?

I’m just hoping, at least by the spring, we can have that level of normalcy that we had last June and July. We’re hoping that we can really be back to normalcy by the summer and beyond. That remains to be seen. I think we’re all moving forward very cautiously. However, we also had in the last two years a lot of practice postponing and canceling things. I don’t think it’s a shocking thing to do anymore. Granted, it’s awkward. But we’re going to do the best we can and it may not be so awkward in a few months.