A photographic account of heavy music in Portland, Maine
If everyday life in Portland has a sideshow, it’s probably Guitar Grave.
While the outside world clamors to heap accolades on our city — putting us on top 10 lists for beer, brunch, best looking or just “best ever” — the flyer-plastered storefront at 441 Congress St. offers a gateway into another Portland; a place where rock stars and rock-smokers converge; a pawn shop that sells new instruments and used everything else.
Tonight, Guitar Grave celebrates its 10th anniversary with a party at Geno’s. The event features door prizes (like “Tales from the Grave” DVDs for the first 50 people), regular-ass prizes and surprises. It also features Hessian, Pigboat and Johnny Cremains — three bands helmed by Guitar Grave employees Angus McFarland, Mark Belanger and Sean Libby, respectively.
Despite being staffed entirely by musicians of prominent Portland bands, the situation at Guitar Grave is harmonious, according to McFarland, Belanger and Libby. There are no egos. There is no sense of competition or one-upmanship.
Belanger was originally hired as a temp in 2009 to help clean guitars after an upstairs neighbor let his bathtub overflow overnight, dripping water through the ceiling and all over the merchandise. He’s been at the Grave ever since.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s the best job I ever will have,” he said. “I’m working in a cool place with friends. It’s the only job I’ve ever had where I actually want to associate with my coworkers on a personal level.”
(Incidentally, tonight functions as a de facto bachelor party of Belanger. He’s getting hitched tomorrow.)
McFarland started working at the Grave in mid-2013. He chose the job “just to be around instruments.”
“The more you’re in contact with music and musicians, the better,” he said. “That’s kind of what I’m trying to do with my life is eliminate everything that isn’t involved with music.”
Sean Libby, who kicks off tonight’s show with the theremin-based rock of Johnny Cremains, said it’s not a job requirement to be in a noteworthy band, but it helps to be a musician and a skeptic.
“The requirement is to use your head,” he said. “About half the people who walk through here are trying to rip you off or sell you something that’s been ripped off. You have to have sniper eyes for that kind of stuff. It’s a mix of street smarts and gear smarts.”
Above all, it’s a lively experience.
“Every day is different here,” Libby said. “You get some of the craziest people. You get some of the coolest people. We get rock stars. We get crack stars.”
Over the years, the music store has seen the likes of many touring musicians, including Johnny Winter, Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor.
One of Libby’s most memorable experiences happened in 2006, during his second week on the job. A tall dominatrix walked into the store with a gimp-like associate who carried a trunk full of used dildos, harnesses and whips that they hoped to sell. Libby told the woman the store couldn’t purchase used sex toys.
“They’re gently used.”