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Legendary Portland Rock Venue Geno’s Saved from Pit of Oblivion

by | Aug 1, 2020

photo/Chris Busby

Geno’s, the legendary rock club in downtown Portland, has been sold to a Maine native who’s vowing to keep its grungy punk spirit alive. Kat Taylor is taking the reins from J.R. D’Alessandro, son of the club’s namesake founder. Taylor said she plans to expand and diversify the types of entertainment on offer, but the Congress Street venue’s name will remain the same.

Pending license approval by the City Council later this month, Geno’s may be open for socially distanced bar service this fall, with live entertainment to follow, as pandemic-related public-health conditions allow.  

Carl Currie, head bartender at Blackstones, the historic neighborhood gay bar a couple blocks west, will be working with Taylor to book and promote shows. “Communities build venues, and we will be working hard to provide that space,” Taylor and Currie said in a statement.

In addition to the garage rock, punk and metal the club is famous for, the couple told Mainer they plan to host drag and burlesque shows, as well as non-traditional theater productions like those presented by the annual PortFringe festival, which has staged shows at Geno’s in the past. They set up a Facebook page for the venue (“Geno’s Portland”) and are encouraging community members to connect with them there to suggest events and help shape the bar’s future.      

Established in a subterranean space beneath Brown Street in 1983, Geno’s was briefly a restaurant intended to cater to the downtown shopping crowd. But retail foot traffic was already being drawn away from the city — Porteous, the giant department store nearby, moved to the Maine Mall that same year. So Geno, who’d run numerous eating and drinking establishments of various kinds before this venture, said, “Fuck it,” and let the punks play there at night.

Geno D’Alessandro Sr. in 2005. photo/The Fuge

Thirty-seven years later, bands were still stomping the stage — until the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered all music venues in Maine last March. A condo development had forced Geno’s to relocate to Congress Street in 2005, into a former porn theater that’d become an indie music and theater space. Geno died the following year, and J.R. (who could not be reached for comment Friday) took over, maintaining the club’s storied reputation as the go-to venue in Maine for real rock ’n’ roll.   

The imminent resurrection of Geno’s is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy time for Portland’s live-music scene. Port City Music Hall, a large venue down the street, announced in late July that it will never reopen, primarily due to the financial catastrophe caused by the pandemic. Ken Bell, owner of Portland House of Music and Events, put that downtown concert destination on the market last month. Big Babe’s Tavern, a promising live-music spot that opened last year across the bridge in South Portland, is also for sale.

The non-profit performing arts center One Longfellow Square, also in Portland’s downtown Arts District, announced earlier this summer that it would go under unless it could raise at least $100,000 in private donations. OLS exceeded its goal, but there’s still no estimate of when indoor venues will be able to open their doors, and no additional financial help coming from the federal and state governments responsible for the crisis that forced them to close.

Taylor and Currie are undeterred by the uncertainty businesses like Geno’s are facing. Both have extensive experience in the hospitality industry and a deep appreciation for Maine’s underground arts culture.

photo/Chris Busby

Taylor grew up on a cattle farm in Limerick, Maine, and split for San Francisco right after high school. She later moved to Philadelphia and immersed herself in that city’s punk scene — bars like Sugar Mom’s and Tattooed Mom. “That’s where I feel most comfortable,” she said, “and I want that to be supported.” She later studied fashion design, but left that field to work as a bartender in Brooklyn, eventually becoming part-owner of two vegan eateries there.

Currie has been active in Portland’s music and nightlife culture for decades. (He previously worked at Ruski’s, the beloved West End neighborhood tavern, and wrote a column about Portland bars for Mainer’s predecessor publication, The Bollard.) A play Currie wrote about artist Joe Coleman was performed at Geno’s a few years ago, with Coleman in attendance, and Currie was instrumental in bringing Blackstones’ annual drag competition to the much larger stage at Port City Music Hall this past winter.  

“We will not be moving away from the long tradition of Punk Rock that Geno’s upholds,” the couple wrote in their statement. “National acts, local music and alternative performances will continue to grace the stage. We will also be actively creating new, engaging community events, and invite anyone who would like to utilize our space in the future to contact us.”      

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