When longtime Portland act Dirty Martini plays the Riverbend Live! series this weekend in Winston, listeners could be hearing the giddy momentum of a quasi-reunion.
The Portland indie darlings were their busiest from 2002 to 2007, when Dirty Martini regularly toured the West Coast. But since band member McKinley, aka Christine McKinley, moved to Los Angeles several years ago, the group has played only infrequent and often surprise shows.
It’s been hard for the band’s loyal fans to make it to their shows, said Lara Michell, one of the group’s three vocalist-guitarists.
“We never broke up,” Michell said. “Never intentionally, anyway.”
With McKinley now back in Portland, the trio, which is rounded out by Stephanie Schneiderman, says it’s at full strength. The three have renewed their focus on songwriting, have produced nearly an album’s worth of new material and are looking to expand their fan base beyond the Northwest.
They’ll play Winston’s Riverbend Live! summer concert series starting at 7 p.m. Friday at Riverbend Park.
In her time away, Stephanie Schneiderman has released three solo albums, with her recent work done in a vein of trip-hop and house music.
“I think having the time to focus on each of our own projects has deepened our own individual sounds over the last couple of years,” Schneiderman said.
McKinley, a mechanical engineer by training, has written a musical and a book and hosted the Discovery Channel show “Decoded.” She said that during their hiatus, the three became better guitarists and songwriters. Since being involved with other projects, they’ve gotten better at collaborating, too.
In fact, McKinley said she’s found they’ve gotten better at most aspects of being a band.
“We can each think of three ways to play a chorus, and suddenly we have nine great options. It makes us almost giddy when we’re writing,” she said. “Of course, the cocktails help as well. That part hasn’t changed.”
It won’t be Michell’s first performance in Douglas County, not by a long shot. The Roseburg High School grad played the Half Shell last year with her swing vocal group Stolen Sweets, and Dirty Martini played Roseburg 10 years ago at the Umpqua Valley Arts Center, among multiple other performances.
Michell’s pathway to music wasn’t a direct one. She started playing piano at 7 years old and took up guitar in college. After RHS, the onetime Junior Miss attended Willamette University, followed by a Peace Corps term in Gambia from 1993-94.
She went to Lewis and Clark for law school, something she always figured she’d do. It was during law school she started playing with popular Portland female group Carmina Piranha. After passing the bar, she handled tax and general civil cases for five years, but the music bug never left her alone.
Dirty Martini came together in the late 1990s, when “songwriter-in-the-round” formats were popular with Portland venues. When one randomly matched Schneiderman, Michell and McKinley, they took the initiative and prepared for it, working out a set list and some harmonies to go with each of their songs.
It was a Valentine’s Day show and all three were single and dateless. But they liked the way their voices sounded together. In addition, the crowd responded and the bar asked them back.
The group’s name comes from the cocktails they (over)consumed that night, Michell said. Remarking on the night’s lucrative take, the bar owner told the trio the bar would have to have another “dirty martini songwriter night,” and the name was born.
These days, Michell gives piano and guitar lessons in the Portland area, up to 40 a week. She, Schneiderman and McKinley are now in their early 40s.
The group is planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to record and promote its new album. The three are looking for licensing opportunities for their new songs and plan to play bigger shows in this region and beyond.
The trio will be joined onstage by their longtime drummer, Ned Failing, and Allen Hunter, who will play his electric and acoustic upright basses, though not simultaneously.
“It’s been really fun to write together this time around and allow the album to slowly reveal itself,” Schneiderman said. “We’ve taken it slowly and let the whole process be organic.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.