Better with age 

Full Grown Men still bring it after all these years

When a guy reaches his 50s, he starts dealing with a laundry list of nagging problems. Middle-age spread. Erectile Dysfunction. Acid reflux. Prostate exams. Ear hair. While the five guys who comprise the Full Grown Men may be dealing with such indignities of age, they are still having a ball playing music together, rubberneckin’ their way through life.

These blues fanatics may have lost a step or two on the softball field, but the pace is perfect for their 2-year-old band, now that the pressure of success is not a factor. Phil Hamilton, the de facto leader of the band, admits they’re way past the time in their musical careers when they’re seeking a recording contract, or driving around the country in a decrepit Econoline, playing for enough money to buy food and gas.

They’re in it for the fun.

I recently was invited to witness one of their practice sessions, in the basement of Hamilton’s Missoula home. The sprawling space is completely dedicated to music, from the B.B King and Junior Wells posters on the wall to the riot of mic cords and speaker cables covering the floor like 50 miles of black spaghetti.

Also on the wall are several “Best of Missoula” awards earned by one of Hamilton’s earlier bands, the venerable Moonlighters. That group held court every Friday night at the Union Club for 10 years, launching hundreds of romances and thousands of drunken dance frenzies with their upbeat, honkin’ blues. Another Moonlighters alum, Pete Walther, plays guitar for the Men. Walther’s riffy lead style and almost horn-like comping add a large dose of that Moonlighters feel to the Full Grown Men sound.

Roger Moquin on drums, Bob Athearn on keyboards, and Rick Waldorf on bass round out the rest of the band. Moquin was recently pressed into service on Amy Martin’s and Tom Catmull’s latest CDs, and to play the skins in the studio with these two local heavy hitters is a pretty good testament to Moquin’s chops.

Waldorf is a former heavy hitter himself, having cut his teeth with the Live Wire Choir, one of the most popular bands ever to call Missoula home. But he’s learning more with the Men than he did with any other band, he says. “We’re still learning our craft. We didn’t stop learning just because we got together later in life.”

Allowing each other the room to grow musically is what makes the Full Grown Men so fun, he added. With nearly 200 years of playing experience between them, they’ve amassed a voluminous musical vocabulary, and their personalities mesh nicely.

“It’s not about getting the hottest players and all that,” Hamilton says. “It’s about getting along with the rest of the guys and having fun. The music comes on its own.”

Indeed, the communication among these five guys is largely unspoken during their practice session. A raised eyebrow here, a lift of the chin there, and everyone knows what’s expected. That tight interplay is apparent on their recent release, 12 By 5. The CD was originally meant to function as a calling card for club owners and booking agents—a snapshot of the band’s sound—and was never intended for wide distribution, nor is it meant to be a polished presentation of flawless musicianship. I happened to get a copy from Hamilton when I ran into him last month in the YMCA locker room. You can’t argue very long with a naked man, and he forked over the disc soon enough.

The live feel of the session impressed me, and they just sound like they’re having a good time. This set of 11 covers and one original tune has the loosey-goosey feel of five guys playing together, as opposed to some sterile construction built of separate takes and overdubs.

As the opening notes of “Take You Back Home” come floating out of the speakers, anyone who’s lived in Missoula for more than five years will immediately recognize Walther’s guitar as it provides a solid sonic bridge between the Men and the Moonlighters. Hamilton, who drummed for the Moonlighters, plays harp and sax and shares the lead vocal chores. Waldorf brings his bouncy bass into the mix, as well as singing the only original, “Won’t Buy That,” which he penned with the band.

On “She’s a Good’n,” Athearn’s barrelhouse piano provides a tinkling counterpoint to Walther’s slinky chording. While the Men have developed a style of their own, it’s the piano and organ that really help establish the honky-tonk blues feel on 12 By 5.

Hamilton’s sax is given lots of opportunity to shine throughout the album, and it’s a welcome tonic in the absence of any standout lead vocal. The singing is mostly workmanlike, but lots of call-and-response backing vocals and shouts from the guys are just plain fun, especially on Elvin Bishop’s “Stealin’ Watermelons.”

But it’s really the instruments that take center stage here anyway. Smart arrangements, soulful soloing and energetic performances from each member add up to a very focused band of musical veterans. 12 By 5 was recorded, mixed and mastered in four days. Imagine what they could do with a whole week.

You can find copies at Rockin Rudy’s, but you’re better off going to see them live and picking up the disc at their show. Then you can see for yourself this grinning, rollicking group of so-called full grown men, playing music they love and having the time of their lives doing it.

Full Grown Men play the Union Club Sat., Dec. 29, at 9 PM for free. They also play as a part of First Night Missoula at 4:30 PM in the UC Commons on the University of Montana campus. First Night buttons are available at 20 area locations, including Rockin Rudy’s and Southgate Mall, for $10 advance/$15 day-of.
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