Muted red light washes over the faces of drinkers crowding the bar at Sean Kelly's. One man sits alone at a large booth. The bartender busies himself washing glasses and chatting idly with a few patrons about the Bilderberg Group. It's a Monday night and the joint is dead.
Mike Avery pushes a few dials on the PA system, bringing the levels up so live music is audible just above the scattered din of voices. There's a solo guitarist in his late 20s onstage, dressed in a red baseball cap, dirty jeans and a pearl-snap shirt. He leans into the mic and tells the crowd he's a vagrant. "I lost my girlfriend, my job and my house," he says.
The way he croons makes you believe every word he sings.
"There's a whole range of talent, from amateurs to professionals," says Avery, who's been running the Sean Kelly's open mic for 10 years. "It's cool to see new people come who haven't played in front of people before. They're timid and nervous. They get up there and get comfortable with it and before you know it, they're rocking out."
If getting a gig in Missoula were a board game, Sean Kelly's would be the first stop. Almost every imaginable act has been on this stage—"from the little Hawaiian lady with a ukulele, to an eight-piece brass band with tubas, to a heavy metal band," Avery says—including some bands that have gone on to become Missoula staples. The Boxcutters got a start here, as did the Little Smokies and Reverend Slanky. Some of the guys from Airstream Safari still do solo acts, or the band will take the stage for a 20-minute slot. Eric Tollefson started here before moving on to steady work at the Top Hat. Mick Croon used to play here when he was in college, back before he turned 21. He's since been to Salt Lake City, Seattle and Spokane, and now has a solo album out.
"I think everyone has graced this stage at some point, whether it be just a drunk night at Sean Kelly's—'Hey, I want to get up and play'—or they planned on it," Avery says.
There's no trick to getting a gig at Sean Kelly's on Mondays: Just call the bar Monday morning and throw down a name.
Missoula is full of musicians and bands with bigger dreams than a once-a-week open mic, however. Some you may have heard of; some you never will. Many hope to play for the throngs of Saturday-night drinkers downtown and get paid to do it, and move up from there. It worked for Colin Meloy, right?
But competition is thick in Missoula, nights are short and weekends are a commodity, especially for the bar owners.
Getting a gig in Missoula can be rough.
Hey kids, let's put on a show
My buddy Sean was always the type to show up to parties with a guitar. He'd played with a punk group in New Jersey after high school, and he usually regaled us with lighter rock tunes and the occasional acoustic pop cover. I mentioned to him a few times that I'd fooled around on mandolin. We gradually gravitated toward one another musically.
Sean was finishing his last year at UM. I was out of school and unemployed. We started jamming in Sean's living room several times a week. He was already regularly playing open mic night at Sean Kelly's and composing originals to fill out his collection of crowd-pleasing covers. He'd bounce chord progressions off me, ask for my opinion on lyrics. Then, one day, he asked if I'd join him on stage.
We struggled for hours coming up with a name for our duo. We finally settled on Valkenberg, a tribute partly to our college newspaper advisor Carol Van Valkenburg and partly to a friend who'd once spelled Van Valkenburg's last name incorrectly in the Montana Kaimin.
I was nervous during that first performance. I'd never played for more than family members and friends, and Sean Kelly's was a bit more packed on a Monday night in those days than it is now. We played five songs for our debut. I sang two and flubbed both. I felt like an idiot.
At Sean's insistence, I began writing originals of my own, long and painfully depressive ballads that had no business being played in public. Yet the crowd cheered. And as the Monday nights ticked off, Sean and I developed a tighter musical rapport. Our originals got better. He pushed me to take lead on a Rolling Stones cover. We even started adding elements of percussion; Sean would belt a tambourine to his leg, I'd stomp a bass drum.
Sean and I talked about trying to open for acts at the Top Hat or playing the Badlander's Live and Local Tuesdays. The thought of sharing our music with a larger audience was both frightening and vastly appealing.
We took Mike Avery's advice after several months and recorded a two-track demo—my gift to Sean when he graduated. We passed them out to our friends, our families and our adoring fan. With the stage anxiety lifted and my mandolin playing improving, I started to see some promise in performing locally. I'd picture Valkenberg on stage when I went to shows at the Palace or the Union. I knew there was no money in it, but hell, it'd be fun.
But Valkenberg split up several years ago. I got a job that kept me in Missoula. Sean left, packing his guitar and moving first to Portland, Ore., then back East. He's since recorded a few new songs and emailed them to me. I've restricted my playing to parties and jam sessions with friends, but I still attend shows. Friends play Sean Kelly's, the Palace, the Zootown Arts Community Center, a basement stage in the slant streets—and I'm there, soaking up the art of fellow musicians. Even after years away from a local stage, I can still see the appeal.
'Nobody's going to come out for you'
Locals are swarming through the Badlander complex, in downtown Missoula. KBGA has a long list of bands on deck for its annual birthday bash, on the stages at the Badlander and the Palace. The musicians aren't hard to spot. People crowd around them, buying CDs and offering encouragement.