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.
Karma Baker and Carole Brabham stand next to an open banjo case in the back bar of the Badlander, 30 minutes after wrapping their set. There are stacks of their six-track, eponymous album, Fat Cats of Augusta, on a nearby table.
People are starting to notice Baker and Brabham, including the Badlander honchos. Fat Cats recently opened for former Missoula stars No-Fi Soul Rebellion at the Palace, and before that for Birds Mile Home. Baker, on keyboard, and Brabham, on banjo, are crowd-pleasers. They harmonize well. Their set list sometimes includes a hell of a cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" as well as a nod to the Union Bar. Friends and new fans cheer them on. Tonight, one apparently drunk admirer ditched the usual "woo" for an emphatic "I love you."
"We really tried to set ourselves apart by making our vocals blend," Baker says. "The hardest part was overcoming those little obstacles, doing something different. We're two girls, we're both blonde. It's hard to be taken seriously sometimes."
Old friends from Kalispell, they only started playing together last summer, moving from parties to the open mic at Sean Kelly's. For as quickly as the Fat Cats have risen to Missoula's main stages, they have modest aspirations. Both have moved around the country. Each says she'll likely move again. For the Fat Cats, this moment "just worked out," Baker says.
"You can't expect to play a show and expect people to be excited. They might not be. You have to just love it [and] play for each other or yourself."
Kyle McCann from Tidal Horn, another of tonight's acts, couldn't agree more. He's dripping with sweat near the door of the Central sometime after midnight. The excitement in his voice betrays a slight buzz. Missoulians are a tough sell, he says. "Nobody's going to come out for you."
Tidal Horn's shredded alongside a number of fellow hard rock bands over the past year. They were named best new band in the Indy's Best of Missoula issue this summer. They have drawing power. But getting here wasn't easy, McCann says.
Landing an opening spot for Portland-based rockers Red Fang at the Palace in May took gumption. Tidal Horn knew the show's booker, Colin Hickey, so, McCann says, they called and harassed him, begging for a chance. "If they know you're hungry and they listen to you and know you play well, they'll take a chance on you."
But getting local bookings really boils down to one tip, for McCann: Fill the room. Your friends need to show up—all of them. And they should be thirsty.
"Bottom line is, the bars are trying to make money," McCann says. "They aren't going to book you if nobody shows."
McCann has more advice: Get out there. Play lots of free gigs. Have anyone and everyone vouch for you. If you're playing rock 'n' roll, accept that "sometimes you get paid, most of the time you get wasted."
Missoula is a tough town for musicians to break into. "You're paying dues forever," McCann says, his mustache curling above a grin. "FOR-EV-ER."
'We are beer salesman'
Tom Catmull untangles miles of equipment cords, plugging them into a PA system crowded into a dark corner of the Red Bird Wine Bar. His setup tonight is simple: a guitar and a stool. The Clerics—the three musicians who usually perform beside him at the Union Club, Hamilton's Bitterroot brewery and scores of other venues—are absent. It's a solo night tonight.
Catmull turned up in Missoula in 1994, a Texas guitarist who'd been working and playing in Yellowstone National Park dormitories for years. He started picking at open mic nights at Maxwell's, a now-defunct joint with plush couches that once occupied the current Badlander building. From there, he hooked up with a few musicians, including Broken Valley Roadshow fiddler Grace Decker, for an open mic appearance at the Top Hat. Steve Garr, the longtime Top Hat owner until his death in 2009, loved their roots sound so much he gave them a regular spot on Sunday nights.
"That was my first gig," Catmull recalls. "I couldn't believe people were paying me to play music."
Catmull unravels the story over a beer and the din of a packed Red Bird. After the Top Hat, he gradually racked up steady gigs. He followed on the heels of his then-roommate in appearances first at the Old Post Pub, then at Shadows Keep. Only in 2002—after nearly a decade of playing local stages—was Catmull in a position to assemble his dream band, the Clerics, with Gibson Hartwell, John Sporman and Travis Yost.
Catmull is one of the few musicians in Missoula who makes at least a portion of his living off steady gigs. The origins story, for him, is the long way of making an important point. "For me, patience is a gigantic thing," he says. "Other musicians have come up to me and asked, 'How do you get all these gigs?' Well, I've been working the same market for 16 years, 17 years. Eventually you know what works and what doesn't."
Catmull attributes some of his band's success to the type of music they play. The group jokingly calls it "unpopular country," a mix of rock and roots originals that draws bar patrons onto the dance floor. Their music appeals to a broad audience, Catmull says. Bars such as the Union Club assume the Clerics will pack the house. For heavier rock or indie music, he says, "You've got a longer road ahead of you."
Much of Catmull's advice boils down to a point that almost could have come from a Dale Carnegie course:
"You try really hard not to be a dick," he says. "You try to retain the gig. That's a huge thing—not only getting it, but retaining it."
Colin Hickey, the Badlander's booking agent, echoes Catmull. It isn't enough for bands to just bring in crowds, Hickey says. Those crowds—and the bands—have to be manageable and respectful.
Hickey remembers a motto he and his bandmates from the former local rock staple International Playboys used to have when touring: "Never complain."
Filling an 8:30 p.m. slot at a dead bar ahead of four other bands blows, Hickey says. You might only make $2. But if you smile, thank the bar and play your ass off, people will remember it when it comes time to book another show. "Next time, you'll play third, you'll make $30, you'll still have a good time...Just don't complain. You're not Mick Jagger. You're not the Strokes. Don't expect the golden. You have to earn that shit."
Hickey works with Badlander co-owner Chris Henry to determine how to fill each night at the Badlander and the Palace. They have a list of tips for catching their attention. At the top is promising to fill the bar, and promote your show. That means making posters to hang around town and distributing handbills; in the age of hollow Facebook invites and tweets, the old-school approach is all the more important, they think.
"People try to make Facebook and social media this proxy," Henry says. "But it's really ephemeral, it's very superficial. That simple act of having that flyer and being like, 'Hey, will you come to my show tonight?' means so much more than some random fucking Facebook invite."
Josh Vanek, the founder of Wantage Records and TotalFest, says that from the booking angle, Facebook is just a new tool, not the be-all, end-all of publicity. "Why do people do things? Because they get asked. Facebook isn't really asking."
Flexibility is a huge advantage, too. Greta Garr, a co-owner and booking agent for the Top Hat, says the odds of an up-and-coming band landing a bustling weekend gig are slim. The bar tries its best to showcase local talent, she says, and acts such as The Dodgy Mountain Men and Reverend Slanky have built solid followings among the Top Hat's patrons. Taking an 8 p.m. spot ahead of several other bands might not sound like the limelight, but Garr says the willingness to start small leaves a good impression on the bar and opens the door for networking in the music scene.
"You just have to put yourself out there," Garr says. "Play the opening set, try to shake people's hands, saying, 'Hey, I'm a new musician' or 'We're in a new band and we'd love to play with you guys some time.'"
"Huge senses of entitlement" are a major turnoff for venues, Garr continues. The Top Hat works out its deals with each band differently. "If a band thinks they're worth a lot more than they bring in to the bar, we probably won't do that again."
More than anything, though, accepting rejection and understanding the bottom line are biggies when playing the bars, according to the Badlander's Hickey and Henry.
They field a lot of requests from bands and musicians that are trying to get their feet in the door downtown. Hickey says he's famous for writing short emails like "Sorry, no." Aspiring bands should keep in mind that bookings "revolve around drink sales," he says.
"You can be the best band in the world, but we're not running a nonprofit. We'll spend a ton of time trying to cultivate you, but if nobody cares, what can we do?...No one likes your band, we can't book you.
"It's not like we're assholes. There's bills to pay. If no one shows up and we lose money, there's not going to be a bar at some point."
Catmull reconciled himself to that bottom line years ago. That's why the incessant chatter at the Red Bird during his set doesn't seem to faze him. He keeps playing whether or not the room is attentive.
"Tyler Roady from Cash for Junkers and I have this joke that we represent beer, cold beer," he says. "We are beer salesman."
Please, no ganja
Back at Sean Kelly's, a young guy named Will is shredding on a vibrantly painted acoustic guitar. Mike Avery is grinning, playing with dials and strolling to the back of the room to check the sound. Will is one of the regulars here these days, and Avery totally digs his style, a mash-up of reggae and rock. Avery says Will's playing the open mic at the University of Montana, too, an event Avery threw together a few years back.
Avery's been pushing for a bigger stage here for years. If Sean Kelly's had one, the bar might be known for more than its open mic and the odd folk band. They might be a venue for open mic performers to play on weekends. In fact, he's talking to Will about putting together just such a show.
"It's important to advertise," Avery says, thinking back on what he's told aspiring musicians in the past. "It's important for them to get on Facebook or whatever, hit up their friends that they're playing someplace. Go to the U and hang up posters. Hit KBGA and the Trail, they're good at advertising stuff. Get the word out. The more people hear your name, the more it generates curiosity."
Avery didn't have an open slot tonight when I showed up, but somebody canceled, so he squeezes me into the lineup for a quick three-song set. I play a couple of originals and an Old Crow Medicine Show cover. The crowd cheers a few times. I'm no David Grisman, I know; but it's still nice to have written something that people appreciate.
"It's always good to put your art out there for other people," Josh Vanek says. "But don't worry about doing it on somebody else's terms or having it validated by whatever bar has a lot of people on a Friday."
Playing for yourself, passing out handbills, starting small and paying your dues—that all sounds like great advice. But the question of how to get a gig is met all over town with a caveat: It's rough. There are no promises.
Booking gigs is "a real balance, a real politics game, because sometimes you don't know who you're dealing with," says Catmull. "You don't know whether they're just not calling you back because they're somebody who does a lot of mushrooms in the afternoon or if they're somebody who's like, 'I'm not going to call this guy back because I'm not that into him.'"
Catmull again emphasizes that getting the gig is half the battle and that retaining it is just as important—which raises another important consideration: What would it take to get booted?
Greta Garr recalls a Sublime cover band the Top Hat hosted once. The band had large bongs on stage. They were smoking weed and trash-talking the establishment. After a while, the bar had had enough.
"We don't ask for much," Garr says. "But blatant disrespect? That's not what we need our patrons to be hearing and seeing. It's a representation of the place as a whole.
"We don't want people smoking ganja on stage."
The good old days
"It's not like it was at Jay's, man."
John Fleming sorts through a stack of LPs at the front counter of his Higgins Avenue record shop, Ear Candy. Fleming's been in "about eight" local bands over the years, he explains. For a vet such as him, no discussion about the local music scene is complete without a nod to Jay's Upstairs, formerly of West Front Street—especially when it comes to the subject of getting a gig.
"You'd go into Jay's and ask to see the book," Fleming continues. "Robin [Dent] would pull out the damn book and you would flip through. 'Oh, here's an open day.' Sign yourself up. It was that easy."
Eight years after it shut its doors for good, no one seems able to let go of Jay's. Hickey still remembers the backlash when the bar charged a $5 cover for a show instead of the standard $3. "People walked up those stairs and they're, like, 'Five buuucks? Oh my gaawd.'" Its closure fueled an Independent feature story in 2003, and Missoulian arts writer Joe Nickell penned an online retrospective of Jay's just last May.
Fleming's point is that getting a gig isn't as easy as it used to be. "Unless you've got some sort of history from bands previous, I think it would be a struggle if you were a new band. I guess you'd have to play house parties and stuff like that...I don't think you could just walk down to the Top Hat and say, 'Hey, I want a show.'"
Fleming has become a familiar musical face not just at the Badlander or the Top Hat but also at downtown festivals. He hit the local limelight with the Oblio Joes. These days he plays bass for the psychedelic pop group Secret Powers. It's a future he'd never have pictured when he was playing garage rock with the Everyday Sinners and the Hellgate Stranglers.
"Ten, 12 years ago, I never would have imagined I'd be playing the Garden City BrewFest and Downtown Tonight and all that. Not until I joined the Oblio Joes did I play in a band that was able to get that kind of gig, and those are the best, man."
But without a readily accessible stage like Jay's, it has become difficult to get the level of exposure that once put bands like the Oblio Joes on the tongues of locals. Jay's was as much a practice space as a venue, Fleming says. And he spent multiple nights a week there watching other acts shred.
Abe Coley tried his hand at filling that void. In December 2008, he rented an industrial space below the Zootown Arts Community Center and pondered turning it into a rock venue. The fire marshal deep-sixed the idea of any commercial venture, but he did say Coley could have parties. Coley asked how he could advertise such parties and was told social media and quarter-page handbills. No posters. No TV spots. No radio ads.
"We'd talk about stuff on KBGA without saying where the place was," Coley recalls. "'If you like this band, if you like what you hear, call us up and we'll tell you where it is.' Or we'd say, 'It's at the mysterious place on the Northside we can't talk about'—and they'd know exactly what we were talking about."
Coley called it the Basement. Booking was tricky for the first two months, but as bookers like Josh Vanek and Marty Hill lined up more shows, word of the Basement spread "like wildfire," Coley says, adding that operating the space quickly became "effortless."
Coley soon began hearing from bands all over the states that were traveling through and wanted to play. But not the bars, they said. Someplace more underground. Someplace all-ages and thoroughly non-commercial.
"As soon as we opened the doors, it was like a flood," he says.
Local acts like Mordecai, Victory Smokes, Birds Mile Home, The Reptile Dysfunction and Tidal Horn soon gravitated toward the house party vibe of the Basement. Coley calls it an "industrial fuck-around space" where bands could break stuff, "set shit on fire" and not worry about getting blacklisted from a bar.
Coley says he partly looked to Jay's for inspiration in setting up not only a music space but also a music scene. But as successful as the Basement was, Coley eventually tired of being a landlord. He held one last bash with Mordecai, Bare Wires and a few other bands earlier this year. He says he let people smoke inside and that the show lasted until 3 a.m. "Went out with a bang. There was probably 150 people there."
The non-commercial void is still filled by a hodgepodge of other outlets around town, from the Z.A.C.C. to Zoo City Apparel to house shows at The Lab or the Spruce Street House. Vanek says Missoula has historically had a place that nurtures an underground music scene. "It's got to have a home...where you don't need to make rent off your show. It's just a house that expects you to help clean up beer cans."
At the bars, Henry and Hickey point out, bands don't go to one another's shows. Kyle McCann, of Tidal Horn, says getting gigs seems highly competitive at times, even between established acts. "There's great local bands," Hickey says, "but it's not the bands, it's the scene. A lot of guys won't go out to see their friend's band."
If bands went to one another's shows more, as they did in the days of Jay's, the issue of poor attendance might disappear. The Missoula scene would be revitalized. Venues could roll the dice more often on up-and-coming acts.
Fleming considers the lack of a rock scene part of an interesting paradox. He estimates Missoula has between 30 and 40 rock bands, and there are more available venues downtown than when Jay's was in business. So why aren't more of these bands out at the shows? "It seems like a strange phenomenon that show attendance is going down when the number of bands is increasing."
Henry and Hickey feel partly responsible for nurturing and "churning" the local music community. They brainstorm ways to open doors for less experienced musicians. Could that mean an open mic like Sean Kelly's at the Badlander, or a picking circle like the Top Hat's?
"I think it depends on the genre," Henry says. "Because punk rock kids, I don't want to hear them jam."
"That's funny, actually," Hickey says, running with the idea. "Punk rock picking circle. Wednesday night. That's it!"