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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."