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"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!"