On most days, you can find Mike Avery on the University of Montana Oval, driving a lawnmower with his cowboy hat pulled low over his sunglasses: the lone ranger of grass-trimming. When the sun goes down, you'll most likely find his tall, stocky frame bent over the mixing board at open mic nights for UM or Sean Kelly's.
Avery is quick to smile. His eyes light up when he laughs. People often tell him he resembles Richard Gere with a mullet. But without the gerbil, he replies, with a wink.
Avery has been an enduring face in the Missoula community—a bit of a local celebrity. Soon, however, he'll miss his first Sean Kelly's open mic in nine years to celebrate a past few people in town know much about. Two of his former bands, Fluid and The Tuneswith Band (formerly known as ShadowFax), will be inducted into the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on May 1, and The Tuneswith Band will be reuniting for the first time in decades to play at the induction ceremony concert.
The story of Avery and his bands is one part rock 'n' roll fairytale and one part near-miss memoir. He started Fluid in Las Vegas in 1969 while still in high school. The band played soul, bolstered by the rock guitar playing of 13-year-old prodigy Mike Krug. Avery—who sang and played guitar for the group—moved to Virginia in 1971 after his military father was transferred, but he and Krug vowed to start a new group after he graduated from high school. When he moved back to Vegas the following year, Krug had a four-piece band waiting for him. With Avery as their frontman, the musicians began writing original rock music, drawing influences from early prog bands like Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant.
Over the next few years, the band, known as Shadowfax, quickly attracted a sizeable following, traveling to play in California, Arizona, and other parts of the region. The group became famous—and sometimes infamous—for its generator-powered keg parties out in the desert, which Avery says would sometimes attract thousands of people. "The cops would come to break it up and end up directing traffic," he says with a laugh.
After learning of another band with the same name in Chicago, Shadowfax changed its name to The Tuneswith Band, and relocated to Phoenix in 1978. The gigs got bigger and the venues got nicer. Avery recalls playing two nights at a venue called the Space Center, taking the place of ZZ Top after that band's bassist accidentally shot himself with a derringer. The Tuneswith Band played to sold-out crowds both nights.
"After that, the record companies were all interested in us," Avery says. "We went to L.A. and did a showcase at the Troubador...and I made the mistake of asking the owner of the club if they'd get somebody to open up for us."
The opener was a soulful young girl named Rickie Lee Jones, who promptly stole the show and the record companies' attention. It was a close miss with major exposure, but Avery likes to say it was for the best.
"All the ones that were interested in us would say, 'Oh, you guys are great but we want you to do what these guys are doing and look like these guys and play these guys songs,'" he says. "But we were young and headstrong and said no. It would have been selling out. We never really wanted to mix business with music."
After a few years in Phoenix, Krug and the band's bassist both moved their new families back to Vegas. The remaining members tried putting a project together, but it just wasn't the same, says Avery.
He soon got married himself, moving to Portland with his wife Tamara and their son and playing in a new band called Dhyan Cohan. One night, someone followed the band home and stole their equipment trailer, which Avery estimates contained around $40,000 worth of gear. It was a devastating blow, he says. "I lost faith in mankind for a little while after that, and quit playing music for 12 years."
For Avery, the dream of rock 'n' roll was over.
In 1995, Avery and his family moved to his wife's hometown of Missoula, to be closer to nature. He started working at UM almost immediately, beginning on the labor crew and climbing the ranks to groundskeeper.
It was the George W. Bush administration that caused Avery to pick up the guitar again. He was adamant about speaking out against what he views as corporate greed and political injustice, a standpoint that has influenced his lyric writing for decades. He began assembling bands for various events, writing songs about his belief in a contrails conspiracy for UM's 2004 Earth Day celebration and protest songs for peace rallies.
He'd lost touch with his old bandmates until Krug somehow got his number and called him out of the blue. Krug got the band back in contact, but while they wistfully discussed reuniting, their different locations made it unfeasible.
About a year ago, Krug died of a heart attack. The remaining four guys traveled to Vegas for the memorial and ended up jamming together at a friend's studio, an occasion that wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Krug reconnecting them. "He got us together in life, and he got us together in death," Avery says
News of the reunited band made it to the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They contacted Avery and told him his bands met the criteria for induction, and plans for the reunion concert began to take shape.
At 55, the prospect of reuniting with his old band members for such an occasion has Avery as giddy as a teenager in a garage band about to play its first show. He's an affable man by nature, but his smile gets even bigger when he talks about the celebration he'll soon play a part in.
After this reunion gig with The Tuneswith Band, Avery says the future is up in the air for the group. For now, he's just happy for the chance to step away from his riding lawnmower and back up to the microphone. "It's going to be one hell of a party," he says. "We're going to come in and just try to rip it up."