You know Missoula’s nickname is the “Garden City,” but do you know why? One explanation is that the valley’s climate is very mild with respect to the rest of Montana. Another acknowledges all of the city’s green things: parks and greenways, flower gardens, historic districts and maple-lined avenues. A third is more historical than sensuous: Until the early 1970s, truck gardens and market gardens in Missoula and the outlying area provided the city’s inhabitants with upwards of 90 percent of their produce.
Anyway, Missoula is one of dozens of settlements across the country and around the world to call itself the Garden City. As civic nicknames go, you have to admit, it’s not a bad way to go. It’s even kind of wimpy, in its way, at least compared to a place with the knutes to proudly declare itself “The Gateway to the Channeled Scablands.”
That’s Ellensburg, Wash. And it is the gateway to the scablands of the Columbia River Basin that were scoured by the repeated jökulhlaups, or glacial outburst floods, unleashed by western Montana’s great contribution to the geology of eastern Washington: Glacial Lake Missoula. At the height of the most recent ice age, some 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, bursting ice dams routinely sent hundreds of cubic miles of water, ice and rocks barreling westward through the mountains of northern Idaho and across the present-day scablands of eastern Washington. You’re welcome!
Most of the rock formations around Ellensburg are igneous in origin, remnants of great basaltic lava flows from roughly 15 million years ago. The soil there is thick on loess—windblown silt—and there isn’t much rain. Yet things still grow there. Agriculture is Ellensburg’s economic foundation. Seeds find moist clefts and furrows to germinate.
That goes for music, too. Just like in any other small town where there isn’t a lot for them to do, kids put bands together, and very often the sense of isolation produces some truly original results. Ellensburg’s most famous musical sons are the Screaming Trees, who all too often get lumped in with the whole Seattle grunge-band rabble of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Screaming Trees were always something better: a basement hybrid of ‘60s psych and ‘70s hard rock with more raw talent for songwriting than a half-dozen of their west-of-the-Cascades contemporaries’ bands put together. Early albums like Clairvoyance and Even If and Especially When contain their share of dusty diamonds; 1988’s Invisible Lantern has got “Night Comes Creeping,” a flash of incandescent psych supernova that outshines everything up to it. And, although at their prime they hardly had a patch on the financial success of, say, Nirvana, the Screaming Trees became more accessible as the ‘90s progressed, releasing a real homecoming album of sorts in 1996’s Dust.
There were interesting side projects, too, like guitarist Gary Lee Conner’s incense-and-lava-lamps Purple Outside, and the cheery folk-pop of bass-playing brother Van Conner’s band, Solomon Grundy. And, for the sake of completeness, we should probably mention King Krab, another scabland psych-rock band who put out a noisy single or two but whose most lasting attribute was just being hometown pals with Screaming Trees.
But, for whatever reason, it seems there’s always been a strong psychedelic streak to Ellensburg bands, and a strong tendency toward originality. Or at least there used to be. I’m not really hearing much of either on the three-song demo by Open Country Joy, a new Ellensburg band due for a visit to Missoula this week. It’s not at all bad—it’s just not what I was hoping for when I saw the return address. There are some noodly parts, harmonies, an odd stop or two and a few fusionary excursions on songs like “Coffee,” but there’s probably 500 bands that sound this Grateful Dead-like who are playing in college towns around the Northwest.
That’s what you get for putting too much stock into a regional sound, if there’s really such a thing anymore. People can play what they want. It still makes me miss those flashes of small-town basement brilliance, though. Screaming Trees never wrote a song about their dog, at least. Not bad, not mind-blowingly good, just inconsequential lyrics set to mildly funky noodle-rock for dancing.