Talking to the salt-and-pepper mustachioed Chuck Lester, one hopes that the stories might never stop flowing. That’s likely the reason PBS is currently working on a documentary featuring Lester, who, sitting inside Flippers Bar and Casino, recounts his experiences in the Greenwich Village blues scene of the 1960s. Lester laughs as he recalls the time Jimi Hendrix was thrown out of a small club—guitar, amplifier and all.
“The owner said he was making noise,” Lester says with a smile that hasn’t lost its charm even to cigarette-stained teeth. “Told him never to come back.”
Lester is a “featured performer” with local blues mavens Hog Wild, which typically means this elder statesman hangs out by the bar or in a shady corner as the band plays a set and a half—almost blending into the crowd, if it weren’t for the fact that, Missoula being what it is, he’s usually the only black man in the joint aside from a few of his bandmates on stage. A never-ceasing pleasure is studying the surprised looks on the faces of audience members who’ve never seen Hog Wild when this member of the “audience” suddenly takes the stage and begins belting out a blues breadwinner like “One More Song.”
With another band, such a tradition might seem gimmicky. Certainly when what passes as P-Funk these days plays for a half-hour before introducing George Clinton, the stunt feels cheap, mostly because Clinton comes out and basically just dances around a little bit, tossing off an incoherent vocal every once in a while. But with Hog Wild, there’s no doubt Lester can sing, and his talent, combined with the band’s fantastic sense of dynamics, makes the transition seem completely natural—just one more excellent trick from a bag of blues treats that includes raising the roof to a fevered pitch right before pulling the rug out from under listeners/dancers by taking it down real low.
Lester came to Hog Wild only eight months ago after moving to Missoula from New York. The band, however, represents a virtual “Who’s Who of the Missoula Music Scene.” Drummer Steve Jordan and harmonica player Charlie Hopkins played in the much-loved Cold Beans and Bacon from approximately 1985 to 1995, with current Hog Wild guitarist Pat McKay joining toward the end of that stint. McKay and Hopkins also played in The Ramen back in the early ’90s, a likewise popular jam-band named after the noodles-in-a-bag college staple.
Norman Medley rounds out the Hog Wild sound, playing a bottom-heavy bass to which dance resistance is futile, and singing lead on the majority of the band’s songs. Put these skilled musicians together and you have the instrumentation of traditional Chicago electric blues, though the band branches out into the sounds of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta as well.
The words “blues” and “Montana” don’t often go hand in hand. There’s really no “scene” in any sense of the word. Thus, when Hog Wild travels to Polson, the most frequent request is for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.” But as it turns out, that’s just the way Hog Wild likes it.
“There’s not much competition here,” Medley says. Lester adds, “So people here really appreciate it when they hear the real thing.”
Hog Wild keeps the same blues songs from getting old, through a variety of means.
“You revise the way that they feel and change the beat,” Medley says.
“I’ve never done the same guitar solo twice,” McKay adds.
In keeping their sound fresh—and doing so solely through gigging, as the band hasn’t had a practice session in over a year—Hog Wild has recently opened up for Culture, George Thorogood and John Mayall.
While the band functions as a cohesive whole onstage, each member has his own reason for playing the blues.
“Blues is the most honest form of music. You can’t really fake it,” Hopkins says.
“The stories are funny and you can relate to them,” says Medley. “Like maybe you messed around and then you go home and the locks are changed. Some of us know what that’s like.”
“Blues comes from the heart,” Jordon contributes.
In the corner, Chuck Lester waits for his moment, just like he does at live Hog Wild shows, before chiming in last.
“We get real high without using a drug,” he says.