I am seated on the floor of a small house in the Rattlesnake with the six energetic musicians from Grandfatherglen clustered around. Beside me, a drowsy dog is luxuriating on a plush circular bed. Moments earlier, the animal howled in tune with the band's rendition of Sufjan Stevens's "Sister Winter."
The ensemble was formed out of a nexus of Missoula's top-tier music community: keyboardist/vocalist Josh Farmer, cellist Bethany Joyce, bassist John Sporman and three members of the Cook familyguitarist/vocalist Patrick Cook and his sisters Elizabeth and Katherine, whose interplay has the powerful sweetness of a medieval chorus that has just mastered the blues.
Half of the group's repertoire is made up of originals, while their standards include Tom Waits's ambivalently optimistic "Come on Up to the House" and a heartrending cover of Regina Spektor's "Us."
"I started playing with the Cooks at a variety show in Victor with this tap dancer who brought us all together," Farmer says. "It was ridiculous."
Joyce tells me, "We didn't start out wanting to be a band. We just wanted to create an intimate musical theater."
And that is precisely what their extemporaneous events feel like. Rather than seeking out a salon atmosphere, they are a salon atmosphere. Intimacy and spontaneity are their collective traits. Whatever they do, Grandfatherglen is primarily interested in never sounding the same way twice, using a miscellany of instruments to achieve that freshness.
The band started out playing at Missoula's Big Dipper, where they were paid with ice cream. Since then they've worked their way into gigs at The Top Hat and the Crystal Theatre. Now they're contemplating the release of an album in the fall, along with a European tour.
"Our music is more mellow than any of the groups I play with," says Farmer. "We want people who are willing to listenand not just willing to get drunkbut to actually listen to the music."
It's obvious how some of the members ended up playing music together. Joyce points at the Cooks. "You guys all know each each other pretty well," she says.
"We all came from a similar womb," Patrick says. "Katherine and Elizabeth and I have been playing together forever. I really wanted to surround ourselves with the best musicians that we could find. We were all in geek love with each other. We just sat there when Bethany played the cello, pee-in-our-pants excited."
"I knew the Cooks played music," Bethany says, "but I never expected this magical sibling harmony thing."
And that's pretty much how Patrick instigated Grandfatherglen, through word of mouth, wish fulfillment and finding improvisers and classically trained musicians who have the ability to go from polished Sinatra to gritty jazz to mournful saw extravaganzas in a blink.
"It was very random," Josh says.
"It was serendipitous," Patrick elaborates.
Lately, Grandfatherglen has been rehearsing for MCT's production of Godspellthe popular musical of parable-meets-pop music. The band, joined by Stellarondo regulars Travis Yost and Gibson Hartwell, will score the production. Combining music with visual art isn't new to the band: The musicians recently live scored a silent film at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, illustrating their versatility. Godspell's director, Michael McGill, took the musicians' talents one step further. The production showcases each musician as an active part of the cast as well; Patrick has been cast in the role of Jesus Christ, while his sisters are playing angels.
Between takes back at the house, everyone ambles around chatting on the phone, preparing tea (they drink prodigious amounts of tea), discussing Kurt Weill. But when someone starts playing they are all back at their places instantly, rehearsing as though they hadn't stopped.
"But what makes us cool?" Farmer muses, and then brightens. "We do have a group high five."
Patrick says, "Most bands go out and have a drink and a cigarette... We just go into the band room and high five."
"And drink a lot of tea," Farmer says.
"High fives and tea is what we're all about," Sporman concludes.
"The thing about us is that we never want to be in a comfortable place," Patrick tells me. "When something isn't fun anymore, we'll stop doing it."
That's a credo that could easily be screen-printed on T-shirts, and knowing them, that's exactly what will happen.
When I ask what color would best represent the band's serene, folksy sound, they count in unison and all blurt out a different hue. Then, in true Grandfatherglen-ish fashion, they agree with one another's choice and eventually decide on celadon.
Catch Grandfatherglen in Godspell at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Fri., March 16–Sun., March 18, and Wed., March 21–Sun., March 25 at 8 PM, except Sun. when it shows at 6:30 PM, with 2 PM matinees on Sat. and Sun. Tickets vary $19–$15. Go to mctinc.org.