At The Old Post, recently… A yellow and purple musical haze holds the crowd spellbound, as Mike Freemole takes his first solo as a member of 40 Freedoms, hitting more notes than Eddy Van Halen on crank. The song is “Road to Sayualita.” The other three on stage sense that this is more than yet another auspicious “new beginning” for the band. It is suddenly clear that with Freemole, Phoenix and 40 Freedoms are molting for real, after many hops and tumbles, and taking off on fixed wings. As his solo ends, a juicy moment of silence is followed by a full-on charge back into the groove, Tim Stone sax-dancing like Tinkerbell in between Freemole’s bass and the rhythmic waves of Paulito le Boom Boom at sway behind the shiniest drum kit in Missoula, riding his own percussive waves like a bottle of fine Chilean wine tossed at sea, filling space like raindrops pelting a metal roof. Phoenix, placid-faced above his mother-of-pearl inlaid guitar, re-enters the fray with his perfectly pitched voice.
It started in March of Y2K on a beach outside of the Mexican town of Sayualita. Phoenix, who had ridden his horse from Montana to the Mexican border and swapped it for a jeep; Pauli Donaldson, a Chilean native most recently from St. Louis; and his girlfriend Elke, a drop of Alaskan sunshine. The couple had befriended the dark horseman, and the three hung out awhile on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. They parted a few days later without exchanging addresses.
Last year, Phoenix moved to Missoula, began playing open mikes at Sean Kelly’s and the Ritz. Right after Sean Kelly’s invited Phoenix to play a Saturday night show, he ran into Pauli outside of the Old Post. They teamed up with Zach Malar and Tory Dugan of Cold Mountain Rhythm Band, played the gig, and 40 Freedoms was born. Since then, 40 Freedoms has featured a revolving mishmash of local musicians who have come and gone, with Phoenix and Pauli remaining the enduring backbone.
All this coming and going began to get old for the two founders. “It was like having many lovers, instead of forming a relationship with one,” says Pauli. “And everyone we played with had another band that was their main priority.” With each musician temporarily influencing the music and then leaving, the sound kept evolving in fits and starts in various directions, without actually getting anywhere. With this realization, Phoenix and Pauli made a concerted effort to work backwards in search of the core of their musical partnership, without the distractions of other bandmates.
And what is the core?
Phoenix: “I have trouble with labeling our music. Many of my favorite musicians—Ben Harper, Dave Matthews—seem to defy categorization, and I suppose I like to think we do too. Growing up I couldn’t get enough of Black American Blues. For me the core is about conveying emotion, both in the lyrics and in the sound. Lyrically, the songs I write strive to convey the human being stories we all share, the commonality of human life regardless of your background. I feel the same way about race. People look at me and wonder what I am. Am I Indian, Polynesian...who cares? What matters is, am I a good person? Is this a good band? When I was younger, I let social conventions and cultural differences bring me down. Now I see that the gift I have with music and with this band is that we can play music that breaks down cultural barriers. I’ve just come into a newfound place of hope, using music and lyrics as hope for the future. I’m looking ahead to the day when we’ll all be the middle-sized brown dogs and these questions of category won’t be relevant.
Pauli: ”The core? Just plain old rock and roll.”
Whatever you call it, they seem to have found it, nurtured it, and watched it grow into something as purely American as Cowboys and Indians, despite their occasional forays into foreign beats and melodies. First in the new wave of non-migrant bandmates was Tim Stone—The Jazz Kidd—a saxophone virtuoso who can play anything and solos like Fred Astaire at Feruquis. He is also, according to Pauli, “the best fisherman in the state of Montana. That man can catch anything, anywhere, anytime.”
Their next catch was bassist Mike Freemole, fresh from Nashville, who, says Phoenix, is “the finest musician I’ve ever played with. When he joined the band, we all jumped up a couple of notches. Absolute professional.”
At press time, their ranks stand firm at four—enough for a full and complete sound, yet not too busy. But look for them to augment their sound with guest musicians on specific songs from time to time. Meanwhile, their growing repertoire of tasty covers is being overtaken by an even faster growing arsenal of originals, such as “Peace, love, and redemption,” “The wonder of it all,” “Kindred Spirits,” and “After Buffalo.”
You can come throw your panties onstage (or cruise for leftovers) this Saturday night at the Ritz. Cover TBA.