With so many year-end roundups in this issue, we would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t devote a little special attention to what’s gone on locally. Maybe it was all that pre-election angst finding a creative outlet, but 2004 was a fruitful year for the arts in Missoula, in spite of the usual setbacks and revolting developments in terms of closing venues, high rents and the rest of it.
Nowhere did the matter of venue—or lack thereof—loom as large in 2004 as it did in local music. News in the spring that the Ritz would be closing, coming as it did so soon after Jay’s shut its doors late last year, had an immediate panic-inducing effect on local bands feeling increasingly fresh out of places to perform. The great famine that some expected to starve off the last pockets of resistance to “Mustang Sally” covers, however, has yet to happen; ditto the monopoly on local rock and touring acts that some predicted would come of new venue The Other Side. The Other Side has hosted its share of big successful shows this year, with local bands either in supporting slots for big touring acts like Pinback or headlining themselves—not to mention the bazillion-band Total Fest organized every year by local record label Wäntage USA. But it was hardly the only game in town: With a few weeks off here and there, the all-ages-friendly Area 5 also fielded a steady stream of generally smaller touring acts and three- to five-band local bills. Other acts, particularly those of the pensive persuasion, saw the value in renting the Roxy Theater for sit-down shows. Perhaps the neatest side effect of the New Venue Squeeze of ’04, though, was the tentative revival, particularly toward the end of the year, of another Missoula-scene tradition: the house party with a band or two playing at it. I’ve often wondered what’s behind the demise of the house party with live music in the last eight or so years. Tighter rental market? Touchier neighbors? It’s good to have it back, anyway.
And, in any event, the crunch on all-comers venues didn’t do anything to diminish the creativity or productivity of our homegrown talent: Lots of Missoula artists got down to business and came out with great records in 2004. Burke Jam was an early starter with his second CD, Quiet Open, an album of grim chuckles and melancholy insights released in March. In October, The International Playboys capped an ambitious fiscal year of touring and recording with the release of the band’s second proper album, Sexiful, complete with Gladys Knight and the Pips cover (“If I Was Your Woman,” already a live favorite). Folkie Amy Martin showed a knack for marketing to match her flair for anti-war songs with an innovative, interactive release strategy for her fifth album, Deliverance: Instead of paying the full album price, fans could (and still can) simply download the tracks they want at a dollar apiece from Martin’s website, www.amy-martin.com. The Wäntage USA label kept to its usual regimen of top-quality, silkscreen-cover releases, including a Fireballs of Freedom 7” and retrospective CD, a double-CD Hits Omnibus to celebrate its 21st release, and a heinie-whoopin’ Character Assassins CD and vinyl 12” for Flathead-Missoula hardcore axis Ass-End Offend, which is currently plotting a summer tour of Scandinavia and the Baltic countries with Wäntage boss Josh Vanek in tow. Ass-End guitarist Matt Svendsen also put out a couple of nifty Missoula hardcore releases on his own label, Poisoned Candy, including complete discographies for the defunct Disgruntled Nation and Venal IV and a compilation that spans Missoula hardcore from the way-distant past (Deranged Diction, featuring future Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament) to present. Other recorded highlights for 2004: Oblio Joes’ Swallow the Moon, Larry Hirshberg’s Headlong, the Frederico Brothers’ Rails, Dave Daniels’ Antique Porn, Eden Atwood’s This Is Always: The Ballad Session, and Fungal Boogie, a collaborative effort between Zoe Wood and local mushroom man Larry Evans. Releases to start looking forward to in 2005: Bacon and Egg, Two-Year Touqe, and Volumen’s long-awaited follow-up to Cries from Space.
Missoula music also leapt onto the big screen this year with Ghouls Gone Wild, a short feature filmed mostly in Garnet Ghost Town that pitted the International Playboys, as themselves, against a host of hot undead girls in a fight for…well, I forget, and anyway does it really matter? Writer/director Ted Geoghegan has reportedly already finished work on the script for a sequel that will square the Playboys off against their comrades in Volumen.
Missoula filmmaker Ryer Banta also deserves special mention for his documentary Wise Old Little Boy, an intimate look at K Records superstars Kyle Field and Phil Elverum, aka Little Wings and the Microphones, which has been getting great reviews in the national indie press. Part-time Missoulian Corey Lewis, whom the Independent profiled for a feature on local filmmaking two years ago, gave us a belated surprise by finally finishing Jimmy Dunnaway, his long-in-the-works mockumentary about a reclusive jazz pianist of the same name. It was worth the wait, too, if only to see a star-studded cast of ad-libbing accomplices that includes Margot Kidder, Doug Peacock, Walter Kirn and Jim Harrison, most of whom Lewis was able to corral into participating by soliciting them at Livingston watering holes.
It’s been a pretty good year for local books, too. Phil Condon’s Clay Center earned great reviews and enthusiastic local response (not to mention the New Orleans-based Faulkner Society’s William Faulkner Award!) on its May release, and Condon double-dipped by coming out with Montana Surround in October, a collection of personal essays and meditations on nature and that slippery notion of “place.” Jenny Siler’s hard-boiled latest, Flashback, won its author numerous comparisons to John Le Carré, while Booklist described Rick DeMarinis’ Apocalypse Then: New Novellas and Stories as “incandescent” and “brilliantly off-kilter yet dead-on.” UM professor Stewart Justman won a PEN Award for Seeds of Mortality: The Public and Private Worlds of Cancer, while another Missoula author, Dorothy Patent, bagged a prestigious Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Award for a body of work that currently includes more than 120 nonfiction titles. In more holiday-newsletter kind of news, crime novelist James Lee Burke has finally made the full-time move to Montana, as has Jeff Shaara, whose latest novel, To the Last Man, also marks a move to new field of battle, in this case World War I. Welcome back, fellas!
A year of firsts for local theatre, too! Opera made a big, rare splash in Missoula in the form of MCT’s The Magic Flute, while the company’s production of A Chorus Line was a smash hit, too. Arguably, the local theatre event that benefited most from election-year jitters was the fall Director’s Festival of One-Act Plays, which featured a timely production of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s The Soldiers of No Country in addition to pieces by Molière and Harold Pinter. Other noteworthy productions: Uncle Vanya, directed by UM Media Arts program director Michael Murphy; MCT’s Deathtrap, directed by T.J. Charlson; and Montana Rep’s A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Greg Johnson.
In the visual arts, there was almost too much to go and see in 2004—certainly too much to do any kind of justice to here, which is actually a good thing. The Art Museum of Missoula underwent a change of name (to the Missoula Art Museum) and a temporary change of scene; pending renovation and expansion of its Pattee Street headquarters in the former Carnegie Library, the museum is still sitting pretty in its temporary location in the lobby of the Florence Building. On a downer note, Missoula has seen a couple of galleries close up shop this year, including the Goatsilk Gallery and the Farm art space on Higgins Avenue, both places known for taking on more, shall we say, challenging installations and performances than your average staid downtown gallery. Evidently, Missoula just wasn’t ready for the challenge yet.
But so it goes: ebb and flow, wax and wane, turn, turn, turn and all that business. Who knows what 2005 has in store, but join me in a toast, if you will: Here’s to a stimulating new year in Missoula arts and culture. I’ll see you there.