Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament isn’t usually one for the political limelight. But the mild-mannered Montana native has made an exception to help get the word out for longtime family friend and Democratic senate candidate Jon Tester—even going so far as to indulge national media requests, including one interview-gone-wild with political talk radio host Janeane Garofalo.
“I’ve done some things that I would never do, but it’s all just about trying to get Jon the opportunity,” explains Ament, speaking from Seattle while the band was rehearsing for its upcoming Canadian tour and next week’s benefit concert for Tester in Missoula. “When I met with Janeane, the first half was really good and then it kind of turned into that political talk radio thing. There’s really a fine line between when it’s kind of funny and joking and when something gets misread.”
Ament ended up getting caught in a minor political crossfire when Garofalo misunderstood a comment he made—she thought he had lumped her in with “hated” media types—resulting in a somewhat awkward exchange with the Air America host. Ament patiently waited until the segment was over to smooth over the situation off-air.
“It’s a weird thing,” says Ament of political talk radio. “I’ve always been a little uncomfortable being too much in the spotlight with any of this stuff. I could never do this sort of thing on a continual basis because it’s just too all-the-time.”
But in the case of helping Tester, who grew up with Ament in Big Sandy, he’s willing to brave the elements. When Tester announced his plan to run as a Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006, one of the first people he called for support was Ament.
“My dad, who was a lifelong Republican [and longtime mayor of Big Sandy], said it didn’t matter if Jon was a Libertarian or Democrat or whatever, he was a good man and he’d stand beside him—that always stuck with me,” explains Ament, who has followed Tester’s political career as he’s risen from the local school board to president of the state senate. “I told Jon three years ago I would help him however I could when he took the next step, and then he called me about six months ago and said, ‘I’m going to run for senate and you’re the only person I know.’”
Air America interviews aside, setting up the benefit concert has been a logistical labyrinth, requiring the juggling of strict political fund-raising regulations on top of the usual hassles of planning a major concert. But despite all of the paperwork (ticket buyers are required to fill out certain forms since the ticket price is considered a campaign contribution), in the end the show is shaping up to be a typical rock-oriented Pearl Jam concert. Tester says he’s not interested in addressing the crowd, and that he most certainly will not show off his musical chops (he played trumpet and graduated from the University of Great Falls with a music degree). And Ament doesn’t anticipate any long political monologues.
“This is going to be a kick in the butt. I really think it is going to be a lot of fun,” says Tester, who adds his campaign is considering a second fund-raising concert with another “award-winning artist” who’s shown interest in the campaign, possibly in Great Falls or Helena. “This is a little different twist from our normal campaigning—we’re still going around and raising money and meeting people and talking issues, but we’re throwing a little music into this, too. This thing is just about having a good time. I think it just speaks about who I am that I’m doing this.”
But, naturally, there is a bit more to it than fun: Although tickets are still available, the event is expected to raise much-needed money for an expensive campaign (before challenging the well-funded Burns, Tester must first win a primary against John Morrison, Clint Wilkes and Paul Richards), as well as boost Tester’s profile in Western Montana.
“I think he has some good progressive ideas that aren’t so progressive they would turn off the 70- and 80-year-old Montanans,” says Ament. “His ideas are progressive, but they’re within the boundaries of what people who have lived here their whole life would say are representative of Montana.”
Ament adds: “If he just gets the opportunity to be seen and to be heard—if people can just hear him speak—then that’s going to give him the shot that he needs. He’s such a great Montana presence and he really exudes that Montana quality and honesty and confidence. I really believe that. More than anything, this show is just about giving Jon a chance and an opportunity, and I’d do anything to help make that happen.”
Tickets for the Pearl Jam concert are still available at Big Sky Brewery (5417 Trumpeter Way) in Missoula and the Red Lion Center in Kalispell (20 North Main St.), online at www.ticketswest.com, or by phone at 1-800-325-SEAT, for $46. Since the concert is a political fund-raiser, tickets are limited to four per person, and cash is not accepted. The show is Monday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 PM in the Adams Center. The Briefs open.
Can Conrad rock, too?
Pearl Jam taking the stage for a Democratic senate candidate who shares a hometown with the band’s bassist is a no-brainer. The question is, if given the opportunity to host a similar event of his own, who would Republican Sen. Conrad Burns choose to rock out on his behalf?
While Burns spokesperson J.P. Pendleton had “no comment at all” on Tester’s upcoming Pearl Jam fund-raiser, he thought long and hard when posed the question of whom the incumbent would call upon for his own hypothetical concert. “That’s a hell of a good question,” he said, followed by a long silence.
While Pendleton considered the possibilities—Ted Nugent? Toby Keith?—he explained that Burns, 70, was a fan of all kinds of music.
Including Pearl Jam?
“No, not particularly. He’s definitely not into the Seattle grunge, post-grunge-type thing,” Pendleton said. “I wouldn’t put that at the top of his list.”
Burns prefers music in the classical and country-western veins, Pendleton explained, and when pressed for a specific band name, he said the senator might choose the Montana Summer Symphony. “I’m trying to think of something more modern,” he admitted, “but I’m not sure.”
Tester wasn’t sure what to suggest, either. Asked whom his would-be opponent should jam with, he laughed and said, “I don’t have any idea. I don’t even want to guess.”
Ament, however, gave it some thought: “Wasn’t Huey Lewis trying to close a part of the Bitterroot River?” he asked, referring to the former rocker’s contention that Mitchell Slough, which runs through his property, is private. “Well there you go. Huey might be the right guy. That seems like Conrad’s politics and Judy Martz’s politics—they kind of fudge the rules to benefit themselves. Huey would be a good guy [for Conrad].”