On a recent Thursday evening, the Top Hat isn't exactly what you would call hoppin'. There's one bartender, a father with his toddler, a guy playing pool against himself, and a couple of patrons bouncing in and out between smoking outside and drinking cocktails at the counter. On stage, however, Kristin Janis and Ciara Keeton are rocking out on guitars with the sort of cool, wide-legged stance of confident musicians that have an audience wrapped around their fingers—though Janis and Keeton clearly don't take themselves too seriously.
"Okay, this one is kind of embarrassing," says Janis into the microphone before launching into a groovy version of Paula Abdul's 1989 hit "Straight Up."
Janis has a clear, powerful voice and as she sings, "Do, do ya love me," and as Keeton backs her up with bluesy guitar solos, neither of them really seems that embarrassed. And why should they? Unlike Abdul's bubblegum original, this more sophisticated cover doesn't sound at all out of place in an old bar steeped in blues and folk rock history.
Keeton and Janis are the founding members and, at the moment, the only members of Slowly But Shirley. They started out as a four-piece, all-girl rock band in June this year, first playing the Love Your Mother Earth Festival and then a Bob Dylan tribute show at Caras Park for which they covered "All Along the Watchtower," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Everybody Must Get Stoned." After one bandmate was waylaid by surgery, practices dissipated and Keeton and Janis decided to continue on as a duo. Though the two have only known each other for eight months, they're close friends and tight stage partners.
"I think our music sounds good because we're good together," says Janis. "There's chemistry on that level and, musically, it fits together, too. If we're fighting, it's not the same; we get on the stage and it's terrible. Or if we play with other people we're not really that close with we'll feel like everyone else besides us isn't good."
Local musician Caroline Keys also noticed the chemistry between the duo when she saw Slowly But Shirley play at Love Your Mother and, later, at Sean Kelly's for the Top of the Mic music contest.
"I was struck not only by their spunk, but by the chemistry between Kristen and Ciara," says Keys. "The two clearly come from very different musical places, and I love the way their sensibilities both compliment and grind up against one another."
Keys plays in numerous local bands including Broken Valley Roadshow, The New Hijackers and Stellarondo. She recently started an "artist-in-residence" program at the Top Hat, which allows one band per month to take up residency in the venue between 6 and 8 p.m. every Thursday. The artist-in-residence idea is new to Missoula, but venues in Los Angeles, Calif., and Austin, Texas, have started up similar programs over the years, and the opportunity has sometimes led to record label deals for resident bands.
Keys' band Stellarondo was the first to try out the idea at the Top Hat in November. For the December residency, Keys chose to book Slowly But Shirley.
"For Stellarondo it was great to have a low-key performance occasion to prepare for every week in November," says Keys. "We tried new things and saw our communication develop during that period. We also saw attendance—by folks of all ages—grow each week. As with any positive experience we were a little bummed to see our time end, but happy to pass the torch on to the Shirley girls for the month of December."
Slowly But Shirley plays some original pop rock ditties written by Janis like "Right Back to You" and "Get it Out"—both of which sound like a hybrid between early Indigo Girls and Suzanne Vega. ("It's melodic, harmonious babe rock," laughs Janis). The eight-minute "Moving to Mars" showcases some of the band's slower, more psychedelic tendencies and builds up to a rock-heavy sound powered by Keeton's obvious love for soloing with the wah-wah pedal.
'"Moving to Mars' is our epic song," says Janis. "It's about moving to Mars just to get out of here, but the song is really about how it would suck if you actually did move there."
A good quarter of the Slowly But Shirley's songs are covers—everything from Abdul to the Beatles to Neil Young.
"The covers we choose usually influence the originals we play," says Keeton. "Personally, I have to play Neil Young's 'Cortez the Killer' when we play shows. That's a really personal song for me because it inspired me to play in the first place."
Janis and Keeton met because they both admired each other's music from afar. Janis had been playing open mic at Sean Kelly's for the past five years and Keeton started playing open mic a couple of years ago with her band Peanut Butter and Didgeridoo Jam.
"I had noticed Kristin play open mic at Sean Kelly's a lot because we played the same night," says Keeton. "Finally, I asked her if she wanted to jam one night. It was right before the Top of the Mic contest and so we ended up getting together and jamming and putting some songs together. We actually won and went on to the semi-finals. We've been playing together ever since."
Whether or not Slowly But Shirley will become a full band again is up in the air. Janis and Keeton recently recorded a demo, and, after their Top Hat residency ends with a final show on Dec. 30 (they won't be playing Dec. 23 due to scheduling conflicts) they might set up a tour, says Janis. Right now, she says, they're content to play to anyone who will listen, even if it's a small—though supportive—early evening bar crew.
Slowly But Shirley plays the Top Hat Thursday, Dec. 16, at 6 PM. Free. They also play the Palace later that night at 9 PM for a Zootown Arts Community Center fundraiser. $5.