An unattributed quote sprawls across the top of a fan-made website: "Trip Shakespeare had a message for the world ... but we forgot it." Beneath the quote, an excerpt from a 1998 Rolling Stone article extolls the "brilliant, rococo-beat band Trip Shakespeare." Further inspection of the site reveals a seemingly endless rabbit hole of photos, bios, lyrics, trivia, quotes and testimonies from people who say the band changed their life. One review from The Minnesota Daily compares the band to the Talking Heads, R.E.M. and Jefferson Airplane. "Live Trip Shakespeare is an audio/visual orgasm," the reviewer writes.
But who was Trip Shakespeare? Who has ever even heard of them?
Based in the Twin Cities during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the group quickly gained a rabid regional cult following. They weren't just garage-rockers; founding members include Harvard grads who studied English, anthropology, fine arts and environmental design. They wrote about complex social ills and told funny stories, designed elaborate melodies meant to elicit deep emotion in listeners. Their final release, Lulu, was hailed by one fan as "an album so steeped in worshipping beauty that no amount of criticism—positive or negative—can mangle or tarnish its crystalline brilliance."
But like so many small-scale, beloved bands, they shone brightly and then disappeared into the ether. Some bandmates slipped into anonymity, while others stepped into the spotlight. Members Dan Wilson and John Munson later went on to form Semisonic; Wilson wrote the lyrics to their ever-popular 1999 hit "Closing Time." He has won Grammys for his songwriting work with Adele and the Dixie Chicks.
But Trip Shakespeare itself faded out of the spotlight, and left in its wake a fanbase that, decades later, still talks about them as the best they've ever seen. One of these fans is Jennifer Leutzinger, owner of Missoula's Brink Gallery. "The energy that they had, their lyrics, their humor, their seriousness, their talent; you just couldn't help fall in love with them," she says.
So when Leutzinger began mulling over the idea of having an invite-only show at The Brink, Trip Shakespeare came to mind again. "I wanted a theme for the invitational," she says. "But I didn't want it to be just some adjective, or some word, like 'love.'" One of her favorite songs by the band, "Spirit," offered the perfect lyrics for a prompt: "and the gate fell open/ wide to the casket chains/ silver and white/ long was the life/ you will hold a weapon/ you will hold a weapon/ cold at the throat of want/ silver and white."
Leutzinger admits the song is a bit dark, but she says she chose the lyrics to see if they would elicit a wide range of work. "They're abstract, and have enough room for many interpretations," she says.
The exhibit, cold at the throat of want, features 15 artists—some known Missoula names like Adelaide Every, Andy Kemmis, Jack Dempsey Boyd and Karen Shimoda, as well as artists Leutzinger admires but who don't often, if ever, show their work. "About one third of them haven't had a solo show," she says. "I wanted to give them the opportunity to create a piece without the stress that comes with creating a whole body of work."
The exhibit pieces are still filtering in, but already there's a wide range of mediums and reactions to the lyrical prompt. Works include felted wool chains that hang from the wall, a light-up panel made of actual Trip Shakespeare cassette cases (remember those?), a handmade book, small wall-hanging tableaus and other paintings, drawings, 3D sculptures and photographs.
Just to add one more angle to the show, Every, who's known as much for her visual art as for playing in rock bands around town, will be performing "Spirit" at the opening of the reception. Leutzinger says she is excited for this live performance, although she admits she had an even loftier plan at one point. "It was the longest of all long shots, but I emailed the lead singer of the band, Matt Wilson, to see if they'd come play," she says.
Even though the band surprised their fans by reuniting—for two songs only—in December 2013, Wilson told Leutzinger they weren't ready to embark on a tour to Missoula. She says he expressed excitement about the project, though. And he said "Spirit" was always his favorite.
On the Trip Shakespeare website, an old photo of a sweet-faced, long-haired Wilson is accompanied by a quote where he says, "You've rocked harder than you ever thought you could ... and you realized that it's all down to getting some soul across and saying something meaningful." A thousand miles away and 20 years later, a handful of Missoula artists are looking to capture that same kind of spirit.
The Brink Gallery hosts a First Friday reception for cold at the throat of want Fri., Feb. 7, from 5 to 8 PM. Free.