Longtime Missoula musicians—and “longtime” is measured in decades, not the dog-year fudging of more recent honyockers—are wont to hand you a lot of “all this was fields when I was your age” how-dee-do when it comes to talking about the old days. But how can you blame them? Bands like the Big Sky Mudflaps were the scene back when many of today’s young hipsters were still getting choo-choo feedings of creamed peas and yam purée.
“In Missoula, most bars would have the same band for six nights a week,” says bassist Beth Lo. “You could go from city to city and have at least four nights. You look at a place like Jay’s now, and it’s two or three bands a night. There are a lot more young people writing their own music and starting their own bands than there were then. It was a different kind of scene.”
The Mudflaps are currently celebrating 26 years of playing in and around Missoula. The personnel have changed slightly, but the two couples of the original lineup—Lo and guitarist David Horgan, pianist Steve Powell and second bassist Maureen Powell—have kept the blend of cool jazz and vintage R&B going strong since 1975. You young Missoula bands of today, can you imagine such a thing? Many of those early gigs went down at the Park Hotel, once a notorious dive at the northern terminus of Higgins Ave. Lo remembers a seedy joint that really got happening when the Mudflaps and other bands began moving in.
“It was a rough bar,” she says. “There were fights all the time. I remember being onstage, playing through a fight and wondering, ‘Are we supposed to stop? Do we keep going?’”
“We could pack that place on a Monday night, too,” she continues. “Any night of the week, it would just be mobbed. People didn’t think it would be a good venue at all, but it turned out to be a really lively place. And all those old places had big dance floors. You’d get a lot of sweating and jumping around and yelling and stomping. The energy level would get really high.”
Part of the deal for playing the Park Hotel, she remembers, was lodging. Lo, now a ceramics professor at the University of Montana, explains that when most of the Mudflaps’ lineup still lived in the Hamilton-Grantsdale area, members might make themselves at home in the hotel for almost a week while playing gigs every night.
“It was pretty seedy place to stay overnight,” she admits. “The daytime scene was pretty weird, too. David and I were walking out once and somebody decided we were Sonny and Cher.”
The Mudflaps went into the studio for the first time in the fall of 1978 and released their debut LP, Armchair Cabaret, on Helios Records in December of the following year. Armchair Cabaret, cut at Bitterroot Recording at the current site of Bernice’s Bakery, is being reissued for the first time on CD this month by the band’s own Spud Records.
“The master tapes of the record,” David Horgan explains, “The 15-inch-per-second master tapes that we’d actually sent to the pressing plant were lost for years before we finally found them in a box buried in the basement. I took them down to [Recording Center owner] Rick Kuschel’s studio and they seemed fine, but he was worried that they would do what old tapes do, which is leave a sticky residue on his tape heads and eventually start sticking and become unplayable. And, sure enough, that’s what they were starting to do. So Rick told me about this process where you bake them. You put them in a food-drying oven and you literally bake them at a low temperature for 12 or 15 hours.”
“It really scared me to hear about this,” laughs Horgan. “But the alternative was mastering direct from the acetate or an unopened copy of the record. It was much, much cleaner to do it from the tapes, and once he baked them, they played nicely and they’re totally clean. He took them and cooked them and transferred them to his hard drive for ease of processing to CD, and when he played it back to me I just thought, wow, you can’t beat that.”