How sweet it was 

The Flathead Valley’s music renaissance loses momentum

Flanagan’s Central Station’s opening night, Dec. 31, 2004, was packed. Owner Jim Flanagan, a former manager of the House of Blues in Chicago and Los Angeles, had imported the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings, a band he’d admired his whole life, for a two-night stand. It was a top-notch band, some of whose members had recorded with Muddy Waters, Sly and the Family Stone, and Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. The crowds on the 31st and 1st reflected the band’s prominence, with Flanagan’s approaching its 400-person capacity both nights.

Sam Bush played a sold-out show at Flanagan’s a few months later, not long after the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), featuring organist Melvin Seals, had packed the place tight with people dancing until the bar closed at 2 a.m., clamoring for an encore after closing time and convincing the band to play Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is,” a song the original JGB covered.

It appeared that the Flathead was entering a musical renaissance: Whitefish’s Paddle & Axe was also booking shows by nationally touring bands, and Bigfork’s Village Well was busy hosting regionally popular acts.

Fast-forward six months to summer 2005, traditionally the busiest time for the Flathead Valley and Whitefish, with thousands of tourists enjoying Glacier National Park by day and the town of Whitefish by night. Flanagan invites JGB back, this time for a two-night run on the weekend before Independence Day. Ticket prices are the same as the first JGB show, $25 each night. He hangs flyers all over the valley, takes out radio and newspaper ads, gets the word out. JGB steps onto the stage and opens with “How Sweet It Is,” but there are few people there who might have remembered it as the closing of their last Whitefish show. In fact, there are few people at the show at all. Over the weekend, probably the biggest in Whitefish’s tourist season, only about 50 people show up, total, for both nights.

The summer continued in the same vein, with fans sometimes coming out in large numbers to see bands like Galactic and Signal Path, and sometimes not coming at all.

For the summer’s end, Flanagan planned his most ambitious event yet, The North Rocky Mountain Music Festival. There were to be three days and three nights of local and national music, with 12 bands in all, including The Motet and Signal Path—two bands that have played nearly sold-out shows at Flanagan’s—and the Steve Kimock Band rounding out the lineup. Tickets were $60 for the entire event.

The Steve Kimock Band alone should have created a buzz. Kimock has played venues such as San Francisco’s Fillmore and toured with The Other Ones, standing in for Jerry Garcia’s guitar alongside the Grateful Dead’s original bassist, Phil Lesh. His Grammy-winning drummer has played with Santana and his guitarist has played with Chaka Chan.

But after months of advertising, and with fewer than 20 tickets sold, Flanagan realized his festival, as originally planned, wasn’t going to happen.

“I can’t do a festival like this on the basis of ‘it sounds great, but I’ll buy tickets later,’” Flanagan says.

The big acts—the Steve Kimock Band, The Motet, The North Mississippi Allstars and Signal Path—are still scheduled to play night shows at Flanagan’s Central Station, but the daytime portion of the festival is canceled. And with the unencouraging response from the marketplace, Flanagan is facing the fact that he will have to scale down his efforts to bring national-caliber music to the Flathead.

“The market spoke,” Flanagan said, shortly after making the decision to cancel. “They don’t care about out-of-state music.”

“I’m not about to scale back the amount of music we do. We’ll always be a music club.” But, he says, he will cut back on the number of national acts he books, probably down to one every six weeks or so.

Flanagan isn’t the only one who’s struggling with the Flathead’s apparent disinterest. Evan Coverdell, manager of The Paddle & Axe, also tried to bring national acts into the Flathead this year with Zilla—a band headed by the String Cheese Incident’s Michael Travis—2 Live Crew, Carlos Washington and others. As with Flanagan’s Central Station, the results at the Paddle & Axe have been mixed.

“I think we’ve kind of overwhelmed the market,” Coverdell says. “It’s the amount of music compared to the number of people that live here…and the amount of bars that you can go cruise into and not pay a cover charge. I think a lot of people are more into that than seein’ tunes.”

Coverdell says that if he could have, he would have canceled about half his shows scheduled for the last weeks of summer. Like Flanagan, he believes the foreseeable future of the Flathead Valley will include less big-name music.

“Most people that are in town, at least the tourists, they’re kind of family oriented.” Coverdell says. “They’re here more for Glacier and doing stuff like that rather than to see music.”

“It’s a bummer, you know,” Coverdell continues. “I wish I could put my finger on it. All the time, all summer long, I was just rackin’ my brain, tryin’ to say ‘Man, what can I do to get people to come into these shows?’ It’s weird…I’ll have a show here, $4-$5 cover charge, and there’ll be 30 people here, and you walk down the street and you look in the Northern or the Remington and they’re just packed. It’s really, really difficult to get someone to come up with more than $5.”

Flanagan agrees that cover charges are a large part of the problem.

“I don’t think they’re used to buying concert tickets, because there haven’t been concerts to buy,” Flanagan says. “I don’t know what the time frame is, but I do know that over time, people will get used to paying covers.”

He also speculated that residents and people visiting the Flathead tend to plan their summers around regular events like the Fourth of July fireworks, Huckleberry Fest and the Flathead County Fair. But eventually, Flanagan hopes, summer tourists and locals will set aside both the time and the money for live music. Until then, he plans to book more regional bands, which command lower cover charges.

But, Flanagan says, this isn’t the end of national-caliber music in the Flathead.

“You know, I did not move here to move away. I love it out here. We’re not giving up.”

The North Rocky Mountain Music Festival kicks off Friday, with free shows by local bands. The Steve Kimock Band and The Motet play Saturday, Signal Path and the North Mississippi Allstars play Sunday. All shows start at 9 PM. Tickets are $30 Saturday, $20 Sunday, or $40 for both nights, in advance. Tickets can be purchased through Tickets West at 800-325-7328 or in limited numbers at Flanagan’s Central Station. For more information, call 862-8888.

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