Seizing the Stage 

Who’s keeping the dream alive in Missoula’s music scene?

I saw a thing of sublime and surpassing beauty last week.

As I was crossing the Higgins bridge towards downtown, there she was: a brunette woman perched at her window on an upper floor of the Wilma, contentedly and somewhat languorously taking in the Dixieland that was floating out of the Caras Park Pavilion as part of the Montana Traditional Jazz Festival. The southern face of the building was washed in peach light from a setting sun that had decided to make one last curtain call after an evening shower. The scene completely filled my eyes.

I say she was taking it in languorously, but I can’t be sure—she was too far away for me to discern anything apart from the general grace she brought to the window frame. If I knew her, I couldn’t recognize her, but that’s exactly why it was so entrancing. There, several stories above the park, was the anonymous face of Missoula, digging the simple pleasure of free music literally floating in on the breeze. She perfectly illustrated the way I like to think Missoula sees itself and, I have to add, the way I like to see it.

This epiphany couldn’t have come at a better time, because just a few minutes prior I’d been thinking that Missoula is desperately in need of a locker-room swirlie. The sort of Platonic ideal of Missoula I try to entertain, as embodied by the Wilma tableau, stands at odds with the other picture that sometimes takes form, and lately rather often: the Missoula that eats its young. The Missoula that distrusts its youth and alienates them without pausing to think that they represent its future. The culturally conservative, even alarmist Missoula that bitches about its homeowner equity because of three outdoor concerts in one year and sounds the air raid siren when a skate-punk tour announces a date at a venue generally reserved for entertainment geared, in admittedly reductionist terms, toward “mature tastes” and some decidedly unscientific notion of “family.” This is the Missoula that needs the swirlie: the one that congratulates itself on its own wonderfulness while relegating music and culture to the status of specimens on a reservation of convenience to be visited if and when we feel like paying lip service to some smug notion of cultural diversity.

Vita may be breva and ars longa, but music is right now. It’s where you’re at. A painting will stay there and so will a sculpture, but a life-affirming concert is an upheaval that paints itself on you and is gone, defying any hope of an adequate retelling. It’s an interesting thing indeed that this publication’s music issue appears every July, because summer is invariably the season when the music scene undergoes change. Lots of change, particularly in respect to original music. To name only two examples, at the end of this month Missoula will lose two lifelong sons whose contributions to this ongoing musical pageant have been incalculable and who will be sorely missed by anyone with a sense of perspective on the past ten years: Yale Kaul and Josh Henderson, both of whom contribute to this issue of the Independent. Between them, the two men have played in at least ten bands and written huge chapters in the Big Book of Missoula Music. Four of those bands—Humpy, Cicada, Tra-Bang! and Lardello—will either collapse or reshuffle. In contemplating their departure to pastures greener—Yale to Denver and Josh to San Marcos, Texas—the considered student of local rock lore can’t help but feel a sense of, as Henderson puts it, musical “brain drain.”

But this is meant to be neither retrospective nor requiem. In keeping with the theme of Music as the Right Now, Josh and I want to hip you to some folks who, we think, are keeping the dream alive in the Garden City. You’ll forgive us, please, if it gets a little subjective, insular and esoteric at times. Music may very well bring people together, but personal preferences also shape our identities and, in the end, what we put in our pockets and take home is for each of us to decide.

—Andy Smetanka

The Evaders
The Garden City’s prodigal sons of rock

Get ‘em started early, that’s the key to raising musical kids. Just ask the members of the Evaders (Hellgate High School, classes of ’98 and ’99), some of whom have been playing in bands since before middle school. Or, if you’d rather your kids didn’t grow up to be rockers, don’t encourage them by example.

“I’d seen my dad do it,” says Evaders guitarist Sam Nasset—whose pops is Russ Nasset of Revelators, Valentinos and Psyclones renown. “Playing the guitar with a whiskey bottle, no shit.”

(Note: While the Psyclones are defunct, the Valentinos and the Revelators—with whom the younger Nasset also plays occasionally—are both currently active. Nasset the Elder, stepping out the door to play at a wedding when we reached him at home, asked: “When are you going to do a story about us old fuckers?” All in good time, my friend. These 450 words belong to youth.)

Bassist Chris Baumann nods agreement. “It’s just in my blood,” he shrugs. “Playing rock is just too fun not to do.”

If you truly want to see a band that takes all the exuberance and energy of being young and rockin’ and writes it large in one- and two-minute bursts of Sten-gun punk, sniff around the nightlife listings until you catch word of an Evaders show. Pay the two dollars and go see them. Do it fast, too, because this summer is the Evaders’ last go-round, at least for a while. Baumann is off to Tuscaloosa to study at the University of Alabama, drummer Patrick Robins is spending a semester in Salamanca (that’s in Spain, Johnny No-Map), and second guitarist Brian Overland is headed for Columbia University to study Latin.

But not before living the fantasy of playing to a gigantic festival crowd. The Evaders, along with the Disappointments and Volumen, are Missoula’s musical emissaries to the Warped Tour, a traveling punk rock circus that will bypass Missoula this month (after a considerable stink about the proposed venue: Fort Missoula) in favor of Bozeman’s Gallatin Valley Fairgrounds. The Evaders’ seed is sure to find purchase with fans of the tour’s headliners—among them NOFX, the Supersuckers, Green Day, Zeke and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

It’ll be the Evaders’ second productive trip to Bozeman in the space of a month. They recently recorded nine songs (“Nine songs in 23 minutes,” adds Baumann, “on three hours of sleep. Be sure to mention that.”) in the studio of Ron Sanchez, who also recorded the most recent single by fellow locals the Everyday Sinners. Like the Evaders in concert, the nine songs are a spastic tangle of blazing leads and gang vocals. While not as crisp as his work with the Sinners, the nine songs Sanchez engineered bring out Overland’s bewildering artiness in particular and contrast it nicely with Nasset’s flying maple moves.

Cheeky, choice. Like I say, see them while you still can.

—Andy Smetanka

Bevel Studio, Missoula’s newest recording opportunity

Let’s face it: despite our local pretensions about being a community that loves its art, rock bands in Missoula can easily conclude that a) rock is not considered art or b) our community doesn’t believe in expressing its love financially.

Yet, despite an appalling lack of compensation, fickle and largely itinerant collegians and a dearth of affordable recording opportunities, Missoula has had a varied and thriving music scene. Why?

According to Troy “Hank” Donovan, co-owner and operator of Missoula’s newest recording opportunity, Bevel Studio, it’s a lot like Tra-Bang!, the Fu Manchu cover band that he and his partner Jimmy Rolle started just because they could. “Hell, why not? I see so many people in this town just think of something cool to do and just go do it,” says Donovan. “That’s pretty much the same reason why we started Bevel and Tra-Bang! Why not?”

For Donovan and Rolle, the “why not?” was first uttered over beers after another working-stiff night at a local eatery. Deciding that they ought to just kick down a big chunk of change together and get to work, they went to sleep on it. They sobered up the next day, and still found it an enticing prospect.

Now, two years and twenty-some recording jobs later, Bevel Studio has grown into a full-fledged business that regularly exceeds the expectations of its clients, not to mention its owners. “Three or four years ago,” says Rolle, “no way am I thinking that I’m gonna own a recording studio. But here it is, the coolest hobby ever.”

Housed in Rolle’s garage, the three-room studio is surprisingly warm, with brown walls and track lighting that make a pleasant atmosphere for getting the goods on tape. On top of that, Rolle and Donovan treat the whole process as an exercise in giving the customers what they want. For readers who don’t play, having strangers record your music is fraught with peril, as it is often the case that recording engineers are a sullen lot of know-it-alls who stopped listening to new music after the last Steely Dan record.

“There are a lot of rules,” observes Donovan, “especially in those recording magazines we are always checking out. There’s always something you’re not supposed to do in the studio, but we’re not about the cookie-cutter mentality, that says, ‘this is the way to do it.’”

“I don’t wanna be the guy that is the dick,” chimes in Rolle. “A lot of the bands that we know, they’re rockers and they wanna lay down some wood, you know? We record digital like it’s analog, push it to the point of breaking, stop, and put it on a CD.”

—Josh Henderson

Nine Pound Hammer
A silver medal, bluegrass, and green pastures

What’s a voice? All of these things: the basic human sound, the sound considered in reference to its character or quality, its effectiveness in conveying a message, the message itself. We speak of a singer losing her voice, a writer or poet finding his.

By any of the foregoing measures, Andrea Harsell has got a damned fine voice. A lazy alto with the yearning twang of a bluegrass matriarch and the bite of a hard-edged folkie. It’s what lures you into Nine Pound Hammer’s self-titled debut CD and keeps you intrigued by not revealing itself all at once. Sometimes it’s as bare and pink as a newborn mouse, other times earthy and breathlessly sexy. Locked in harmony with those of guitarist/vocalist Mason Tuttle or mandolinist Tom Kelley, it’s a soft path into the more recondite corners of the quartet’s deceptively simple songwriting. A song like the Kelley-penned “The Key to Your Heart” showcases all of these moods, this voice.

And it’s a voice that’s beginning to be heard even outside this valley, where Nine Pound Hammer—Harsell, Kelley, Tuttle and bassist Adam Sherba—have already established a strong following for their regular Sunday night shows at the Top Hat. The news: Nine Pound Hammer recently won second place at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which is big news indeed.

“The band that beat us was a seasoned contest band,” says Kelley, hardly smarting about it. Not a bad showing at a four-day festival that this year attracted the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Natalie Merchant.

Okay, so Telluride isn’t strictly bluegrass, but neither is Nine Pound Hammer. Members describe their sound as bluegrass with elements of folk and new acoustic in varying proportions, depending on the song. The blend also found favor at a recent California concert, where Kelley explains that they made the best of an indifferent booking.

“We did surprisingly well,” he says. “Considering we got handed all the worst time slots, it went over great.”

So what happens next, especially now that the band has this flash CD, which they recorded earlier this year in Victor, Idaho’s esteemed Hen House studio, to send around?

“We’re hoping to do a fall concert series somewhere in the state,” Kelley continues, “And hopefully next year at this time we’ll be preparing for the International Bluegrass Music Association showcase. It’s essentially an industry convention held in Louisville, Kentucky, but it attracts bands from all over. Like Czech bands that are totally into Flatt & Scruggs. It’s pretty cool.”

Harsell herself will also be competing solo in the state-level finals for an upcoming country showdown. The state competition will happen in August or September, she says, and depending upon how things come together with winter approaching, she says she might be headed to Hawaii over New Year’s.

Resting the voice, one supposes.

—Andy Smetanka

Ritmo Six, The unrehearsed truth about the rowdiest jam band

Abruptly putting bands on the spot to talk about their music in plain English can harpoon an interview before it even gets off the ground. Which is why I’ve always been of a mind that you should start somewhere else and sort of get around to talking about the music. So, when Ritmo Six came over, we mostly talked about spiders and leeches and whether, in a hypothetical wilderness survival situation, they would prefer to starve or draw sustenance from the sole source of food: ticks the size of silver dollars. They did not quail. Come to find out, they are as adept at winging it offstage as they are on.

“The common denominator between us is that we all want to play rowdy music,” says keyboardist Zach Aldrich, “Our contemporaries in town may be better musicians and have a more dynamic construction to their songs, but the one thing we have going for us is that we just want to get up there and rage.”

“And the free beer doesn’t hurt, either,” adds guitarist Ryan Fadden.

Perhaps you were lucky enough to see Ritmo Six play for a packed house at the Ritz over graduation weekend this May. The four principles—Fadden, Aldrich, bassist Matthew “Knotter” Knott and drummer Rob Kilpatrick—were joined by members of Abendego and the Cold Mountain Rhythm Band for three hours of improvisational pyrotechnics that completely lit the place up. What a thing that was: the unflappable Knotter, eyes screwed shut, off in some different dimension of jam bliss, returning just long enough to kiss his mother goodbye after she flagged him down to tell him she was leaving. Fadden trading lyxx with CMRB harpist Keith Friedland, fingers flying through the air like ballpark wienies in a concession stand punch-up. Drummer Kilpatrick, whose particularly unusual contribution to the gallery of “drummer faces” is an expression that resembles someone smirkingly waiting out a strong line of utter horseshit, kept the band and its guests on track through even the craziest improvisational excursions.

“All of our songs are pretty much worked out,” explains Aldrich, “But in every one of them there’s room to put something in.”

Seems like. There’s no shortage of wacked ideas, that’s for sure. These are the guys who walk into a room and immediately pick up the guitars and banjos. Their conversations with each other are strewn with inside jokes and seeming non-sequiturs, most of which have something to do with strange wrinkles that come up in the course of playing together, like, a bazillion hours a week.

It’s great when band members are their own best source of entertainment, but do members of Ritmo Six ever feel like they’ve got an itch that they can’t quite scratch in Missoula?

“Definitely,” says Aldrich. “There’s a limit to what you can do here, but at the same time we have many versions of a utopian version of how things will work out for us.”

—Andy Smetanka

Disgruntled Nation
Such nice boys, such ass-whooping punk

It never ceases to amaze me how one minute you can be watching and listening to a hardcore band doing their thing at full boil, chipping open the locks to the Ninth Gate of the Apocalypse, and the next minute you find yourself talking to three down-to-earth guys you wouldn’t even hesitate to introduce to your grandmother. Except for the fact that they maybe have bones driven through their septa.

Onstage, Disgruntled Nation can be an almost terrifyingly intense experience—not an ounce of fat or indulgence, just three fashion-free punks welded into a steely fist that slams you in the gut with every minute-and-a-half burst. Avulsive blasts of guitar, loping bass breaks, and shrapnel drum fills erupting out of the drum kit like a mortar shell dropping into a foxhole. No attitude—just the goods, Flathead Nowhere League style.

Offstage, Disgruntled Nation are about the lowest-key bunch of guys you’d ever meet. Pull out a notepad or a camera, though, and bassist Brent Shultz and drummer Matt Lawlor start fidgeting like British schoolgirls while guitarist Dave Parsons looks on with amused patience, waiting for the straight dope to shake itself out.

New guitarist Dave Parsons, that should read. Parsons assumed that mantle after original guitarist Rob Alley followed his heart to Minneapolis last year. Apart from supplying the band with a dose of bone-dry humor, Parsons can also be credited with injecting a fresh personal supply of songwriting ideas to a sound that, however savage it was to begin with, was starting to get rootbound for all the usual reasons: members stuck in a small town, members starting to step on each other’s nerves, members second-guessing their own ideas, members perhaps starting to wonder if all the heavy lifting and ceaseless commuting to play shows in Missoula was worth it. Hardcore is like that. It was never intended to be an avenue for improvisation. The song structure isn’t as flexible and bands can easily find themselves pacing ruts in the same dirt over and over.

That’s something that occurred to me in the process of stacking up the band’s two previous EP outings with an advance copy of the next one, which was also their maiden studio voyage with Dave on board. Even as you read this, the bomb is in the mail: an ass-whooping six-song cannonade of graduate-level hardcore songwriting, original enough to defy the usual irksome comparisons, but undeniably flying the flag of name-brand influences that conveniently recommend it to fans of Crude SS, Violent Society, and early Poison Idea. One song in particular recalls the influential Portland punx at their savage best: “Beaded Marauder,” which Dave describes as a jab at “rock star bullshit,” starts off in a deceptively safe time signature before exploding into a breakneck triple-speed riffle reverently lifted from PI’s first single, Pick Your King. It cuts through the bullet-belt wannabe BS out there like a hot knife through butter.

With an upcoming tour (riding along with local hellions Sasshole) slated for later this month, it looks like blue skies for Disgruntled Nation. Blue skies and black clouds. That’s meant to be a good thing.

—Andy Smetanka

Superfire: Catch these local heroes, while you can

OK, Missoula, here’s what we, the local rock press, have been ignoring. There is a mass exodus of talent going on in this town. Mark my words; by next winter a great portion of the local scene will be ensconced in West Missoula, a suburb also known as Portland. The reasons for this are many (one being that Portland also swallowed up one of Missoula’s finest, the Fireballs of Freedom) but too varied and controversial for this article. But this issue of Portland pilfering local rock once again surfaces in the case of local up-and-already-got-there’s, Superfire.

Speaking briefly with guitarist Chris K., the inevitable comes up.

“Any band plans?” I ask.

“Well, we’re gonna record a record and while there’s not a date or anything,” here comes the inevitable, “we’re gonna move to Portland because none of us want to spend another winter here.”

It’s time to take corrective measures, folks. I’m not talking about trying to change Superfire’s mind (although more than one venue for original, local, rock bands would be a huge step in the right direction) but doing something altogether more gratifying for fans of good rock; I’m talking about getting off your butt and going down to see these guys, in whatever dive bar you’ve all but sworn to avoid.

K. and bassist Jay Ward have been at all those shows you missed, soaking in the rock for a good ten years together, working out riffles but never getting full-on until the underappreciated stylings of From Beyond hit the scene. Of course, no one’s first band actually works out (except for every single group on “Behind the Music,” where it’s actually easier to write hits than stay off the hustle dust), but since Ward wanted to move off the skins and onto the bass, the break-up was a boon to the duo.

Listening to them play now, you can hear ten years of research on the aesthetics of rock. Superfire is the intersection of hard-rock, hook-heavy pop and the tweaky guitar stylings of your favorite lo-fi guitar geniuses. Anchored by Ward’s alternately mesmerizing then combative bass work, K. and drummer Leo Martin lend an extra layer of muscle to the music by oftentimes playing exactly right along until a diversion is necessary.

Superfire is well aware that a song is an altogether different thing than everyone just going off on their respective instruments. That’s what I like so damn much about them; they very clearly understand the importance of the song. It’s a natural consequence that those songs turn out so good, but it’s a sheer pleasure for the rest of us.

At any rate, they will be leaving, so go see them before you have to drive to West Missoula.

—Josh Henderson

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