The saying is that everything ends badly, or else there would be no endings at all. It’s a phrase that seems especially difficult for heavyweight boxers and once-noteworthy musicians to grasp. Surely it has something to do with brain damage, for boxers turn punch-drunk and musicians spend most their time drunk (or high), and the next thing anyone knows, it seems like a good decision to rally one more time, in a ring or on a stage, for all the world to see what it’s like when old men embarrassingly reach for a glimmer of glory days past.
At least skeptical boxing fans get to see elderly champions pummeled into history. The end for musicians is much worse. They linger on through an endless string of reunion tours and repackaged memories, each round producing bigger guts, grayer hair (if there’s any hair at all), louder hyperbole and inflated ticket prices. The Eagles promised it’d never happen and still cashed in (even naming the tour after Don Henley’s “when hell freezes over” anti-reunion pledge); The Rolling Stones appear hell-bent on churning out worse and worse material into their 70s (they’re already in their 60s); and just this summer the New Cars pulled the impressive retro feat of double-dipping at the senior citizen buffet, placing has-been Todd Rundgren, 57, in front of original Cars members Elliot Easton, 56, and Greg Hawkes, 55. Original frontman Ric Ocasek—bless him for having the decency to pass on the payday—is no doubt rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses.
It’s a sad seniors circuit on the national scale, but it’s even more depressing here in Montana, where our best rendition of an old-timer reunion is the mysteriously well-hyped return of the Mission Mountain Wood Band. If you haven’t heard of them, you’re obviously under the age of 50. But this locally cultivated country and bluegrass quintet lays claim to the title of “Montana’s most legendary band,” and I know that because their recently released self-produced five-CD box set, plus 75-minute documentary DVD and 24-page companion booklet—all part of the $95 Private Stash: The Collector’s Edition—tells me so, ad nauseam. According to the slobbery narration of the DVD, M2WB, as the band came to be known, “triumphed all over the country,” and their brand of bastardized cross-genre jam music was just the sort of thing to bridge a fragmented country during the Vietnam era, bringing lawyers and hippies side-by-side to do-si-do and drink beer. By all accounts, their biggest shows were at the epic Aber Day festivals at the University of Montana, where, surely, the thousands in attendance turned out not for the hundred or so kegs of beer, but to hear M2WB. They appeared on ABC’s “The Cheryl Ladd Special,” performed on “Hee Haw” and proudly recall that Heart once opened for them. All this happened 30 years ago.
It’s easy to concede that at one time (the late ’70s), mostly in one place (Montana) and among a certain crowd (your hippie parents, maybe) M2WB was popular. But any boasting beyond that seems tenuous. Their closest thing to a hit was “Take A Whiff on Me,” which never registered on any major charts, and they recorded only one album, In Without Knocking, in 1977. Fans, or “WoodHeads,” would argue the studio stuff doesn’t do this live band justice, but even in concert the music is full of long, middling finger-picking jams, grating four-part harmonies and lyrics like “[I’ve] come from Mission Mountains where the waters divide/I’m a little short of breath, boy, it’s a long ride.” The fan testimonials in the companion booklet come from the likes of former state governors Thomas Judge (Democrat) and Marc Racicot (Republican). Some of their first gigs were playing for Max Baucus’ inaugural Senate campaign. They were big with politicians, it seems, but what sort of legend is that? Even their connection to the Aber Day keggers seems like a convenient piggyback to an already drunken fiesta where anyone could’ve entertained dizzy college students—it’s not like their appearance had the cool campus cachet of Otis Day and the Knights playing the Delta house. They never even headlined the thing.
Today, memories of the band seem dubious at best. I asked one 30-something music fanatic about M2WB and he reacted with a snore. Another 30-something who’s lived here her whole life—and was born to lifelong Montanan hippie parents—had never heard of them. Another respected local who works in the music scene and is old enough, I think, to be my father, said the band was before his time, which is either the most damning evidence of M2WB’s unbridgeable generation gap or an incredibly dexterous withholding of comment.
Maybe the lack of street recognition is because the band broke up 24 years ago. They did play a reunion show in Polson 14 years back, but the guys looked old and sounded off (footage appears on the DVD); solos were performed with grimaces of painful constipation, to the point that someone should’ve dosed their canned beers with Metamucil. And yet, this summer, they’re pushing on, promising a “Tour of the Decade,” which begins with a Private Stash CD-release show and documentary screening at the Wilma Theatre Friday, June 10. PBS, which everyone knows is constantly skewing to the younger crowd, plans to film the concert as part of its own documentary.
This relentless historical rehash comes mainly courtesy of M2WB frontman Rob Quist, who since the band initially broke up has continued to peddle kitchy Montana productions like last year’s multimedia show Odyssey West, commemorating the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Quist knows promotion like Zamfir knows pan flute, and the M2WB leader’s new mission is to push the historical significance of his band’s best years—and, gasp, what’s still to come. The DVD (produced by Quist and his wife) has the audacity to subtitle one section “The Future,” wherein drummer Greg Reichenberg opines, “With the way Nashville is these days, I think we’d be right there with the best of them,” and everyone leaves open the possibility of a prolonged return.
That’s a frightening thought to anyone even mildly concerned with Montana’s greater musical reputation. Even if the band was once a regional touchstone—and I find it hard to fully believe—they aren’t anymore. And that can only mean we’re headed toward another bad ending, one already a good 20-some years past its due.
The Mission Mountain Wood Band plays The Wilma Theatre Saturday, June 10, at 7:30 PM. The show also features a screening of the DVD documentary included in Private Stash: The Collector’s Edition. $20.