by Kate Whittle
If you’ve traveled much around the country, you know that Missoula has a reputation. Say you’re from Missoula, and people will instantly bring up fly fishing or the Testicle Festival. It’s awkward to explain that, um, I don’t really do any of those things. When I think Missoula, I think basement rock shows, beardy dude metal bands and non-ironic country swing dances. I think of thumping dubstep beats and brainy hip-hop emcees. I think of weird experimental noise-rock and banjo players on the sidewalk. Yes, I live here for the music. Seriously. And a look back at some highlights of 2013 makes me proud to say that if you love live music, Missoula is a great place to be.
Firstly, if it’s intimate, cozy shows where you can get close enough to smell the lead singer’s whiskey breath and buy him a beer afterward, we have those in spades. Fucked Up and the Menzingers, two of the biggest names in punk rock, played to raucous crowds within a few days of each other in February. Rocker-turned-motivational-party-maestro Andrew W.K. inspired a packed Palace crowd to pogo in spring. Rappers Aesop Rock and Busdriver performed for a packed house at the Badlander. And Drag the River, one of my all-time favorite bands, played a super intimate (read: boozy) set at Monk's on the Sunday after Total Fest.
When it comes to small spaces containing big sounds, not much could beat the twelfth edition of Total Fest. It was full of countless memorable moments, like when comedian Reggie Watts performed a surprise set that packed the VFW on Saturday. Or when the singer from Brain Tumors writhed around, crowd-surfed and almost kicked a certain Indy staffer in the head. And Red Fang closed out the last night of Total Fest with heavy-as-hell metal in a beyond-capacity venue that felt well over 100 degrees. The mosh pit was a joyous slip-and-side of sweat, and I, for one, had to wring out my shirt after the set.
We routinely host awesome touring acts, but I’m proud of our talented locals, too. Missoula denizens above a certain age fondly remember Jay’s Upstairs, a small punk venue above a laundromat that closed in 2006. Some of that magic was recreated when the space, now the swanky private Loft of Missoula club, reopened as Jay’s for one night as a fundraiser. Reptile Dysfunction, J.C. Auto and other venerated bands from the Jay’s days got back together to rock out. It was a good thing they put away the blown glass artwork for the evening, because that show certainly got rowdy.
Nostalgia aside, Missoulians remain happy to get together to try something weird, as we saw at Rock 'n Roll Lotto. This noble experiment brought together local musicians into randomly assigned bands, who then had a few weeks to practice together for a one-off show at the VFW. Argentinean flute players wound up with punk rock bassists. Metalheads worked with folkies. The night drew together representatives from almost every music scene in town to party down. And while the excellence of Vomit Cop and Traumaboner might never be repeated again, I’m stoked to see how Rock Lotto II, slated for Feb. 1 at the Palace, brings the weird.
And it’s hard to talk about concerts without the necessary vehicle for them: venues. Spaces come and go, but we rounded out the year better than we started. It was a blow to DIY, all-ages shows when Zoo City Apparel closed its brick-and-mortar storefront on Main Street, but thankfully, the ZACC basement came back online to help fill the gap. (Notably, Northwest punk faves RVIVR played a heartfelt set there surrounded by an earnest crowd.) The Top Hat re-opened after a thorough remodel and a new venue, Stage 112, opened inside the Elk’s Lodge, adding spruced-up spaces and sound systems to the mix.
It’s hard to pick my favorite moment from this past year, but one particular evening in mid-October will stay with me for a long time—at least, what I remember through the PBR haze. At the Palace, sludge-rock-destroyers Kylesa played a ferocious set at the Palace. After Kylesa, I scooted over to the VFW, a few blocks away, to catch most of Thee Oh Sees’ bouncy surf-rock set. There’s not many cities in the country where that would be so easy or cheap to do. When I visit cities like Seattle or LA, I’m always excited to go see bands that don’t often play in Missoula, until I remember frustrating logistics like battling traffic to get to the venue, finding parking, expensive cover charges and pricey drinks. By a trick of our geography—and the hard work of dozens of promoters and venue managers—we host established national acts, cutting-edge independent bands and creative local minds, all within a small distance.
Missoula has room to improve, certainly. (If someone wants to start an all-woman rock band called The Ellen Degenerates, I would absolutely buy that T-shirt. Just saying.) Looking ahead, early 2014 is already filling up with events I’m unashamedly stoked about, like Reel Big Fish. Rock on, Missoula.