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Rock Fest 2002 leaves its indelible mark on Missoula

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A 38-year-old woman stands with her 14-year-old daughter in the shade of two unremarkable tour buses. Her orange T-shirt is covered with signatures in black permanent Sharpie: Bobby Blotzer, Jani Lane, Tracii Guns, and six or eight more. There isn’t much room left but she’s convinced she can squeeze one more by her left shoulder. She’s reserved this last space for Ratt bassist Robbie Crane who has only been with the band a couple of years but is, as she puts it, “amazingly gorgeous.” As Crane steps off his bus the woman leaps toward him saying, “I know I’m not good looking, but could you sign my shirt?” He’s more than happy to accommodate her request, but after a quick John Hancock he disappears quickly into the VIP tent.

“I’ve been a headbanger for the last 25 years,” the woman says. “And now I’ve brought my daughter here to see what it’s all about.”

Her daughter has stood meekly at her mother’s side throughout the Crane accosting. The daughter’s T-shirt is noticeably absent of signatures. “We traveled all the way from Dillon just to see this,” the mother says, of her hometown almost 200 miles away. “Just to see these guys and hear them play.”

What she’s referring to is Rock Fest 2002’s Missoula stop: a package tour featuring five bands—Dokken, Ratt, Warrant, Firehouse and LA Guns—from the American genre hard rock…or hair metal…or butt rock. The bands, like many of the towns where their music remains popular, have been all but forgotten by urban and suburban America. But this isn’t a pity-sharing session between the neglected. Instead, it feels like a long overdue reunion of old friends. It’s as if both bands and fans don’t know or don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of them.

“I’ve been looking forward to something like this,” says Dave Cox of Anaconda. “We don’t get many concerts like this in Montana, so I wasn’t going to miss this.”

Cox, resplendent in Budweiser cap and Van Halen T-shirt, adds that he was excited to see Dokken and Ratt.

“I know people think this music is old,” he says, laughing. “But so am I.”

Cox represents the event’s sizeable demographic—white males over 35—but there are just as many teens and twenty-somethings.

Mindi Jameson and Danielle Shaw, both 21, wait in line to meet Firehouse. The women drove from Butte early this morning with friends. This is the first time they’ve seen Firehouse, and before the band’s set they would have been hard-pressed to hum one of its Top 40 hits—perhaps because they were nine when the last one came out. Yet the two wait in a line with 200 people for a 30-second conversation with the rock stars.

“I don’t know why we came,” admits Shaw.

“We came because it’s rock and roll,” shouts Jameson.

The line moves quickly and soon it’s their turn. Shaw seems nervous as she chats with the band. Jameson pulls up her shirt and the four band members sign her midriff. The two walk away, cracking up.

“I don’t know why I did that,” says Jameson. “I didn’t really even like them that much.”

Jameson is not the only neophyte asking for a body autograph. Teenaged girls to middle-aged woman stick out their tongues and pull their shirts up to reveal scribbles in permanent marker, part of the ethos of this subculture. The men wear black T-shirts, the women wear black Sharpies. It’s surprising to see a Missoula show without any fly-fishing or “Restore The River, Remove The Dam” shirts. Instead, this shows apparel ranges from the obvious—Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath—to the obscure—Bang Tango, Dangerous Toys, Faster Pussycat. To go with the black Ts are leather pants, denim jackets and big hair. One diehard has even gone so far as to duct tape his middle finger, ring finger and thumb to his palm, forcing his hand into a frozen metal salute—all done with a healthy mix of tongue-in-cheek and sincerity.

“We wanted to come in costume,” says Tonya Foley, a woman from Butte in tight jeans and a cowboy hat. “You know, wigs and make up and all that.”

Foley came because she “loves the ’80s and can’t get enough of them.” She grew up with these bands and loves that a concert like this came to Montana. The day’s only speed bump came early when LA Guns, the hardcore oddball of the tour and opener, sped things up with their metal anthem, “Killing Machine.”

“I don’t let my kid listen to Eminem, but I’ll listen to this,” says Foley with a confused grin.

But she wouldn’t change LA Guns set list if she could. The only thing she’d change is the length of some of the bands’ hair. “I’m disappointed they don’t have long hair anymore,” she says. “I wanted to see some long hair, some skanky hair.”

While most Missoulians have skipped the show, perhaps saving their money for the Bitterroot Valley Bluegrass Festival or Rock ’n’ Roll Days, out-of-towners eagerly paid the $30 ticket price. And they will have the chance to do it all over again for years to come as O Productions—which brought Rock Fest 2002 to Missoula—has contracted with the Western Montana Fairgrounds for a similar show each year for the next five years.

The 38-year-old woman in the orange T-shirt says she’ll come back next year but right now has other plans. She slinks toward the VIP area as Ratt lead singer Jizzy Pearl ends the band’s set shouting, “It’s good to see rock and roll is alive and well here in Missoula.”

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