Blitzen Trapper hasn't been on tour since 2016, but the band recently played 28 shows in six weeks in Portland. Those shows comprised an impressionistic, futuristic, rock 'n' roll theater piece produced by the Portland Center Stage company called Wild and Reckless: A New Concert Event with Blitzen Trapper.
Written by frontman Eric Earley, it featured a dozen brand-new Blitzen Trapper songs (as well as several older ones) and starred the five members of the band—Earley, Brian Adrian Koch, Marty Marquis, Erik Menteer, and Michael Van Pelt—along with professional actors Laura Carbonell and Leif Norby. Four of the musicians (all but Van Pelt) tackled speaking parts, while both actors also sang with the band. A selection of songs from the show has already been released on a limited-edition album that was sold only at the performances, and a proper full-length record, Blitzen Trapper's ninth, is due out later this year. So when the band comes to the Top Hat on June 20, there's likely to be lots of new-to-Missoula material.
Missoula may also see a more talkative Eric Earley. Blitzen Trapper's last stint on the road was the semi-acoustic Songbook: A Night of Stories and Songs tour, which skewed toward cover tunes (ranging from Gillian Welch to Elliot Smith to Pearl Jam) and youthful memories. "Over the three weeks that we did it, I got more and more comfortable sharing," Earley says. That gave him a bit more confidence as the narrator and star of a musical.
"It's not a musical," Portland Center Stage Associate Artistic Director Rose Riordan, who co-directed the show with Liam Kaas-Lentz, said during rehearsals. While the show was not quite a twangy Hamilton, it did somewhat resemble Stew's Passing Strange, and it could definitely be categorized as a rock opera or live concept album in the spirit of Tommy, Red Headed Stranger and (sorry) Kilroy Was Here.
Earley had already written most of the band's new album, with a loosely autobiographical storyline about star-crossed lovers, when PCS reached out, looking for a Portland artist to do something unusual for its "Northwest Stories" series. He also had a novel-in-progress, which he describes as "a huge blown-out work about heroin addiction, robotic science and Old Portland."
These two works laid the foundation for Wild and Reckless, which is set in a dystopian, alternate-reality version of Portland's future based on Portland's past: the city of Drugstore Cowboy rather than Portlandia, with a little bit of Edward Abbey in the mix. The conceit of the the show is that sometime in the future, lightning has been harnessed to generate power, the latest chapter in mankind's tendency to, as one character puts it, "tame the earthly forces one by one, to our own short-sighted ends." But there's also an addictive byproduct. "Dust" addicts are not only unable to kick their habit, they are also prone to being struck by lightning. As Earley puts it, "What are the symptoms of a society that seeks nothing but power in all its forms?"
Earley's songwriting touchstones include the likes of Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Neil Young, and the recorded versions of the Wild and Reckless songs brim with a mix of Muscle Shoals grooves, country-tinged pop, Southern prog and '70s AOR. For the pomp and bombast of the theater, Earley looked to Judas Priest, Queen and even Bruce Springsteen. The PCS production, with its special effects, projection screens and Madonna-style wireless mics let the band pretend it was a "mini-arena show," Earley says. "Just having sets and a lighting designer made the whole experience kind of a rock 'n' roll fantasy."
- Over the past decade, Portland’s Blitzen Trapper has become an honorary Missoula band. “We probably play Montana more than we play Portland at this point,” says frontman Eric Earley.
Wild and Reckless hearkens back to the days when Earley was living on the streets of Portland, largely by choice, while writing and recording the band's breakthrough albums, 2007's Wild Mountain Nation and 2008's Furr. He worked—and, on rainy nights, slept—at what's known in Blitzen Trapper lore as the "Telegraph Building," which was something between a storage space and squat. "Half of it they were using, the other half the roof was caved in," Earley remembers.
Then the band began its period of constant of touring, allowing Earley to continue being a vagabond, except now it was his job. Constant touring is what it takes to be a viable working band in the age of mobile phones and music streaming. "You're basically a trucker," Earley says.
"I like to think of it as Performative Furniture Moving," adds Brian Adrian Koch, the band's drummer.
Not that they're complaining. "To be able to make a living giving people something of myself, that they are actually giving a shit about, that's a good feeling," Earley says. "When we play shows, the people that I interact with, they're there for the right reasons. They're there because of the music. And because of the words."
Portland has always been the lifeblood of Blitzen Trapper's music. But success and touring can take you not just far from home, but away from who you were. Ten years of road work later, Earley can still conjure the shock of returning to a city that was changing as quickly as he could write songs about it.
"I can remember just being like, 'What? When did they build this? That place is closed?,'" he says.
The "new Portland" is a place where fledgling bands can't afford to live, but it's also a place where a dues-paid band like Blitzen Trapper can star in a show at a corporate-sponsored nonprofit theater in a renovated armory a block from Powell's Books.
"Portland's kind of rebirth is very interesting for us, and our career ... our place in the city," Earley says. "I don't know that I even think of us as a Portland band to be honest, because we hardly ever play here. We probably play Montana more than we play Portland at this point."
Indeed. Like the Gourds, or Yonder Mountain String Band, or (wink) the Decemberists, Blitzen Trapper is an honorary Missoula band. I've lived in both Missoula and Portland (hey, who hasn't?), and the Blitzen Trapper shows I saw at the Palace and the Badlander (where the whole basement sang along to "Furr") remain my favorites.
The feeling is mutual, and mutually beneficial. Where some bands route through Utah, passing over Montana for Boise, or blow straight from Seattle to Minneapolis, Blitzen Trapper thrives in the Inland Northwest and the Rockies, especially in the summer, what with all the resort-town events and music festivals (according to Pollstar, the band is already booked for both Spokane and "Groovin' on the Gallatin" in September). Earley says that in some cases they make more money playing here in the hinterlands than they do on the East Coast. Plus, since the band members all hail from small Northwestern towns, they feel at home in the region.
"It's authentic," says Earley. "We grew up in the mountains." As a kid, he assumed that his immediate world in Oregon was the only wild and reckless place in America, that everywhere else was the big city.
"Now I'm like, 'No, there's a whole Mountain West that's awesome.' The Rocky Mountain states feel like our places now."
Blitzen Trapper plays the Top Hat Tue., June 20. The band's own Marty Marquis, who recently released a solo album, Skookum Sound, opens. Doors at 8 PM, show at 9. $16/$18.