The Unavoidable Axshinslax

Montana band Axshinslax ( followed up a Monday, May 16 performance at The Top Hat in Missoula with a Thursday gig at The Silver Dollar Saloon in Butte. The night featured the slam-bang of the band’s usual rock/country/funk mix, along with some extended jams that saw the Slax joined on-stage by Zach Aldrich (an alumnus of Missoula’s Swyl, as is Slax bassist Matt Schumacher) on keyboards and Hammond organ. Other guests dredged from the Butte music scene provided some extra color. Gino and Blanche from El Dealbreakers (another project featuring the ever-prolific Schumacher) laid down accordion and fiddle licks, and Butte’s Pontiac Horns emphasized the funk of the Slax second set.

Check the band’s website for future shows. They tend to perform in the Missoula-Butte-Bozeman nexus every two or three months, and are also known to pop up in Fargo and other parts of NoDak.

The band’s debut album, Slax Off!, can be downloaded free from their website.

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Wide Open Mics

While Butte, Montana has been busting for decades, recent years have seen a boom of open mics in the historic uptown. The best for my money is at the Silver Dollar Saloon (133 S. Main) every Wednesday. Things kick off late, usually around 9 or 10pm, but you will almost always see a good mix of excellent musicians and general tomfoolery. Longtime host Sean Eamon has managed the mayhem for literally years, and his high energy performances and low key attitude are reason enough to go. Other venues with regular weekly open mics include The Scoop and Club 13, and the Venus Rising Espresso House at Park & Main has “open stage” nights periodically, and often features other local and regional music.

Jim Nicodym, Butte's senior singer/songwriter.

Jim Nicodym of Butte performs at the Silver Dollar.

Attendance at these events is widely variable. Some nights, there are few guys with guitars and a bartender. If you’re at the Silver Dollar, the bartender (Paula, of many projects, lately the duo Too Smug) might be one of the only people jumping on the mic. At other times when the full moon drives us mountain-dwellers to drink, you may not be able to sign up for a spot to play if you arrive too late.

At a time when anyone with an internet connection has access to millions of hours of music, this is an encouraging sign for live music. I am all for technology providing greater access to information, and music is a unique kind of information. While there is a lot to be said for the iPhones and Pods and Pads, for ProTools and Pandora, for YouTube and, yes, even the Pirate Bay, they all lack the reality and community of a good open mic. With the culture going ga-ga over all these gadgets, it seems that we could be swinging too far in the technological direction, spending too much time jamming out to our iPods and watching Netflix away from dirty bars filled with people of all talents and appearances who just want to play some music and have some fun without navigating menus and whirring up all those digital bits.

But digital technology is just so damn appealing, how can a lowly mic compete? What is a roomful of random musicians-with-dayjobs and patched up old gear when you can near-instant access to thousands of albums that cost millions and years to produce, or video straight from the latest Bonnaroo superjam?

A Low-Key Open Mic at the Silver Dollar Saloon

A low-key Open Mic at the Silver Dollar Saloon.

It comes down to low-class reality versus high-class simulacra (I have a Latin degree, so I have to use it; for the Latin-impaired, “simulacra” is roughly equal to “copy”). Sometimes a high-class simulacrum is nice. At other times, our bodies and our souls and our mojos need to get out and move our feet, and not just to the AppleStore or the dayjob. Open mics are a fully immersive experience, to use the parlance of our times.

You hear the music, you see the hand banging out the chords, you smell the beer or the coffee or the old brick of uptown Butte, you feel the wood of the bar, the leather of the couch, the breath of all the other talking monkeys. It gets the brain working, the heart pumping, the nerves moving. And it feels old and familiar, because people have been doing the same thing for thousands of years, since before there was 4G or the internet or radio or a recording industry, since this was the only kind of music we had. Doesn’t that sound more appealing, more intriguing than a video of a cat playing a piano that 50 million people have already seen? Answer yes, grab your guitar or your saxophone or your rubboard or  your… and get on the mic. Or just listen. Don’t worry, the internet will still be here when you get back.

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2011: The Montana Folk Festival

Quick update: details are beginning to trickle out, plans readied, and stages set for Butte’s first Folk Festival without the National training wheels. In July 2011, the community will keep the National Folk Festival ball rolling with the renamed, retooled Montana Folk Festival.

Performers, sponsors, vendors, and pirates can apply to take part. The website for the 2011 Fest just went live:

Check it for details.

In a roundup of other southwest Montana music news, Butte’s most musical venue, the Blue Luna, closed its doors at the end of July, leaving a moon-shaped hole in the local scene. That said, open mics have spread about the Hill, with the Silver Dollar, Scoop, and Club 13 all holding weekly sessions. The Silver Dollar open mic, the longest-running of the bunch, and hosted by the stallwart Sean Eamon, happens every Wednesday starting around 9pm. The Club 13 kicks it on Friday (haven’t been in awhile, but I hear it’s still going), and word on the street is that the Scoop is rocking Saturday night (haven’t personally confirmed this). Take home message: people of Butte, grab your axe, your horn, your tin cans, or whatever musical implement suits your fancy, get out of the house, and be heard.

Elsewhere, the Hummingbird Cafe continues to host touring and local acts, typically on Fridays, and the Venus Rising Espresso House also has periodic shows. The Broadway Cafe continues to reliably feature music on Friday nights.

If you want to hear Butte-area artists in the comfort of your own home, take a listen to KMSM-FM 107.1 on Monday evenings as the Ghetto Man features a Local Music Spotlight. KMSM also streams online:

In other news, I hear Butte continues to be cold.

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2010 National Folk Festival: Sunday & Ever After

The last day of the last National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana, and after two days of catching as many acts as possible, I still had a lot to see. That may be the only downside of the Festival- there is simply too much for any person to possibly see and hear it all.

First on the agenda was Butte native and labor organizer Bob Brock at the Montana Traditions stage way down at the end of Broadway. I had heard that Bob’s Saturday set received a standing ovation, so it was little surprise when I arrived at the Montana Traditions stage and found the seats full. Luck was with me and I managed to grab one lone chair in the back, just outside of the tent so that I roasted nicely while Bob took the stage.

Butte has a storied labor history, and Bob was performing a set of traditional labor songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie, along with some of his original songs and poems about Butte history. He touched on all the milestones that gave Butte a prominent place in American labor history, from the beginnings of unionism in response to the dangerous conditions in the mines, to the dynamiting of the miner’s union hall by the miner’s themselves, to the women who kept the town running during strikes.

Once again, Bob received a standing ovation. The Festival has an international feel, and Bob ably handled the task of insuring that Butte culture was not absent.

En route to the Quebecois of the fine Canadian fellows in Genticorum, I swung through the bustling local arts and crafts area. Business seemed to be booming, and as I walked by I saw the expected assortment of photography from Butte and western Montana, lots of ornate woodwork, and a large area of Native American arts, textiles, and other traditional wares. The booming below lured me by the Montana Tourism Dance Stage for another brief immersion in Hassan Hakmoun’s world before I finally made it up to Quartz Street for Genticorum.

Quebecois, like many styles of American music, is an amalgamation of the traditional styles brought by immigrants from divergent backgrounds who found themselves in Canada. Genticorum (which probably means something in French, but your humble author is a typical mono-linguistic American) includes Yann Falquet on guitar, Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand on fiddle, flute and what appeared to be clogs (yes, clogs), and fiddler and singer Pascal Gemme. The music has a welcoming warmth made the more apparent by Pascal’s friendly stage banter with the audience. According to the Festival press materials, the style of Quebecois developed around kitchen tables, and the casual performance and delivery kept Genticorum home-cooked. The Quartz Stage was packed, so I had to weave my way around the edges to try to find a good angle for a photo.

I wanted to stay for more of Genticorum, but it was my last chance to catch the Lammam Ensemble down at the Family Stage, so my feet went back to the pavement. I was caught up in another hefty crowd at Granite Street, where the Apsaalooke Dancers with the Nighthawk Singers (from the Crow tribe) brought the truest taste of the West to the Festival. A narrator explained the traditions behind each song and dance before the group let loose. It was easy to get lost in the chants, the rhythm of the dances, and the colors of the costumes.

A Salish friend of mine once told me that he doesn’t like to come to Butte because the destruction of the landscape is too evident in things like the Berkeley Pit and the mine dumps of the hill. For a culture so deeply connected to the landscape, the sight of Butte can be a bit depressing. I remembered his distaste for Butte while the Apsaalooke Dancers went on, and I’d like to think that their performance had a healing effect on Butte, on the spirit of the land if not the physical reality.

I was about to miss the last of the Lammam Ensemble, so I cruised through the simulated mine tunnel into the Family Area. The Family Stage was packed, of course, but left a lot more room to breathe, so I took up a post at stage left and tried to figure out what in the heck the accordion player was doing.

Playing traditional Arabic music, the Lammam Ensemble is masterminded by Elias Lammam on accordion, and also includes percussion and oud. Elias’ accordion was custom-made to accommodate the quarter-tones used in Middle Eastern scales (a finer sonic distinction than the half-tones used in Western music). The music had a somber tone as the Ensemble wove through the quarter-tones, with Elias carrying the melody while the rest of the group maintains a disciplined accompaniment.

The Festival provides many exercises in contrast, and one of the best could be found in the range of accordion players at this year’s event: Elias Lammam, Stanky Stankovich with his Eastern-style polka, Geno Delafose and his zydeco, and more I’m sure I missed. While all three guys play the accordion, there are worlds of difference in using the accordion’s powers for bouncy polkas, glittering Arabic music, or the raucous rumble of zydeco. Seeing all three styles in the span of a few days can open your eyes to the sheer overwhelming diversity of music, and the people making that music. Good stuff.

As I took my leave of the Lammam Ensemble, I heard just a whiff of Super Chikan & The Fighting Cocks playing the blues like there was no tomorrow over on the Montana Tourism Dance Stage. But the hour was late, and I had to get down to the Silver Dollar to catch my cousin Olaf and El Dealbreakers close things out with their post-Festival show. It was a hectic three days, but here’s a nod to some of the artists who I missed who folks were talking about in the Festival aftermath:

Super Chikan & The Fighting Cocks (Delta blues)
The Legendary Singing Stars (gospel)
Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quartet (Argentine tango)
Whitetop Mountain Band (old-time)

The 2010 National Folk Festival is a turning point for Butte. In 2011 the city will hold the first Montana Folk Festival, keeping the same spirit, diversity and quality of music going, but without the National Council for the Traditional Arts to lean on for support. If it comes off anything like this year, it will be a smashing success, so mark your calendars and find a way to get up to the top of the Continental Divide next summer. Thanks for reading, and I will see you in Butte, if you’re lucky.

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2010 National Folk Festival: Saturday Evening

At a Quartz Street stage packed to the gills, the smile on the face of singer Aditya Prakash says it all, yet another of many highlights from the 2010 National Folk Festival. Much like Benedicte Maurseth, the Aditya Prakash Ensemble provided an oasis of cool amid the high-octane performances of other acts like Roma Nota and Dale Watson. Another testament to the quality and diversity of the acts offered by the National Folk Festival.

Carnatic music, the ensemble’s specialty, comes from southern India and is based in the Hindu tradition. Simple on first appearance, Carnatic music typically involves a small number of performers. In the case of the Ensemble, it’s just voice, violin, and a type of drum called the mridgangam (one of good ol’ Ganesh’s favorite drums, so they say). The violin and mridgangam provide a foundation that the singer soars over.

All the walking up and down the hill, listening to the sounds of the world, it makes a man hungry, so I took advantage of the early evening gap in the Festival schedule to head to Pork Chop John’s, a Butte institution, for a chop, loaded deluxe. Across Mercury Street at the Silver Dollar Saloon, some locals had gathered to talk about how great everything was, and to take a breath before the Saturday night push. The house band, Montana Deluxe, was warming up on the Dollar stage for their late-night, after-the-Festival gig. If you dig the blues and early rock-and-roll, they’re the band for you.

I had loitered enough, and I was anxious to check out the Moroccan Gnawa music of Hassan Hakmoun up at the Original Stage. Gnawa music comes from the Muslim tradition. If the organizers could have found some Buddhists, the Festival would have been the most peaceful gathering of all the major world religions since a rabbi, a priest, a monk, a mullah, and Ganesh walked into a bar… But I digress. And I misspoke a bit. Gnawa actually predates any Islamic influence in Africa, as the word refers not just to a style of music, but an African people.

Gnawa the music is based on repetition, and incorporates elements of prayer and acrobatics. Quite a combination. Hassan’s band consists of Hassan on sintir (he calls it the “grandfather of all basses”), and three other members on percussion instruments, including a qarkabeb, which is Morocco’s version of castanets, with a little bit of cymbal thrown in.

(Note: The photos here are from Hassan Hakmoun’s Sunday performance at the Montana Tourism Dance Stage on Park St. I was lucky enough to catch him Saturday night at dusk beneath the Original headframe, but alas, no photos.)

While I wove my way through the masses of humanity in front of the old Original mine hoist house, the percussive waves of Hassan and his band washed down the hill. I arrived a few minutes after the set began and found a spot at stage right. A lot of the Folk Festival is a sit-down affair, but looking out over the crowd at the Original as the light faded, at least half of the place was on their feet. Look, I’ll just say it- Hassan Hakmoun blew my socks off.

With only a drum kit, a percussion kit, two elaborate hand cymbals (the qarkabeb), and a homemade bass contraption (the sintir), the band exploded with infectious polyrhythms. The melody comes only from Hassan’s bass and the vocal chants, but what a melody it is. The emphasis on repetition and variation is similar to the Aditya Prakash Ensemble, but the rhythms and melodies that develop within that structure are distinct. In Hassan’s music, you can hear the beginnings of blues, funk and hip-hop, particularly when a guitarist from one of the other Festival acts (The Legendary Shining Stars, if is powder-blue suit was any indication) joined in for an extended jam that sounded akin to Sly Stone on one of his best days.

And again, sheer showmanship shines through. Hassan periodically puts down his bass to do a kind of wild breakdancing, leaping in the air and running in place. It’s a spectacle of sheer joy.  Meanwhile, the qarkabeb-ist twirls his tassle to the beat, and they both punctuate their dances with leaps for the top of the Original headframe.

All this went on directly above the old Original mineshaft. Like most shafts in Butte, it has been “capped” (concrete slab poured over the opening) for years. The Original Stage sits roughly on top of this cap. As Hassan beat the heck out of that sintir, it was easy to imagine the sound waves vibrating through that cap, bouncing a few thousand feet down the shaft, echoing through the toxic water down there under the earth, turning the whole Butte hill into a kind of subterranean pipe organ. The ironworkers who built the Original headframe and the miners who sunk the shaft and blasted the tunnels and the executives back in New York who made a mint off the deal, none of them could have imagined that here, roughly 100 years after the boom and a half century after the long bust started, here was a band of Morrocans by-way of L.A. performing a Muslim-influenced trance music for thousands of people from parts near and far on top of the Original mine. Some of the copper from that hole could have been hiding in the amps, returned home after a mighty diaspora.

I didn’t know if I had the mental energy left to absorb any more music after that (and after writing that purple-prosy last paragraph), but I decided to give it a go. It was back to the Montana Tourism Dance Stage on Park Street for some salsa by-way of Brooklyn. La Excelensia practically demands a dance stage, with a killer horn section, more percussion than even Hassan, and a good dose of salsa exuberance. La Excelensia’s style of salsa is known as “hardcore” for its head-on lyrics about social issues. I took exactly one semester of Spanish, so I will have to leave it to better linguists to comment on Excelensia’s social relevance, but their booty-shakin’ relevance is indisputible.

In the course of one day, I had heard music from Butte, India, Texas, Central America, Morroco, Norway… It’s enough to make the brain glow. And we haven’t even made it to Sunday yet. More correspondence forthcoming. Until then, tap ‘er light.

One more note- this (2010) was the last “National Folk Festival” in Butte, but 2011 will mark the community’s debut effort to keep this house a rockin’. For preliminary surveillance, go here:

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2010 National Folk Festival: Saturday Afternoon

(For an account of the early Tony Ballog and Roma Nota show at the Granite Stage, check out this previous post.)

After the raucous applause to Roma Nota, it took a bit of bobbing and weaving to escape from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. I made it up a north-south alley to Quartz Street, where I spotted another denizen of the local music scene, Schlotzki, working the stage there. He was busy prepping for the Blues Legends & Legacies session featuring the Reverend John Wilkins, Henry Gray, and Phil Wiggins,.

Being a good Scandinavian but a bad student of Chicago blues, I didn’t hang around for Legends & Legacies, opting instead to take a walk down to the Family Stage on Broadway to see the faux mine tunnel and Norwegian Hardanger fiddle songstress Benedicte Maurseth. The Family Stage offers a nice alternative to the bigger Festival venues, providing an intimate setting in a shady lot, with kids running in the background partaking in the Family Area activities.

A dedicated crew of locals, led by Butte-by-way-of-Detroit craftsman and artist Steve Nordgren, volunteered overtime to put together the faux mine tunnel, giving Festival-goers a taste of what it would have been like to walk through one of the 10,000 miles of tunnels beneath the Butte hill, keeping an eye out for Duggans (big rocks that could fall and kill an unwary miner, named after a Butte funeral home), copper water (corrosive), gases, and other subterranean hazards.

Being a fan of diversity, I can also appreciate a Megadeth t-shirt at a folk festival.

Once I survived the mine, Benedicte Maurseth was a soothing break. With only Hardanger fiddle and an angelic voice, Benedicte held the attention of an overflowing crowd. The Handanger comes from the mountains of Norway, and is unique in having four or five sympathetic strings under the fingerboard below the standard four violin strings . I’m guessing it’s a nightmare to tune properly, but the resulting sound is ghostly and elegant.

The Hardanger was known as the Devil’s instrument, and was banned in Norwegian churches for centuries, which I suppose makes it an early precursor to rock and roll. I have to wonder what sort of stygian powers could be conjured up by playing Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on a Hardanger.

After that breath of high culture, it was back up to Granite Street for the end of another killer set from Dale Watson, who was still en route to the Honky Tonk Wizard of Oz (tequila and whiskey and beer, oh my!) before Los Tres Reyes took the stage. Los Tres Reyes are a marvel of musical endurance- they’ve been a band since 1957, performing trio romantico music derived from traditional Spanish, Cuban and African melodies and rhythms.

As they set-up, the first real oddball weather of the Festival rolled in. The wind picked up, blowing plastic chairs into piles that could have been called modern art. The stage crew at the Granite scurried up scaffolding to cover the speakers before a cold rain swept in. Undeterred, Los Tres Reyes launched into their set.

Their experience shines through in their pitch-perfect vocal harmonies and intricate guitar interplay. Also worth noting is their dapper apparel- most of the performers, aside from being the best-of-the-best from a purely technical musical standpoint, are also consummate entertainers.

The acts here offer the full package- they look (and sound) like the best of the best, and without exception I found the Folk Festival acts working the crowds with funny stories and historical background on their distinct musical traditions. They have an enthusiasm and love-of-craft that filters into the crowds. Good stuff.

I had foolishly ditched my sweatshirt, useless in the 80 degree sun, just before Los Tres Reyes. I managed to persist through their first several tunes, but while my ears wanted to stay, the rest of me was freezing in the cold rain, so I joined a few friends to wait out the storm in Maloney’s, one of uptown Butte’s many fine watering holes. We were not alone in this plan, and found Maloney’s as wall-to-wall packed as everywhere else, but at least it was out of the blustery weather.

A half hour and a Rainier later and it was back to summer and Folk Festing. My next stop was up at the Quartz Street Stage for the trance-like sounds of the Aditya Prakash Ensemble performing Carnatic music from South India. That and more coming  in the next exciting installment. ‘Til then, tap ‘er light, oh glittery internets.

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2010 National Folk Festival: Saturday Morning

Waking up Saturday morning and strolling up Main Street in uptown Butte, local favorites Mountain Moongrass caught my eye in the empty lot next to the old Montana Leather building, where a mishmash stage was erected for the 2009 Festival by some dedicated Buttians. This year Moongrass made sure music started early on Saturday, playing a set from 8:30 – 10:30 a.m.

It might have been too early for some of the wobbly festival-goers I saw across Main at the Silver Dollar around midnight on Friday, but Moongrass drew a large and appreciative crowd. They pulled out quite a few original tunes, including a few compositions from singer/guitarist Tim Mason, and at least one I recognized as a Jim Constantine (mandolin/vocals) number.

Mountain Moongrass is a conflagration of local musicians. Aside from Jim and Tim, who I like to think of as the chewy center of the sweet, sweet Moongrass confection, the band features Maggie Perkes on bass and vocals, Renee Bruce on violin and vocals, Mike Tierney (known around town as a solo act with original tunes about Evel Knievel and coffee shops, among others) on guitar, harmonica and vocals, and longtime Butte singer/songwriter and world-traveler Kristi Dunks on banjo and vocals.

They walk an interesting line, not quite bluegrass, not quite straight folk, more of a string band that plucks some smooth songs and excels with choruses in six-part harmony, no easy feat. As the sun rose and Moongrass finished with a bouncy rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the number of early-risers making the trek up Main Street to the Festival grounds built, and you could almost get a sense of what it would have felt like to live in Butte in 1920 during a shift-change at the mines.

The Festival stages didn’t open until noon, so I hung around to catch another Butte favorite at the Luna. Chad Okrusch specializes in songs about the places and lives of southwest Montana. Call him our Woody Guthrie, only we have mine waste instead of a dust bowl. A closer antecedent might be Willie Nelson in his Red-Headed Stranger phase, telling stories over guitar licks plucked like willows in a breeze. He plays and sings with a soft touch that don’t interfere with his slice-of-life lyrics. Mr. Okrusch isn’t all business, though, as his penultimate number demonstrated, an acoustic version of Prince’s unimpeachable “Purple Rain” which your humble author enjoyed thoroughly.

Here is a review I wrote about Chad’s 2008 album, Wisdom Road. And here is Chad’s myspace page, where you can listen to some of his original tunes.

After Chad’s set, it was time for me to head up to the packed confines of Granite Street to get in touch with my inner gypsy with Tony Ballog & Roma Nota (see my earlier post about Gypsies and whatnot). I haven’t yet figured out how to clone myself, so I had to miss the rest of the Butte-brewed music on tap at the Blue Luna stage, but I did want to mention Sean Eamon. If Chad Okrusch is Butte’s Woody Guthrie or Willie Nelson, then Sean is our Dylan, a voice howling in the wilderness and capturing the mood of the Rockies through inflection and stream-of-consciousness flows, with an emphasis on stream. He’s got power, but is also adept at switching gears, having developed a reputation as one of the best fingerstyle guitarists in town. Word on the street was that Sean played a fine set to a receptive crowd at the Luna around 2 p.m. Those of us in the Butte music scene await an official album of some of Sean’s original tunes, but you can get a taste with “Anaconda, My Hometown” (see this old blog post for a youtube video), and if you ever get a chance to catch him in person, ask for “Marshall Law”- it will bowl you over like a train full of arsenic.

Coming next: Saturday afternoon stormclouds and Gnawa form Morocco. ‘Til then, tap ‘er light.

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