Saturday, June 23, 2007

About town: an evening in the wilderness

When one is heading into potentially hostile territory, camouflage is essential. Blending with the natives requires careful attention to detail, and going to the Montana Wilderness Association's benefit in Billings is no exception.

Having someone inspect the disguise is important, so an expert is called in.

First try: tie-dye t-shirt, patched and frayed cut-off jeans, headband, hemp sandals.

"Trying too hard. You need to be yourself."

Second try: button-down shirt, Carharts, cowboy boots, baseball hat with the logo of an oil well and the words "EARTH FIRST! -- (we'll drill the other planets later.")

"Do I actually have to say anything about that?"

Third try: khaki shorts, subdued tropical shirt (untucked,) Chacos (Birkenstocks were considered, then laid aside.)

"You might actually make it in and out."

Driving up and parking, caterwauling sounds are heard from a block away. Of course, this is the main attraction. The locally famous Longtime Lonesome Dogs were hard at it.

The table at the admission gate is approached, eyes raise up at the headwear: "You're not a member of the Wilderness Association, are you?" Not even in the door and the first failure has already happened. The EARTH FIRST! hat is quickly shoved in a pocket with a sheepish look -- how did that thing get grabbed by accident at the last second? Oh well. As it turns out, these folks seem happy to take anybody's $5 to help the wilderness.

First lesson learned. Wilderness people use money, too. Sigh of relief.

Those behind me are asked if they would like to join the Wilderness Association. Why wasn't that question asked? Right -- the EARTH FIRST! hat.

Next stop: drinks. OK -- got this one down. Don't ask for a glass of white wine.

Beer. Only $3? Apparently wilderness people don't use very much money -- or perhaps it's a ruse to get us a bit lubricated in hopes of getting us to spend more at the silent auction.

The wheat beer is cool and refreshing. The lovely companions choose the amber and seem pleased as well. Early birds get the prime seats. Life is good. The only Birkenstocks in sight are on Dennis Nettiksimmons -- the Chacos were a good choice for blending into the background. We may make it in and out after all.

The Dogs are an equal opportunity band -- half the men sport copious facial hair, half are clean shaven. The peer pressure in the group is subtle -- no long pants, only khaki shorts (but not all the same shade of khaki.) There is a token cowboy hat as a nod to diversity. The cowboy hat, along with the beer, makes one a little more relaxed.

A sharp blues riff rips through the air. Yes, it is that Gazette blogger-guy Ed Kemmick (second from right, above.) The boy can play. And sing.

And his guitar is, well, to die for.

Sometimes the lyrics are hard to compute: was that really someone dreaming about being married to a mermaid and having ten kids, in between yodels? Well, everybody gets the blues about something.

As the accordion player leads the way through the "Orange Blossom Special," and the second wheat beer is safely in hand, things get even more relaxed. Johnny Cash did that one, so it's really getting comfy. Tight harmonies, nice mandolin playing, harmonica (Kemmick again,) bluesy slide guitar (the fraternal Kemmick.) Maybe this wilderness stuff is OK, after all.

The hours flies by -- next thing you know, we're all singing "This Land is Your Land" together to wrap things up, the Chacos are feeling more natural on the feet, and well, all we need is love.

Time now for the best bratwurst since Munich and some vegetarian chili while waiting. Looking around, it is clear that no-one is going to notice a meatless concoction going down the gullet -- they're all eating it too. Tasty.

The intervening performers keep the crowd busy while things are setting up for Tyler Burnett, and there's time for one more beer before settling down. Having heard their praises sung, this was something to look forward to.

No disappointments here. A clue that there is some serious musicianship going on is the when you have to glance up periodically to confirm that there are still only three guys on stage. Stephen Brown's voice is like a fine old peaty single-malt, Parker Brown's guitar sparkles and growls, and Pat Epley on drums is ghost-noting away, creating a wall of percussive sound. And how can you argue with two Van Morrison songs to start out the set? One feels young.

One of the bandmembers looks familiar. Right. Billings Senior High. But unfortunately not as a classmate. One feels old. Really old.

The clouds are steadily clearing as the sun sets. A bright waxing half-moon hangs in the sky over the Yellowstone valley. Time for old folks to get some sleep. Walking away, back on stage the kids are still making that great music. The door closes on the truck, quiet settles in. Maybe we'll try granola for breakfast tomorrow.

The "EARTH FIRST!" hat goes back on.

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