According to the 2010 census, the combined population of Cooke City and Silver Gate is 95, which isn’t all to surprising: both seem more like collectives of cabins/rustic hotel lodgings, simplistic restaurants and log storefronts than towns in the traditional sense, though I envy those who are residents of either — well, during the summer months, at least. Silver Gate/Cooke City has been a prime destination for years whenever passing through the Beartooth/Absorka Wilderness, with many a family outing and/or day trip taking place in these communities tucked far within the tree-littered crags.
I only have fond memories of CG/SG — notwithstanding a few instances of questionable restaurant service — but the night of Friday, July 20, 2012 would surpass all that came before it. The day’s activities — two hikes, a trip to some natural hot springs, some 200+ miles traveled — left us feeling weary, so we headed into Cooke City for some hardy mountain food and cold beer. After a fairly intense, in-depth, theologically probing dinner discussion — no doubt commonplace at such a setting — we drove back to Silver Gate and prepared to wind down for the night. I remember thinking about my musical prospects during this conversation, and feeling somewhat disheartened by the lack of quality performances beyond the once-a-week, two-song open mic, and frustrated at the sluggish progress of the forthcoming Newsfeed Anxiety album. At this point, I needed a profound musical revelation. I would need to wait for this — until after dinner.
While walking back to our cabin, we heard an amplified voice, echoing from afar. As we followed the voice, I realized its owner was singing — and singing quite well, actually. When we reached the source of the sound, on the grounds of the Grizzly Lodge, we saw a male keyboardist and a female vocalists/guitarist on a small, flood-light-illumined stage. They were playing to a gathering of some 40-50 people, most of whom were Old Bones bikers on their way to Sturgis; some were huddled around a campfire, some were spectators of the two-person band, and others simply milled about. Closer inspection of the band confirmed that, indeed, the singer was good, as was the keyboardist. But something appeared amiss: They weren’t really in time with each other, and some of the vocalists speech was slurred. My suspicions were confirmed when she played a nonsensical guitar solo and broke into an impromptu recitation of “Bady’s Got Back,” but before things got too ugly, a goateed, biker-geared man from the crowd hopped on stage, picked up her guitar, and started singing. As he trudged through overly sentimental country songs in G major — the most notable one being “Time Marches On,” which we had heard at a twangy bar played by a twangy bar band on a previous Silver Gate visit — Alex and I began plotting how we could commandeer the stage and inject some much-needed life into the night’s entertainment.
We didn’t have anything big in mind: just two or three songs, preferably an offbeat cover or two. The three songs we chose we Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and the Velvet Underground’s “Cool It Down” and “Sweet Jane,” both from their Loaded album. We told someone who looked like they may’ve been in charge — a mulleted woman in her late 40s/early 50s, also bedecked in biker gear — that we were musicians, brothers and wanted to play. She seemed interested, but we would have to wait for the then-current performer to wrap up his set, whenever that would be. But just as “time marches on,” so, too, did his set. With my urge to play rising, I approached someone I thought to be the person I previously spoke with and told her we were ready to play, to which she nodded politely, acknowledged what I said, then walked away — leading me to believe that perhaps she wasn’t the person I originally approached. It didn’t matter, though, because shortly following that fruitless conversation, Alex and I took the stage.
The crowd was more receptive to the Prince song than we initially thought, as was the keyboardist, a barefoot, salt-and-pepper-haired attorney named Mark. Instead of going into “Cool It Down,” Mark suggested we play “Seven,” a bluesy, vaguely biblical track from 1990s-era Prince. Alex was very familiar with the song, whereas I, not so much; all I knew was it’s an A blues progression that holds the five chord for a long time. Luckily, Mark called out the chord changes from the other side of the stage, so I wasn’t completely lost. We also had the female vocalist — whose name was Keeley (I think) Miller — on harmonies, which gave us a heightened sense of togetherness. And the crowd loved that one, too. With both Mark and Keeley gibing well with us and the biker crowd cheering us on, Alex and I decided to ride the momentum and stay on stage. Our original setlist proved to be a gross underestimation. We went on stage sometime around 10:30 p.m. and didn’t leave until past 1 a.m. The chronology of the night is as hazy now writing this as it was while taking place. My mind wasn’t altered at all, but it was such a bizarre, surreal experience, I only remember fragments of what followed. Here are some snapshots of what I recall:
- An extended version of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” preceded by a lengthy jam session with Keeley supposedly singing about her kid(s) in Minnesota. I wasn’t familiar with the song, so I assumed this ad-lib was part of the original, but when it stretched on for some minutes before we even started the song, it became apparent it wasn’t. At least we hit the tricky key change.
- A pretty solid performance of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” with Alex singing Stevie Nick’s lead while Keeley and I sang Christine McVie’s and Lindsey Buckingham’s backups harmonies. This may’ve been the most respectable song of the night. Later, when the crowd had mostly dwindled, Keeley and I played “Landslide.” We weren’t always in time with each other, but no one seemed to mind. They were too busy singing along
- A couple of Beatles songs. There were several Beatles requests throughout the night, so gave them what they wanted with “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Blackbird.” For “Don’t Let Me Down,” Mark said, “Let me do Billy Preston,” so we let him play to his inner Billy Preston’s delight. I definitely relied on Mark and Alex to carry this one, and it seemed to go well, though we supposedly missed the bridge. “Blackbird,” like “Landslide” was an acoustic performance with just Keeley and myself. It had been some years since I played “Blackbird,” but it was solid enough in my memory where I didn’t screw it up too badly. In fact, I thought it came together quite nicely.
- Early on in the set, someone requested by way of shouting that we play Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” I was reluctant to do this at first, both because I didn’t know the lyrics and — despite me being his doppelganger (or vice versa) — I actually don’t like Mr. A-Z all that much, this song being the main source of my ire. To me, he’s just a a dude in a hat, though he does have some very human moments, like this. But the crowd was insistent, even to the point of the “Time Marches On” man singing the lyrics for us. I was surprised he was such a huge fan of the song, as was most of the biker crowd. And all I had to do was strum four chords over and over.
- A somewhat rough version of Queen’s gospel-choir-infused “Somebody to Love.” We were off from the beginning, in terms of lyrics and chord progression, and it seemed the only part we could get right was the refrain (but who could screw that up?). During my sophomore year in college, I regularly played this song as the guitar half of an acoustic duo called Thomas Brady, so when things really started tanking, I stepped into my frontman shoes and sang lead. This helped a little bit, though though the “Find. Me. Somebody to love” buildup wasn’t at all coherent. But it didn’t matter: whoever sang the climactic “somebody tooooooooooooooooo … lov-v-v-v-v-v-e” nailed it, and thus retroactively nailed the song.
- A solid, yet very strange, version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Growing up in Montana, it seems as though nearly every local cover band I’ve seen plays this song, and each time, people go crazy, which may or may not have to do with the not-so-ambiguous-if-you-really-think-about-it conclusion of The Sopranos. That, or people just really like the song about a small-town girl and the boy from south Detroit, both of whom taking a midnight train — so on and so forth. I say “strange” because it was acoustic — meaning we had to make due with campfire-sing-a-long chords instead of Neal Schon’s signature guitar trills — and, somewhere near the beginning of the song, an audience member who vaguely resembled Josh Halloran (a.k.a. Sawyer from Lost) decided to strip naked and play along with us, using an empty plastic bucket as his conga. None of his fellow bikers seemed surprised by this, though: One of them told my dad that the Sawyer doppelganger usually does this type of thing. Fortunately for all of us, this type of thing only lasted one song. Like I said, it was strange — for a Journey cover.
- A surprisingly well-done version of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” Alex and I never played this one together, but we’re familiar enough with the Purple One’s material to wing a song like this. It also worked to our advantage not to a have a bass line.
- The obligatory “Wagon Wheel” appearance. I have nothing against this song, but it just seems that it always, always, always pops up whenever two or more are gathered around a kindling and one (or more) of them have a guitar (or mandolin). It’s like what “Cotton-Eye Joe” is to third-tier arena football games or Lonestar’s “Amazed” is to Montana weddings; eventually, you will hear it, so you may as well brace yourself. But, like I said, “Wagon Wheel” is by no means a bad song — it was, after all, co-written by the great Bob Zimmerman — and that night, I think we did it justice. I would like to extend a special thanks to Keeley for knowing the lyrics.
- A double dosage of VU, though slightly different than originally intended. There was “Sweet Jane,” of course, but instead of “Cool It Down,” we decided on Nico’s “Femme Fatal,” a song that has somehow become a Zembillas (relatives on my mother’s side) family classic.
- Some classic Michael Jackson: “Human Nature” (another Zembillas family staple) and “Man in the Mirror.” For “Human,” all I can really remember is that Alex and I coordinated the long, dramatic pause at the start of the fourth verse, but unlike MJ, people didn’t weep in hysterics during our abrupt stop. “Man in the Mirror,” if my memory serves me correctly, was our dramatic closer. By this point, our crowd had dwindled to a few faithful stragglers — one of them being my dad, and another being a biker who was in utter disbelief/awe/wonder(?) of our artist choice. “Michael Jackson!” the man said, with hands on head, eyes looking up to the stars. “MICHAEL JACKSON!!” he added.
We were tired and dazed by the end of our impromptu set that took us to past 1 a.m. As we milled about in our post-gig fog, trying to comprehend what had just happened, we also contemplated leaving the stage as it was and would tear it down in the morning. The three Millers woke up to rain and overcast the next day, which makes their late-night stage tear down all the wiser in retrospect. We were somewhat dazed and tired from that experience, but hiked to the top of Mount Washburn (the highest point in Yellowstone) all the same. At the top sits a lookout post, from where you can see the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Lake (the mouth of the volcano) and nearly the entire park. That hike alone would’ve made the trip worth it, but what happened the night before was something transcendent, something I will never likely forget. Who knows, it may happen again: Apparently, they told my dad they wanted us back for next year’s rally. Perhaps we’ll oblige, and maybe we’ll be better prepared next time.
I wrote the majority of the above last September, hoping it would make the already-too-long midsummer’s such and such, but realized it would make the post even more of a trudge. In hopes of sparing the reader, as well as providing me another post during the busy summer months, I decided to hold off until now, the one-year anniversary. Not three days after Silver Gate, I was back in Seattle. It was late July at this point, and the stasis I described in the latter half of the Saint Patrick’s Day entry was slowly giving way to a brighter time. In the week I was back, two major life changes took shape: moving out of my Central District townhouse to a more spacious, conveniently located studio apartment on the edge of the Capitol Hill/Central District boundary — the same apartment complex that would later serve as the site of The Wonder Years sessions — and the beginnings of my collaborations with Andrea Desmond. Since then, the musical inertia in which I once found myself mired has dissipated, and there is hardly a week where I don’t have a performance with either Andrea + the White Lights and/or Mariko Ruhle.
Again, this is not meant to be boastful: it is a gift from Above, for which I am ever grateful. Leading up to the Silver Gate performance, I felt constantly in unease regarding my status as a musician; I thought that through my own effort and determination, I would be able to become a successful singer-songwriter (even though I now realize that’s not what I want to do) and have my material known far and wide across the inner webs. Thinking about such things resulted in a worried mind and an always-tense body. Much of this anxiety, in retrospect, seems to have stemmed from general spiritual infirmity, and fanned quite a bit by the music industry observations of Bob Lefsetz (whom I no longer read after he wrote something to the effect of “God isn’t listening” in one of his columns about how great a Stephen Stills song is, a sentiment that couldn’t be further from the Truth) and an overall inability to cope with big-city life, among other things. The frustrations also came about from musical isolation: I wasn’t collaborating very much with others, and my main project — the still-forthcoming Newsfeed Anxiety album — was very much a solo endeavor. In a sense, I was musically sequestered, and it was self imposed. But something changed on the night of July, 20, 2012, and since following that amplified voice echoing through the outer-Lamar Valley air and joining two strangers on stage, life hasn’t been the same. We likely won’t be back this year, but we have this blog post — and perhaps even the iPad performance, someday — to remember what was, what wasn’t, and what will be. Yeah.