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Long and Winding Road: Boise's Music Scene Finds its Stride

Boise has always had talent but it took years of struggle to learn what do with it

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If Travis Ward, singer and guitarist for Hillfolk Noir, is aware that the collective hopes of a mid-size American city are riding on him, he isn't showing it.

He and his band lounge on the streets of Austin, Texas, as the madness of SXSW, the World's Fair of music, explodes around them in every direction. They just had sandwiches from a street cart.

"Gotta eat something," he says. "This is going to be a marathon."

The "this" Ward was talking about was the first-ever official showcase at SXSW to exclusively feature bands from Boise. Hillfolk Noir, along with Le Fleur, The Brett Netson Band, Finn Riggins, Youth Lagoon and Built to Spill are are all about to show the gathered culturati that Idaho has more than potatoes. Far from being tucked away in a back alley dive, the showcase is taking place in the Independent Film Channel's Crossroads House at Vice Bar, a high-class three-level venue with a capacity near 1,000 located directly on the main SXSW festival strip. To up the ante, the entire showcase is being filmed for broadcast on the IFC.

These aren't the only bands from Boise at SXSW this year. Three others--Teens, Jumping Sharks and RevoltRevolt--played the festival as well.

A week after the Wednesday, March 14, showcase, Boise will host the inaugural Treefort Music Fest, a four-day multi-venue cultural festival modeled after SXSW running Thursday, March 22-Sunday, March 25, made possible by the amount of bands heading home from SXSW. The festival will feature more than 130 touring and local bands and more than 40 national media outlets have already confirmed they will be in attendance. Call it one heck of an after-party.

Both these events could mean major exposure and a boost to the economy for a city whose residents have long insisted their home is far greater than its reputation. But then again, they could also be another in a series of giant flops that lead nowhere.

To make a baseball metaphor: Boise and the Boise music scene have been called up to the majors and Hillfolk Noir is batting first.

But that Boise--a geographically isolated B-market in a state whose reputation as a haven for right-wing extremists overshadows its contributions to the arts--made it to this point at all is a story unto itself, and one that begins with a joke.

In a stand-up special, comedian John Oliver spoke of his reaction to seeing the exclamation point on the sign for the Boise Library! while filming a segment for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

"I was surprised they had a library, too," he said.

That slightly derisive jab best summarizes the way the national press reacted to the seemingly overnight success of Boise band Youth Lagoon. Media outlets like Pitchfork, NPR and Nylon Magazine heaped praise on Youth Lagoon's debut album, The Year of Hibernation, but seemed shocked that the band had the audacity to record such a gem in its hometown.

In interview after interview, Trevor Powers, singer and keyboard player for Youth Lagoon, was asked some variety of the same question: "What the heck is even in Boise?" His answer was always the same: "Plenty." And articles examining the up-and-coming Boise scene as a whole were never far behind.

Powers had somehow fallen into being Boise's cultural ambassador, a job that the City of Boise has given Trey McIntyre Project thousands of dollars in grant funding to do.

But what those media outlets seemed not to understand was that Boise has always had an "it" band, the great white hope that made a potato-shaped dent in the world. Before Youth Lagoon came Finn Riggins, Marcus Eaton, Curtis Stigers, Built to Spill, Caustic Resin and Fat Chance. It goes all the way back to the city's settling, when one of the first things residents did was set up an orchestra, according to Terri Schorzman of the Boise Department of Arts and History.

What is different now is that instead of a single band that finds success elsewhere and treats Boise as a bedroom community, or a single group that fills local bars for a year or two until the novelty wears off, there is the emergence of a broad self-sustaining community of musicians that feed one another creatively and seeds the next generation of talent and fans. If that community flourishes, it could compel the economy-driving creative class to stay in Boise rather than search for greener pastures closer to the coast. That is the hope anyhow, and it is by no means a sure thing.

But it hasn't always been back-patting and schmancy industry showcases. Eric Gilbert, keyboardist for Finn Riggins, owner-operator of Helibase Booking, host of Antler Crafts Radio on Radio Boise, soundman for Visual Arts Collective and the artistic director of Treefort Music Fest, remembers pretty clearly when things were different.

Gilbert and his band relocated to Boise from Hailey in 2009, partially so Gilbert could be closer to his parents and partially so the band, which routinely toured the nation but lived in something of isolation, could be a part of a scene.

Though there were bands and clubs to play in Boise, Gilbert was somewhat disappointed with the scene itself.

"There was an underlying pessimism from older folks who had survived the '90s and didn't see anything come of it," said Gilbert. "But I don't fault them for it."

So, Gilbert, who is an almost pathological optimist about music, set himself about playing shows, doing sound and using the connections he had made from several years of national touring to bring bigger and better bands to Boise.

Gilbert was not alone in his quest and the list of attaboys that could be handed out is extensive though he is the person Boise musicians most commonly point to as the tipping point for the local scene. Gilbert, however, points somewhere else altogether: an event staged at Visual Arts Collective in 2009 by musician and artist Elijah Jensen called Rotating Tongues.

"I'd been involved in the Boise music scene for quite a few years and was friends with people who played music, but what I found was that people wouldn't go to their shows because you'd heard their songs a hundred times," Jensen said. "It was hard to support local artists because you felt like you had their routine memorized. I felt like people weren't pushing themselves."

Jensen's solution was to book 20 bands to play over two days at VAC. The catch? They were only allowed to play two songs each and both had to be new material. The performances were recorded live and released as a compilation CD. Though the event had an audience only a fraction the size of the average Knitting Factory concert, it was a slow-moving smash success.

Gilbert said he could see lights going off in local musicians' heads as they all stood in one room for the first time and took stock of how much talent was right beneath their noses.

"It was almost like a corporate team-building seminar," he said.

Those weren't the word in Jensen's mind when he conceived Rotating Tongues--he said he just wanted to illuminate all the talented people in the city and hopefully light a fire under them--but he agrees it is an excellent analogy to how Rotating Tongues played out.

"I have heard people say that it started things in a new direction," Jensen said. "[Since then] I have watched things explode in exposure. I've seen more local music showcases at bars than I ever have. These bands are taking themselves seriously enough to put on their own shows, rather than just opening for touring bands."

Jensen saw a disorganized and curmudgeonly group of naysayers lined up like bowling pins, so he rolled a snowball at them. And just a few years later?

"It's a vibrant scene where people are really pushing themselves," said Jensen.

As great a story as it would be for Boise's rise to be solely from hard work and talent, there were also global factors at play. The biggest of them being the great recession.

A study recently released by the Pew Research Center backed up what was already something of folk wisdom: that people aged 18-34 are those hit hardest by the economy.

"The share of this age group who were employed is the smallest that it's been since the government started collecting this data back in 1948," Kim Parker, associate director with Pew Social and Demographic Trends told NPR's Audie Cornish.

Historically, young creatives fled Boise for the opportunities and cultural acceptance of Portland, Ore.; Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Denver. Boise may have cost less to live in, but they were getting what they paid for, until they could no longer find jobs to pay for it, that is.

When the economy tanked, Boise's native sons and daughters flocked home and their younger siblings started staying put. Faced with the choice of wallowing in collective ennui or riding the wave created by Rotating Tongues, they chose the latter.

It didn't hurt that new computer technology was making music production more accessible than ever before.

Spotting the growing trends, Boiseans tried to make something of the scene with new venues and festivals, all which were billed as the missing link. It was almost as if they formed a line and took turns putting on a helmet to charge headlong into a wall with the hopes of breaking through.

One of those helmet-wearers was Jaclyn Brandt, marketing director for Promenade (and occassional Boise Weekly freelance writer), a multi-day, multi-venue music festival in Boise that went off with a thundering fizzle in 2010.

On paper Promenade seemed to have it all: a wide variety of touring and local acts, plenty of press coverage and the collective enthusiasm of the music community. Brandt worked for two years to put it together.

But in practice, the majority of shows that were part of the festival were wildly under attended.

"We expected more people to want to utilize the discount you got with the wristbands," said Brandt. "But they seemed to want to just pay $5 to see one show. At the time, I thought people didn't want to spend that much money," Brandt said. "But seeing Treefort, I guess that isn't true."

Instead, Brandt sees it as a mindset, that people just aren't used to the concept of a festival and either only went out for one night or attended a single venue rather than bouncing around. She said that, in retrospect, she could have done more to break genres up at different venues to encourage migration.

Brandt said she didn't lose money on the festival, but has since decided to put promotion on the back burner and take a full-time job with Journal Broadcast Group. She will, however, be working as a venue manager for Treefort Music Fest.

"I think it can't just be one person," Brandt said. "If it's a community effort, it can be a labor of love because it's not anybody's full-time job. And I think we have the kind of community that can do that, because they care so much about the arts and community."

But even in the face of Promenade's fizzle, it could not be denied that bands were everywhere. One of them that played as part of Promenade was a fairly unremarkable act called Your Friend Peter Giles. Even friends quietly admitted attending the band's shows was an act of charity that showed how tight-knit the community of Boise musicians had become.

So Trevor Powers, aka Peter Giles, decided to scrap the project outright and start from scratch. When he emerged from his year of hibernation with the recordings he called Youth Lagoon, Boise's already growing musical landscape had been given a shot of turbo from Radio Boise, which, after years of work, was finally ready to go live on air.

Youth Lagoon debuted as a live act at a Radio Boise fundraiser at Visual Arts Collective in March 2011.

More than just a new band, Youth Lagoon's heart-warming electro ballads shattered the idea that Boise bands had to ape the indie-rock sound of Built to Spill to get attention in Boise. The phrase: "This is the first local band I've genuinely liked in a long time," was whispered ear to ear like a game of telephone and a wave of electronic bands practically leaped from the woodwork.

Within a few months, Youth Lagoon's Internet-released single was written up in Pitchfork, and the band was signed to Fat Possum Records and sent on a national tour that promoted Boise as much as it did the band's album.

That was about the time that Gilbert booked some friends that he'd met on the road for a show at VAC after they had performed at SXSW. He called it the Post-SXSW Mini-fest.

Though the name wasn't much more than branding, as the show was a single night with a single band from the festival, it was packed. That gave Gilbert an idea: If he could pull in one band on the road home after playing in Austin, why not more? Why not a lot more?

But that would require resources. And Gilbert's resources were limited to a musician's salary augmented by a night job slinging pizza at Pie Hole--hardly what was required.

And that's when something very strange happened: Someone came to him with money she wanted to put into music, and she needed his help.

Lori Shandro doesn't look the type to go all in on a music festival. The Boise mother dresses business casual, with a minimum of band T-shirts or tattoos. She speaks plainly and calmly about what most would consider a fool's errand: investing six figures in a music festival in a B-market that has rejected the concept in the recent past.

But for Shandro, live music is a deep and abiding passion, and one she is tired of having to leave town to indulge.

"I don't want to move," Shandro said. "All my friends are here. But something that isn't here is the kind of show I want to see."

Shandro said that every time she would find a band that really got her going, she would check its tour schedule and find nary a stop in Boise. Her solution was that she and her husband, an amateur pilot, would hop in his Cessna and fly to concerts in other cities. But that all ended with her husband's untimely death.

"I'm a working mom, he was a stay-at-home dad," said Shandro. "That means I had to give up the luxury of going to see shows out of town."

Instead she decided it was time to start bringing them to her, something a friend attributed to her being the kind of woman that "grabs misfortune by the balls."

Shandro had one friend--Drew Lorona­--who knew how to make the contract side of things work, and the two approached Gilbert for his contacts. Their pitch was a series of shows that could lead to a new high-quality venue that houses 400-600, something like the Doug Fir in Portland, Ore. Gilbert pitched them on his idea for a multi-day festival and they bit.

Shandro hopes that the festival will help agents and bands see Boise as a place worth stopping for a show instead of just gas. If that happens, then she hopes to use the festival as a launching pad for the venue.

"Treefort is almost like a giant focus group," said Shandro. "[The venue] will either happen in the next two years or it won't."

Shandro said she thinks Treefort will succeed where others have failed because it is the right time for it to happen; that all the pieces are finally in place.

"Boise has the infrastructure. It's got the desire, and it's got people who don't want to drive to another town every weekend to see something," she said. "My only fear is that we're too early, and we're the only ones to recognize that."

She added that she is also the tiniest bit worried she'll be so busy putting on the festival that she won't get to enjoy any of it.

"But as long as someone else is having fun and really getting what we're doing, that will be enough," Shandro said.

A music festival that rallies the community is a great thing. But some of Idaho's less-bohemian circles might wonder why some angsty teens banging out rock 'n' roll is any of their concern.

The answer is a page straight out of the Bill Clinton playbook: It's the economy, stupid.

The more than 130 bands playing at Treefort and the hundreds upon hundreds attending will be staying in hotels, eating out, feeding parking meters and more. They may stop for gigs or food in Pocatello or Sun Valley.

"A 2005 study found that economic impact of the arts locally was something like $38 million," Schorzman said.

But more than that, a thriving nightlife and culture attracts young people with disposable income and businesses that want to use the city as a lure for quality employees. Study after study has shown that cities live and die not by their suburbs but by the strength of their urban core.

"We need to have more than parking lots; things that are really engaging and interesting to people," said Schorzman. "Things like a vital music scene."

Having recently read articles about Boise's rock scene in her daughter's copy of Nylon Magazine, Schorzman is excited about the potential and is planning to include it in the state's territorial sesquicentennial celebration next year.

Even Gilbert said that he jokes with real estate agent friends that they, not any of the musicians, will be the real beneficiaries of Boise's music scene blowing up.

But scenes are fickle. And while Boise musicians are gunfighter-quick to pat each other on the back, the question remains whether the rest of the world will care if Boise's scene remains trapped beneath a glass ceiling.

And that brings us back to the IFC Vice Bar at SXSW, an event that didn't go off without a hitch. The Brett Netson Band had to stop in the middle of its first song after the bass amp cut out. The batteries in Youth Lagoon's beat machine died onstage and there was a painfully awkward pause as they were changed. Ward's guitar strap broke in what seemed like every single song.

But the thing that stood out most clearly is that the show was packed. More than 200 were through the door at 7 p.m. for Hillfolk Noir's set and hundreds more piled in as the evening progressed until there was barely room to move. Many of the attendees had the same story: They wanted to see Built to Spill and were afraid it would be full, so they came early and were pleasantly blown away.

An audience member approached a member of Le Fleur and offered up a gig in Chapel Hill, N.C. A girl in the front row repeatedly shrieked "I love you" at Powers. But most importantly, a young man approached Gilbert after Finn Riggins stepped off stage and said: "I knew Idaho had a lot of whitewater, but I had no idea it had so many killer bands."

"That's why we're here," Gilbert responded.

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