Idaho Arts Quarterly » East Idaho

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The music and musicians of Pocatello

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Anyone doubting the skill of Pocatello musicians would have had those doubts put to rest after hearing the talent that recently appeared at the First National Bar in a benefit for local actress, singer and previous Backstage Bar owner, Pam Petty. The "Jam for Pam" brought many of Pocatello's finest musicians together for one evening, showing their tremendous community spirit and support in a night to raise money for Petty in her fight against cancer. Pickers and patrons alike were slammed into tight quarters and the music was loud, rowdy and exuberant. Players included physicians, professors and janitors, trading licks before a raucous crowd.

The first guitarist of the evening had to compete with the ending of the NFL playoff game, but then the band Elvis Has Left the Building took the stage. Playing original songs with a folk-country flavor, they delivered a rousing set featuring some strong singing by Angier Wills. He was backed by Greg Mladenka and Cheryl Muller singing over guitars, mandolins and Richard Inouye's unique five-string cello bass.

Next was Wayne Nelson, a veteran folksinger with a wide repertoire of songs. With his simple but effective acoustic guitar work and rich voice, Nelson is reminiscent of the iconic troubadours like Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston who crossed the country during the Great Depression, playing wherever they could find an audience in everything from union halls to taverns.

Despite frail health, Petty herself sang some jazz standards backed by "Downtown" Dan Hillebrant, bassist John Heckler and rhythm guitarist George Asboe, reuniting their old group, Petty Cash. It was a touching moment. Other musicians filled out the evening, re-creating the original jam sessions at the Backstage.

One performer who didn't get on stage was Bob Picard, lead signer for Steelhead Redd.

"I didn't get on but didn't mind," Picard said, "since Pam had a great time, and that is what it was all about."

Though the benefit was only one night, these homegrown bands and solo artists continue to play around town, providing a scene rich with musical diversity.

One such example is the First Friday Coffeehouse concert at the First Congregational Church in old town Pocatello. Admission is $4 to hear concerts in the church gym, and refreshments are served.

The First National Bar features live music, including Hillebrant's group, Graybeard. Hillebrant sponsors an open mic night on Thursdays at the First National, and has formed a blues group called The Shape Shifters, who play at T.A.P.S. bar on Wednesdays.

In the Historic Warehouse District, weekend live performances happen at Penny Pink's popular tavern, Portneuf Valley Brewing, where they brew their own beer and sarsaparilla. (Lead brewer George Asboe currently plays with the band, Swifter Currents.) Located on a dark street, the establishment resembles a long train car, with musicians performing on a dimly lit stage while the audience sits in glaring light. Patrons, from the very young to senior citizens, don't seem to mind when the music starts. Normally, there is no cover charge, though recently there was a $5 charge to hear the high-octane, Rocky Mountain "dancegrass" music of White Water Ramble. They followed national fiddle champions Joe and Jackie Sites from Idaho Falls, who deliver stunning instrumentals.

Inside the Portneuf, it's easy to imagine the year is 1962 and a young Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin might walk through the door at any moment. The only sign that dispels the time-warp feeling is the one indicating that the bar is a smoke-free establishment. There are no televisions mounted on the red brick walls. In the back are booths and tables next to the kitchen. Artists can hang their photographs and paintings, and chess sets are available for play. In the summer, people sit on the back porch and watch the trains moving in and out of the railroad yard.

Pink seemed amused and even puzzled by the suggestion that her tavern-restaurant has a 1960s coffeehouse feel, not unlike New York's legendary Gaslight Cafe, but did agree she was influenced by entertainment venues she loved in Colorado, such as the Denver Folklore Center.

"I never intended PVB to be a bar or tavern. I did intend to build a brewpub environment that is a social gathering place that fosters a sense of community and friendship amongst our customers. PVB has indeed evolved into the social gathering place I'd envisioned," Pink said. The developing music phenomenon, however, surprised her. "I intentionally built a stage for live entertainment, but I never dreamed that we'd have the breadth and depth of entertainment we have."

In addition to weekend concerts, the brewpub features music during the week. Mondays are Celtic jam nights. On Tuesday nights, the upstairs loft area is used for an open jam. Any musician can join the circle and play a few songs with the five to 15 guitarists usually there. The level of skill also varies, but the environment stays friendly and non-judgmental.

Two musicians who regularly play Tuesdays are Gene Galloway and "Father" Bob Forrest. Galloway plays originals and covers like the poignant ballad, "Pancho and Lefty." Forrest is known for his satirical songs, and one audience favorite is about a lecherous priest in the confessional, shocked by what he hears but anxious to hear more.

Another Tuesday jam regular is Glen Allen who ran as a "stealth" candidate for Idaho governor. One of his best numbers is the campy "Ghost Riders in the Sky." Another regular is Bob Fisher, an accomplished guitarist with classical training. Bill Chalmers, a gifted finger-picking guitarist, recently joined the loft jam and did a powerful musical treatment of Yeats's celebrated poem, "The Second Coming."

All the performers bring something to the sessions: Bret Gordon has a strong singing voice, and Lee Wilson switched to piano one night for Joni Mitchell's tribute to an unknown musician who "played real good for free." Recently, a conga drummer joined the group, and Steve Byers sometimes sits in to add bass.

The scheduled weekend concerts at the Portneuf showcase groups, from jazz and blues to old-time roots music and bluegrass. Singer-songwriter "Uncle" Bob Merle can't define what he plays, but his guitar work has a vibrant blues feel, particularly when he works his "bottleneck" slide. Merle does a particularly jazzy version of Dylan's "She Belongs to Me." Jeff Young can't define his music either, but he pushes the envelope, creating an aggressive "punk" sound, however possible that is on acoustic guitar.

Swing Shift is a popular jazz group featuring Terrel Merkley's piano, guitars, a horn section and two lead singers, including stand-up bass player Mike Banks. Their strongest crowd pleaser is Banks singing the old standard, "Under the Boardwalk." The second vocalist, Ramona, often visits with the crowd when she's not singing; she has a beer, chats with a fan, and then gets back to the stage in time to belt out a hot vocal on "Summertime."

Steelhead Redd plays originals and a few standards. In addition to Bob Picard, the band features singer-songwriter Jessica McAleese, Sherrod Parkhouse on lead guitar and Steve Byers on bass. Byers sings a dead-on version of Neil Young's song about his favorite car, "Long May You Run." McAleese often plays solo concerts, as does Melinda Leiby, who uses alternative tunings to give her songs a different sound.

Skeptics could argue Pocatello is stuck in the past. Many of the city's popular bands would be right at home in the folk-rock boom of the 1960s, but they are all talented musicians. As Picard pointed out, "We have an amazing arts community for the size of this place." A visitor to Pocatello can discover a lot of artistic talent, from artists and poets to the thriving music scene.

Professional music can be a truly awful business to be in. To achieve "stardom," most gifted performers leave small towns for Nashville, Los Angeles or Austin. Can Pocatello eventually build a reputation to rival these major cities? One enthusiastic female fan dismissed the idea of any national reputation for the area's music. "Forget it--this is Pocatello." That may be true, but acoustic folk and blues music still have tradition and viability. Despite the flashy American Idol competition, serious producers might remember the roots music soundtrack for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? was a commercial hit.

Hillebrant confirms that no Pocatello musician can make a substantial living without having another job. Kristin Austin, a flautist with a Celtic-flavored band, works as a university librarian. Wills is a plastic surgeon. Fisher, Picard, Chalmers and Byers all teach at Idaho State University. Sallie Sublette of The Wild Coyotes works as a social worker. Clubs can only afford to pay musicians so much, so no headliner gets rich.

Acoustic bands and solo artists who leave Pocatello or even Idaho face daunting obstacles. There is little interest in acoustic music in Los Angeles, where tastes tend to favor heavy metal, hard rock and rap, and competition in Nashville and Memphis, where children learn "Black Mountain Rag" before the alphabet, is indeed fierce. Despite the odds, however, some Idaho artists have found success elsewhere.

Tom Pace wrote the theme song for the television show Grizzly Adams. Bart Hendricks writes film scores. In classical music, Doug Lowry and Lou Valentine Johnson have prospered. In rock music, Paul Revere and the Raiders, popular in the mid-1960s, continue playing together and separately. Steve Eaton's jazz-rock group, Fat Chance, landed a recording contract in Los Angeles. Eaton enjoys a solid reputation (as does his son Marcus) in America and even Japan, and John Hansen has developed a loyal following in Boise.

Creativity can happen anywhere, and one edge Pocatello composers may have is that they've written exceptional original songs. Great or even good original songs are rare. Given the new recording technologies, perhaps visionary sponsors could fund a publishing company and make lyrics and audio tracks available on a Web site so Idaho songwriters could sell their songs to a broader market. The audio could be a teaser encouraging the listener to pay and download the entire song. A publishing company could provide sheet music to established recording artists.

Elvis Has Left the Building may one day do just that as they accept more concert offers outside Pocatello. Meanwhile, fans can enjoy them and other bands at various locations, particularly Portneuf Valley Brewing with its added attraction of pizza and homemade brew. Certainly, it's a bargain for Gate City residents who have, in addition to university concerts, a rich variety of local musicians to enjoy. Hopefully it remains a bargain for the songwriters who live, work and play here.

Portneuf Valley Brewing, 615 S. 1st Ave, Pocatello, 208-232-1644, www.portneufvalleybrewing.com