Story and Photos - By ED KEMMICK - Last Best News
Sitting in the bar at Walkers Grill on a Sunday night, you can tell when the out-of-towners walk in.
They generally pause just inside the door and stand there staring at the scene before them. It’s almost always crowded, with a clientele running from teenagers to people in their 70s or 80s.
Walkers has an elegant, uptown feel, and there’s excitement in the air. In the corner of the bar area, in front of the big picture window looking out on North 27th Street, jazz musicians, really good jazz musicians, are just tearing it up.
You look at the out-of-towners again and they seem to be thinking, “This is Billings? Billings, Montana? On a Sunday night?”
It sure is. And a few blocks away, on most Thursday nights of the year, there is a scene almost as surprising, involving some of the same musicians you see at Walkers.
The other place is the Garage Pub at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., a cavernous industrial space where empty kegs and pallets of empty bottles tower over a big stage.
Most Thursdays, the Garage is crowded, too, with 75 to 100 jazz fans listening to a stage full of musicians, some of them seasoned pros with hundreds of gigs under their belts, some of them raw high-schoolers new to performing in public.
Walkers has had Sunday jazz for 15 years and the Garage Pub has been putting on the Thursday night jazz jam for three years. But regulars will tell you: This year the crowds have been bigger and more consistent, there are more musicians, and there is more great music than ever.
What’s crazy is that news of this has spread to other places,” guitarist Alex Nauman said. “I meet all these musicians from all over.”
Nauman has had a lot to do with the jazz renaissance in Billings. The 30-year-old from Basin, Wyo., is one of the hosts of the Garage Pub’s jazz jams, a regular at Walkers, a busy music teacher and a jazz evangelist whose enthusiasm for the music is as bottomless as it is genuine.
Nauman came up with the idea of the Thursday jam three years ago, teaming up with bassist Parker Brown and percussionist Brad Edwards to pitch the idea to George Moncure, the owner of Yellowstone Valley Brewing.
“I just wanted to have a place to play jazz where we could really go crazy,” Nauman said.
He also wanted a place where young jazz students — he and Brown both give lessons at their Allied Music studio — could play in front of people. And of course Nauman also hoped to build an audience for jazz.
“All those things at the same time,” he said. “I feel like we’ve accomplished quite a few of those goals.”
It took some doing.
“That first year, there were some dark nights,” Nauman said. “I remember one night we made, like, 30 bucks.” That’s when they were making $1 dollar off every pint of beer sold.
But they stuck with it, putting up posters, passing out handbills and promoting the shows on social media, and this year the jam just took off.
“Even through this incredibly bad winter, people still showed up,” Edwards said.
Moncure said the jams have been attracting at least 75 people a week, sometimes 100 or more. If you want to see the Thursday night jam session, tonight’s your last chance until next fall. The jam has always taken a summer break.
Moncure said the popularity of jazz in Billings grew from a confluence of different factors. The key one is that Nauman, Brown and Edwards are all such talented, hardworking musicians. They inspire other musicians to give it their best and they fire up audiences with their enthusiasm and musicianship.
Another factor is the growing involvement by high school and college students. Besides the students from Allied Music, there are students from trumpeter Jeff Long’s music classes at Senior High School. Long and Nauman also teach a Tuesday night jazz improv class at Senior High, sponsored by Arts Without Boundaries.
There are also college players, musicians studying under Tony Hammond at Rocky Mountain College and John Roberts at Montana State University Billings.
Hammond and Roberts have distinctly different styles, but both are excellent trombonists who also happen to sing very well. Some of the best jazz jams of the year have seen the two of them standing side by side on the Garage stage, inspiring and goading each other on.
Moncure said Roberts’ return to Billings really added a new flavor to the jazz scene. Roberts is a native of Malta who studied music at MSU Billings and then played funk and Latin jazz professionally in Los Angeles for 16 years.
Besides sitting in with musicians at Walkers and the Garage Pub, Roberts started a new Latin jazz band called John Roberts and Pan Blanco, based on the Spanish nickname — White Bread — he picked up in L.A., where he was often the only Anglo player in a crowd of musicians.
Roberts said he was pleasantly surprised by the music scene in Billings, and by the quality of the musicianship. In L.A., he said, he was always a sectional player, meaning he rarely got to cut loose and solo. Now he’s soloing on piano and trombone, singing, arranging and leading a band.
“I played more jazz in the last nine months than I played in L.A. in the last five years,” he said.
He has been most impressed by all the young musicians performing here. High school music programs always encourage their students to get out and play in public, Roberts said, but he’s never seen anything like this level of involvement.
The Latin music Roberts introduced has encouraged more dancing and bigger crowds, and it just seems to fire up an audience.
“It’s like a Duke Ellington tune,” Roberts said. “You can’t not swing it.”
At Walkers, jazz is played every Sunday of the year, with the exception of Super Bowl Sunday and the occasional holiday. Bill Honaker, the owner of Walkers, started offering jazz 15 years ago, when he was still at Third Avenue North and North 27th Street.
Honaker had jazz on Friday and Saturday nights at the old location, the idea being to bring in a few extra people and stay open a bit later on the weekends. A jazz drummer himself, Honaker also wanted to play. He said he committed to offering jazz for at least a year.
“My goal was to make it break even,” he said. “And with jazz, it took a while.”
But he stuck with it, switching over to Sunday nights after the move two blocks south to First Avenue North and North 27th. Honaker is behind the drums three out of four Sundays, joined by a stable of local musicians and jazz players from Missoula, Helena and Cody, Wyo., plus the occasional traveling musician from out of state.
On Sunday nights, Honaker said, “you get a whole new clientele, and 60 percent of them are really into the music. I don’t know if the crowd is younger, but it’s more of a hipster crowd.”
The jazz in the air seems to be having other influences as well.
Joanie Swords, the owner of Harper and Madison, a café and bakery, hadn’t sung since high school choir but got the itch to get back to it last year. Though she didn’t know her well, Swords approached jazz singer Marian Booth Green, a regular performer in Billings who also sings at Walkers.
They worked up some standards, including “I Am a Woman” and “Peel Me a Grape,” backed by pianist Joe Sullivan, drummer Mark McGiboney and bassist Robin Martinez, and performed at Harper and Madison on May 17 to a sellout crowd of 45, who were also treated to desserts and champagne.
Though she was so nervous she almost threw up at early rehearsals, Swords said, “I had a blast.”
She’s stays awfully busy in her kitchen but has managed to get out and listen to jazz at the Garage and Walkers, which helped inspire her decision to start singing again.
“I think that all contributes — to see that people want to hear music,” she said.
Sullivan, her pianist, also plays regularly at Walkers and the Garage and recently founded his own jazz sextet, Joe’s Little Big Band. He is another longtime Billings musician, and he and McGiboney get credit for first trying to start a jazz night at the Garage.
That was in 2007, but it only lasted during one fall and winter. The crowds weren’t too big and so it faded away. Who knows, though. Maybe if they had just stuck it out it would have gotten as big as the current incarnation.
Sullivan said it works now because there’s a big group of friendly, ego-less musicians who really like to play together, “and they’re working their asses off. It’s really fun.”
Brown, the bassist who also plays guitar and performs in a handful of different groups in different genres of music around town, said the scene has built on itself, and just keeps growing.
“One thing I’ve noticed in Billings is, when it becomes the thing to do, people will be there in a big way,” he said.
And once the fans started showing up, the musicians got more serious, he said.
“I think everybody kind of stepped up this year,” he said. “The consistency was a big part of this year.”
Nauman said the musicians keep it loose but give it everything they’ve got.
They play “whatever feels right at that minute,” he said. “Whoever feels like playing something yells it out and we go.”
Two of the biggest jazz fans in Billings are Jim and Lillian Hartung, who met at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1974. If they’re in town, they rarely miss a show at Walkers or the Garage, or any other jazz show in town.
Jim Hartung, who remembers seeing Louis Armstrong at the Shrine Auditorium as a boy in 1956, said a big part of the scene right now is the number of talented musicians.
“There are a lot of good players who can sit in and play with anybody,” he said. He also credits Edwards, who besides being the premier jazz percussionist in Montana has long hosted the Afternoon Jazz show on Yellowstone Public Radio.
In Billings, “that’s one of the things that’s been consistent, as far as exposing people to jazz,” he said.
Lillian Hartung said what she likes best is the “fluidity” of the jazz scene, with old hands mentoring young players.
“It’s wonderful to see another generation coming up,” she said.
Moncure said all the exposure for the young musicians has encouraged even more young people to start playing jazz, at Senior High and other schools.
“I thinks the good news is, there’s more to come,” Moncure said.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: One hates to start listing names, for fear of leaving someone out, but it would be a shame not to mention a few other musicians we couldn’t squeeze into the story proper.
Let’s start with two percussionists — Gy Moody, who is always in the thick of things when music is being played in Billings, and Matt Devitt, who plays everything from heavy metal to classical music and is a standout jazz drummer.
And we can’t forget Mark Bryan, another great bassist, nor guitarist Jeff Troxel, of Cody, Wyo., and violinist Trevor Krieger, who often perform together.
We invite readers to remind us of all the good musicians we have neglected.
Last Updated on Thursday, 29 May 2014 09:58
A man-eating plant, a sadistic dentist, and catchy 1950s-style tunes filled the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts during Saturday’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” - a comedy horror musical that spoofs the cheesy science fiction films of the 1950s and ’60s.
Anybody who has seen the 1986 film that this play inspired knows the basic plot. The tale follows the misadventures of Seymour Krelborn (played here by Travis Kuehn) who works at Mushnik’s Flower Shop. One day, during a total eclipse of the sun, Seymour finds an odd plant that he names Audrey II. However, it turns out that Audrey II is not a real plant at all, but an alien with a thirst for human blood and a goal of world domination.
NOVA’s production has several things going for it. The first is the excellent cast that first-time director Chaslee Schweitzer has assembled. While all 10 cast members do a great job, there were at least three standouts.
Recent Rocky graduate Kuehn was great in the role of Seymour. His comic timing was used to great effect during the show’s lighter scenes, but he also handled the dramatic moments well as he let the audience empathize with Seymour as he struggled (and often failed) to make the right decisions.
NOVA newcomer Amanda Pettengill was a standout as the show’s primary narrator, Ronette – a street urchin who commented on the action unfolding throughout the play and who also lent her voice to many of the musical numbers. It’s in this latter function that Pettengill particularly shone as she proved herself to have a diverse vocal range throughout the performance. The audience applauded loudly as she nailed difficult high notes all night.
But the most memorable performance came from Dan Nickerson, the director of NOVA’s Youth Conservatory, in the role as the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, who tortured his patients, beat his girlfriend and got high on nitrous oxide. Such a character could easily have become obnoxious, but Nickerson infused him with so much humor that I was honestly a bit sad to see him be eaten by Audrey II before the end of the first act.
His big musical number “Dentist!” was the highlight of the show and filled the entire NOVA auditorium with laughter. His climactic confrontation with Seymour proved to be humorously memorable as well.
One of the more humorous aspects of this production is that it’s sponsored by Broadwater Place Family Dentistry. Dentists may not be liked by some of their customers, but at least they have a sense of humor.
In the end, the biggest star of the show (both literally and figuratively) wasn’t human at all. Audrey II – the foul-mouthed, carnivorous plant – stole the show every time it was on stage. Four fabric and foam Audrey II puppets were used during the performance – all of which had been rented from Billings Studio Theatre, which performed this same show nearly a decade ago. The puppets were impressive works of art: The smallest fit easily into Kuehn’s hands while the largest was so huge that it could swallow actor David Otey (who played flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik).
Audrey II’s three puppeteers (Richard Leeds, Andrew Seeman and Quinten Higbee) all did a fine job. NOVA newcomer Higbee was great as the voice of the plant and made Audrey II’s big musical numbers “Feed Me (Git It)” and “Supper Time” some of the show’s more memorable moments.
The show’s technical aspects, including sound, lighting, costumes and set construction, were well executed. The green and yellow “Mushnik’s Flower Shop” set was particularly well designed and constructed. Longtime NOVA costume designer Gary Treglown and his family made some great 1950s-style outfits for the actors including pedal-pusher pants and leopard-print tops for leading lady Liz Gage.
“Little Shop of Horrors” proved to be an enjoyable night at the theater and a great way to cap off NOVA’s successful freshman season.
“Little Shop of Horrors” will continue through the end of May. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on May 23, 24, 29, 30 and 31, and 2 p.m. on May 25.
NOVA’s second season will begin on Sept. 12 with the Tony-award-winning comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 22 May 2014 22:44
“Chemical Imbalance” by Lauren Wilson is, according to director A.J. Kalanick, a “farmedy.” Part farce, part comedy. Dark comedy.
It is, after all, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but with some pretty ridiculous comedic moments tossed in.
To start, the two stately Victorian matriarchs, Euphronia Jekyll and Lady Throckmortonshire, are played by men. Large men. Manly men. Kevin Cates and Jim McRae embrace their feminine roles with dignified gusto – all falsetto and high-necked lace with pinky fingers delightfully raised on cue.
As the socially inept Dr. Henry Jekyll, Adam Roebling serves up a big plate of physical anguish when he transforms into Mr. Hyde. The good doctor is fervent in his quest to isolate the good and the evil in the human race, even using himself as the guinea pig.
As expected, it doesn’t end well. In fact, the consequences are murderous.
Dr. Jekyll’s cousin, Xavier Utterson, desperately tries to keep dear Henry out of trouble with the law and the ladies to no avail. He’s much too small, much too cautious and much too humane.
Broderick John Cornett, as Xavier, delivers outstanding comedic timing and physicality in his role, earning some of the biggest laughs of the show. Well deserved laughs – he’s a human Gumby on stage.
DeLaney Kay Hardy, as the doctor’s sister, Ambrosia, is an energetic force in this ensemble cast. She’s determined to marry her nerdy brother off to the beautiful Rosaminda Dewthistle “before his hair falls out.” Kelsey Keating keeps the mystery of Rosaminda strong throughout the performance, even as we wonder why she would want to marry the stuttering Dr. Jekyll.
Mr. Kalanick acknowledges that the actors in the cast are fairly “young in their acting careers, with little stylistic experience.” The first act of the matinee performance I watched exhibited that, with long gaps in reaction.
However, the script is designed to establish the characters and plot in the first act to ultimately deliver the pay-off in the second act. And it does. “Chemical Imbalance” at Billings Studio Theatre evades the ghoulish and goes for the comedy.
“Chemical Imbalance” runs through May 17 at Billings Studio Theatre. Call 248-1141 for reservations.
Last Updated on Thursday, 08 May 2014 10:56
In collaboration with The Billings Gazette, the Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale will be taking auditions for a “Country Idol” contest and a chance to sing with the Billings Symphony during the March 14, 2015, performance of “Gone Country.”
“Gone Country” will feature artists straight from Nashville along with the winners of the Country Idol contest, backed by the Billings Symphony Orchestra. From Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to Elvis and Patsy Cline, Gone Country will feature hits from favorite country legends.
The YouTube audition may be a cover or original song of the artist’s choice. The Symphony will take YouTube submissions through May 15.
The BSO&C judging committee will then choose up to six finalists who will record an original song at the Gazette’s “Studio Enjoy.” If the contestant does not have an original song for the “Studio Enjoy” recording, a selection from the public domain may be used. Travel or hospitality costs to record at “Studio Enjoy” will not be covered by the Billings Symphony. The recorded studio performance will be put online at www.billingsgazette.com<http://www.billingsgazette.com>.
Finalists will need to be available to perform one classic country song at the 42nd annual Symphony in the Park on Sunday, June 29, 2014, (rain date Monday, June 30) and at rehearsals on Saturday, June 28, and Sunday, June 29. Travel or hospitality costs will not be covered by the Billings Symphony. The BSO&C will provide further details to the finalists about song selection.
Public voting will officially be open on the Gazette’s website after Symphony in the Park and will remain open until Sunday, July 6, 2014. The contestants with the most online votes will win the chance to perform with the Billings Symphony at the Alberta Bair Theater. Winners who are chosen for the March 14, 2015, concert will receive a performance stipend.
For more information, contact the Billings Symphony Office at 252-3610 or visit www.billingssymphony.org.
Last Updated on Thursday, 01 May 2014 11:06
“Cupid is a knavish lad, thus to make the females mad.”
And so it goes. William Shakespeare included those words in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” now in production at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. Please allow a brief disclosure: Shakespeare makes me uneasy. Early Modern English is not used in my home nor in any typical conversation I might have. “Farewell thou lob of spirits” has nothing to do with a tennis stroke gone horribly wrong.
However, when a Shakespeare production is combined with a “selfie” of the characters on stage, I relax a little. And that is how “Midsummer” director Craig Huisenga chose to present the five-act play that runs through April 19. The costumes, music and props are contemporary - cell phones, I-Pads, Birkenstocks and rock ’n’ roll accompany the words that Shakespeare penned in the mid 1590s.
Love, lust, betrayal and power are the timeless thematic overtones that bring this production to life. But the actors are the fiber of this Black Box experience at NOVA.
Daniel Zent absolutely gobbles the stage as Bottom, a stage-struck member of a troupe of amateur actors set to perform at the wedding of the Duke of Athens. His engaging gestures, comedic timing and clarity of character are a stand-out in this mostly young, talented cast.
Taylor Larson exhibits an equal grasp of his character as Lysander with deer-in-the-headlights innocence and desperate love for Hermia.
Lauren Lane shines as Hermia, the willful daughter of Egeus, a nobleman. She wants to marry Lysander, but dad (portrayed by Gary Treglown) has his heart set on Demetrius as a future son-in-law.
Adrian Larson brings passion to the role of the spurned Demetrius as he follows Hermia and Lysander into the woods where they plan to elope. Grace Iverson is spirited and energetic in her portrayal of Helena, Hermia’s best friend.
Helena is also in love with Demetrius, despite his constant rejections, but will do whatever it takes to win her man.
Add a few misguided, magical fairies to the plot and things really begin to bubble up. Carl Redman as Oberon and Kassidy Miller as Titania are equally poised and powerful portraying the king and queen of the fairies. Avery Jam is delightful as the obedient fairy, Puck, whose ineptitude creates new chaos for the young mortal lovers.
With three interwoven plots, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is anything but boring. The NOVA cast and production crew capably deliver all three.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performs April 17, 18 and 19 with curtain at 7:30 p.m. at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, 2317 Montana Ave. Call 591-9535 for tickets.
Last Updated on Thursday, 17 April 2014 16:02
Jane Van Dyk, a member of the Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale Board of Directors, has been named the Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras Volunteer of the Year.
Ms. Van Dyk has been involved with the organization for many years, a news release said. She first joined the BSO&C Board of Directors in 1985. She served as board president for two terms in 1995-96 and 1996-97 and has chaired many of the board committees over the years, such as the nominating and finance committees.
“I feel so honored and humbled by this recognition from MASO. Music - live, symphonic music especially - has always been my first love. None of the work I’ve done for orchestras ever seemed like work. It’s always been a labor of love,” said Van Dyk.
As a longtime member of the Volunteer Council of the League of American Orchestras, including serving as President in 2009-10, Van Dyk has a broad understanding of the orchestra community. She served for five years on the Board of Directors, including a year as president of the Yellowstone Chamber Players, a Billings-based chamber music organization.
“Jane is one of the hardest-working members of our board. She helped contact renewing and prospective donors for our musician sponsorship program, and with her help we set a new fundraising record. She was also instrumental in the planning and coordination of our successful New Year’s Eve Bash fundraiser. Jane is passionate about the BSO&C’s mission, she has broad experiences that allow her to contribute to our planning, and she generously contributes her time and is willing to get involved in any way possible. A volunteer like Jane is invaluable and she deserves this recognition,” said BSO&C Executive Director Darren Rich.
Each year, at a performance, a MASO board officer presents a plaque to the winner so the orchestra members and audience may also recognize their volunteer’s accomplishments. This year MASO Board President David Hummel, also of the Billings Symphony, will serve that honor. Hummel will present the award to Van Dyk during the BSO&C’s season finale performance of “Carmina Burana” on Saturday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Alberta Bair Theater.
MASO started the Volunteer of the Year Award in 1994 to recognize the outstanding contributions made by volunteers to enrich the symphonies and lives of the people of Montana. The first award went to Larry Nitz of the Billings Symphony.
Other Billings Symphony awardees included Donald Bjertness in 2003 and Lynn Marquardt in 2012. MASO has recognized a total of 20 volunteers, with six different symphony orchestras.
Last Updated on Thursday, 17 April 2014 15:59
If you have always thought you ought to give opera a try but were intimidated by its over-the-top costumes, voices and dramatics, then the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts may have just the entry point for you.
Last weekend, NOVA whittled down “Carmen,” an old warhorse of an opera, to “Carmen’s Tragedy,” a svelte pony of just 100 minutes, including intermission and opening remarks. It was an under-the-top, greatest-hits version of one of opera’s greatest hits, with voices and costumes intact but lots of the crowds and clamor gone.
If crowd reaction is any guide, the presentation was a great success. Craig Huisenga, interim managing producer for NOVA, said Saturday night’s show in NOVA’s Roebling Theater was packed, and only a few seats were vacant for the closing performance on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The crowd was fully engaged, not just in the obligatory end-of-show standing ovation but also with shouts of “Bravo” and “Brava” throughout and clapping along to some of the better-known tunes. The cast wandered at times into the crowd, too, finding a hand to kiss or a lap to borrow. This was not some sterile homage to a classic but lively and contemporary theater, and all in English.
And the voices were terrific, no surprise to anyone who has followed Rimrock Opera productions over the years. This was the first opera show since Rimrock and Venture Theatre joined forces to form NOVA, and Sunday’s show preserved the quality if not the name.
Michelle Berger, a Montana native who has sung with operas in Switzerland, Spain, Colorado, Idaho and Billings, sang the title role with full volume and energy. William Mouat, director of education and cultural outreach at the Alberta Bair Theater, sang Escamillo, the bullfighter. Carolyn Coefield as Micaela had a relatively small part but practically stole the show with her third act aria.
Jayme Green showed up long enough to get stabbed in two separate scenes and as two different characters. Sandi Rabas provided flawless piano accompaniment.
Director Jeffrey Grant Kitto, one of the founding members of the Bozeman rock band The Clintons, also has wide opera experience. In the key role of Don Jose, he seemed to grow into his part as his character’s troubles mounted, from an easygoing and gullible soldier to an obsessed and murderous deserter.
The whole experience was a bit like watching one of those NFL highlight films. For a few minutes, you wonder why anyone would ever bother to watch a game any other way. Then eventually you figure out why all those pauses, penalties and busted plays are needed for the narrative flow and suspense of the live game.
Something of the same sense prevailed at “Carmen’s Tragedy.” It’s all fireworks and gorgeous music, but eventually you begin to wonder how all of these characters fit together. The 90-minute version often comes across as random episodes of philandering and violence with not much in between. Key characters die violently, and deserve to.
Mr. Huisenga promised the crowd that NOVA hasn’t given up on full-scale opera productions. The next, “La Traviata,” will play at the Alberta Bair Theater on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.
For experienced opera goers, that will provide the full opera experience. For the rest of us, the Reader’s Digest condensed version we got last weekend makes for a rousing and highly entertaining introduction.
Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 19:31
A faithful few funk fans “got on the good foot” for an evening of soulful and funky music last Friday at the Babcock Theater in downtown Billings.
Hailed as the “1st Annual Funk Fest,” “New Orleans to Montana Jam” and “Bringing the Big Easy to the Big Sky,” the concert failed to bring in the crowd it deserved, but those who attended were served up a big bowl of jambalaya to dance to.
What was billed as “A Historical Musical Funk Gumbo” was celebrated by 60 or 70 Billings music fans – about half of whom were dancing for most of the evening. While the turnout may have been a disappointment, let’s hope that it doesn’t discourage a “second annual” event next year.
The headlining act could easily be on the main stage at Magic City Blues. One of the four New Orleans-based Neville Brothers, Cyril Neville has won Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Orleans magazine, Offbeat, as well as multiple Beat Music Awards for Best Blues Artist, Best Blues Album and Best Blues Vocalist. His most recent album, “Magic Honey,” has received a 2014 Blues Foundation Award nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Cyril and his wife, Gaynielle “Queen G” Neville, headlined, but they shared the stage for much of the night with Montana’s very own Andrew Gromiller and his band, the Organically Grown.
If they weren’t such partners in music, Gromiller could be said to be giving the Nevilles a run for their money, as his energetic stage presence and powerful voice are a sight and sound to behold.
From the opening song, the title track to Gromiller’s album, “Nasty Groove,” to a variety of selections sung solo or in conjunction with Cyril and Gaynielle, including a funked-up version of “Queen Bee,” the jams were as fun as they were funky.
Not only were the Nevilles sharing the stage, but Gromiller’s wife, Christine, sang backup vocals, and their 16-year-old son, Zion, played drums throughout. He was impressive, playing the funky beats held down in the past by the likes of Mike Gillen, one of Gallatin County’s finest drummers.
Another of Gallatin County’s finest players, Eddie Tsuru, was playing his usual smooth funky bass grooves. For this short tour, he was joined by the Nevilles’ bass player, Manny Yanes. The bass and drum heavy sound was a bit much at times, but those dancing didn’t seem to mind.
One of the finest bass players in Billings, Parker Brown, and his regular partner in crime, guitarist Alex Nauman, were part of the opening act, the Big Caboose All-Stars. Led by keyboardist and vocalist Scott Morales, Big Caboose has had a number of players rotating in its ranks through the years, hence the “All Stars” tag for this gig. There were a few familiar faces in the horn section, including Montana State University Billings music professor John Roberts on trombone.
They played a selection of classic funk and R&B hits from the likes of James Brown; Earth, Wind and Fire; Kool and the Gang; Tower of Power; and Stevie Wonder.
The mini tour started last week at the Wilma Theater in Missoula and headed to the Ellen Theater in Bozeman before winding down at the Babcock.
While a major draw in the Bozeman area, Andrew Gromiller and the Organically Grown have performed only a few times in Billings. To hear what might have been missed, find him at www.AndrewGromiller.com, on Facebook, and check out his five most recent albums at CDBaby.com.
Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 19:10
Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation champion fancy dancer and rapper Christian Parrish, aka Supaman, won the MTV Iggy’s Artist of the Week Award last week. The award highlights top up-and-coming performers.
However, using “up and coming” to describe Parrish might be a bit of a misnomer, as he’s been on the grind and performing in powwows since he was a child. He has been performing in rap shows since 2005 when he released an album with his Rezawrecktion Christian-rap based crew.
“It’s been a long journey since I’ve stayed underground. Almost 10 years!” he said. “I’m almost hesitant to tell people how long I’ve been rapping because then they’re like, ‘You’ve been rapping that long and still didn’t blow up yet? You should try something else.’”
In spite of not “blowing up” – although his MTV Iiggy Award should help alleviate that problem – Parrish said rapping has been his “bread and butter” and he’s done fairly well as an indie artist. “Not a lot of Native hip-hop artists can say, ‘This is my full-time job, and this is what I do to feed my family.’ So it’s a blessing to tell people that.”
Parrish pinpoints his late boost on his road to success to when he was invited to the Thanksgiving Day Macy’s Parade to fancy dance. Afterward, he auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” with a song he created where he “looped” a song by combining a drum, flute, his own beat box sounds, rapping and fancy dancing.
“I knew it was going to be special,” he said. “But I didn’t quite do it right because I was still brand new to that little (looping) machine.”
When The Billings Gazette put his more refined version of the Supaman “Prayer Loop Song” on YouTube last month, the video went viral. Parrish notes, “On the internet or YouTube you’ll find a lot of ‘looping’ artists, but a Native one doing a hand drum, a flute, rapping and fancy dancing? That’s pretty original. A quadruple threat! Ayyye!”
He was contacted by an MTV editor who said the music network would like to feature some of his music on its weekly MTV Viggy Artist of the Week award. Of course he was honored and obliged.
“I think out of hundreds of entries, they only select like five or six artists to compete in the artist of the week,” he said. “The other artist who came in second place, she was fairly well-known and pretty famous, and all of her videos have like hundreds of thousands of reviews on YouTube.”
He told others that he was up for a weekly MTV Iiggy award, and although he’s an underground artist, his name recognition took off like a prairie wildfire throughout Native America.
“It really showed me the Native power and support they have for other Natives doing positive,” he said. “People I didn’t even know would contact me through social media messaging me, ‘Hey, it’s really awesome that a Native is in this position to win, and we listened to your music, and that’s the right song to vote for!’ That kind of support is awesome. I was hoping to get more media support, but it was mostly grass roots, so it was really humbling.”
MTV Iggy’s Suzy Exposito wrote of Parrish’s win, “We love the way this Crow Nation rapper stands up for his community and doesn’t miss a beat. He integrates the fly vibes of ’90s New York City hip hop, with a grit that can only be grown in the Great Plains. Soar on, Supaman.”
One of his featured songs was a collaborative effort with veteran New Jersey hip-hop artist Chino XL. Parrish had always admired the lyrical talent of Chino XL, who combines a persona as hulking bodybuilder and high IQ society member of Mensa.
“His use of wordplay and punchlines is just ... beyond!” said Parrish. “I just hit him up to do a feature, and right away he was like, ‘Yup, let’s do this! I’ve collaborated with a few Natives, and I’m all about The People.’”
In his “Prayer Loop Song,” Parrish/Supaman is notably seen wearing his powwow regalia. This wasn’t the first time he’d performed while rapping in his powwow clothes, however.
“I was at a powwow dancing at Montana State University in Bozeman during Heritage Day,” he said. “After we were done, they wanted me to rap. I said, ‘OK, but let me change real fast I’ll come right back!’ They said, ‘There’s no time. You need to go on right now.’”
While people were thrilled by the scene of a fancy dancer/rapper and it seemed to be a hit, Parrish did acknowledge that he knew certain segments of Native American society would be offended.
“There’s always going to be people: ‘You can’t do that! You can’t mix those together!’ And they’re against it for whatever reasons,” he said.
“But it shouldn’t be that bad with fancy dancing. I mean, that was a total contemporary style of dance anyway made up in Oklahoma for the tourists and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. So it’s real contemporary, but people do get bent out of shape, and I understood that too and that’s why I never mixed them prior.”
Parrish recognized a positive message that could come about from those seeing him in his regalia while doing other things aside from fancy dancing, and decided it was something he would maybe do more often in the future as he eventually did in his “Prayer Loop Song.”
He said he’d do it again, “Not as a gimmick, but to show people that we do walk in two worlds as Natives. It’s a good thing to embrace who we are as Natives and be proud of it, but at the same time we express ourselves in different ways creatively.”
Last Updated on Sunday, 30 March 2014 13:11
I waited in my car, finishing up a few phone call errands, while my wife went inside. The place was familiar, with a crowd I knew and liked, but we were meeting someone very unfamiliar, who wanted something of mine that is very dear to me.
As I hung up from my last call, I grabbed a copy of my band’s CD and went inside. The comforting atmosphere of the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. immediately set my mind at ease as I scanned the heads of patrons looking for my wife, Rae.
My eyes landed on her sitting across the table from George Moncure, Andre Brown and two other men I’d never met. The meeting had begun without me, so I ordered a Black Widow (with nitro - delicious!) and quietly pulled up a stool.
My wife and George had both met these two gentlemen before, so I decided to just listen. The men were Michael J. Hitchcock, co-founder of Billings-based P210 Productions, and Karim Eshbaugh, associate producer. (I would meet Dave Bulkley, the other co-founder of the company, at a later meeting). The two co-founders met in the Army in Korea.
It seems they had decided to make a movie in Billings and wanted my band’s music in it. The music I’ve helped to create with my band is very dear to me and I guard it closely. This could go a lot of different directions, and I was suspicious.
What I discovered, to my delight, is that these men are just regular guys. They were very open with us about all the things they are working on, offering to give us details of expenses, giving us details of their past, and even letting us know what they’re going to do with our music.
I’ve been in sales or running my own business for most of my adult life, so I’ve gotten pretty good at smelling bovine vegetation enhancement. There was none to be detected. This was quickly becoming more and more interesting.
The movie being produced is called “The Writer’s Ghost.” The story is about a writer who buys a house in the Billings area. It’s a comfortable, older home that she adores. She’s received her second book deal and is ready to get to work when she discovers that someone else is still “living” in the house.
It’s a ghost that seems friendly enough at first, but when she begins to date a handsome young man, things take a turn for the frightening. This movie is suspenseful and titillating, with a great plot and a surprise ending that will be sure to stay with you.
After that meeting and several more, my wife and I talked. We talked at length about the project, the local involvement and possible problems with the people. We decided that sure, Michael and Dave seemed like normal Joes, but then again, isn’t that what a good con artist would do too?
So we continued to perform our due diligence. We talked to people and got their take, we searched online profiles and pored over print information. In the end, we determined these guys are the real deal.
I suppose that 40 years of dealing with humans has made me just slightly cynical, but as the saying goes, when all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done.
As an entrepreneur I’m used to being the one who plans, starts and executes a project, but coming in on this project has been very different. We’ve found that the folks involved in this movie, and there are many, are motivated and passionate about what they do. This has translated into real results.
Perhaps it’s Michael and Dave’s military background or perhaps it’s their individual experience in the private sector, but one thing is assured: These guys can make things happen!
The movie will begin shooting in April with a soundtrack showcase party on April 5 at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. Two local bands to be featured in the movie, Omnithex and ENDever, will be headlining the show, with other local musicians supporting.
The showcase will be a fitting beginning to what will be an exciting month in Billings, with members of the cast and crew all present and mingling with the good people of Billings.
The film also has a Kickstarter campaign going, and a webpage with Facebook and Twitter updates. Go to www.p210productions.com.
My take-away from this project? Regular people can accomplish extraordinary things in the most unlikely of locations. All it takes is a good idea, lots of determination and most of all, teamwork from your community.
Come out and support this movie, Billings. You’ll be proud that something like this can be done here in the Magic City!
Last Updated on Friday, 07 March 2014 11:21