For hundreds of years before Europeans came to visit, the narrow river valley on the eastern edge of what is currently called Missoula, Montana had served as a point of conflict between various indigenous tribes. With access to fresh water and buffalo feeding grounds on three sides, that one choke point became a favored ambush site, as the Salish, Shoshone, Kootenai and Blackfeet took turns killing one another.
By the time the French first came through the area looking for furs, that river valley was so littered with human remains from tribal fighting, they dubbed the place "Porte de l'Enfer" which, when translated out of the bastard tongue becomes "Gate of Hell." Everyone decided that the name had a kind of ring to it, and the land would be known as Hellgate for nearly a century, until the area around the Missoula Mills became more economically powerful, and the whole valley was renamed to reflect that. However, spotted throughout the southern half of Missoula, you can still find a number of buildings that still carry on the Hellgate name, including Hellgate High, the county's largest high school, and whose mascot is somehow NOT the Demons.
Another building that carries the Hellgate name is Elks Lodge #383, whose building and lodge pins proudly proclaim them to be the Hellgate Elks Lodge. Built in 1911, the Elks Lodge serves not only as home to the Elks, but holds a dozen or so apartments in its upper floors, and in its lobby floor houses a bar called Stage 112, which takes up the bar formerly patronized exclusively by noble Elks of years gone by.
It's also a bit of a dump.
Dive bars are great. The best, really. They get you closer to the living, breathing lifeblood of a city than any other establishment can. You can visit the upper crust restaurants and shopping centers if you must, but until you've seen where Jimmy the local cokehead gets his buzz on, you don't know a damn thing about a town. Believe it.
We stake out the place a bit a couple hours before soundcheck, grabbing some dinner a couple blocks down the road. Getting back in to the Prius after our meal, a guy walking through the parking lot calls out.
"Where in Iowa are you guys from? Indianola?"
"Not far from there," Routh replies. "Des Moines. Indianola is about 20 minutes away."
"I know," the guy says. "I went to college at Simpson."
What are the odds.
Turns out the guy is in town on business, and staying that the Holiday Inn right across the street from the Elks Lodge. Routh and Davis invite him to the show, and he says he'll see them there. Small damn world.
So Stage 112 is a dive. Great building, great location in downtown, dark interior, free pool. Couldn't draw it up any better. When Routh and Davis arrive, they do so at 6 p.m., as was requested by the bar manager in their communication email. They are supposed to get their soundcheck on around 6 or 6:30, and kick things off at 8. But now the bar manager is saying that's not going to work.
There's a bit of a to do going on outside, you see. Missoula apparently has a thing called "First Friday" at the beginning of each month, where the town goes a little nuts. Free beer, street fairs, free music everywhere, it's a whole thing. And Stage 112, being just slightly removed from the rest of the activities, is kind of the odd man out. So no, the manager says, there's no way she would have booked a show for 8 p.m. More like 9 or 10, but never 8. There's clearly a mistake.
Davis shows her the email. Oh.
Well, how about we push it back to 9 anyway, she asks. The place doesn't normally pick up till then anyway, so it's better for everyone. Routh and Davis agree, because what the hell else are they going to do. But they may as well soundcheck now, since there here and all.
If you're a band looking to book Stage 112, and you check out the venue's website, the downloadable one-sheet that gives you the specs of the space shows you a picture of a large stage fronted by a big, wooden dance floor. The lighting specs are for 10 PAR cans and the sound specs detail four monitors and six speakers a side. That setup exists; we can see it in the darkened back half of the room. But for tonight's soundcheck, the manager points the performers to a 5 foot riser stage, situated next to the entrance to the men's room, flanked by two speakers a side, stacked and strapped together by tie down straps.
With visions of the Hang Glider and Revolution Cafe swirling in everyone's minds, Routh and Davis set up on the small stage and whip through their soundchecks. Then, with two and a half hours to spare, they decide to take advantage of the free pool. Just like in Medford, Routh wins when Davis scratches the 8.
Partway through their game, Davis strikes up a conversation with a woman who has been standing in the Lodge lobby, just outside the bar door. She chats up Routh as Davis takes her shot. Turns out her name is Sara, too. Routh mentions that they are musicians on a tour. Sara says that's a crazy coincidence, because she's a comedian, and wants to start touring with her act. Routh mentions that Davis booked the Black Sheep Tour, and Sara and Davis exchange information. Then Davis gets a crazy idea.
"You know, we don't really have any kind of a plan for tonight's show," she says. "Why don't you come back at 9 and open for us?"
And just like that, the Black Sheep Tour has added local standup. Because at this point man, why not. Sara leaves for a bit, because she's doing an open mic at some other venue first, and Davis beats me in two out of three games of pool.
Finally, after cooling our heels for a couple hours, it's time to get started. Truth be told, despite the issues with the stage and show time, the bar manager is cool and does her level best to be as accommodating as possible, and the sound guy seems to have a genuine idea of what he's doing, which makes just the second time on the tour the performers have had that luxury.
Simpson Guy does indeed show up, resplendent in his red SIMPSON shirt. He brought along a friend whom everyone immediately proceeds to forget exists. A couple of Routh's friends from...I'm gonna be honest, God knows where, show up as well. All told, there are about a half dozen people in the room when things get started and, true to the manager's word, things steadily pick up after 9:30.
Sara gets up on stage for her standup set, and is actually pretty damn funny. It's not all quality material, but she delivers a solid five minutes, including some genuinely funny stuff about her time as a lesbian in San Francisco. Simpson Guy is immediately digging on her, which immediately promises to be entertaining.
From there, the evening proceeds to go steadily sideways, but in a generally positive direction. Davis and Routh are both drinking whiskey, but both manage to keep themselves dancing right along that line between "fun and tipsy" and "oh god, maybe we should all stop talking for a little bit."
There is some wildly inappropriate talk of fingers in dikes, courtesy of comedian Sara, Simpson Guy makes comedian Sara dance with him once, and tries again a couple of times before being shot down like a Japanese Zero over enemy waters. Eventually, he takes an even greater shine to Davis, which is an even MORE entertaining direction for him to go. The theme of Simpson Guy's night is Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Routh, meanwhile, develops an affinity for the trio of young college students--two males and a female--who wander in midway through Davis' set. She asks them their names from the stage, and begins a bantering with one of them in a way that he CLEARLY misconstrues as flirtation. I try to purchase a Hellgate Elks' Lodge pin, but they are sadly sold out. I win a free beer in a dice game at the bar.
Oh yeah, between the comically sexualized non sequitors and standup comedy, there was some music played. It was fine. But at this point in the tour, with just one date left to play before going home, it would really only be worth commenting on if one of the performers laid an egg. They've done this too many times in a row to be shaky any more. If anything, this is one of the better sets of the Tour, just because it's the first time both performers have done their sets while clearly inebriated, and they still managed to keep everything together and come up aces.
What Missoula is really noteworthy for, is how delightfully weird the whole show is. The night serves as a great release for a couple of people who have been dealing with the rigors of the road for too long. When you spend so much time in the car or on stage, moments of genuine rest are rare, and hips, knees and backs all get sore far too quickly.
"I'm completely exhausted," Davis tells me at one point. "But I signed up for it. This is where we want to be. This is what we want to be doing. So, yeah, it hurts and I'm tired, but it's all completely worth it."
It goes back to Routh's statement in Medford about giving every crowd the best show you can, regardless of size, regardless of feelings. There is no giant tour bus driving you effortlessly to the next city. There's no hours of rest between gigs before jumping out in front of 20,000 screaming fans. There's only the Prius, long ribbons of road, and the next small stage in front of a handfull of strangers. You give them your best, and sometimes you get polite applause and general indifference back.
But sometimes, you give them your all, and what you get back is a picnic basket full of unmitigated crazy, which is what Missoula has come packing. By the time the evening is done, I, the only sober person in the room, am playing solo games of nine ball while wearing Routh's hat, Simpson Guy is sidled in close to Davis, telling her about how he's in town for work, drugging yearling Big Horn Sheep and relocating them to grazing land further away from town so they don't get shot by hunters. Routh is trying to hug literally everyone, and two of the little art students are performing some kind of interpretive dance while slowly singing "you say po-TAY-to/I say po-TAH-to..." We've encroached on some full-fledged Twin Peaks shit.
The closing bartender isn't having a single ounce of this shit. He shouts out last call. Flickers the lights on and off. Finally, he resorts to standing behind the bar, arms crossed, shooting me dirty looks. He clearly wants to get the hell out of Dodge, and the pocket of drunken humanity in the middle of the bar isn't letting him. Occasionally, we make eye contact, and I shrug helplessly.
Finally, nearly an hour after comedian Sara closes the night with a second set of standup (it's not as good), everyone has equipment and merch bundled up, and we head towards the car. The trio of college students had left a few minutes before, and absolutely nobody knows nor seems to care what happened to Simpson Guy's friend. He could be laying in the men's room, shanked and bleeding for all we know.
Our parking garage is in the same direction as Simpson Guy's hotel, giving him a few more precious steps in which to walk with Davis and take one last, desperate swing at a ball that isn't really there.
I drive us back to our host apartment, where we all find space in the living room to lie down for a bit. We laugh hysterically at the evening's proceedings, and the trip in general. When you've spent this long in a Prius with two other people, it can be easy to become numbed to some of the absurdity that happens around you. Tonight re-opens everyone's eyes. Morale has always been fairly high, but the past couple of stops have also been blanketed by a general feeling of gratitude for being almost done. We're all road weary, and ready for our own beds. But here, on the second to last stop on the Black Sheep Tour, laying in a cluttered living room in fuckin' Missoula, all anyone can think about is how much fun we've had.
One more stage to play.
Miles traveled: 4,384