Years before some of us moved to Montana, we heard about the legendary Mission Mountain Wood Band.
Montana friends spoke about the Wood Band with a mix of awe, reverence and pride, and they always had a few stories about the famous Aber Day Kegger parties that drew thousands from all over the Pacific Northwest to Missoula each May from 1972 to 1979.
Presiding over the huge outdoor “cocktail party” was Mission Mountain Wood Band, which, for many, came to be known as Montana’s Band.
So, what band could be more fitting to take the stage for Helena’s 150th birthday bash Wednesday night at Alive @ Five?
Mission Mountain will be playing three new songs from its new CD, “Now and Then,” said founding member Rob Quist, in a phone interview from his ranch in the Flathead Valley. Music is from 6 to 9 p.m. at Centennial Park.
Quist, a lead vocalist and guitarist, will be joined by two other founding members, Steve Riddle on bass, and Greg Reichenberg on drums. Also playing with them is longtime member Tim Ryan, a singer/ songwriter and guitarist from St. Ignatius; David Griffith, a multi-instrumentalist from Somers; and Trevor Krieger, a Billings fiddler and fireman.
“I’ve always made my journey about writing music about Montana,” said Quist, who originally hails from the Golden Triangle. The new songs soak up the sunshine, skyline and beloved places of Montana.
During its heyday, the band appeared on national television broadcasts of “Hee Haw,” an “ABC Cheryl Ladd Special,” and a Walter Cronkite special news report, “Country Comes to New York.” The band also shared the stage with such music greats as Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffet, Bo Didley and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
The five original members — Quist, Riddle, Reichenberg, Terry Robinson and Christian Johnson — met as fun-lovin’, music-loving students at the University of Montana.
After months of being holed up in a trailer home in Victor practicing their music, they made their official debut in 1971 as the opening act for a sold-out Rare Earth concert in Bozeman field house, wowing the crowd and the band.
Their music defied category. It was a joyfully, exuberant blend of rich vocal harmonies, rock, folk, country, bluegrass, barbershop and even musical show tunes.
“They came out swinging,” said Helena attorney and longtime friend and fan, Mark Staples. “It was almost instant fandom.”
He can’t think of any band that could pull off that mix of music. As a result, their fans were as eclectic as they were — hippies, cowboys, businessmen and more.
In the award-winning Montana PBS documentary “Never Long Gone: The Mission Mountain Wood Band Story,” Staples recalled, “When the ‘Wood Band’ emerged, our society, even in Montana, was fragmenting, young versus old, hippies versus straights, environmentalists versus developers, with music splintering along with the culture: Santana versus the Lettermen. ... And here came this band, hailing from the four corners of Montana, melding rock, blues, bluegrass, barbershop, show tunes ... the Mickey Mouse theme ... and the National Anthem ... all in four-part harmony. It was like radio used to be, creative, surprising, romantic, energizing. Their audience was as eclectic as their music: bankers, bikers, lawyers, loggers, jocks, artists, hippies, farm kids, greeks, geeks, professors and dropouts ... Mission Mountain hit the stage in a detonation of energy and personality and built a show over the course of the night ... from a low boil to a house fire. ... With propulsive guitar, drum, banjo, bass, fiddle and roguish joie de vivre, they blew apart the generation and culture gaps in their audience everywhere they went, coalescing us with their musical and rhythmic bravado, reverence for tradition and irreverence for cliché, into a vast and enduring tribe of uplifted spirits.”
Staples also had the chance to see the Wood Band on the road several times, playing to crowds that had never heard of the group — yet the band always worked the same magic.
The band was even adopted as the official party band of the New York Hells Angels, when the Wood Band relocated to New York City for a while in the 1970s.
After years of heavy road warrior touring, the band broke up in 1981. But some members continued to play in the Montana Band, said Quist.
Original band member Terry Robinson and later member Kurt Bergeron were both part of that reformulated group when the band’s plane crashed July 4, 1987, killing all aboard.
In 1992, remaining members of the Wood Band got together for a reunion concert and have come together for summer and New Year’s concerts since, including several shows in Helena.
“They always resonated in Helena,” said Staples. “Their shows are so inclusive.”
He’s also found that every generation seems to embrace the group.
Staples just saw the Wood Band play July 4 in Polson and liked what he heard.
“There’s two words to describe them: industrial strength,” he said.
“They’ve got a whole new energy force,” he said, and he’s particularly impressed with Tim Ryan’s songwriting skills.
“You can tell they enjoy this,” he said. “I can’t imagine it won’t be major fun,” he said of Wednesday’s concert.
“It’s still exciting,” said Quist. “Helena is always so welcoming,” he added, recalling that the Wood Band’s first engagement years ago was as a trio playing at the Placer Hotel.
For more information on the band, visit www.missionmountainwoodband.com.